In 1789 the Federalists, the leaders of the new Republic who clung to the name used by the supporters of the Constitution in 1787–1788, were optimistic about forming the new government. The results of the elections in 1788 showed that most of the members of the new Congress had been supporters of the Constitution—at least forty-eight of the fifty-nine congressmen and eighteen of the twenty-two senators. And George Washington had been unanimously elected as the first president of the United States. Indeed, expectations were so high that some Federalists worried that disappointment was inevitable.1 By 1789 even the leading opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists, had come to accept it, though of course with an expectation of it soon being amended. No one wanted to oppose the new national government without giving it what Washington called “a fair chance.”2
By 1789 the most nationally minded of the Federalists such as Hamilton and Washington were determined to turn the United States into an integrated nation, a republic in its own right with the governmental power to act energetically in the public sphere. Monarchies all over Europe were trying to consolidate their scattered collections of small duchies, principalities, provinces, and city-states—nearly 350 of them—and to build strong consolidated nation-states.3 But could a continental-sized republic like the new United States do the same? The very idea of a single republic “on an average one thousand miles in length, and eight hundred in breadth, and containing six million of white inhabitants all reduced to the same standard of morals, of habits, and of laws, is,” the Anti-Federalists had warned, “in itself an absurdity, and contrary to the whole experience of mankind.”4
By 1789 many of the Federalists had lost faith in the Revolutionary dream of 1776—that America could exist with a minimum of government. Some New England Federalists, “seeing and dreading the evils of democracy,” according to one traveler in the 1790s, were even willing to “admit monarchy, or something like it.”5 The wealthy New England merchant Benjamin Tappan, father of the future abolitionists, was not alone in thinking that a good dose of monarchism was needed to offset the popular excesses of the American people. Even though Henry Knox, Washington’s close friend, had given Tappan “a gentle check” for openly voicing such an opinion, Tappan told Knox that he could not “give up the Idea that monarchy in our present situation is become absolutely necessary to save the states from sinking into the lowest abyss of misery.” Since he had “delivered my sentiment in all companies” and found it well received, he believed that “if matters were properly arranged it would be easily and soon effected,” perhaps with the aid of the Society of the Cincinnati, the fraternal organization of former Revolutionary War officers. Even if nothing were done, Tappan intended to continue to be “a strong advocate for what I have suggested.”6
Prevalent as this kind of thinking was in some parts of America in the late 1780s and early 1790s, the Federalists, even the high-toned ones, were not traditional monarchists. As pessimistic about republicanism as some Federalists may have been, most of them had little desire to return to the monarchical and patriarchal politics of the colonial ancien régime in which government had been treated as a source of personal and family aggrandizement. Nor did most of them believe that the restoration of monarchy was possible in America, at least not at the present time. Thus most Federalists believed that whatever aspects of monarchy they hoped to bring back into America would have to be placed within a republican framework. Indeed, Benjamin Rush described the new government in 1790 as one “which unites with the vigor of monarchy and the stability of aristocracy all the freedom of a simple republic.”7 Even though the Federalists never openly declared it to be their aim, perhaps they really intended to create another Augustan age, an age of stability and cultural achievement following a revolutionary upheaval.8 Augustus had after all sought to incorporate elements of monarchy into the Roman Empire while all the time talking about republicanism.
ARTICLE IOF THE CONSTITUTION, with its ten sections, is by far the longest article in the document. It is devoted to the Congress, and naturally, as the most republican part of the new national government, the Congress was the first institution to be organized. Indeed, during its first session, beginning in April 1789, it was virtually the entire central government. Although the president was inaugurated at the end of April, the subordinate executive offices were not filled until late in the summer; and the judiciary was not created until just before adjournment in the early fall. The short Article III of the Constitution had prescribed only a Supreme Court for the nation and had left the possibility of establishing other federal courts to the Congress’s discretion.
The First Congress faced a unique challenge, and those congressmen and senators who gathered in New York in the spring of 1789 were awed by what lay ahead of them. Not only would the members of the Congress have to pass some promised amendments to the new Constitution, but they would have to fill out the bare framework of a government that the Philadelphia Convention had created, including the organization of the executive and judicial departments. Some therefore saw the First Congress as something in the nature of a “second constitutional convention.” The responsibilities were daunting, and many congressmen and senators of the First Congress felt overwhelmed. They were, said James Madison, “in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us. Our successors will have an easier task.”9
The First Congress had difficulty even getting itself together. It took weeks for some members of the Congress to journey from their home states to the first national capital of New York City. Even the stage from Boston, traveling eighteen hours a day, took six days to get to New York. Philadelphia was three days away.10 Although on March 4, 1789, fifty-nine representatives and twenty-two senators were supposed to convene in New York, only a handful actually showed up. Over the next few weeks the members dribbled in, several each day. Not until April 1, 1789, did the House of Representatives have a quorum and was it able to organize itself for business; the Senate got its quorum a week later.
New York City became the first capital of the new government mainly by default: the peripatetic Confederation Congress after wandering from town to town had ended up there. With a population of about thirty thousand, New York was not yet as large as Philadelphia, which with its contiguous suburbs totaled forty-five thousand people, but it was growing rapidly. “New York,” observed a French traveler in 1794, “is less citified than Philadelphia, but the bustle of trade is far greater.” Since it had twice as many foreign-born as Philadelphia, it had a more cosmopolitan feel. Some thought it still had an aristocratic English tone left over from the occupation. “If there is one city on the American continent which above all others displays English luxury,” observed the French visitor Bris-sot de Warville, “it is New York, where you can find all the English fashions,” including ladies in “dresses which exposed much of their bosoms”—an expression of “indecency in republican women” that “scandalized” Brissot.11 Still, what impressed everyone was the commercial hurly-burly of the city. With its superb deepwater harbor and burgeoning economy, New York would soon outdistance all the other port cities in people and commerce.12
In 1789 the city’s growing population was confined to the tip of Manhattan, extending about a mile and a half up the river on the east side and a mile on the west side. Broadway was the central boulevard, but it was paved only to Vesey Street. Greenwich Village was considered out-of-town. There were over four hundred taverns in the city, and these were increasing in number faster than the population. Despite its being caught up in English luxury, New York’s mostly narrow and dirty streets and the fact that it had not yet fully recovered from devastating fires in 1776 and 1778 kept the city from becoming too pretentious. Its people, however, were beginning to build houses at a phenomenal rate.
Federal Hall, which was to house the new Congress, was the old City Hall located at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets; it had been recently remodeled by the French engineer Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, who filled the tympanum of the building’s pediment with the eagle drawn from the Great Seal, with thirteen stars in the entablature beneath it, even though two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, were still not part of the Union.
The First Congress that gathered in New York had been elected in 1788 by the people of the states, or in the case of the Senate, by the state legislatures. The Constitution had left to each state the mode of electing the House of Representatives. Given the Federalist desire to enlarge the electorate for each congressman and thus help to ensure that only the most distinguished and enlightened were elected, the major issue in the states had been whether to elect all the congressional representatives at-large or to elect them by district. In 1788 most of the large states (Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) had elected their congressmen by districts, while most of the small states, along with Pennsylvania, had elected them statewide.13 Some warned that district elections were apt to keep out “the man of abilities.” Instead of getting a liberally educated and cosmopolitan congressman, district elections would likely result in a narrow-minded demagogue. He would be, wrote one sarcastic Marylander, someone who would “have nothing to recommend him but his supposed humility, who will not be too proud to court what are generally called the poor folks, shake them by the hand, ask them for their vote and interest, and, when an opportunity serves, treat them to a can of grog, and whilst drinking of it, join heartily in abusing what are called the great people.”14
Many of the members of the Congress were quite distinguished. Twenty of them had attended the Philadelphia Convention, including James Madison, Robert Morris, Oliver Ellsworth, Rufus King, Roger Sherman, and Elbridge Gerry (who had left without signing). Many others had held prominent political or military positions during the Revolution, such as Richard Henry Lee, Jeremiah Wadsworth, Philip Schuyler, and Elias Boudinot. Only twenty had entered politics since the treaty of peace of 1783, and most of these were very young men. In short, most members of the Congress were men of experience and consequence. Indeed, Washington declared that “the new Congress on account of the self-created respectability and various talents of its Members, will not be inferior to any Assembly in the world.”15
Still, when Madison looked over the list of those elected with him to the House of Representatives, the future looked troublesome. He saw only “a very scanty proportion who will share in the drudgery of business,” and for the tasks ahead he could only foresee “contentions first between federal & antifederal parties, and then between Northern and Southern parties, which give additional disagreeableness to the prospect.” His high hopes that the Congress might be free of the “vicious arts” of democracy that had plagued the states now seemed more doubtful. He was worried that too many men of “factious tempers” and “local prejudices” had been elected.16
THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES took seriously the belief that it was the more democratic branch of the legislature, much closer to the people than the supposedly aristocratic Senate. It certainly tended to act in a more popular manner. The members of the House paid little attention to ceremony and dignities and sometimes shocked the Senate with their raucous and disorderly behavior. At times three or four representatives would be on their feet at once, shouting invectives, attacking individuals violently, telling private stories, and making irrelevant speeches. During the First Congress, it certainly was by far busier than the Senate. In its first three sessions it considered 146 different public bills, while the Senate considered only 24.
