Article 2, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3

Document 17

Senate, Presentation of the Colors of France

6 Jan. 1796Annals 5:32--33, 35, 36

Mr. Ellsworth next combated the resolution as originally offered as unconstitutional. Nothing, he contended, could be found in the Constitution to authorize either branch of the Legislature to keep up any kind of correspondence with a foreign nation. To Congress were given the powers of legislation and the right of declaring war. If authority beyond this is assumed, however trifling the encroachment at first, where will it stop? It might be said, that this was a mere matter of ceremony and form, and, therefore, could do no harm. A correspondence with foreign nations was a business of difficulty and delicacy--the peace and tranquility of a country may hinge on it. Shall the Senate, because they may think it in one case trifling, or conceive the power ought to be placed in them, assume it? If it was not specially delegated by the Constitution, the Senate might, perhaps, but it is positively placed in the hands of the Executive. The people who sent us here, (said Mr. E.,) placed their confidence in the President in matters of this nature, and it does not belong to the Senate to assume it.

So forcibly, he said, were both Houses impressed with the impropriety of the Legislature corresponding with any foreign Power, that, when it was announced to them that the unfortunate Louis XVI. had accepted the Constitution of '89, the communication was sent back to the President, with a request that he would answer it on their behalf, with congratulations and best wishes.

But even this, he considered, they had not strictly a right to do. It was only saving appearances. Neither branch had a right to dictate to the President what he should answer. The Constitution left the whole business in his breast. It was wrong to place him in the dilemma of disobliging the Legislature or sacrificing his own discretion. But if such practices had inadvertently been followed, it was full time to recede from them.

He recapitulated, in a few words, and concluded, by observing, that should the motion for striking out prevail, members would still be in order to amend the resolution, if they chose, by adding to the warmth of expression it already contained.

Mr. Butler considered the situation into which the member up before him seemed desirous that the Senate should be placed, as highly degrading; they were to be deprived of the right of expressing their own sentiments, they were to have no voice, no will, no opinion of their own, but such as it would please the Executive to express for them.

The only fault he found in the resolve was, that it was not full and expressive enough. He observed, that it appeared the studied desire of one part of the House to cut off all communication between the people of the United States and the people of the French Republic. Their representatives are now told, that they can have no will, no voice, but through the Executive. Their constituents never intended that they should be placed in this ridiculous point of view, and he declared he never could sit under it silently.

He turned to the Journals of the Senate to show that in the proceedings in the case of the answer to the communication from Robespierre and others, there was a considerable division in the Senate, and the mode adopted was by a majority only; but did not meet the sense of the Senate very generally.

Upon the presentation of the flag to the President, the Minister particularly observes, that it is for the people of the United States. The President in his answer, speaks of himself and his own feelings. He read part of his answer--"Born in a land of Liberty," &c. He does intimate, he observed, in a cursory manner, that he trusts he speaks the sentiments of his fellow-citizens: but does not attempt to make any professions of either branch of the Legislature, thinking, no doubt, that when the subject came before them, they would speak for themselves.

Suppose, he asked, that the expression of friendship contained in the President's Address on the occasion, fell short of the feelings of the Senate, would they, he asked, adopt the expressions for their own? For his own part, he declared, he could not leave it to others to speak his sentiments, but chose to reserve that right to himself. Even if no communication had been received from the French Republic, no token of attachment, the present period in their affairs, the establishment of a new Government, would warrant an address of congratulation. There could be no impropriety in it, unless there were objections to drawing nigher to the Republic. Besides, the address of the Committee of Safety, was certainly intended for the Legislature, being directed to the Representatives, unless it could be denied that the Senate were Representatives of the people of the United States.

There was nothing in the Constitution, he contended, that could prevent the Legislature from expressing their sentiments: it was not an Executive act, but a mere complimentary answer to a complimentary presentation. If this right was denied them, where would the principle stop, the Senate might be made in time mere automata. It was as proper, he contended, for the Senate to express an opinion on the occasion as for the President or House of Representatives.

He concluded by observing, that the resolution as offered, said as little as could be said on the occasion, and he never could consent to the striking out, which would cause it to be entered only on the Journal, and would be an indirect slight of the French Republic, as the sentiments of the Senate would not be communicated to them.

Mr. Tazewell was happy to find no difference in the Senate as to the substance of the resolution. As the form, however, had been made matter of debate, some importance had been given to it which its intrinsic consequence perhaps did not deserve, and it became the Senate to weigh well their decision. It certainly, he said, could not be unknown to the Senate, that unfavorable impressions had traveled abroad respecting their feelings. . . .

. . . . .

Mr. Burr was against striking out. The National Convention, he observed, might, when they received the answer to their first communication, have said, as is now said on the floor of the Senate, that the correspondence there ended, and that it was not necessary to make us a reply; but they acted differently, and he hoped the Senate would acknowledge the receipt of their pledge of friendship. Indeed, he said, he could not see that any great harm would arise in the two branches of the Legislature interchanging even once a year a letter of friendship and good will with the Republic. It was objected that the present resolution was no answer to the letter. A few lines would make it so, and they might easily be added. The omission did not prove, as had been asserted by one member, that it was impossible to answer it. That it was not impossible was testified by the proceedings of the other branch. He did not intend to slight the dignity of the Senate, however, he said, by quoting the proceedings of the other House as a binding rule of proceeding for this; but their proceedings certainly proved the possibility of making an answer; and besides, there was full as much propriety in looking for precedents in their conduct, as in the proceedings of a British Parliament. Each, however, in their place might deserve weight though not implicit reliance.

He advocated the rights of the Senate to answer for themselves, and the propriety of acknowledging the receipt of the Colors, which were not sent to the Executive exclusively.

He concluded by citing the Senate's own precedents in analogous cases, and he hoped, that it would not be insisted that the practice of two or three successive years deserved to be laid to the charge of inadvertency.

. . . . .

Whereupon, it was

Resolved, unanimously, that the President be informed the Senate have received, with the purest pleasure, the evidences of the continued friendship of the French Republic, which accompanied his Message of the 4th inst.

That the Senate unite with him in all the feelings expressed to the Minister of France on the presentation of the Colors of his nation, and devoutly wish that this symbol of the triumphs and enfranchisement of that great people, given as a pledge of faithful friendship, and placed among the evidences and memorials of the freedom and independence of the United States, may contribute to cherish and perpetuate the sincere affection by which the two Republics are so happily united.

Ordered, That the Secretary lay this resolution before the President of the United States.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 2, Section 2, Clauses 2 and 3, Document 17
The University of Chicago Press

Annals of Congress. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States. "History of Congress." 42 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1834--56.

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