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Irritating the President


August 5, 1789

George Washington

The Senate spent most of its first year setting precedents. During the month of August 1789, it established two precedents that particularly irritated President George Washington.

On August 5, for the first time, the Senate refused to confirm a presidential appointee. Ignoring the budding concept of "senatorial courtesy," President George Washington had failed to consult with Georgia’s two senators before he nominated Benjamin Fishbourn to the post of naval officer for the Port of Savannah. One of those senators, James Gunn, favored another candidate who was a close political ally. Gunn promptly engineered the Senate rejection of Fishbourn.

On the day after the Fishbourn rejection, President Washington angrily drafted a letter to the Senate. The overly formal style of the message failed to hide the chief executive’s irritation. He began by noting that the Senate must have had its own good reasons for turning down his nominee. Then his frustration burst through. “Permit me to submit to your consideration whether on occasions where the propriety of Nominations appear questionable to you, it would not be expedient to communicate that circumstance to me, and thereby avail yourselves of the information which led me to make them, and which I would with pleasure lay before you.” He explained his own close association with Fishbourn, whom he considered brave, loyal, experienced, and—pointedly—popular among the political leaders of his state. The president then nominated a candidate acceptable to Senator Gunn.

The treaty process also did not play out just as Washington envisioned. The president believed the Senate, which he saw as a council in treaty matters, had a role beyond simply approving or disapproving a completed treaty. Rather, he sought Senate advice on what instructions should be given to the commissioners charged with negotiating a treaty and believed that such advice should be given in person. On August 6, 1789, the Senate appointed a committee to confer with the president on "the mode of communication proper to be pursued…in the formation of Treaties." The committee met with Washington on August 8 and 10, at which time the president impressed on the senators that "oral communications seem indispensably necessary" to the treaty process. After the Senate determined the proper protocol for receiving the president, Washington, along with Secretary of War Henry Knox, visited the Senate Chamber on August 22 to discuss the state of relations with Indians in the south and a possible treaty with the Creek tribe.

Washington sat in the presiding officer’s chair while Vice President John Adams, seated at the desk assigned to the Senate’s secretary, read a report and submitted to the senators seven questions posed by the president. As carriages rattled down the street outside the chamber, senators strained to hear the questions. In his diary, Senator William Maclay noted that no one could hear the details, only that "it was something about indians." The information was read again, but some senators requested more time to study the president's questions, and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania moved that the papers be referred to a committee for further study.

"This defeats every purpose of my coming here!" exclaimed an angry George Washington. The president ultimately accepted the postponement, but he left "with a discontented air." He returned again the following Monday—in a better mood—and the Senate debated and voted on answers to his questions. Irritated, Washington vowed to conduct all future treaty business with the Senate in writing.