Updated at 2 p.m. ET on October 3, 2019.
A president, his congressional opponents, foreign leaders, and the U.S. Supreme Court first tangled over executive privilege toward the end of George Washington’s first term. They are almost certainly headed for a collision again in 2019.
In November 1794, John Jay, then the first chief justice of the United States as well as President George Washington’s special envoy, signed the “Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, Between His Britannic Majesty and the United States of America,” known to history as the “Jay Treaty.” The aim was to resolve the remaining disputes between the U.S. and Britain, and the Washington administration got much of what it wanted, including a pledge to withdraw British troops stationed on U.S. soil in the West. The Jeffersonian opposition, however, was ardently pro-French; cozying up to Britain infuriated them. One Jeffersonian wrote, “Damn John Jay! Damn everyone who won’t damn John Jay!! Damn everyone that won’t put lights in his windows and sit up all night damning John Jay!!!”
Despite the outrage, the Federalist-dominated Senate approved the treaty by a two-thirds vote. The House doesn’t vote on treaties, but Jeffersonians in the lower chamber moved to refuse to appropriate funds to implement it. To justify this measure, they demanded that Washington send them the instructions he had given Jay, and other documents from the negotiations. On March 30, 1796, Washington, in a presidential message, asserted that “to admit … a right in the House of Representatives to demand, and to have, as a matter of course, all the papers respecting a negotiation with a foreign power, would be to establish a dangerous precedent.”