OVERVIEW / U.S. History I
Part 3: Organizing Government
George Washington was inaugurated the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789, seven weeks late because many newly elected senators and congressmen were delayed in reaching New York, the country's first capital. The new nation had no real road system, and travel was slow. The administration lost no time, however, in setting up the framework for a national government.
The Constitution as ratified failed to address several important issues. It did not formally protect basic civil liberties, even though many state constitutions contained such provisions, and it left the structure of the executive branch vague. The president was given the power to appoint officials, and mention is made of “the principal officer in each of the executive departments,” but which departments and what their functions might be are not spelled out. The first omission was addressed through the amendment process, while the actual practice of government took care of the second.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: THE BILL OF RIGHTS & THE FIRST CABINET
In ratifying the Constitution, five states had insisted on adding provisions to protect the people against governmental abuse. The new Congress thus appointed a committee to consider possible amendments to the Constitution, which collectively became known as the Bill of Rights. Under the leadership of James Madison, seventeen were originally proposed; they were reduced to twelve by the Senate; ten were eventually ratified by the states.
The most fundamental concerns were incorporated into the First Amendment: freedom of religion, speech, and the press and the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The Second Amendment guaranteed that the states could form their own militias—forerunners of the modern National Guard units—and, in a somewhat vague fashion, that people could keep and bear arms. The Third Amendment prevented soldiers from being quartered in private homes, which had been a grievance against British practices even before the War for Independence. The Fourth Amendment protected people from unreasonable search and seizure; the Fifth shielded them from self‐incrimination; the Sixth pledged citizens a speedy trial; the Seventh ensured a trial by jury. Excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment were prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Ninth Amendment made certain that a right's not being specifically mentioned in the Constitution was not grounds for it to be denied to the people. The tenth and last amendment reserved certain rights to the states and people.
There is no provision in the Constitution for a cabinet, but the term became popular in the 1790s to describe the group of executive officers that advises the president. The executives would likely have met with the president in a small, private room, or cabinet. The first cabinet members were the secretaries of state, treasury, and war, and the attorney general. Washington asked Thomas Jefferson to be secretary of state and Alexander Hamilton to serve as secretary of the treasury. The two distinguished statesmen soon found themselves in fundamental disagreement over issues larger than those specific to their offices.
The United States was saddled with a large debt from the War for Independence. Hamilton submitted recommendations for dealing with the problem in his “ Report on the Public Credit” (January 1790). It called for funding the national debt by printing new securities and honoring at face value the certificates that had been issued by the Continental Congress. In addition, he proposed that the federal government assume state debts. Hamilton did not intend for the national debt to be totally eliminated; paying the interest would be enough to demonstrate the financial viability of the new nation.
Hamilton's report aroused concern from the southern states, whose leaders believed the proposal primarily benefited speculators in the north. James Madison noted that many of the original certificate owners—farmers and veterans, for the most part—had long ago sold their certificates at deep discounts because they were considered almost worthless; current holders stood to make a huge profit. Hamilton bought the southern leaders' consent for assumption of state debts by supporting the creation of a new national capital site in Virginia and Maryland (the District of Columbia). Congress approved the “Report on the Public Credit” (August 1790), and the financial benefit to the United States was virtually immediate.
In December, Hamilton issued his “ Report on a National Bank” to Congress. It was approved two months later, creating a federally chartered bank, mostly under private control, that would handle federal deposits, make loans to the government when necessary, and issue paper notes in lieu of scarce hard cash. It would also enrich shareholders, another positive outcome in light of Hamilton's view that a prosperous elite was essential for the success of the nation.
Hamilton followed the national bank report with his “ Report on Manufactures” in December 1791. He called for protective tariffs on imports to encourage domestic manufacturing. The report even approved of child labor. Congress did not support his high tariff, but Hamilton achieved the same result by charging higher duties on goods imported on non‐American ships than on American ships, an action benefiting the growth of the U.S. merchant marine.
OPPOSITION TO HAMILTON'S PLANS
Thomas Jefferson became the acknowledged leader of the growing political opposition to Hamilton's policies. Their differences were rooted in competing visions of America. Hamilton saw a country rich in urban, merchant, financial, and in time, manufacturing interests. Jefferson saw the United States as a land for yeoman farmers. The two factions evolved into political parties that by 1796 were called Federalist and Republican (the latter not to be confused with the modern Republican party). The term “ Federalist” is misleading because Federalist party supporters actually favored a strong central government; a true federal system would have given much more power to the states. Jeffersonian Republicans advocated low tariffs to benefit an agrarian society and a relatively weak national government. They also favored a strong relationship with France, then in the midst of its revolution, while the Federalists wanted economic and political ties with Great Britain.
Federalists and Republicans also differed in their interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton made much of the so‐called “ elastic clause” in the Constitution (Article I, Section 8), which authorizes Congress to make all laws “necessary and proper” to carry out its enumerated powers. The creation of the national bank is a pertinent example of its use. Jefferson and the Republicans, on the other hand, favored a “strict interpretation” of the Constitution; that is, if the Constitution didn't specifically indicate something could be done, it could not be done. Taken to its extreme, this position would hamper the ability of the government to deal with issues that the founders never envisioned. Jefferson himself recognized this when he became president. Although there is no authority in the Constitution for the acquisition of territory from another country, he went ahead with the Louisiana Purchase (1803) because it was too great a bargain to pass up.
THE WHISKEY REBELLION
The first major test of the authority of the national government came from western Pennsylvania. Isolated from the east coast by the Appalachian Mountains, farmers in the region faced the serious problem of not being able to market their crops. New Orleans, under Spanish control, was still closed to American traffic. Because they could not ship their corn and rye down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the farmers instead distilled the grains into liquor. By reducing the size of their crop, they both enhanced its value and made transport to market across the mountains by pack train possible.
Under Hamilton, an excise was imposed on whiskey amounting to twenty‐five percent of the product's retail value, effectively erasing all of the farmers' profit. Moreover, anyone accused of evading the tax had to go at his own expense to Philadelphia for trial. Western Pennsylvania farmers were particularly incensed because they seemed to be the main targets of the tax, as it was not evenly enforced in all areas.
In July 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion broke out as farmers declared their defiance of the law and rioted against tax officials, burning buildings and even calling for secession from the United States. President Washington promptly ordered the militias of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and New Jersey to march against the rebels. Opposition quickly evaporated against this combined force of almost thirteen thousand men. Of the one hundred fifty arrested, only two were actually convicted of treason, and Washington later pardoned both of them. The point had been clearly made, however: federal law was to be obeyed, and violent protest, a method successfully employed against British policies two decades earlier, would not be tolerated.