Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Remember Washington’s Knight

Opinion: Letter to the Editor: Remember Washington’s Knight

Fisher Ames (1758-1808), the great orator of Massachusetts, made a decisive speech favoring the controversial 1796 Jay Treaty. His winning its adoption saved Washington from a major political defeat, and earned him the President's gratitude — an invitation to Mt. Vernon.

Republicans in the House of Representatives were holding up the appropriation to fund the unpopular treaty. Washington desperately wanted this treaty with England which would open their ports to trade with us, end the Royal Navy’s interdiction of American ships, and get England finally to complete the terms of the peace treaty of 1783. At the close of his Presidency, this treaty would vindicate his policy of neutrality between England and France who were at war. However, Republicans opposed it because of their sympathies to France for helping America win our war of independence, and the fact Jay did not get Britain to complete all the terms of the 1783 peace.

After a month’s deadlock Ames, the last to speak, essentially argued the Constitution. The “President and the Senate are the agents and instruments of treaties.” Congressman are not elected to work in this province, but have to support the Senate’s and Executive’s treaty efforts like they support our legislations, he said. “The treaty is the promise of a nation,” he continued, and spoke of all the accomplishments of the United States. He declared the treaty (while not perfect), was a chance for America to gain respect in the world. Many present became emotional at his putting America on par with the great nations of Europe. “I see no exception to the respect that is paid among nations to the Law of Good Faith.” It was unlike anything heard before in the Congress. One Supreme Court Justice exclaimed: “Bless my stars! I never heard anything so great since I was born!” Vice President Adams replied: “Divine! … Tears enough were shed.”

This speech, extemporaneously delivered for an hour and a half, turned nine Republicans to vote with the Federalists. When President Washington later got a copy said: “In the opinion of most that heard it delivered or have read it since, his reasoning is unanswerable.”

About to leave Philadelphia, Washington rewarded Ames by inviting him to dinner at the President’s Mansion. Neither recorded that dinner conversation, but Washington sent a note to his manager at Mt. Vernon directing he “have a few Bottles of Porter there and some wine for particular company … among these Mr. Aimes [sic] will, I expect, be one … and is one I wish well treated while he stays.”

Washington had a true friend in young Fisher Ames and likely hosted the “Cicero of New England” at Mt. Vernon when Ames traveled here in 1796. No local records have yet surfaced chronicling a stop in Alexandria, but it is known he came through Georgetown, and it can be deduced he used the road that came through Alexandria on his way to Mr. Vernon. Perhaps a record will yet appear in this town? Let’s remember Washington’s knight: Fisher Ames.

Harold Knudsen