History of U.S. Congress



Even before the inauguration of the President, Congress began in earnest the great work of putting the machinery of the new government into harmonious and vigorous action. The first and most important duties to which they were called were the devising of a revenue system--for the public treasury was empty--and establishing a national judiciary as a co-ordinate branch of the national government. Two days after the votes of the Presidential electors were counted, Mr. Madison, to whom the leadership in the House of Representatives was conceded, brought forward a plan for a temporary system of imports, to be based upon one proposed by the Continental Congress. He was decidedly favorable to free trade; but the wants of the public treasury and the impossibility to obtain reciprocal action on the part of other governments, made him consent to and propose a tariff upon spirituous liquors, wines, tea, coffee, sugar, molasses and pepper, as subjects for special duties; also an ad valorem duty upon all other articles imported, and a tonnage duty upon all vessels, with a discrimination in favor of vessels owned wholly in the United States, and an additional discrimination between foreign vessels, favorable to those belonging to countries having commercial treaties with the United States. The debates that arose on these propositions took a scope so wide and general that nearly every principle of tariff regulations, which have occupied the attention of our national legislature since, was fully discussed. It was finally agreed to lay duties upon certain specified articles that were imported into the United States until the year 1796; also to impose higher duties on foreign than on American bottoms; and goods imported in vessels belonging to citizens of the United States were to pay ten per cent. less duty than the same goods brought in those owned by foreigners. These discriminating duties were intended to counteract the commercial regulations of foreign nations, and especially those of Great Britain, and encourage American shipping.

These discussions and measures startled the powerful and selfish shipping interest of Great Britain, which had persistently opposed fair commercial relations with the Americans during the existence of the old Confederation. British merchants and British statesmen now perceived that American commerce was no longer regulated by thirteen separate legislatures representing clashing interests, nor subject to the control of the king and council, but that its interests were guarded by a central power of great energy. The British government hastened to secure commercial advantages, and it became a supplicant instead of a haughty master. Soon after the passage of the revenue laws, a committee of Parliament proposed to ask the United States to consent to an arrangement precisely like the one proposed by Mr. Adams in 1785, but then rejected with scorn by the British ministry. The proposition was made to our government, and was met by generous courtesy on the part of the United States; but it was not until 1816, when the second war for independence--the war of 1812-'15--had been some time closed, that reciprocity treaties fairly regulated the commerce between the two countries.

Soon after the inauguration of Washington, the House having made provisions for raising a revenue, turned their attention to a reorganization of the Executive Departments. Those of the old Congress were still in operation, and were filled by the incumbents appointed by that body. The Department of Foreign Affairs, established in 1781, was incorporated with one for Home Affairs, and was called the Department of State, having charge not only of all foreign negotiations, and all papers connected therewith, but also the custody of all papers and documents of the old Congress, and all engrossed acts and resolutions of the new government which had become laws; also the issuing of all commissions for civil officers. The Treasury Department was continued substantially on the plan established in 1781. It was the duty of its chief officer to digest and propose plans for the improvement and management of the public revenue; to superintend the collection of the same; to execute services connected with the sale of public lands; to grant warrants on the treasury for all appropriations made by law; and to report to either House of Congress as to matters referred to him or appertaining to his office. Under him were subordinate officers--a controller, an auditor, a register, and a treasurer. The chief of the Department of State was called Secretary of State, and of the Treasury Department, Secretary of the Treasury.

The Department of War was organized very much upon the plan adopted in 1781, and its head was called Secretary of War. He was also intrusted with the superintendence of naval as well as military affairs, the material of the united service then being very limited. Not a single vessel of the Continental navy remained; and the military establishment consisted of only a single regiment of foot, a battalion of artillery, and the militia which the President might call out for the defence of the frontiers. There was a wholesome dread of a standing army. The Post-office Department was continued on the plan of Dr. Franklin, the first Postmaster-General appointed by the Continental Congress. Franklin had been succeeded by his son-in-law, Richard Bache, and he, in turn, by Ebenezer Hazard, who then held the office. A Secretary of the Navy was not appointed until 1798. The Postmaster-General did not become a cabinet officer until 1829, the first year of President Jackson's administration.