The House decided at the outset to open its debates to the public. Since the British Parliament and the colonial legislatures had deliberately kept their legislative proceedings hidden from the outside world, this decision marked a significant innovation. Young James Kent, a future chancellor of New York, was an early visitor to the gallery and was overcome with emotion. He thought it was “a proud & glorious day” to have “all ranks and degrees of men” present in the gallery “looking upon an organ of popular will, just beginning to breathe the Breath of Life, & which might in some future age, much more truly than the Roman Senate, be regarded as ‘the refuge of nations.’”17
The long-run implications of this decision to allow the public to listen to debates were not yet apparent. Despite the opening of the House to the public, knowledge of Congress’s activities by modern standards remained limited. Politics in 1789 was still very traditional in character, small and intimate; and political leaders relied, as they had in the past, mostly on private conversations and personal correspondence among “particular gentlemen” for their connections and information.18 The practice of congressmen writing circular letters to constituents summarizing congressional business had not yet become common, and most congressmen communicated with their constituents back home simply by sending letters to prominent friends who would show them to a few other influential persons.19
Some constituents did communicate with their congressmen, mostly by using the time-honored English tradition of petitioning guaranteed by the First Amendment. More than six hundred petitions were presented to the First Congress on a variety of issues, including the prohibition of rum, the standardization of printings of the Bible, and, most famously, the abolition of slavery. During its first twelve years the House of Representatives received nearly three thousand petitions—indeed, more petitions in this brief period than had been received by the colonial Pennsylvania assembly during the last sixty years of its existence. Of course, since most people lived at a distance from the federal capital, they had to rely on sending petitions; but if they could, they sought other ways of influencing the Congress as well. Individuals traveled to the capital to make personal claims for different sorts of congressional action; these usually involved individual rather than policy matters and included veterans requesting pensions and military contractors seeking payment of old debts.20
Still, it was difficult for most people to know what their congressmen were saying or doing. There was no Congressional Record as yet and no verbatim reporting. The newspaper reporters who had access to the debates of the House of Representatives took down only what they thought might be interesting to readers. It was not until 1834 that all the early reports and fragments of congressional debates were compiled and published as the Annals of Congress.
Yet the political world was undoubtedly changing. Congressmen increasingly felt themselves more accountable to the public out-of-doors than they had expected, and they began catering to that public in their speeches and debates. Benjamin Goodhue of Massachusetts complained of the delay in the proceedings produced by “the needless and lengthy harangues” of fellow congressmen “who have been frequently actuated by the vain display of their Oritorical abilities.” Members became anxious about how they appeared, and how they sounded in public, and they fretted over the accuracy of transcriptions of their speeches in the press. Peter Silvester of New York, eager to be seen to “say something clever” in the House, asked a friend to “draw up some suitable speech for me, not too long nor too short.”21
With all this desire for speech-making, congressional debates became longer and more frequent. The House of Representatives encouraged more open and free deliberations by its common practice of going into the Committee of the Whole, where the restrictions on discussion were looser and the rules governing debate less formal.22 The House thereby became, as Fisher Ames complained, “a kind of Robin Hood society, where everything is debated.”23 Many Northern congressmen thought that the House was following the pattern of the Virginia House of Delegates in conducting much of its business as a Committee of the Whole, and thus they blamed the Virginians for the endless talk and the slowness of business. “Our great committee is too unwieldly,” complained Ames. Fifty members or more trying to amend or clean up the language of a bill was “a great, clumsy machine . . . applied to the slightest and most delicate operations—the hoof of an elephant to the strokes of mezzotinto.”24
Madison denied that the Committee of the Whole accounted for the delays; rather, there were “difficulties arising from novelty.” “Scarcely a day passes,” he told Edmund Randolph, “without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents.” But “time will be a full remedy for this evil,” and the Congress and the country would be better for going slowly.25
The debates were not only frequent and lengthy but sometimes remarkably thoughtful. Members of Congress had ample time to prepare their speeches. Because there were few select committee meetings and other distractions, nearly all congressmen attended the daily five-hour sessions punctually, at least at first, and were usually attentive to what their colleagues had to say on the floor of the House.26 Ames “listened,” as he said, “with the most unwearied attention to the arguments urged on both sides” in order that “his own mind might be fully enlightened.”27
Ames himself was an elegant and compelling speaker. Almost overnight his oratory established his reputation as one of the most able members of the House; indeed, people congratulated themselves on having visited the gallery of the House to hear him speak. Ames frequently wrote his friend George Minot about the techniques and mistakes of his performances in the House and commented on those of others. He thought Madison, for example, an impressive reasoner but concluded that speaking was “not his forte. . . . He speaks low, his person is little and ordinary,” and he was “a little too much of a book politician.”28
Yet Ames had no doubt that Madison was the “first man” of the House. Although Madison was shy, short, and soft-spoken, he impressed everyone he met. He was widely read with a sharp and questioning mind; indeed, he was probably the most intellectually creative political figure America has ever produced.
Madison had been born in 1751 into that class of Virginia slaveholding planters who dominated their society as few aristocracies have. Although his father’s plantation was the wealthiest in Orange County, Virginia, it was not far removed from the raw frontier, and young Madison, like most of the Founders, became the first of his family to attend college, in his case the College of New Jersey (later Princeton). In college Madison revealed his intellectual intensity and earnestness. His father’s plantation wealth enabled Madison, who complained endlessly of his poor health, to return home to study and contemplate what he might do with his life. By 1776, at age twenty-five, he had become a member of Virginia’s Revolutionary convention. In 1777 he became a member of the eight-man Virginia Council of State. In 1780 he served in the Confederation Congress, and when his three-year term was up he had returned to Virginia and in 1784 was elected to the Virginia assembly. But all through the 1780s his interest in strengthening the national government grew to the point where he became the principal organizer of the 1787 convention that wrote the Constitution. He was eager to put the new government that he had helped create on a sound footing. Although he regarded the Constitution as something less than what he had wanted, he became known as its principal author.
Madison had originally been slated for a seat in the Senate, but when the Anti-Federalist leader Patrick Henry squelched that plan, he actually had to campaign against James Monroe for a seat in the House of Representatives. He told friends that he hated having to ask for votes. He had, he said, “an extreme distaste to steps having an electioneering appearance, altho’ they should lead to an appointment in which I am disposed to serve the public.”29 At the outset he was a fervent nationalist who was eager to secure an independent revenue for the new government, to create the executive departments, and to win over the minds of the Anti-Federalists to the new union. He journeyed to New York early and waited impatiently for the rest of the Congress to assemble. And on April 8, 1789, two days after both houses mustered a quorum, he began introducing legislation.
Although he was not a strong speaker, he made 150 speeches in the first session of the First Congress alone. But Madison’s extraordinary dominance over the proceedings of the First Congress came not merely from his reputation and his speech-making. His broad knowledge and careful preparation for what had to be done were even more important. He got ready for the opening debate on revenue in the House of Representatives by comparing the state laws on the subject and by collecting whatever statistical information he could on the commerce of the various states.30 His colleagues reported that he was “a thorough master of almost every public question that can arise, or he will spare no pains to become so, if he happens to be in want of information.” His tireless attention to detail and his range of activities were astonishing. Not only did he lead the House, but he was also the principal link between the legislature and the executive in these early months. He helped Washington draft his inaugural address to the Congress, then drafted the response of the House of Representatives to that address, and finally helped the president in his reply to that response.
THE SENATE CONSIDERED ITSELF distinctly superior to the “lower” house, so-called perhaps because the House chamber was on the first floor of Federal Hall, while the Senate chamber was on the second floor. Although the Senate was not entirely clear about its relationship to the various state legislatures, which, of course, were its electors, it certainly did have a very high-flown sense of its dignity. While the House was busy passing legislation, establishing revenue for the new government, and erecting the several executive departments, the Senate spent its time discussing ceremonies and rituals, perhaps because it had little else to do. During the first session it initiated only one piece of legislation, that establishing the judiciary. Things got so bad that the senators began coming to the Hall for only an hour or two in the morning. “We Used to stay in the Senate Chamber till about 2 O’Clock,” confessed Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, “whether we did anything or not, by way of keeping up the Appearance of Business. But even this,” he said, “we seem to have got over.”31 Fortunately for the senators, the public did not know much about their business practices: unlike the lower house, the Senate decided not to open its debates to the public.
