This post continues our celebration of the 225th anniversary of the First Congress.
The Constitution gives the President the “power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties.”
This first time the President attempted to seek that advice occurred in August 1789 when first President George Washington sent a message to the Senate asking “to advise with them” on a treaty with the Southern Indians (at that time the United States treated Indian tribes as foreign nations).
On August 22, 1789, Washington arrived at Federal Hall in New York City (then the capital) with Secretary of War Henry Knox, and they proceeded to read aloud a series of documents related to the various Southern Indian tribes.
The incident was not recorded in the Senate Executive Journal, but Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania kept a diary and documented what transpired: apparently the noise from the Manhattan traffic below drowned out the reading of the documents.
As a result, the Senate decided to appoint a committee rather than debate the issue in front of the President, which caused great consternation to Washington.
After regaining his composure, Washington agreed to come back to receive the Senate’s advice. Shortly thereafter, however, Washington decided that all future dealings with the Senate with regard to treaties would be done in writing. By the end of his administration, he simply submitted completed treaties for ratification.
Washington’s irritation with the Senate and his decision on how to manage future treaty negotiations was based, in part, on a minor problem with traffic noise.
As with many of Washington’s decisions, however, it set a precedent and became standard practice for all Presidents.