Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution gives the president the power to make treaties with other countries, with the approval of two-thirds of the Senate.
The Senate requests that President George Washington personally deliver treaties to the Senate to seek its advice. On August 22, 1789, he appears in the Senate chamber with a series of questions about treaties with Indian tribes. When senators refer his questions to a committee, Washington exclaims, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here!” He returns a few days later to receive the Senate’s responses, but discontinues the practice of presenting treaties in person.
Chief Justice John Jay, a special envoy, negotiates a treaty in which Britain withdraws from its forts in the American Northwest and opens ports in the West Indies to American shipping, in return for payment of America’s pre-Revolutionary War debts. Jay’s Treaty is highly unpopular, especially in the Southern states. The Senate ratifies it, but opponents in the House try to block the treaty by refusing to pass appropriations for its enforcement. President George Washington responds that the Constitution requires only Senate approval for treaties. The House then narrowly approves the appropriation.
In the Louisiana Purchase, France sells its vast North American territory to the United States, which doubles the size of the nation. As the Constitution makes no mention of purchasing land from foreign nations, President Thomas Jefferson considers asking for an amendment to allow him to proceed. Realizing that ratifying an amendment would take too long, Jefferson, instead, interprets the existing constitutional power to govern territories as implying the ability to purchase them. The Senate approves the treaty by a vote of 24-7.
House Speaker Henry Clay resigns his position to go to Ghent in Belgium to negotiate an end to the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The treaty restores peace, but settles none of the issues that caused the war. The negotiators sign the treaty on December 24, 1814, but before the news reaches the United States, Gen. Andrew Jackson scores a dramatic victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. With the nation’s morale boosted, the Senate unanimously approves the Treaty of Ghent.
By a vote of 40-10, the Senate rejects a treaty with Colombia on the suppression of the African slave trade. Senators from slave states had loaded a similar treaty with Great Britain with amendments to make it unacceptable to the British. The Colombia treaty, dealing with the same issues, is caught in the backlash.
After Texas wins its independence from Mexico in 1836, it applies for statehood. But President Andrew Jackson hesitates out of concern over northern opposition to adding more slave-holding states and over the possibility of starting a war with Mexico. Jackson, instead, signs a resolution recognizing Texas as an independent republic. In 1844, Secretary of State John C. Calhoun sends a treaty of annexation to the Senate, but it is defeated by a vote of 35-16. The next year, Congress annexes Texas by a resolution, which requires a majority vote in both houses, rather than two-thirds of the Senate.
The annexation of Texas leads to war with Mexico, which is concluded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In it, Mexico agrees to sell to the United States a vast territory covering the future states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. Although President James K. Polk had not authorized the negotiations that led to the treaty, he submits it to the Senate, which passes it by a vote of 38-14. An effort by anti-slavery senators to attach to the treaty the Wilmot Proviso, banning slavery from the new territory, fails 38-15.
John Merryman is a Maryland citizen who supports the Confederates. Charged with assisting the rebellion, he is arrested. Chief Justice Roger Taney issues a writ of habeas corpus, requiring the military commander to bring Merryman before the U.S. Supreme Court. The commander refuses because of President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order suspending habeas corpus (a legal procedure through which a prisoner can challenge his detention).
Taney writes an opinion condemning Lincoln’s order as unconstitutional and declaring that Merryman is free. Taney sends a copy of his opinion to Lincoln, who ignores it and later goes before Congress to defend his right to suspend habeas corpus.
In Haver v. Yaker, the Supreme Court declares that because treaties are the law of the land, the Senate has the right to amend a treaty like any other law, rather than simply adopting or rejecting it as a whole. Amendments that change the wording of a treaty require only a simple majority vote. The Senate can also pass reservations that indicate a change in interpretation of the treaty. Such adjustments help senators build the coalitions needed to gain a two-thirds vote for ratification.
President Woodrow Wilson personally negotiates the Treaty of Versailles, ending World War I and creating the League of Nations to foster international cooperation. Wilson, a Democrat, does not take any senators to the peace talks, offending the Senate. Republicans win control of the Senate in 1918 and oppose the League of Nations, arguing that it gives away too much American sovereignty. When Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge offers a series of “reservations” to make the treaty more acceptable, Wilson rejects them. Wilson takes his case to the American people, but suffers a stroke that leaves him incapacitated. Without his leadership, the Senate twice rejects the treaty, by votes of 38-53 in 1919, and 49-35 in 1920. The United States never joins the League of Nations.
Before World War II, Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg argues that the United States should avoid all foreign entanglements. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor converts him from isolationism to internationalism. The Republican Vandenberg then works closely with Democratic President Harry Truman to forge a bipartisan foreign policy. In 1948, he writes the Vandenberg Resolution, which endorses regional defense alliances. This leads to the Senate’s approval in 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which founds NATO, a defensive alliance between the United States and Western European nations against the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.
President Richard Nixon signs a ban on the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. The pact is signed on April 10, 1972, simultaneously by leaders in Washington, London and Moscow. It is ratified on March 26, 1975. To date, more than 160 nations have signed the agreement, which bans offensive and defensive uses of such weapons. Three years before the agreement, the United States had halted its production of biological weapons.
The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with the Soviet Union is signed in Washington. The Arms Reduction and Control Negotiations in Geneva that resulted in the treaty were closely watched by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Senate Arms Control Observer Group. Although the observer group does not participate in the talks, it provides an important link between the Senate and the negotiators that leads to easy approval by the full Senate.
In 1994, Republicans win control of both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. In the majority, they engage in a series of confrontations with Democratic President Bill Clinton. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is negotiated in 1996 as a means of stopping the global arms race. Although 154 nations join the treaty, opponents in the Senate point out that many of the nations that possess nuclear weapons have not signed it. The Senate then defeats the treaty by a vote of 51 yeas to 48 nays.
In 1997, Vice President A1 Gore flies to Kyoto, Japan, to break a diplomatic logjam over a multinational treaty aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions that are blamed for global warming. The agreement places more restrictions on industrially developed nations, such as the United States, than on developing nations, such as India and China. Sensing no chance of passage, Democratic President Bill Clinton does not submit the treaty to the Senate. When Gore runs for President in 2000, he wins the popular vote but loses in the Electoral College. The victor, President George W. Bush, promptly announces that the United States will never sign the Kyoto Treaty.