Establishing rules of etiquette for the Senate proved difficult. How was the Senate to receive the president of the United States? How was the president to be addressed? How should the senators address one another? Should they call each other “right honorable” or not? Should they have a sergeant at arms, and if so what should he be called? Should they address the speaker of the lower house as “honorable” or not? They ransacked ancient and modern history for examples and precedents, wondering whether “the framers of the Constitution had in View the Two Kings of Sparta or the Two Consuls of Rome” when they created a president and vice-president, or whether a fourteenth-century Italian reformer obsessed with titles was an object lesson for them.32
Vice-President John Adams was especially confused. He knew he was vice-president of the United States (in which “I am nothing, but I may be everything”), but he was also president of the Senate. He was two officers at once, which perhaps, he said, was the reason the huge chair in which he sat was made wide enough to hold two persons. But Washington was coming to the Congress to be sworn in as president, and questions of etiquette needed to be answered. “When the President comes into the Senate, what shall I be?” Adams asked his colleagues, in obvious distress. He could not continue to be president of the Senate then, could he? “I wish gentlemen to think what I shall be.” Overwhelmed with the burden of this dilemma, Adams threw himself back into his velvet canopied chair, while the senators looked on in silence, some of them having difficulty stifling a laugh.
In the long ensuing pause, Senator Oliver Ellsworth, one of the members of the Constitutional Convention and a judicial expert, nervously thumbed through the Constitution. Finally Ellsworth rose and solemnly addressed the vice-president. It was clear, he told Adams, that wherever the senators were, “then Sir you must be at the head of them.” But further than this—here Ellsworth looked aghast, as if some tremendous gulf had opened before him– “I shall not pretend to say.”33
On the day of the president’s inauguration, April 30, 1789, the vice-president and the Senate were even more uncertain about what to do. Adams, who, according to Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania, was wrapped up more than usual “in the Contemplation of his own importance,” asked once again for direction from the Senate. When the president addressed the Congress, what should he as vice-president do? “How shall I behave?” he asked. What should the Congress do? Should it listen to the president seated or standing? From these questions a long debate followed, and the senators tried to recall how the English handled such matters. Senator Richard Henry Lee of Virginia remembered from his stay in England as a young man that the king addressed Parliament with the Lords seated and the Commons standing. But then Senator Ralph Izard of South Carolina reminded his colleagues how often he too had visited the English Parliament and told them that “the Commons stood because they had no seats to sit on.” The vice-president compounded the confusion by saying that every time he had visited the Parliament on such occasions “there was always such a Crowd, and ladies along, that for his part he could not say how it was.”34
Because of a mix-up in communications the Congress waited an hour and ten minutes for the president. When Washington finally arrived at about two in the afternoon, an awkward silence followed. Adams, who had been so atwitter about the proper way to receive the president, was so overawed that he was uncharacteristically rendered speechless. Eventually Washington, dressed in a dark-brown homespun suit, with white silk stockings and silver shoe-buckles, was led out to a balcony of Federal Hall so that the huge throngs of people outside could witness his being sworn in as president. Robert Livingston, chancellor (the leading judicial official) of New York, administered the oath of office, at the conclusion of which Washington, according to a contemporary newspaper account, kissed the Bible on which he had sworn the oath.35 After Livingston proclaimed “Long Live George Washington, President of the United States,” the crowd erupted in shouting and cheering, so loud as to drown out the pealing of the church bells. When the president came to deliver his inaugural address he was so overcome by the gravity and solemnity of the occasion that he had a hard time reading his notes. According to Maclay, Washington seemed “agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the levelled Cannon or pointed Musket.”36 It was an awful moment for Washington and for the country. Washington told his friend Henry Knox that his assumption of the office of president was “accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”37
THE PRESIDENT IN HIS INAUGURAL ADDRESS offered very little guidance about what the Congress should do. Although the Constitution provided that the president periodically recommend to the Congress such measures as he judged necessary and expedient, Washington in his address actually made only one recommendation for congressional action. Believing that the role of the president was only to execute the laws, not to make them, he was remarkably indirect and circumspect with even this one recommendation. He suggested that the Congress use the amendment procedures of the Constitution in order to promote “the public harmony” and make “the characteristic rights of freemen . . . more impregnably fortified,” without, however, making any alteration in the Constitution that “might endanger the benefits of an United and effective Government.” This recommendation, he said, was in response to “the objections which have been urged against the System” of government created by the Constitution and “the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them.”38
Many of the states had ratified the Constitution on the understanding that some changes would be made in order to protect people’s rights, and popular expectation was high that amendments would be added as soon as possible. Although many members of Congress were not at all eager to begin tampering with the Constitution before they had even tried it out, Congress could not easily evade this concern for the citizens’ rights. It was after all in defense of their rights that Americans had fought the Revolution.
Americans had inherited an English concern for personal rights against the power of the crown that went back centuries. They had prefaced at least five of their Revolutionary state constitutions in 1776 with bills of rights and had inserted certain common law liberties in four other constitutions. It thus came as something of a surprise to many Americans to discover that the new federal Constitution contained no bill of rights. It was not that members of the Philadelphia Convention were uninterested in rights; to the contrary, the Constitution had been drafted in part to protect the rights of Americans.
But the Constitution was designed to protect the Americans’ rights from the abusive power of the state legislatures. The Constitution had done so by forbidding the states in Article I, Section 10, from certain actions. In fact, the members of the Philadelphia Convention had not seriously considered adding to the Constitution a bill of rights that would restrict the power of the national government. As delegate James Wilson said, a bill of rights had “never struck the mind of any member,” until George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, brought the issue up almost as an afterthought in the last days of the Convention, when it was voted down by every state delegation.
But the idea of a bill of rights was too deeply embedded in the Americans’ consciousness to be so easily passed over. George Mason and other opponents of the new Constitution immediately stressed the absence of a bill of rights as a serious deficiency, and they soon come to realize that this was the best argument they had against the Constitution.
Because the Federalists believed that the frenzied advocacy of a bill of rights by the Anti-Federalists masked a basic desire to dilute the power of the national government, they were determined to resist all efforts to add amendments. Over and over again they said that the old-fashioned idea of an English bill of rights had lost its meaning in America. A bill of rights, they said, had been relevant in England where the ruler had rights and powers distinct from those of the people; there it had been used, as in the case of the Magna Carta of 1215 and the Bill of Rights of 1689, “to limit the king’s prerogative.”39 But in the United States rulers had no pre-existing independent governmental power; all rights and powers belonged to the sovereign people who parceled out bits and pieces sparingly and temporarily to their various delegated agents. Since the federal Constitution implied that every power not expressly delegated to the general government was reserved in the people’s hands, a declaration reserving specific rights belonging to the people, said James Wilson, was “superfluous and absurd.”40
The Anti-Federalists were puzzled by these arguments. No other country in the world, said Patrick Henry, looked at government as a delegation of express powers. “All nations have adopted this construction—that all rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers. . . . It is so in Great Britain; for every possible right, which is not reserved to the people by some express provision or compact, is within the king’s prerogative. . . . It is so in Spain, Germany, and other parts of the world.”41 The Anti-Federalists, in other words, continued to presume in traditional terms that governmental powers naturally adhered in rulers with whom the people had to bargain in order to get explicit recognition of their rights.
The Federalists might have eventually been able to carry their case against such conventional thinking about government, had it not been for the intervention of Thomas Jefferson from his distant post as minister to France. Jefferson was not unsympathetic to the new Constitution and to a somewhat stronger national government, but he had little or no comprehension of the emerging and quite original political theory of the Federalists that underlay the new federal political system. For Jefferson, sensitive to the politically correct thinking of “the most enlightened and disinterested characters” of his liberal French friends who still believed that government was something to be bargained with, “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference.”42 No matter that his friend Madison patiently tried to explain to him that attempting to write out the people’s rights might actually have the effect of limiting them.43 Jefferson knew, and that was enough, that “the enlightened part of Europe have given us the greatest credit for inventing this instrument of security for the rights of the people, and have been not a little surprised to see us so soon give it up.”44
Jefferson’s belief that the Constitution was basically deficient because of the absence of a bill of rights was picked up by Anti-Federalists already suspicious of the Constitution and its lack of a bill of rights and used with great effectiveness, especially in Virginia, Maryland, and Rhode Island.45The Federalists were defensive over the issue, and in several state ratifying conventions they had to agree to add a list of recommended amendments, nearly all of which advocated changing the structure of the new government. The Federalists concluded that it was better to accept these amendments as recommendations rather than as conditions for ratification. Otherwise they might have seen the Constitution defeated or at least have had to heed calls for a second convention.46
With nearly two hundred suggested amendments coming out of the state ratifying conventions, and with his good friend Jefferson remaining obstinate on the issue, Madison reluctantly began changing his opinion on the advisability of a bill of rights.47 Although in October 1788 he had told Jefferson that he had never believed the omission of a bill of rights to be “a material defect” of the Constitution, he now declared somewhat disingenuously that he had “always been in favor of a bill of rights” and would support its addition, especially since “it is anxiously desired by others.”48In his hard-fought electoral campaign for the House of Representatives in the winter of 1788–1789, Madison had been compelled to make a public pledge, if elected, to work in the Congress for the adoption of a bill of rights.49
This promise made all the difference. If the Federalists, who dominated both houses of Congress in 1789, had had their way, there would have been no bill of rights. But once Madison’s personal honor was involved, he was stubbornly bent on seeing it enacted. Besides, as he told a friend, a bill of rights would “kill the opposition everywhere, and by putting an end to the disaffection to the Govt. itself, enable the administration to venture on measures not otherwise safe.”50 Yet Madison was determined that his bill of rights would be mainly limited to the protection of personal rights and would not harm “the structure & stamina of the Government.”51 He sifted through the nearly two hundred suggested amendments made by the states, most of which suggested altering the powers and structure of the national government, including such matters as taxation, the regulation of elections, judicial authority, and presidential terms. Madison deliberately ignored these structural proposals and extracted mainly those concerned with personal rights that he thought no one could argue with.
