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The first national government under the Constitution


Once the Constitution was ratified the new government was set up only after a great deal of frustrating delay and political maneuvering. It took the better part of a year, once New Hampshire became the critical ninth state to ratify the Constitution in June 1788, before the new government began to become a reality.

First of all, the Confederation Congress, still in existence and meeting in New York's City Hall, had to set dates for the election of representatives and for the state legislatures to choose presidential electors. Then it had to select a new national capital, make sure senators were elected by the state legislatures, and finally, see that a president and vice president were selected by the electors. These formidable tasks were set out by the Constitutional Convention in a resolution adopted and sent to the Confederation Congress together with the completed Constitution. They were made complicated by the Anti-Federalist campaign for a second constitutional convention and by the "wayward sisters," North Carolina and Rhode Island, which did not ratify the Constitution until well after the various branches of government began operating.

One of the earliest disputes centered on where the new national capital should be located. First, should the temporary capital, in New York, be moved, and if so, where to? And second, where should the permanent capital be? The debate raged between northern states that wanted to retain New York as the capital and southern states that wanted it moved south, preferably to at least Philadelphia. Eventually, a compromise was worked out. New York, the nation's capital since 1785, would continue as the temporary capital. A site to be determined later but located on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia would become the probable location of the permanent capital.

As for the elections to be held under the Constitution, the problem was complicated. It was up to the state legislatures to call for elections for the House, but there was no uniformity in how they went about it. Some did it by a general at large vote, others by district voting.

The states also chose presidential electors in their own individual ways – several by popular vote, some through their legislatures, some by a combination of both. And because of delays caused by Anti-Federalist opposition to the Constitution, New York never did pick electors for the first presidential election.

The choice of senators was as varied: by joint ballot of both houses in the legislatures of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Delaware; by ballot in each house in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York; and by the vote of the one-house legislature in Pennsylvania. The methods used in Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia are not known – no records were kept.

George Washington was the unanimous choice of the electors as the first president, but he had been a far from aggressive candidate for the office. In fact, he served only because he saw it as his duty. But controversy did surround who would be the first vice president. Washington was a Virginian, so clearly a northerner was needed for balance. The choice narrowed to two men from Massachusetts – John Hancock and John Adams, both signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. At first it appeared that Adams would probably be named chief justice of the Supreme Court, leaving the vice presidency to Hancock. However, Hancock's vacillations in support of the new Constitution and his attitude favoring amendments to it began to turn supporters against him. Adams, who enjoyed a reputation for integrity and ability, became the favored choice. But it was far from smooth sailing. Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists tried to keep him from getting elected by too great a vote. For one thing, they wanted to solidify their influence with Washington and to block Adams because he envisioned that the vice president would be a sort of "prime minister" of the Senate. Their campaign was successful: Adams failed to get a majority of second-place votes and his feelings were deeply hurt. However, he did win a plurality and thus became the first vice president.

It took weeks for the new House of Representatives and the Senate to form quorums needed to open business, count the electoral votes, and get the new government under way. In the meantime, the old executive departments of the Confederation Congress continued in existence. The new Congress was scheduled to begin March 4, 1789, but each house continued to adjourn from day to day until the House finally convened on April 1 and the Senate on April 6. On April 6 the electoral votes were counted by both houses and the Senate elected John Langdon of New Hampshire president pro tempore – that is, for the time being – until John Adams could reach New York to head the Senate.

Washington was sworn into office on April 30, 1789. The oath was administered by Robert R. Livingston, chancellor of the state of New York.

The business of the new Congress next focused on creating a system of customs duties and establishing new departments of State, the Treasury, and War, each to be headed by a secretary. Then it enacted, and Washington signed into law, the Judiciary Act of 1789, one of the oldest and most important laws in American history. It created a Supreme Court with a chief justice and five associate justices, a system of district courts, and a system of circuit courts. The act also provided that in certain instances litigants could appeal from a state's highest court to the U.S. Supreme Court – a provision that gave the Court ultimate authority to enforce the Constitution against the states.

The first chief justice – chosen by Washington – was John Jay of New York, who had been secretary for Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. Washington also named all his colleagues. The justices met for the Court's first session on February 2, 1790.


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