Second Session of Congress



There, on the 8th of January, 1790, the second session of the first Congress was begun in the old Federal Hall. The proceedings were opened by a message or speech from Washington, which he delivered in person. At eleven o'clock that day he left his house in his coach drawn by four bay horses, preceded by Colonel Humphreys and Major Jackson in military uniform, riding two of his white horses, and followed by his private secretaries, Messrs. Lear and Nelson, in his chariot. His own coach was followed by carriages bearing Chief-Justice Jay and the Secretaries of the Treasury and War, Secretary Jefferson not having arrived at the seat of government. At the outer door of the Hall the President was met by the door-keepers of the Senate and House of Representatives, and conducted by them to the door of the Senate Chamber, from which the President was led through the assembled members of Congress, the Senate on one side and the House on the other, to the chair, where he was seated. The members all rose as the President entered, and the gentlemen who had accompanied him took their stand behind the Senators. In the course of a few minutes the President rose (and with him the members of both houses) and made his speech, after which he handed copies to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and then retired, bowing to the members (who stood) as he passed out. In the same manner as he came, and with the same attendants, he returned to his house. "On this occasion," Washington wrote in his diary, "I was dressed in a suit of clothes made at the woolen manufactory at Hartford, as the buttons also were." At an appointed hour on the 14th the members of the houses of Congress proceeded in carriages to the mansion of the President (those of the House of Representatives with the mace, preceded by their Speaker), and there presented their respective addresses in response to his speech. These stately ceremonials at the opening of the sessions of Congress were in vogue until Jefferson took his seat as Chief Magistrate, when they were all omitted and the President sent to the assembled Congress his annual and other messages in writing, by his private secretary, as is now done.

The public credit was a topic that demanded and received the earliest and most earnest attention of Congress at the second session. The report of the Secretary of the Treasury (Mr. Hamilton) had been waited for with great solicitude, not only by the public creditors, but by every thoughtful patriot. It was presented in writing to the House of Representatives on the 15th January, 1790, and embodied a financial scheme which was generally adopted and remained the line of policy of the national government, with very slight modifications, for more than twenty years. On the recommendation of the Secretary, the national government assumed not only the foreign and domestic debts incurred for carrying on the late war, as its own, but also the debts contracted by the several States during that period, for the general welfare. The foreign debt, amounting with accrued interest to almost $12,000,000, was due chiefly to France and private lenders in Holland. The domestic debt, including, outstanding continental money and interest, amounted to over $42,000,000, nearly one-third of which was accumulated accrued interest. The State debts assumed amounted to $21,000,000, distributed as follows: New Hampshire, $300,000; Massachusetts, $4,000,000; Rhode Island (which came into the Union by adopting the Constitution in May, 1790), $200,000; Connecticut, $1,600,000; New York, $1,200,000; New Jersey, $800,000; Pennsylvania, $2,200,000; Delaware, $200,000; Maryland, $800,000; Virginia, $3,000,000; North Carolina, $2,400,000; South Carolina, $4,000,000; Georgia, $300,000.

The report called forth long, earnest, and able debates in and out of Congress. Concerning the foreign debt, there was but one opinion, and that was it must be paid in full according to the terms on which it was contracted; and the President was authorized to borrow $12,000,000, if necessary, for its liquidation. With respect to the domestic debt, there was a wide difference of opinion. As the government certificates, continental bills of credit, and other evidences of debt were then held chiefly by speculators who had purchased them at greatly reduced rates, the idea had been put forth by prominent men that it would be proper and expedient to apply a scale of depreciation, as in the case of the paper-money toward the close of the war, in liquidating those claims. Hamilton warmly opposed this proposition as not only dishonest but impolitic, arguing that public credit, which might be blasted by such a proceeding, was essential to the very existence of the new government. He therefore urged that all the debts should be met according to the terms of the contract. He proposed the funding of the public debt in a fair and economical way, by which the public creditors should receive their promised interest of six per cent. until the government should be able to pay the principal, and for the latter purpose he proposed to devote the proceeds of the General Post-office as a sinking fund. The Secretary assumed that, in five years, by an honorable course in its financial operations, the government would be able to effect loans at five and even at four per cent. with which the claims might be met. Hamilton's propositions, in general, were agreed to in March. A new loan was authorized, payable in certificates of the domestic debt, at their par value and in continental bills of credit at the rate of one hundred for one. Congress also authorized an additional loan, payable in certificates of the State debts, to the amount of $21,000,000. A new board of commissioners was appointed, with full power to settle all claims on general principles of equity. A system of revenue from imports and internal excise, proposed by Hamilton, was also adopted.

While the financial question was under debate, another subject, more exciting, was presented to the House, in the form of a petition or memorial from the Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and also of New York, on the subject of slavery and the slave-trade. Slavery then existed in all the States but Massachusetts, whose constitution contained a clause that had silently abolished it. In other States benevolent and patriotic persons had made attempts to have the system of slave-labor abolished; and these memorials proposed action of the national Congress on the subject. They were seconded by another from the Pennsylvania Society for the abolition of slavery, signed by Dr. Franklin, its president. This was the last public act of that great and good man, for he died a few weeks afterward.

These were the first debates in the national legislature on the subject of slavery, which, from time to time, afterward shook the foundations of the Union and finally culminated in the Civil War whose fires consumed the institution. They were ended on the occasion here mentioned, in March, 1790, by the adoption of a report which declared substantially (1) that Congress had no constitutional power to interfere with the African Slave-trade before the year 1808; (2) that they had no power to interfere with slavery in the States wherein it existed; (3) that they might restrain citizens of the United States from carrying on the African Slave-trade to supply foreigners with slaves, and (4) that they had power to prohibit foreigners fitting out vessels in our ports for transporting persons from Africa to any foreign port. It was when the debates on the financial scheme and the slavery question were at their height, that Jefferson arrived in New York and took his seat in Washington's cabinet as Secretary of State.

During this session the question of the permanent location of the seat of the national government was discussed, and it was finally decided that it should be at the head of sloop navigation on the Potomac River, within a territory ten miles square lying on each side of the river, ceded by Maryland and Virginia, and named, in honor of the discoverer of America, The District of Columbia. It was to become the seat of government after the lapse of ten years. Acts for the issuing of patents for improvements, and copyrights on books, were also passed; and after a laborious and quite an exciting session, Congress adjourned in August to meet again in December.





Return to Our Country, Vol II