On June 8, 1789, Madison proposed his nine amendments, most of which he believed could be inserted into Article I, Section 9, as prohibitions on the Congress. He also included one amendment to be inserted into Article I, Section 10, that actually prohibited the states, and not just the federal government, from violating rights of conscience, freedom of the press, and trial by jury in criminal cases.
At first his Federalist colleagues in the House claimed that it was too early to bring up amendments. Discussing amendments would take up too much time, especially since there were other more important issues like collecting revenue that the Congress ought to be considering. They told Madison he had done his duty and fulfilled his promise to his constituents by introducing the amendments, and now he ought just to forget about them. But “as an honest man I feel my self bound,” Madison said, and he hounded his colleagues relentlessly.52
In several elegant and well-crafted speeches Madison laid out the reasons why a bill of rights should not be delayed. It would quiet the minds of the people uneasy about the new government, help to bring North Carolina and Rhode Island into the Union, further secure the people’s rights in public opinion without harming the government, and perhaps allow judges to become the peculiar guardians of these declared rights. He answered all the doubts and all the arguments against a bill of rights, most of which were the doubts and arguments he himself had earlier voiced.53
There is no question that it was Madison’s personal prestige and his dogged persistence that saw the amendments through the Congress. There might have been a federal Constitution without Madison but certainly no Bill of Rights. Madison did not get all he wanted and in the form he wanted. His colleagues in the House eliminated his preamble, revised some of his other amendments, and placed them at the end of the Constitution instead of incorporating them into the body as he had wished. The House then sent seventeen amendments to the Senate. The upper house not only significantly altered these amendments, but it also compressed them into twelve, eliminating Madison’s proposal to protect certain rights from the states, which he had considered “the most valuable” of all his amendments.54 Two of the twelve amendments—on apportionment of the House and on congressional salaries—were lost in the initial ratification process.55 Still, when all is said and done the remaining ten amendments—immortalized as the Bill of Rights—were Madison’s.
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This has been the most important amendment invoked by the courts in modern times, applying not just to the federal government but also to the states.56
The Second Amendment states that “a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Because of its awkward wording, this amendment has become one of the most controversial at the present time. Its framers, of course, had little awareness of the distinction drawn today between a collective and an individual right to bear arms, and certainly they had no modern conception of gun control.57 The Third Amendment, expressing the long-standing English fear of standing armies, limits the power of the government to quarter troops in the homes of citizens. The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from unreasonable searches and seizures of persons and property—an issue in 1761 with which, according to John Adams, the fiery Boston patriot James Otis had given birth to “the child Independence.”58
The Fifth Amendment guarantees the rights of those suspected of crime and prohibits the government from taking private property for public use without just compensation. Amendment VI recognizes the rights of criminal defendants, and Amendment VII protects the right to jury trial in certain civil trials. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive bail and fines and “cruel and unusual punishments.”
The Ninth Amendment, which was very important to Madison, states that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” And the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states or the people all powers not delegated to the federal government and not prohibited to the states. Placing such a clause in the Constitution had been a point of particular concern for the Anti-Federalists. In the Virginia ratifying convention George Mason had warned that “unless this was done, many valuable and important rights would be concluded to be given up by implication.” Indeed, he had said, “unless there were a Bill of Rights, implication might swallow up all our rights.”59
In the early fall of 1789 the Congress passed the amendments and sent them to the states for ratification. By then many Federalists had come to see that a bill of rights might be a good thing after all. Not only was it the best way of undercutting the strength of Anti-Federalism in the country, but the Bill of Rights that emerged, as Hamilton pointed out, left “the structure of the government and the mass and distribution of its powers where they were.”60 Anti-Federalists in the Congress began to realize that Madison’s rights-based amendments weakened the desire for a second convention and thus actually worked against their cause of fundamentally altering the Constitution. Madison’s amendments, as opponents of the Constitution angrily came to realize, were “good for nothing” and were “calculated merely to amuse, or rather to deceive.”61 They affected “personal liberty alone, leaving the great points of the Judiciary & direct taxation &c. to stand as they are.”62 Before long the Federalists were expressing surprise that the Anti-Federalists had become such vigorous opponents of amendments, since they were originally their idea.63
Unlike the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen issued by the National Assembly in 1789, the American Bill of Rights of 1791 was less a creative document than a defensive one. It made no universal claims but was rooted solely in the Americans’ particular history.64 It did not invent human rights that had not existed before, but mainly reiterated long-standing English common law rights. Unlike the French Declaration, which transcended law and the institutions of government and in fact became the source of government and even society itself, the American Bill of Rights was simply part of the familiar English customary law that worked to limit pre-existing governmental power. to find an American version of the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen that asserted the natural, equal, and universal nature of human rights requires reaching back to the Declaration of Independence of 1776.
Under the circumstances the states ratified the first ten amendments slowly and without much enthusiasm between 1789 and 1791; several of the original states—Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia—did not even bother. After ratification, most Americans promptly forgot about the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The Bill of Rights remained judicially dormant until the twentieth century.
THE ANTI-FEDERALISTS may have been concerned with rights, but most Federalists had believed that power was what was most needed in the new government. And power to the eighteenth-century American Revolutionaries essentially meant monarchy. If there were to be a good dose of monarchical power injected into the body politic, as many Federalists expected in 1787, the energetic center of that power would be the presidency. For that reason it was the office of the president that made many Americans most suspicious of the new government.
The presidency was a new office for Americans. The Confederation had had a Congress, but it had never possessed a single strong national executive.65 Article II of the Constitution is very vague about the president’s powers. All it says is that the executive power shall be vested in the president and that the president shall be the commander-in-chief of the army and the navy and the militia, when called into service of the United States.
Such an office was bound to remind Americans of the king they had just cast off. When James Wilson in the Philadelphia Convention had moved that the executive “consist of a single person,” a long uneasy silence had followed. The delegates knew only too well what such an office implied. John Rutledge complained that “the people will think we are leaning too much towards Monarchy.”66 But the Convention had resisted these warnings and had gone on to make the new chief executive so strong, so king-like, only because the delegates expected George Washington to be the first president. The authority of the presidency would never “have been so great,” privately admitted Pierce Butler of South Carolina, “had not many members cast their eyes towards General Washington as President; and shaped their Ideas of the Powers to a President, by their opinion of his Virtue.”67
Washington’s unanimous election as president was preordained. He was the only person in the country who automatically commanded the allegiance of all the people. He was probably the only American who possessed the dignity, patience, restraint, and reputation for republican virtue that the untried but potentially powerful office of the presidency needed at the outset.
Washington, with his tall, imposing figure, Roman nose, and stern, thin-lipped face, was already at age fifty-eight an internationally famous hero—not so much for his military exploits during the Revolutionary War as for his character. At one point during the war he could probably have become a king or dictator, as some wanted, but he had resisted these blandishments.68 Washington always respected civilian superiority over the army, and at the moment of military victory in 1783 he had unconditionally surrendered his sword to the Congress. He promised not to take “any share in public business hereafter” and, like the Roman conqueror Cincinnatus, had returned to his farm. This self-conscious retirement from public life had electrified the world. All previous victorious generals in modern times—Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlborough—had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements. But not Washington. He seemed to epitomize public virtue and the proper character of a republican leader.
Following his formal retirement from public life in 1783, Washington understandably had hesitated to get involved in the movement for a new federal government during the 1780 s. Nevertheless, he had reluctantly agreed to attend the Philadelphia Convention and had been elected its president. After the Constitution was ratified, Washington still thought he could retire to the domestic tranquility of Mount Vernon. But the rest of the country assumed that he would become the first president of the new nation. People said he was denied children in his private life so he could be the father of his country.
ONCE WASHINGTON WAS ELECTED, many people, including Jefferson, expected that he might be president for life, that he would be a kind of elective monarch, something not out of the question in the eighteenth century. Poland, after all, was an elective monarchy; and James Wilson pointed out that in the distant past “crowns, in general, were originally elective.”69 Many Americans in the 1790s took seriously the prospect of some sort of monarchy developing in America. “There is a natural inclination in mankind to Kingly Government,” Benjamin Franklin had warned the Philadelphia Convention. In fact, many like Hugh Williamson of North Carolina in 1787 thought that the new American government “should at some time or other have a King.”70
Although America becoming a monarchy might seem absurd, in 1789 it did not seem so at all. After all, Americans had been raised as subjects of monarchy and, in the opinion of some, still seemed emotionally to value the hereditary attributes of monarchy.71 In 1794 an English traveler was struck by the degree to which New Englanders were becoming “Aristocrats” and were willing to “admit monarchy, or something like it, seeing and dreading the evils of democracy.” They were, he noted, a “haughty” people, “proud of their families, which from their emigration near two centuries since, they trace . . . from the best blood in England. . . . Most of them display their arms engraven over their door, or emblazoned over the Chimney Piece.” A small matter perhaps, but to this foreign observer, “this little trait of pride is strongly indicative of national character.”72 No doubt for many Federalist gentlemen ancestry continued to be important. In visiting Britain, even devout republicans like Jefferson tended to look up their ancestors.
