early american republic


Happy National Handwriting Day! We’re celebrating by sharing letters from our Manuscripts and Archives collection. This year’s theme is “en français”.

From top to bottom: 

  • Napoleon Bonaparte to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, 1797  (WMSS, Group 2, Series A, Item 2218)
  • Marquis de Lafayette to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, ca 1785-1815 (WMSS, Group 2, Series A, Item 2091)
  • Antoine Laurent Lavoisier to Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours, 1791 (WMSS, Group 4, Series A, Item 54)

March 4th 1789: First United States Congress

On this day in 1789, the first Congress of the United States met at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street, New York City. The Congress comprises two houses - the Senate, which at this point had 21 senators, and the House of Representatives, of which there were originally 58 members. The first Congress lasted until March 3rd 1791, spanning the first two years of George Washington’s presidency. The Speaker of the House was Frederick Muhlenberg, and the President of the Senate was, per the Constitution, Vice President John Adams. In the early stages of the American republic, there were no coherent and defined political parties, and Congress was simply divided between those who supported the Washington administration and those who did not, with the supporters holding a majority in each house. The first Congresss’ main accomplishments include passing the first ten amendments to the Constitution - known as the Bill of Rights - establishing the United States Census, creating Washington D.C. as the national capital, establishing the Departments of State, War and Treasury, and creating the Supreme Court through the 1789 Judiciary Act. The first meeting of Congress officially created the government set out in the Constitution, which had been ratified in 1788, and thus marks the day the Constitution was put into effect.

“All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives”
- Article I, Section I, Clause I of the United States Constitution

The most controversial part of Hamilton’s report was a new tax. Nobody wanted new taxes, but Hamilton needed a source of revenue that could be attached to the national debt to ensure regular payment. Hamilton calculated the necessary payments at nearly $3 million a year. This sum, he argues, could be obtained “from the present duties on imports and tonnage, with the additions, which…may be made on wines, spirits, including those distilled within the United States.” Hamilton thought carefully about the first federal excise in American history. He avoided basic necessities, chose products both the medical community and the clergy had an interest in suppressing, and earmarked all funds produced by the tax to service the national debt. Even Madison, who had become the chief congressional critic of Hamilton’s program, supported the tax.

Despite several difficult legislative battles and the rocky reception of the distilled-spirits tax, Hamilton’s overall program was a resounding success. When Hamilton left the Treasury Department in 1795, the entire national debt had been restructured, government revenues were sufficient to service the debt, and American credit was placed on solid footing. For more than two hundred years, the credit of the United States of America was equal to that of any other nation in the world—a state of affairs that lasted until August 5, 2011, when Standard & Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating for the first time in history.

From That’s Not What They Meant: Reclaiming the Founding Fathers from America’s Right Wing by Michael Austin