After a significant 1791 military defeat against Native American opponents in Ohio, to investigate causes of the disaster, Congress demanded documents from the President. This action raised one of the early cases in which an important relationship between the executive and legislative branches had to be clarified. How much information did the executive have to share with the legislator-representatives who exercised oversight and approved funding for governmental operations?
President George Washington, fully aware his decision would set precedents for the future, gave Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson the task of researching previous cases that should guide U.S. policy. Jefferson examined carefully English Parliamentary practices from the 1730s and 1740s, focusing on cases where Members of Parliament demanded information from the King’s ministers about the formulation and implementation of foreign policy, how money was spent, and even data concerning British clandestine intelligence-gathering activities abroad. Jefferson concluded that the Chief Executive was indeed obligated to share as much information as possible with the peoples’ representatives who held the purse strings, although some exceptions could be made for particularly sensitive material. Jefferson, the champion of steering a course independent of the United Kingdom, nevertheless relied upon English legal and parliamentary precedent to strike a functional balance concerning the exercise of power between the branches of government that continues to shape the operation of the U.S. government today.
Curious to learn More? Read on in Chapter One of Toward “Thorough, Accurate, and Reliable”: A History of the Foreign Relations of the United States Series, http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history/chapter-1.