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In 1788, just months after the Constitution was ratified, national elections were held to choose representatives for the House of Representatives and the first U.S. president (senators were not elected directly by the people until 1913). Members of the Electoral College unanimously chose the war hero George Washington because of his popularity and keen leadership skills. Boston lawyer John Adams was chosen to be the first vice president.
Though the Constitution states that the president “may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments,” nowhere does it specifically mention a cabinet of advisors. Washington initially tried to gather advice as he needed it, but this method of consultation proved to be too confusing.
Eventually, Washington created a few executive officers (originally only the secretaries of state, war, and the treasury, and the attorney general) to meet with regularly. He chose Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, Henry Knox as secretary of war, and Edmund Randolph as attorney general. Washington’s decision shaped the way that every one of his successors delegated executive authority.
The fact that Washington was from the South was significant. Virginia had produced top-notch statesmen before the Revolution, and the trend continued well into the 1800s, as six of the first ten presidents were from Virginia. This “Virginia Dynasty” included Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Harrison, and Tyler. More important, a southern president demonstrated to Americans and Europeans that the United States was in fact united. Despite differences between the North and South even at this early date, both regions were committed to maintaining a democratic Union. The 1790 decision to relocate the capital to Washington, D.C., (see The Excise Tax, p. 32) reinforced this point.
Congress’s first order of duty, even before ratifying the Bill of Rights, was to create the judiciary branch of government as stipulated by the Constitution. Thus, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established a federal court system with thirteen district courts, three circuit courts, and a Supreme Court—to be the highest court in the nation—presided over by six justices.
Congress did not want the federal court system to have too much power over local communities, so it determined that federal courts would serve primarily as appeals courts for cases already tried in state courts. In other words, most cases would first be heard by a judge in a local community, appealed to a state court, and finally appealed to the federal courts only if necessary.
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