William Short, viewing the new Constitution from abroad, was not immediately frightened by the power of the executive. But the Virginia diplomat, who was Jefferson’s protégé and successor in France, thought that “the President of the eighteenth century” would “form a stock on which will be grafted a King in the nineteenth.” Others, like George Mason of Virginia, believed that the new government was destined to become “an elective monarchy,” and still others, like Rawlins Lowndes of South Carolina, assumed that the government so closely resembled the British form that everyone naturally expected “our changing from a republic to monarchy.”73 to add to the confusion, the line between monarchical and republican governments in the eighteenth century was often hazy at best, and some were already talking about monarchical republics and republican monarchies.74
Once Washington accepted the presidency, he inevitably found himself caught up in some monarchical trappings. His journey from Mount Vernon to the capital in New York in the spring of 1789, for example, took on the air of a royal procession. He was saluted by cannons and celebrated in elaborate ceremonies along the way. Everywhere he was greeted by triumphal rejoicing and acclamations of “Long live George Washington!” With Yale students debating the advantages of an elective over a hereditary king, suggestions of monarchy were very much in the air. Following Washington’s unanimous election as president in the late winter of 1789, James McHenry of Maryland told him, “You are now a King, under a different name.” McHenry, who later became Washington’s secretary of war, wished the new president to “reign long and happy over us.” It was not surprising, therefore, that some people referred to Washington’s inauguration as a “coronation.”75
So prevalent was the thinking that Washington resembled an elected monarch that some even expressed relief that he had no heirs.76 Washington was sensitive to these popular anxieties about monarchy, and for a while he had thought of holding the presidency for only a year or so and then resigning and turning the office over to Vice-President John Adams. In the initial draft of his inaugural address he pointed out that “the Divine Providence hath not seen fit, that my blood should be transmitted or name perpetuated by the endearing though sometimes seducing channel of immediate offspring.” He had, he wrote, “no child for whom I could wish to make a provision—no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.” Although Madison talked him out of this draft, Washington’s desire to show the public that he harbored no monarchical aspirations revealed just how widespread was the talk of monarchy.77
Washington’s sensitivity to public opinion made him uncertain about the role he ought to play as president. He had understood what to do as commander-in-chief of the army, but the presidency was a wholly new office with a longer term than that of any of the state governors. He realized that the new government was fragile and needed dignity, but how far in a monarchical European direction ought he go to achieve it? As president, Washington tried to refuse accepting any salary, just as he had as commander-in-chief: such a renunciation, he thought, would be evidence of his disinterestedness in serving his country.78
But as president he knew he needed to do more to enhance the dignity of the office. Keenly aware that whatever he did would become a precedent for the future, he sought advice from those close to him, including the vice-president and the man he would soon make his secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. How often should he meet with the public? How accessible should he be? Should he dine with members of Congress? Should he host state dinners? Could he ever have private dinners with friends? Should he make a tour of the United States? The only state ceremonies that late eighteenth-century Americans were familiar with were those of the European monarchies. Were they applicable to the young republic?
Hamilton thought that most people were “prepared for a pretty high tone in the demeanour of the Executive,” but they probably would not accept as high a tone as was desirable. “Notions of equality,” he said, were “yet . . . too general and too strong” for the president to be properly distanced from the other branches of the government. Note his widely held presumption—“yet”—that American society, following the progressive stages of development, would eventually become more unequal and hierarchic like the societies of Europe. In the meantime, Hamilton suggested, the president ought to follow the practice of “European Courts” as closely as he could. Only department heads, high-ranking diplomats, and senators—and not mere congressmen—should have access to the president. “Your Excellency,” as Hamilton and many others continued to call Washington, might hold a half-hour levee (the English term for the king’s receptions) no more than once a week, and then only for invited guests. He could give up to four formal entertainments a year, but in order to maintain the president’s dignity he must never accept any invitations or call on anyone.79Adams for his part urged Washington to make a show of “splendor and majesty” for his office. The president needed an entourage of chamberlains, aides-de-camp, and masters of ceremonies to conduct the formalities of his office.
As uncomfortable as he often was with ceremony, Washington knew that he had to make the presidency “respectable,” and when he became president he spared few expenses in doing so. Although he was compelled to accept his $25,000 presidential salary—an enormous sum for the age—he spent nearly $2,000 of it on liquor and wine for entertaining. In his public appearances he dressed the part, in a dignified dark suit with a ceremonial sword and hat. Usually he rode in an elaborately ornamented cream-colored coach drawn by four and sometimes six white horses, attended by four servants in orange-and-white livery, followed by his official family in other coaches.80 Although he tried to offset this show of regal elegance by taking a walk each afternoon at two o’clock just like any other citizen, he remained an awesome character. He was, as Senator Maclay described him, “a cold formal Man,” who seldom laughed in public.81
When Washington appeared in public, bands sometimes played “God Save the King.” In his public pronouncements the president referred to himself in the third person. His dozens of state portraits were all modeled on those of European monarchs. Indeed, much of the iconography of the new nation, including its civic processions, was copied from monarchical symbolism. The fact that the capital, New York, was more aristocratic than any other city in the new Republic added to the monarchical atmosphere. Mrs. John Jay, the wife of the acting secretary of state and the future chief justice, and someone familiar with foreign courts, turned her home into the center of fashionable society and welcomed Lady Kitty Duer, Lady Mary Watts, Lady Christiana Griffin, and other American women who refused to accept simple republican forms of address. When Jefferson arrived in the spring of 1790 to assume his duties as secretary of state, he thought he was the only real republican in the capital.82
Concerned as he was with “the style proper for the Chief Magistrate,” Washington conceded that a certain monarchical tone had to be made part of the government; and since he had always thought of himself as being on stage, he was willing, up to a point, to play the part of a republican king. He was, as John Adams later caustically remarked, “the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.”83
Washington was nearly as much of an aristocrat as America ever produced—in his acceptance of social hierarchy and in his belief that some were born to command and some to obey. Although he trusted the good sense of the people in the long run, he believed that they could easily be misled by demagogues. His great strength was his realism. He always sought, as he put it at the outset of the struggle against Britain, to “make the best of Mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish.” Ultimately, his view of human nature was much closer to Hamilton’s than to Jefferson’s. “The motives which predominate most human affairs,” he wrote, are “self-love and self-interest.”84
With these assumptions, he realized only too acutely the fragility of the new nation. As president he spent much of his time devising schemes for creating a stronger sense of nationhood. He understood the power of symbols, and his willingness to sit for long hours to have his many portraits painted was not to honor himself but to inspire the country’s national spirit. Indeed, popular celebrations of Washington became a means of cultivating patriotism. It is not too much to say that for many Americans he stood for the Union.
He promoted roads and canals, a national university, and the post office—anything and everything that would bind the different states and sections together. Washington never took the unity of the country for granted but remained preoccupied throughout his presidency with creating the sinews of nationhood. Even in the social life of the “republican court” at the capital in New York and then after 1790 in Philadelphia, he and his wife, Martha, acted as matchmakers in bringing together couples from different parts of the United States. With their own marriage and those of other Virginia families as examples, the Washingtons tended to think of marriage in dynastic terms, as a means of consolidating a ruling aristocracy for the sprawling extent of America. During his presidency he and Martha arranged sixteen marriages, including that of James Madison and Dolley Payne.85
He undertook his two long royal-like tours through the Northern and Southern states in 1789–1791 in order to bring a semblance of the government to the farthest reaches of the land and reinforce the loyalty of people who had never seen him. Everywhere he was welcomed by triumphal arches, ceremonies, and acclaim befitting a king.86 His entourage included eleven horses, one of which was his white parade steed, Prescott. He had Prescott’s hooves painted and polished before mounting him at the edge of every town in order to make a more dramatic entrance. In each town he exchanged elaborate ceremonial addresses with the local officials, addresses that some critics thought “favored too much of Monarchy to be used by Republicans, or to be received with pleasure by a president of a Commonwealth.”87
Because of his concern for the Union, Washington was especially interested in the size and character of the White House and of the capital city that was to be named after him. The huge scale and imperial grandeur of the Federal City, as Washington modestly called it, owe much to his vision and his backing of the French-born engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant as architect.88
L’Enfant had migrated from France in 1777 as one of the many foreign recruits to the Continental Army. In 1779 he became a captain of engineers and attracted the attention of Washington for his ability to stage festivals and design medals, including that of the Society of the Cincinnati. In 1782 he organized the elaborate celebration in Philadelphia marking the birth of the French dauphin, and in 1788 he designed the conversion of New York’s City Hall into Federal Hall. Thus it was natural for L’Enfant to write Washington in 1789 outlining his plans for “the Capital of this vast Empire.” L’Enfant proposed a capital that would “give an idea of the greatness of the empire as well as . . . engrave in every mind that sense of respect that is due to a place which is the seat of a supreme sovereignty.”89 His plan for the Federal City, he said, “should be drawn on such a Scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.”90
Washington knew the site of the national capital had to be larger than that of any state capital. “Philadelphia,” the president pointed out, “stood upon an area of three by two miles. . . . If the metropolis of one State occupied so much ground, what ought that of the United States to occupy?”91 He wanted the Federal City to become a great commercial metropolis in the life of the nation and a place that would eventually rival any city in Europe. The new national capital, he hoped, would become the energizing and centralizing force that would dominate local and sectional interests and unify the disparate states.
