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August 5, 1789
Irritating the President

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.

From late in the eighteenth century until the early 1930s, senators occasionally derailed nominations for positions wholly within their states simply by proclaiming them “personally obnoxious.”  No further explanation was required or expected.

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.

Three weeks later, on August 22, 1789, the president visited the Senate to receive its advice and consent for an Indian treaty.  He occupied the presiding officer's chair while Senate President John Adams sat at the desk assigned to the Senate's secretary.  Intimidated by Washington's presence, senators found it difficult to concentrate on the treaty's provisions as Adams read them aloud.  After hearing the contents of several supporting documents, members decided they needed more time.  An angry president spoke for the first time during the proceedings: "This defeats every purpose of my being here!"  Although he returned two days later to observe additional debate and the treaty's approval, he conducted all further treaty business with the Senate in writing.

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

Reference Items:

Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. The American Heritage History of the Congress of the United States. New York: American Heritage, 1975. Chapter 2.

U.S. Congress. Senate. The United States Senate, 1787-1801; A Dissertation on the First Fourteen Years of the Upper Legislative Body. By Roy Swanstrom. S. Doc. 100-31, 100th Cong., 1st sess., 1988 (originally published as a Senate document in 1961).


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