While the House of Representatives were engaged with the subject of revenue and the Executive Departments, the Senate was busy in perfecting a plan for a national judiciary. A bill drawn by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, chairman of a committee appointed for the purpose, was, after considerable discussion and some alteration, passed, and was concurred in by the other House. By its provisions, the judiciary was to consist of a Supreme Court having one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices, who were to hold two sessions annually at the seat of the national government. Circuit and district courts were also established which had jurisdiction over certain specified cases. Each State in the Union was made a district, as were also the Territories of Kentucky and Maine. With the exception of these two, the districts were grouped into three circuits. An appeal from these lower courts to the Supreme Court was allowed, as to points of law, in all civil cases when the matter in dispute amounted to two thousand dollars. The President was authorized to appoint a marshal for each district, having the general powers of a sheriff, who was to attend all courts and was authorized to serve all processes. Provision was also made for a district attorney in each district to act for the United States in all cases in which the national government might be interested. That organization, with slight modifications, is still in force.

The next important business that engaged the attention of Congress during its first session was the consideration of amendments to the national Constitution. The subject was brought forward by Mr. Madison, in conformity to pledges given to his State (Virginia), which was opposed to the Constitution without certain amendments. The number of amendments proposed by the minorities of the several conventions that ratified the Constitution, exceeded one hundred. These were referred to a committee which consisted of one member from each State. That committee finally reported, and after long debate and various alterations, twelve articles were agreed to and submitted to the people of the several States for ratification or rejection. The first two related to the number and pay of the House of Representatives; the other ten, a member said, were "of no more value than a pinch of snuff, since they went to secure rights never in danger." Only these ten were ratified in the course of the next two years. Two other amendments were afterward made, and these were the only ones adopted until the period of the late Civil War.

The national debt was a subject that demanded the earnest attention of Congress; but that body, having put the machinery of government in motion, deferred the consideration of its operations in detail until their next session. They contented themselves with directing the Secretary of the Treasury to prepare and report a plan for the liquidation of that debt, at the next session. The subject of the public lands was also an important one, but Congress did nothing more than to recognize and confirm the ordinance of 1787 for the establishment of the Northwestern Territory. They fixed the salaries of the several officers of the government at a very low rate of compensation as compared with other nations; and toward the close of the session, which ended in September, the question respecting the permanent seat of the national government was called up and produced much excitement in and out of Congress. New York and Philadelphia were the chief aspirants for the honor. Maryland and Virginia resolved to fix the site on the Potomac. After much debate and the passage back and forth of amended bills between the two Houses, the subject was postponed until the next session.

Congress adjourned for three months on the 29th of September. The President, who had been confined to his bed six weeks in the summer with a severe malady which, at one time, put his life in peril, resolved to make a journey into New England during the recess, in search of renewed strength and to become better acquainted with the country and the inhabitants. Before his departure he selected the cabinet ministers who were to be his advisers and made other appointments, all subject to the approval or disapproval of the Senate. He chose Thomas Jefferson for the important post of Secretary of State. Washington knew his worth as a patriot and statesman. He had succeeded Dr. Franklin as minister to the French court, and was about to return home. The President had ample opportunities for knowing the transcendent abilities, practical common sense, and sterling patriotism of Alexander Hamilton, and he chose him to fill the really most important office in the cabinet at that time, that of Secretary of the Treasury. General Henry Knox was then the Secretary of War, and he was continued in the office; for his tried patriotism, steady principles and his public services, had endeared him to Washington, and secured the public confidence. Edmund Randolph of Virginia, who was a distinguished member of the bar, and a leading spirit in the convention that framed the Constitution, was chosen to be attorney-general. Washington regarded the national judiciary as the strong right-arm of the Constitution to enable it to perform its functions with justice, and he selected John Jay of New York for the office of Chief Justice of the United States, as the most fitting man for the place to be found in the country. Consulting alike, in this nomination, the public good and the dignity of the Court, he expressed his own feelings in a letter to Mr. Jay, in this wise: "I have a full confidence that the love you bear to our country and a desire to promote the general happiness, will not suffer you to hesitate a moment to bring into action the talents, knowledge, and integrity which are so necessary to be exercised at the head of that department, which must be considered the keystone of our political fabric."

So it was that with great wisdom, prudence and foresight, the sagacious founders of our republic organized and set in motion the machinery of government. The tests of more than eighty years' experience have elucidated the practical philosophy evinced by these men, individually and collectively, in the performance of their delicate and very difficult task. At the very outset, the new system of government encountered enormous strains, and the tests amounted almost to positive demonstrations of the unconquerable strength of our republic which it derived from the sap of free institutions. The wisdom and sagacity of the first President were also manifested in his choice of his aids in the management of the new government. He chose men of tried patriotism, intelligence and virtue, on whom he could rely for judicious counsel and courageous action--two very important qualities at that juncture in our national life.





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