L’Enfant designed the capital, as he said, in order to fulfill “the President’s intentions.” The Frenchman conceived of a system of grand radial avenues imposed on a grid of streets with great public squares and circles and with the public buildings—the “grand edifices” of the “Congress House” and the “President’s Palace”—placed so as to take best advantage of the vistas across the Potomac. Some of the early plans for the rotunda of the Capitol even included a monumental tomb that was designed eventually to hold the first president’s body—a proposal that made Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson very uneasy.92
Although the final plans for the capital were less impressive than what Washington originally envisioned, they were still grander than those others had in mind. If Jefferson had had his way, L’Enfant would never have kept his job as long as he did, and the capital would have been smaller and less magnificent—perhaps something on the order of a college campus, like Jefferson’s later University of Virginia. Opposed as he was to anything that smacked of monarchical Europe, Jefferson thought that fifteen hundred acres would be enough for the Federal City.93
Obsessed with the new government’s weakness, other Federalists were even more eager than Washington to bolster its dignity and respectability. Most believed that this could be best done by adopting some of the ceremony and majesty of monarchy—by making, for example, the celebration of Washington’s birthday, even while he was alive, rival that of the Fourth of July. Like the king of England speaking to Parliament from the throne, the president delivered his inaugural address personally to the Congress, and like the two houses of Parliament, both houses of Congress formally responded and then waited upon the president at his residence. The English monarchy was the model for the new republican government in other respects as well. The Senate, the body in the American government that most closely resembled the House of Lords, voted that writs of the federal government ought to be issued in the name of the president—just as writs in England were issued in the name of the king—to reinforce the idea that he was the source of all judicial power in the nation and that prosecutions ought to be carried out in his name. Although the House refused to go along, the Supreme Court used the Senate’s form for its writs.
The Federalists made many such attempts to surround the new government with some of the attributes and trappings of monarchy. They drew up elaborate rules of etiquette at what critics soon denounced as the “American Court.”94 They established ceremonial levees for the president where, as critics said, Washington was “seen in public on Stated times like an Eastern Lama.”95 Although Washington was often relieved when some of these efforts at royalizing the presidency failed, he did believe that the weekly receptions, which were excruciatingly formal affairs where no one actually conversed, were a necessary compromise between meeting the public and maintaining the majesty of the presidency. They were “meant,” he said, “to preserve the dignity & respect which was due the first magistrate.”96
Critics like Senator Maclay thought that the “empty Ceremony” of the levees smacked of European court life and had no place in republican America.97 Others went so far as to criticize the awkwardness of Washington’s bows, which were described as being “more distant and stiff” than those of a king. It was not long before the administration was being denounced for its “monarchical practices.”98 Even the fact that the servants attending the receptions had their hair powdered seemed to portend monarchy.99 But many Federalist leaders believed that a strong measure of monarchy was just what republican America needed.
Indeed, John Adams was probably the person in the new government most concerned with matters of ceremony and ritual. “Neither Dignity nor Authority,” he wrote, “can be Supported in human Minds, collected into nations or any great numbers without a Splendor and Majesty, in Some degree, proportioned to them.”100 He rode to the Senate each day in an elaborate carriage attended by a driver in livery. He presided over the Senate in a powdered wig and small sword. More perhaps than anything else in his career, Adams’s infatuation with titles has made him appear more than a little ridiculous in the eyes of later generations. Of course, he appeared ridiculous even to some of his contemporaries, who mocked him as “the Duke of Braintree” and “His Rotundity.”101
But Adams was not alone in his interest in royal rituals. Many Federalists believed that titles and a hierarchy of distinctions were essential to the well-being of any mature stable society. If the American people were not as well suited for republican government, not as virtuous as Adams and other old Revolutionaries had once hoped, then the resort to titles, as one of the least objectionable of monarchical forms, made a great deal of sense. Americans could have a portion of monarchy without fundamentally subverting their republicanism. America was a young society, Adams said, and it should prepare for its maturity “at no very distant period of time” when hereditary institutions might be more applicable. Adams said that he did “not consider hereditary monarchy or aristocracy as ‘rebellion against nature’; on the contrary I esteem them both institutions of admirable wisdom and exemplary virtue in a certain stage of society in a great nation.” When America did come to resemble the European nations, then hereditary institutions would become “the hope of our posterity.” “Our country is not ripe for it in many respects and it is not yet necessary,” said Adams, “but our ship must ultimately land on that shore or be cast away.”102
In the 1770s Adams had been at the forefront of the resistance movement and had acquired his reputation as a great patriot from his role in engineering the Continental Congress’s movement into revolution. He had been the principal draftsman of the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and at the end of the Revolutionary War he was the first minister sent to the former mother country. On his return from the Court of St. James’s in 1789, many thought he had borrowed some of its monarchical attitudes. The three volumes of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States had recently appeared, and they raised doubts about Adams’s republicanism. England, for example, had become for Adams as much of a republic as America was, “a monarchical republic, it is true; but still a republic.” In the same way, he labeled the government of his home state of Massachusetts “a limited Monarchy.” So too, he said, was the new national government “a limited Monarchy” or “a monarchical republic,” like England.103
Although Adams protested that he was “as much a republican as I was in 1775,” many of his ideas seemed out of place in the America of 1789.104 Since most of his fellow Americans had recently abandoned Adams’s traditional conception of a mixed republic with its balance of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, his talk of “monarchical republics” was bound to confuse people and raise suspicions. The Senate, over which he as vice-president presided, soon became aware of what a curious person their new leader was.105
On April 30, 1789, the day of the president’s inauguration, Vice-President Adams described Washington’s address as “his most gracious Speech”—the words customarily applied to speeches of the British king. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, the son of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants, thought himself to be the voice of simple republicanism. He saw Adams’s phrase as the first step in the ladder of ascent to royalty, and he objected strenuously. Adams replied that this was just a simple phrase borrowed from British governmental practices and that American colonials had after all enjoyed a great deal of happiness using those practices; all he wanted, he said, was a respectable government. He suggested that perhaps he had been abroad in the 1780s too long and the temper of the American people had changed. At any rate, he said, if he had known in 1775 that it would come to this, that the American people would not accept a dignified government, “he never would have drawn his Sword.”106
Adams became even more agitated over what to call the president, an issue that occupied much of the Senate’s time during the first month of its existence. Even before coming to New York, Adams had discussed with colleagues in Massachusetts the proper title for the president. After all, the governor of the state carried the title of “His Excellency.” Should not the president have a superior title? “A royal or at least a princely title,” he told a friend, “will be found indispensably necessary to maintain the reputation, authority, and dignity of the President.” Only something like “His Highness, or, if you will, His Most Benign Highness” would do.107
Others shared Adams’s concern for a proper title for the president. Washington himself was said to have initially favored “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties.”108 After all, the Dutch leaders of the States-General of the United Provinces called themselves “Their High Mightinesses,” and they were supposedly citizens of a republic. Some of the senators actually expressed their attraction to monarchy—very aware that what they said remained within the Senate chamber. Senator Ellsworth of Connecticut pointed out that divine authority and the Bible sanctioned kingly government, and Senator Izard of South Carolina stressed the antiquity of monarchy. Finding value in kings was all too much for the zealous republican Senator Maclay. He was on his feet many times in opposition to what he saw as “the foolerries fopperies finerries and pomp of Royal etiquette.”109
But under Vice-President Adams’s prodding, the senators continued to search for the proper title for Washington. “Excellency,” suggested Izard. “Highness,” said Lee. “Elective Highness,” said another. Anything but mere “President.” It seemed too common, said Ellsworth, and Adams agreed: there were after all “Presidents of Fire Companies and of a Cricket Club.” What will other governments think of a president whose titles are less than those of even our own diplomatic corps? asked Adams. “What will the Common People of Foreign Countries, what will the Sailors and Soldiers say [about] George Washington, President of the United States?” His answer: “They will despise him to all eternity.” Eventually, a Senate committee reported the title “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” When Jefferson learned of Adams’s obsession with titles and the Senate’s action, he could only shake his head and recall Benjamin Franklin’s now-famous characterization of Adams as someone who was “always an honest man, often a great one, but sometimes absolutely mad.”110
Madison in the House was troubled by all this senatorial talk of monarchy and majesty. He thought that this senatorial project of titles, if successful, would “give a deep wound to our infant government.”111 Madison, in fact, was emerging as the principal conscience of popular republicanism in the new government. Although in 1787 he had certainly wanted a stronger national government and had very much feared democracy in the state legislatures, he had never wavered in his commitment to republican simplicity and to the people’s ultimate sovereignty; and he certainly had not anticipated the monarch-like government that some Federalists were now promoting.
