Establishing the Federal Government

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Establishing the Federal Government


Titles, Ceremonies, and Precedents. On 4 March 1789 the first Congress under the new Constitution convened in New York City, and on 30 April George Washington and John Adams were inaugurated as the first president and vice president of the United States, respectively. One of the first issues Congress debated, from 23 April to 14 May, was the necessity of titles for the president and vice president. Members of the Senate, supported by Vice President Adams, suggested such titles for the president as His Elective Highness or His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of Their Liberties. Members of the House were horrified by monarchical titles in a republican government. The Senate agreed to abandon fancy titles in the interest of harmony but also perhaps because they agreed with Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania that it was impossible to add to the respect entertained for General Washington. Respect for Washington created respect for the office of the presidency, and his immense dignity and acute sense of history established important guidelines for the conduct of that office. In an attempt to maintain republican simplicity and presidential ceremony simultaneously, Washington decided neither to make nor accept personal social calls but only to hold formal public receptions. His decision to deliver addresses in person to Congress, as the king did to Parliament, and his transportation in an elegant carriage drawn by six fine horses and accompanied by uniformed servants set a tone of formality and legitimacy for the presidency, although critics objected that such practices were monarchical. Washington also set several other important precedents, including the presidential prerogative of appointing a special envoy to conduct diplomatic negotiations, written communications between the president and Senate to carry out the advise and consent clause of the Constitution regarding treaties, and the practice of holding regular cabinet meetings.

Choosing Government Officials. Washington believed that fitness of character and ability were essential requirements for government officials. His ideal candidates were usually well-educated men who had demonstrated their character and ability as Continental Army officers or officeholders in the Confederation or state governments. Geographical balance was a factor in choosing officers of the executive branch, and support for the Constitution was important in order to strengthen the new government. With the advice and consent of the Senate, Washington selected Alexander Hamilton of New York as secretary of the treasury, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia as secretary of state, Henry Knox of Massachusetts as secretary of war, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia as attorney general. Hamilton had served as Washingtons aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, attended the Constitutional Convention, and penned over fifty essays in The Federalist (1788). Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, had been a delegate to the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, and United States minister to France under the Confederation. He had expressed some reservations about the lack of term limits for the president and a Bill of Rights in the Constitution, but he trusted that the amendment process would correct any deficiencies. Knox, a firm supporter of the Constitution, was a Continental Army artillery officer and secretary of war under the Confederation. Randolph, a member of the Continental Congress and governor of Virginia, had wavered between Federalism and Anti-Federalism as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, but his switch to Federalism during the ratification process in Virginia made him an important political asset. As Washington explained in a letter to Supreme Court justices: I have thought it my duty to nominate such men as I conceived would give dignity and lustre to our National Character.


In May 1789 a Senate committee recommended addressing the president as His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of Their Liberties. Thomas Tudor Tucker of South Carolina was one of many members of the House of Representatives who opposed titles in a republic:

Does this look like a democracy, when one of the first acts of the two branches of the Legislature is to confer titles? Does the dignity of a nation consist in the distance between the first magistrate and his citizens? Does it consist in the exaltation of one man, and the humiliation of the rest? If so, the most despotic Government is the most dignified; and to make our dignity complete, we must give a high title, and embroidered robe, a princely equipage, and, finally, a crown and hereditary succession. Let us, Sir, establish tranquility and good order at home, and wealth, strength, and national dignity will be the result.

Source : Debates in the First Congress, in Annals of Congress (Washington, D.C.: Gale & Seaton, 18341856).

Tariff Act . On 8 April 1789 James Madison introduced tariff resolutions in Congress to begin the process of generating revenue for the federal government. The final version of the bill, approved on 4 July, imposed a 5 percent duty on most imported articles and higher duties on selected articles. Compromise was necessary as northern manufacturers wanted high protective tariffs, and southern planters, who imported manufactured goods, desired low tariffs. Madison also wanted Congress to impose higher duties on ships of foreign countries that had no commercial treaties with the United States. Madisons target was Great Britain, and his proposal was part of his and Thomas Jeffersons long-range goal of freeing Americans from British economic dependence. As Virginians they had long resented their subservient economic position. British merchants dictated where Virginia planters could market their produce and tied them up in long-term debt through the control of credit and American reliance on British manufactured goods. Madison hoped that discriminatory tonnage duties on British shipping would open up new avenues for American trade, particularly with Americas wartime ally, France. But with Britain responsible for nearly 90 percent of American imports, the Senate refused to endorse Madisons plan. The final tonnage bill placed a duty of six cents a ton on American-owned ships and a fifty-cent duty on all foreign ships. Debate over the tariff bill revealed a developing political split between Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamiltons plan to tie Americas economic future to Britain and James Madison and Thomas Jeffersons plan to free the United States from that dependence.

The Judiciary Act of 1789. The framers of the Constitution left it to Congress to create a judicial branch, though the Constitution stated that the Supreme Courts judicial power shall extend to all cases, in law and equity arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States. Sen. Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, who had served on the committee that produced the Great Compromise in the Constitutional Convention and who became the third chief justice of the United States in 1796, used his skill at compromise in writing the Judiciary Act of 1789. The act created a six-member Supreme Court and a system of federal district courts and courts of appeal. Both the Supreme Court and the inferior federal courts were given limited original jurisdiction, and judicial power was delegated between the federal and state governments. However, Section 25 of the Judiciary Act of 1789 did grant the Supreme Court the power to review the constitutionality of state court decisions. Sensitive to the political danger of disturbing the separation of power between the federal and state governments, the members of the Supreme Court moved cautiously to establish the power of judicial review in the first decade of the Courts existence.

The Bill of Rights. Although James Madison believed that individual liberties were protected in the state constitutions, and the delegated powers of the Constitution protected states rights, he could not ignore the fact that the lack of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution had nearly prevented ratification in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York and had blocked it in North Carolina and Rhode Island. Thus, Madison made the drafting of a Bill of Rights one of the first priorities of the First Congress, and, on 25 September 1789 Congress submitted twelve amendments to the states. Eight of the ten amendments that the states eventually ratified on 15 December 1791 protected individual rights rather than states rights, satisfying Madisons goal of addressing Anti-Federalist concerns that individual rights must be protected from a consolidated government of unlimited powers without substantially weakening the authority of the federal government. The first eight amendments demonstrate the Revolutionary generations belief that a powerful government must be restrained from violating essential civil liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, and the press and trial by jury. The Ninth Amendment protects all unspecified rights retained by the people, and the Tenth Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States to the states or the people. The addition of the Bill of Rights probably encouraged North Carolina to ratify the Constitution on 21 November 1789 and Rhode Island to follow suit on 29 May 1790.


Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 17881800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

John C. Miller, The Federalist Era, 17891801 (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1963);

Leonard D. White, The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

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Establishing the Federal Government

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