Patterico's Pontifications


George Washington Takes Stock of the Senate

Filed under: General — JVW @ 7:32 pm

[guest post by JVW]

Today is the 290th birthday of the Indispensable American, George Washington. Since I started guest blogging here, I have attempted to write some sort of remembrance of our first President each February 22. I failed last year, but prior to that here is what has been covered:

2015 – George Washington’s Birthday
2016 – George Washington Quiets the Rebellion
2017 – George Washington Fears for His Country’s Future
2018 – George Washington Agrees to Serve Another Term
2019 – George Washington Goes Back to His Farm
2020 – George Washington Rallies the Troops

I kind of struggled to come up with a topic this year that might be interesting yet is not a particularly well-known story about one of the most storied figures in history. Fortunately, earlier today I joined in on a National Review Plus Conference Call with historian Richard Brookhiser, who has written a magnificent book on President Washington’s two terms, and during a discussion on Presidents he gave us an anecdote which I think will work for this year’s salute to The Father of Our Country.

William Maclay was a Pennsylvania lawyer who had fought with George Washington at the Battle of Fort Duquesne in the French and Indian War. He would later serve as a commissary for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. In 1789 he was elected along with the more renown Robert Morris as the first two United States Senators from the Keystone State. Morris was the luckier of the two Senators, having drawn a lot for a full six-year term which (in order to stagger Senate elections for each state) left Maclay with a two year term. After spending his two years in New York (where the first post-Constitution Congress met), Maclay decided to return to his estate on the Susquehana River rather than seek reelection. Probably the most significant legislative effort by William Maclay was a resolution which would have required the Senate’s consent for any Executive branch dismissal, which failed when Vice President John Adams cast the tie-breaking vote against it.

But one thing Senator Maclay did to earn him the gratitude of future generations was keep a diary of that first Congressional session, the only Senator known to have done so. The diary survived after his death in 1804, and it is the only real record we have of those years in the Senate, a formal federal record of the session having been poorly kept. Because Maclay was something of a gossip and rather grouchy to boot, the diary is a very interesting read.

One story he relates is an account of when President Washington himself came to Senate chambers to formally (and quite literally) conduct the “Advice and Consent” requirement for treaties as laid out by Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution. Vice President Adams accompanied him, and the two sought to get Senate approval of a treaty the Administration was seeking with the Creek Indians. Here is how Rick Brookhiser describes what unfolded:

As the Vice-President read the proposed terms, “carriages were driving past,” wrote Senator Maclay, “and such a noise! I could tell it was something about Indians, but was not master of once sentence of it.” After closing the windows, the Senate began an inconclusive discussion. . . .

Brookhiser told us today that one Senator then interrupted and rose to suggest that the Administration provide copies of all other treaties with native tribes by way of comparison. Another Senator then suggested that a special committee be formed to hash through all of these issues and then report back to the main body. This brought a different Senator to his feet exclaiming that the signing of treaties was an important duty that required the attention of all Senators, and thus the matter should be for the committee of the whole. Still another interjected that every great legislative body throughout history used smaller groups for deep study of issues, and this would be the appropriate tact for this treaty with the Creek. And so it went on.

Meanwhile, the President was getting impatient. He understood that as the first Chief Executive of the new nation, the steps he took would come to be considered the norm for his successors, and he wanted to establish the idea of the United States as a republic with co-equal branches of government and separation of powers. But sitting in the Senate’s cramped chambers on a hot summer’s day listening to a collection of bloviating popinjays discussing procedural minutiae was not particularly suited to the Founding Father’s temperament. “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” Washington groused, in what Maclay termed “a violent fret.” The session was adjourned, and since it was a Saturday there was no session scheduled the next day. It has gone down in legend that the Senate doorman would overhear the President muttering as he walked out the building that he would “be dammed if he ever went there again.” And, as Brookhiser reminds us, no President ever has.

Imagine what George Washington would think about a Senate session featuring Elizabeth Warren, Ted Cruz, Sheldon Whitehouse, Josh Hawley, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell. By refusing to return to that body’s chambers, our first President probably did more to properly delineate the line between the Executive and Legislative branches of government than had he continued to make periodic visits.


10 Responses to “George Washington Takes Stock of the Senate”

  1. And here’s another funny anecdote that Brookhiser related: Washington, who as we know was childless, was heard to remind a supporter that, “I have no children whose happiness I could build upon the ruin of my country’s happiness.” So I guess he was anticipating Donald Trump Jr. and Hunter Biden a quarter-millennium later.

    JVW (ee64e4)

  2. It might more plausibly be a reference to John, and John Quincy, Adams.

    pouncer (6c33cf)

  3. Wonderful post!

    DRJ (03cb91)

  4. Ditto.

    lurker (59504c)

  5. Thanks again, JVW.

    mg (8cbc69)

  6. I wanted to thank you and congratulate you for this site which has been with me for quite some time.

    question gratuite par mail

    Nya (087a08)

  7. I grew up in VA and remember visiting GW’s boyhood home. The docent showed us where a young George supposedly chucked a silver dollar across the Rappahannock river at his boyhood home in Fredericksburg. The docent said there was no way Washington could have thrown it across the Potomac. I was a kid at the time and there was no way anyone could have launched a dollar across the Rappahannock either.

    It was that day when I started to question the legends and lore of American history. Second on my list: the whole Paul Bunyan/Babe storyline. My family in Minnesota was not amused.

    Hoi Polloi (093fb9)

  8. All history is a fable agreed upon. Personally, I find the debunkers of legends more annoying than the fabulists. Far more. Because you know why. (That’s not a question, you do know why.) Because their “real facts” are no less of a fable than the legend is.

    nk (1d9030)

  9. Interesting factoid:

    Under the Militia Acts of 1792, Washington issued a proclamation summoning the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia militias into service and warned that anyone who aided the Whiskey Rebellion insurgents did so at their own peril. The federalized militia force of 12,950 men was a large army by American standards of the time, comparable to Washington’s armies during the Revolution. Relatively few men volunteered for militia service, so a draft was used to fill out the ranks. Washington left Philadelphia (which at that time was the capital of the United States) on September 30 to review the progress of the military expedition. According to historian Joseph Ellis, this was “the first and only time a sitting American president led troops in the field”.

    The Washington administration’s suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion met with widespread popular approval. The episode demonstrated that the new national government had the willingness and ability to suppress violent resistance to its laws.

    Were these actions totalitarian?

    Rip Murdock (d2a2a8)

  10. On Washington’s Birthday in 1862:
    There is continuous firing this morning in honor of the day.

    A large number of citizens, as well as the Government, had made preparations for illuminating. A few of the former, although a general demonstration of that kind has been postponed, carried out their original intention to-night.

    WASHINGTON’s birthday at Alexandria was celebrated by the hoisting of flags over the new office of the Quartermaster, namely, the depot of the London and Hampshire Railroad Company.

    Speeches were made by Lieut. FERGUSSON and others.

    Salutes were fired from Fort Ellsworth, and from various batteries on the left wing of the army.

    The loyal citizens of Alexandria assembled to hear the reading of WASHINGTON’s “Farewell Address.”

    Rip Murdock (d2a2a8)

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