With others in the House warning that a presidential title would be the first step down the road to “a crown and hereditary succession,” Madison had little difficulty in getting his fellow congressmen to vote for the simple republican title “President of the United States.”112 The Senate was forced to go along. By defeating the Senate’s royalist impulses, Madison hoped to “shew to the friends of Republicanism,” he told his friend Jefferson, “that our new Government was not meant to substitute either Monarchy or Aristocracy, and that the genius of the People is as yet adverse to both.”113 As much as anyone in the First Congress, Madison was responsible for whatever plain and unpretentious tone the new government acquired.
Silly as this debate over titles may seem, there were important issues at stake. By creating a single strong president, the new federal Constitution had undoubtedly moved America back toward the abandoned English monarchy. But just how far back toward monarchy should Americans go? Just how royal and kingly should America become? How much of the English monarchical model should the new government adopt? Despite the defeat of the Senate’s proposal for royal-sounding titles, these questions would not go away and the tendencies toward monarchism remained.
It was natural for some Americans to look to the British monarchy for guidance in putting together their new state, especially since many of them thought America, like any young state, was bound to mature socially, become more unequal and class-ridden, and thus become more like the former mother country. But the Revolution had been a republican rejection of the monarchism of Great Britain, and therefore it was just as natural for other Americans to resent having British customs and institutions, as one congressman said, “hung about our necks in all our public proceedings, and observations from their practice perpetually sounding in our ears.”114 It was as if the Revolution against Great Britain were still going on.
WASHINGTON WAS RELIEVED that the controversy over his title had ended with the simple “President of the United States.” Yet he was still faced with making the institution of the presidency strong and energetic. In fact, the presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior. Even in the simple matter of issuing a thanksgiving proclamation in the fall of 1789, Washington underlined the national character of the presidency. Some congressmen thought that their request to commemorate a day of thanksgiving would be sent to the governors of the separate states and carried out by them, as had been done under the Confederation. But Washington saw that issuing the proclamation directly to the people would enhance the authority of the national government.115 He always understood power and how to use it. He had led an army and was running a plantation; indeed, he had more people working for him at Mount Vernon than he initially did in the federal government.
From the outset, he knew what the new government had to do. As he said as early as January 1789, his goal as president would be “to extricate my country from the embarrassments in which it is entangled, through want of credit; and to establish a general system of policy, which if pursued will insure permanent felicity to the Commonwealth.”116 Although he surrounded himself with brilliant advisors, including Hamilton as secretary of the treasury and Jefferson as secretary of state, he was always his own man and was determined that the government would speak with a single voice. He gave a great deal of authority to his cabinet ministers but always remained in control. He passed on letters he received to the appropriate department heads, and they referred letters they received to him. “By this means,” Jefferson recalled in an 1801 memo to his own new cabinet, Washington was “always in accurate possession of all facts and proceedings in every part of the Union, and to whatsoever department they related; he formed a central point for the different branches; preserved a unity of object and action among them,” and assumed responsibility for everything that was done.117 Lacking the genius and intellectual confidence of the advisors, he consulted them often and moved slowly and cautiously to judgment; but when ready to act, he acted decisively, and in the case of controversial decisions he did not second-guess himself. He created an independent role for the president and made it the dominant figure in the government.
During the spring and summer of 1789 Congress created three executive departments—for foreign affairs, war, and finance. It soon followed with legislation establishing the offices of attorney general, postmaster general, superintendent of the land office, and the governor of the Northwest Territory. Although Congress created the departments and their heads and the president appointed other officers with the advice and consent of the Senate, many understood that these officers were to be merely agents of the president, in whom complete executive authority was vested. In other words, the president resembled a king, and his ministers spoke in his name and with his authority.
Others had different opinions of how the executive should be organized. Although the president appointed federal officials with the consent of the Senate, the Constitution said nothing about how they were to be removed, other than by impeachment. Some thought that all officers served during good behavior and could be removed only by impeachment. Others presumed that the president could remove his appointees but only with the Senate’s approval. Hamilton in Federalist No. 77 had stated that the consent of the Senate would be necessary to remove officials as well as appoint them and that this check would contribute to the stability of the government. Many in the First Congress agreed. “A new President,” warned Theodorick Bland of Virginia in May 1789, “might, by turning out the great officers, bring about a change of the ministry, and throw the affairs of the Union into disorder: would not this, in fact, make the President a monarch, and give him absolute power over all the great departments of Government?”118
Madison saw at once that denying the president the sole power of removal would create “a two-headed monster” and would prevent the president from having effective control over his administration. Despite congressional talk about the president gaining kingly powers, Madison in the summer of 1789 was far less fearful of monarchy than of legislative encroachment on the executive. “In our government,” he said, it was “less necessary to guard against the abuse in the Executive Department . . . because it is not the stronger branch of the system, but the weaker.”119 Trusting Washington as he did, Madison fought strenuously for the right of the president and the president alone to remove from office all those appointed to executive positions. More than anyone else, he brought the members of the House around to accepting the idea of a strong and independent president, one who had full responsibility for seeing that the laws were faithfully executed.
But the Senate was not so easily convinced of the president’s independence. It had a role in the appointing process and jealously guarded its prerogatives. Many senators simply assumed that because they consented to the appointment of executive officers they likewise had to consent to their removal. Other senators, however, were fearful that the Constitution would fail for lack of executive authority and thus were willing to concede the president’s sole responsibility for removing officers. They actually invoked the example of the king of England—arguing that the president should have at least the same powers as the English crown. The Senate was evenly divided on the issue; only after Vice-President Adams’s tie-breaking vote did it concede the right of the president to remove executive officials without its advice and consent.120
The consequences of such a close vote were immense: on it turned the future nature of the presidency. Indeed, as Madison noted in the House, the Congress’s decisions on this issue of removal “will become the permanent exposition of the Constitution; and on a permanent exposition of the Constitution will depend the genius and character of the whole government.”121 If the Senate had been able to claim the right of approving the removal of presidential appointees, executive officials would have become dependent on the will of the Senate, and the United States would have created something similar to the English system of cabinet responsibility to Parliament.122
No one was more keenly aware of the importance of precedents being set than Washington. “Many things which appear of little importance in themselves and at the beginning, may have great and durable consequences for their having been established at the commencement of a new general Government,” he warned. Better to get things right at the start, he said, than to try to alter them later “after they shall have been confirmed by habit.”123
He was especially concerned with the relations between the president and the Senate. He envisioned the Senate’s role in advising and consenting to appointments and treaties as that of a council, similar to what he had been used to as commander-in-chief, and thus he assumed that much of the advice and consent would be oral. The Senate was more uncertain about dealing with the president in person, for fear of being overawed. President Washington was willing to concede that appointments might be handled in writing, but he believed that in matters of treaties oral communications between the Senate and the president were “indispensably necessary.”124
In August 1789 the president went to the Senate to get its advice and consent to a treaty he was negotiating with Southern Indian tribes. Adams, who presided, hastily read each section of the treaty and then asked the senators for their opinion. Because of noise from the streets, some of the senators could not hear what was read, and they requested to have the treaty read again. Then the senators began debating each section of the treaty, with Washington impatiently glaring at them. Some of them felt intimidated. Finally one senator moved that the treaty and all the accompanying documents that the president had brought with him be submitted to a committee for study. Washington started up in what Senator Maclay called “a Violent fret.” In exasperation, the president cried, “This defeats every purpose of my coming here.” He calmed down, but when he finally left the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say he would “be damned if he ever went there again.” He did try two days later, but neither the president nor the Senate enjoyed this personal confrontation. The advice part of the Senate’s role in treaty making was dropped.125 When the president issued his Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793, he did not bother to ask for the consent of the Senate, and he thus further established the executive as the dominant authority in the conduct of foreign affairs.
THE MOST IMPORTANT MINISTER in the new administration was the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton, aged thirty-four in 1789, impressed everyone he met.126 Although he was only about five feet seven in height and slight in build, he had a commanding air, and men and women alike were readily attracted to him. In many respects he was a natural republican: born in the West Indies as the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant (“the bastard brat of a Scotch pedlar,” sneered John Adams), he had no interest in the monarchical claims of blood and family. He was rather more of a natural aristocrat than even Thomas Jefferson: at the beginning he had no estate or family to support him; his genius was all he had. And what genius it was! The worldly French politician and diplomat Talleyrand who knew kings and emperors ranked Hamilton as one of the two or three great men of the age.
