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Building the State (1781-1797)

Defining the National Government


Alexander Hamilton and Finance in the Washington Administration


The first Congress under the Constitution convened in New York, the new capitol, on March 1, 1789. George Washington had been elected as the nation's first president, and took the oath of office on April 30. The founding members of the national government found there were many details that the constitution had left to them to work out. Issues requiring immediate attention included the setting of the legislative agenda, defining the role and details of operation of the cabinet, the establishment of the judicial branch, and meeting the popular call for a bill of rights.

By way of interaction with Congress, George Washington did very little. He suggested few laws, leaving the setting of legislative agenda to the Congress. He only rarely spoke publicly on the topic of public policy, leaving domestic policy in the hands of Congress alone. Instead, Washington focused primarily on matters of finance, diplomacy, and the military. Washington only vetoed two bills in all eight years of his presidency.

The form and function of the President's cabinet was left up to the first Congress to determine. The first cabinet consisted of four departments, headed by the secretaries of state, war, and treasury, as well as the attorney general. Washington's initial cabinet consisted of Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of Treasury, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General.

Similarly, the federal-court system was left in the hands of Congress to shape. Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 to create the federal-court system. The act established a federal district court in each state that ran according to local legal tradition. The Supreme Court exercised final jurisdiction in all legal matters. The federal-court system, and the Supreme Court specifically, had to wait until the mid 1790s to fully explore their powers. In Hylton v. US in 1796, the Supreme Court first established its power to determine the constitutionality of congressional statutes. This was only the first of many decisions important in the evolution of the Supreme Court as a government body.

Perhaps the most important item on the national agenda was the drafting of a bill of rights to guarantee the civil rights of US citizens. James Madison led the group that drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, which the state legislatures ratified in December 1791. The First Ameendment guaranteed freedom of expression. The Second gave each state the right to form a citizens' militia, and the third protected the citizens from the imposition of a standing army. The Fourth through Eighth Amendments dealt with fair treatment in judicial proceedings. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments restricted the powers of the national government by declaring that the enumeration of Constitutional rights could not be used to deny citizens of other rights, and that all power not explicitly delegated to the national government fell to the states.


More than anything else, the creation of the executive office worried those who feared despotic government. Many feared the president would amass too great an amount of power and turn into an unstoppable tyrant. Many aspects of the presidency were left vague by the Constitution, and the nation watched in great anticipation to see how Washington and Congress would interpret the role of the president. Washington's reluctance to interfere with Congress sprang largely from his knowledge of the fears of the people, and his desire to avoid setting any precedent that might lead future presidents to overstep their bounds. The creation of the cabinet was undertaken carefully for similar reasons, and the establishment of four distinct departments was part of the effort on the part of both Washington and Congress to clearly define the domain of the executive branch. The cabinet departments, especially those of treasury and state, would play heavily into the functioning of the Washington administration.

The solution to the problem of establishing a federal-court system was a compromise between the desire for broad access to federal justice and the desire on the part of citizens to maintain state traditions. Many citizens feared the extension of a federal-court system would do away with the unique procedures that had operated at the state level for decades. Many citizens therefore initially rallied against the development of the federal-court system within the states. Bearing in mind these fears and objections, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which both increased access to federal justice and assuaged fears that state traditions would be lost.

The demand for the Bill of Rights sprang from the fear, stoked by the Anti-Federalists, that a strong central government would neglect the rights of citizens in the pursuit of what officials thought to be the greater good. While the Anti-federalists had not been able to stop the creation of a strong national government, they hoped the Bill of Rights would serve to limit the powers of the government and protect individuals from despotism and tyranny. The Federalists, on the other hand, insisted that the Bill of Rights, while guaranteeing personal liberties, would not deprive the national government of powers essential to the fulfillment of its duties.

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments seem to be the only major concessions made by the Federalists in the drafting of the Bill of Rights. However, their wording was vague enough that it left loopholes that would allow the national government to avoid the restriction of any significant power. The Tenth Amendment especially, leaving all power to the states not explicitly granted the national government, seemed a great success for the Anti-federalists. However, it would prove far less useful than its wording suggested. Time after time the national government avoided adherence to the Tenth Amendment by invoking what became known as the elastic clause of the Constitution, which granted Congress the authority to pass any measure which was "necessary and proper." A loose interpretation of this clause allowed the national government to effectively ignore the Tenth Amendment. The interpretation of the elastic clause would prove to be a bone of much contention during the Washington administration and well beyond.

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