Monday, February 19, 2018

Are You Ready for a Cabinet Meeting?

For Presidents Day, we look in on George Washington’s meetings with his cabinet on 1-2 Aug 1793.

The issue on the table was what to do about Edmond-Charles Genet, the French diplomat who was stirring up support of Revolutionary France, resentment of Britain, and friction within the U.S. of A.

The cabinet members—Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph—all agreed to ask France to recall Genet. They differed on how peremptorily to do so. They really differed on whether to report the decision and the reasons for it to the American public.

Hamilton liked the idea of an official “appeal to the people,” despite not usually being interested in public opinion, because it offered an opening for a full-throated critique of Revolutionary France. According to Jefferson’s notes:
Hamilton made a jury speech of 3/4 of an hour as inflammatory and declamatory as if he had been speaking to a jury. E.R. opposed it. I chose to leave the contest between them.
The President adjourned that meeting until the next day. “Hamilton spoke again 3/4 of an hour,” Jefferson wrote then. “I answered on these topics.” He kept minimal notes on Hamilton’s remarks and detailed notes on his own, indicating that he didn’t write those notes at the time but afterwards, and he really didn’t care about Hamilton’s opinion.

Eventually it became clear which way Washington was leaning:
The President manifestly inclined to the appeal to the people. He said that Mr. [Robert] Morris, taking a family dinner with him the other day went largely and of his own accord into this subject, advised this appeal and promised if the Presidt. adopted it that he would support it himself, and engage for all his connections.—The Presidt. repeated this twice, and with an air of importance.—

Now Mr. Morris has no family connections. He engaged then for his political friends.—This shews that the President has not confidence enough in the virtue and good sense of mankind to confide in a government bottomed on them, and thinks other props necessary.
Jefferson distrusted campaigns for public opinion by his political opponents. He was, of course, promoting his own ideas with allies like James Madison. He had also recruited Philip Freneau to come to Philadelphia and start the anti-Federalist National Gazette, giving the writer a sinecure in the State Department.

Then the meeting took an awkward turn.
Knox in a foolish incoherent sort of a speech introduced the Pasquinade lately printed, called the funeral of George W—n and James W[ilso]n, king and judge &c. where the President was placed on a Guillotin.

The Presidt. was much inflamed, got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself. Run on much on the personal abuse which had been bestowed on him. Defied any man on earth to produce one single act of his since he had been in the government which was not done on the purest motives. That he had never repented but once the having slipped the moment of resigning his office, and that was every moment since. That by god he had rather be in his grave than in his present situation. That he had rather be on his farm than to be made emperor of the world and yet that they were charging him with wanting to be a king. That that rascal Freneau sent him 3. of his papers every day, as if he thought he would become the distributor of his papers, that he could see in this nothing but an impudent design to insult him. He ended in this high tone.

There was a pause. Some difficulty in resuming our question—it was however after a little while presented again, and he said there seemed to be no necessity for deciding it now: the propositions before agreed on might be put into a train of execution, and perhaps events would shew whether the appeal would be necessary or not.
It took another three weeks for the cabinet to complete their dispatch to the American minister in Paris, Gouverneur Morris, telling him to ask the French government to withdraw Genet. Meanwhile, it became clear to Washington that most informed Americans disapproved of the French diplomat’s behavior, so he no longer saw any need for a public appeal.

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