At age sixteen Hamilton was employed as a clerk in a merchant’s firm in St. Croix. But he yearned to escape from his “grov’ling” position—ideally by a war in which he could risk his life and win honor. Merchants and friends in St. Croix recognized the boy’s remarkable abilities and in 1772 sponsored his education in a preparatory school in New Jersey and then at King’s College (later Columbia). He wrote some brilliant Revolutionary pamphlets while still a college student and soon was in the midst of the war he had longed for. He took part in the retreat of Washington’s army across New Jersey and so impressed Washington that the commander-in-chief invited the young captain to join his staff as an aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He had what one of his West Indian sponsors called a “laudable Ambition to Excell,” and more than most young men of the age he wanted the glory and fame that came from military heroism.127 More than once he courted death on the battle-field and took risks that left other officers shaking their heads at his foolhardy valor. In 1781 he told Washington he would resign his commission unless he was given a command. Under this pressure, Washington yielded and made him a battalion and eventually a brigade commander at York-town in October 1781. Hamilton talked his way into leading a major bayonet assault on the British redoubts, and he made the most of his opportunity for gallantry, being first over the redoubt. The attack was successful, and though seven French and American soldiers were killed and fifteen wounded, Hamilton emerged unscathed.128
Because he was raised in the West Indies and came to the North American continent as a teenager, Hamilton had little of the emotional attachment to a particular colony or state that most of the other Founders had. He naturally thought nationally, and from the outset of the Revolution he focused his attention on the government of the United States. In 1781–1782 he wrote an extraordinary series of papers on ways of strengthening the Confederation. In 1782 New York elected him, at age twentyseven, one of its representatives in Congress. There he met James Madison, and a fruitful collaboration for the strengthening of the national government was begun. This partnership led from the stymied efforts to add to the powers of the Confederation in the early 1780s to the Annapolis Convention in 1786, then to the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, and finally to the production of the Federalist papers on behalf of the Constitution. When Hamilton became secretary of the treasury, he had every reason to believe that this cooperation between himself and Madison, the Federalist leader in the House of Representatives, would continue.
Ultimately, however, Hamilton’s image of what the federal government should be differed from Madison’s. Instead of Madison’s disinterested adjudicatory state, Hamilton envisioned the United States becoming a great powerful nation like Great Britain and the other states of modern Europe, led by an energetic government and designed, as he said, “for the accomplishment of great purposes.”129 As secretary of the treasury Hamilton was in a perfect position to realize his idea of what the United States should become. As if in emulation of Britain’s famous prime minster and First Lord of the Treasury Sir Robert Walpole, who had successfully built up the British state in the early decades of the eighteenth century, Hamilton saw himself as a kind of prime minister to Washington’s monarchical presidency. He sometimes even talked about “my administration.” Because he believed that “most of the important measures of every government are connected with the treasury,” he felt justified in meddling in the affairs of the other departments and in taking the lead in organizing and administering the government.130
Unlike Jefferson as head of the State Department and Knox as head of the War Department, Hamilton as secretary of the treasury had an extraordinary degree of authority and independence. Washington treated Jefferson and Knox as advisors only and often directly involved himself in the conduct of foreign affairs and military matters. But he treated Hamilton differently—essentially because he believed the Treasury Department was constitutionally different from the other departments. When Congress created the Departments of State and War in 1789, it simply declared that the secretaries were to perform such duties as the president required. When it created the Treasury Department, however, it made no mention of the president and instead required the secretary to report directly to the Congress. Unwilling to encroach on the authority of Congress, Washington thus gave Hamilton a much freer hand in running the treasury than he gave the other secretaries.131
Emboldened in this way, Hamilton even began interfering in the legislative business of Congress. Indeed, one of the reasons the House of Representatives in the early congresses dispensed with standing committees was because it soon came to rely on the heads of the executive departments, in particular, the secretary of the treasury, to draft most of its bills. At the end of July 1789 the House of Representatives set up a Committee of Ways and Means to advise it on financial matters, but on September 2, 1789, the Treasury Department was created. On September 11 Alexander Hamilton was appointed secretary of the treasury, and six days later the House discharged its Committee of Ways and Means, stating that it would rely on Hamilton instead for its financial knowledge. Congress might as well go home, complained the dyspeptic William Maclay in 1791; “Mr. Hamilton is all powerful and fails in nothing which he attempts.”132 Not until 1795, after Hamilton’s resignation from the Treasury Department, did the House reestablish its Ways and Means Committee.
Since opposition groups in Britain had traditionally considered the treasury as an important source of political corruption, some members of the First Congress regarded the new secretary of the treasury with suspicion—and with good reason: his opportunities for the abuse of patronage and influence were immense. The treasury was by far the largest department, with several dozen staff members in the treasury office and well over two thousand customs officials, revenue agents, and postmasters scattered around the country.133 The secretary of the treasury began in 1789 with thirty-nine members in the central office, including six chief officers, thirty-one clerks, and two messengers; by 1792 this number had grown to ninety. By comparison, the other departments were tiny: at the outset the secretary of state had four clerks and a messenger, the secretary of war had only three clerks, and the attorney general had none, there being as yet no Department of Justice.
Yet by contemporary European standards the treasury headquarters staff was minuscule and marked by republican simplicity. A French visitor to the treasury office in 1794 was startled to find the secretary attended by only a single crudely dressed servant, seated at a plain pine table covered with a green cloth, his records laid on makeshift plank shelves, in a “ministerial office” whose furnishings could not have cost more than ten dollars—”Spartan customs” everywhere.134
As secretary of the treasury, Hamilton set out to do for American finances what the early eighteenth-century English monarchical government had done in laying the basis for England’s stability and commercial supremacy. Although Hamilton denied being a monarchist, Gouverneur Morris later recalled that Hamilton was “on Principle opposed to republican and attached to monarchical Government.”135 During his five-hour speech in the Constitutional Convention Hamilton had declared that the British government was “the best in the world” and that “he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.”136 However much his sentiments shifted between monarchy and republicanism, the monarchical government of England was certainly the model for his financial program in the 1790 s. More than any other American, he saw England’s eighteenth-century experience as an object lesson for the United States, and he deliberately set out to duplicate England’s great achievements in political economy and public policy.
By the eighteenth century England had emerged from the chaos and civil wars of the seventeenth century, which had killed one king and deposed another, to become the dominant political and commercial power in the world. That this small island on the northern edge of Europe with a third of the population of continental France was able to build the greatest and richest empire since the fall of Rome was the miracle of the age. The eighteenth-century English “fiscal-military” state, in historian John Brewer’s apt term, could mobilize wealth and wage war as no other state in history ever had. Its centralized administration rested on its bureaucratic ability to acquire and use knowledge, and it had developed an extraordinary capacity to tax and to borrow from its subjects without impoverishing them.137
Hamilton saw that the secret of England’s success was its system of funded debt together with its banking structure and its market in public securities. By attempting to duplicate the English experience, Hamilton was flying in the face of several generations of bitter intellectual opposition to the commercialization of British society and the corruption of British politics. Most English writers of the century—whether famous Tory satirists like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift or little-remembered radical Whig publicists like John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon—had expressed a deep hostility to the great social, economic, and political changes taking place in eighteenth-century England. These critics thought that the general commercialization of English life, including the rise of trading companies, banks, stock markets, speculators, and new moneyed men, had undermined traditional values and threatened England with ruin. The monarchy and its minions had used patronage, the national debt, and the Bank of England to corrupt the society, including the House of Commons, and to build up the executive bureaucracy at the expense of the people’s liberties, usually for the purpose of waging war. In the face of these frightening developments, both radical Whigs and estranged Tories alike had championed a so-called “country” opposition to the deceit and luxury of the “court” that surrounded the monarch. Some of these reformers were so radical that they were accused of harboring republican sentiments. The radical Whigs called for expansion of the suffrage, more liberty for the press, greater freedom of religion, more representation in Parliament, and a substantial reduction in the crown’s inflated power, including its standing army. These country-Whigs, in other words, were opposed to the very fiscal-military institutions and programs that had made Great Britain the most powerful nation in the world.
Americans were thoroughly familiar with these radical Whig and “country opposition” ideas, and in fact had used them to explain their separation from a corrupt and despotic Britain in the 1770 s.138 Any attempt to follow England’s example was therefore bound to make many Americans uneasy.
Hamilton was extremely confident of his knowledge of commerce and finance, and he set forth his financial program in defiance of this critical libertarian and anti-capitalist literature. He dismissed the idea that the stability of government required that the diverse interests and occupations of people be represented. In his mind “the confidence of the people will easily be gained by a good administration.”139 In light of the inexperience of eighteenth-century Americans with positive state power, his program was truly breathtaking. Hamilton worked his remarkable program out in a series of four reports to Congress in 1790–1791 : on credit (including duties and taxes), on a national bank, on a mint, and on manufactures. These reports, powerfully written and argued, established Hamilton as one of the greatest statesmen of his era.140
Drafting these impressive reports was one thing, however; implementing them in the face of widespread and deeply rooted country-Whig opposition thinking would prove to be quite another.