Congress Hall, part 2

Congress Hall

(Photo credit: Interior of Congress Hall, Independence NHP, courtesy Joel Bennett, Flickr Creative Commons)

The other day I posted part one of a two-part post about Congress Hall. Today I thought I’d finish it off by talking about some of the things that happened in that building that set the stage for the new Republic.

I could come up with all sorts of examples to illustrate how the new United States Congress, sitting in Congress Hall, tried to figure out how it was going to work, either through legislation or through norms and practices that became the accepted way of doing business. There are way too many examples to choose from, so I’ve decided to pick and choose and come up with a Top Five. These are all useful examples because they help illustrate the rocky road to national government that these early legislators had to tread. They tell a story that isn’t always pretty, but then Congress never has been particularly pretty to watch in action.

Number Five: The Whiskey Excise. This was passed by Congress in Philly in March 1791. It was the first ever internal revenue bill for the new Republic under the Constitution. Perhaps not surprisingly, since this is the United States we’re talking about, this didn’t go down too well with many folks, especially farmers who grew the grain that fed the whiskey stills—grain that was now to be taxed. This led in Western Pennsylvania to the first large-scale insurrection to rock the post-Constitution United States. It’s known to history as the Whiskey Rebellion, and it reached its peak in 1794, before it was put down by force. None other than President Washington himself led a large militia force to squelch the uprising. Fortunately, he succeeded in dong this with a minimum of bloodshed. By the way, the president’s legal authority for this move came from the Militia Act, also passed by Congress in Philly, in 1792.

Number Four: The Jay Treaty. Treaties sound boring, but this one was anything but at the time. It was a treaty between the United States and Britain. In fact it was the United States’ first big treaty under the Constitution, so it had to be ratified by the Senate, and with a two-thirds majority. This was done in Congress Hall’s Senate chamber in November 1794, but the treaty only barely made it through. It bitterly divided the senators along what were increasingly being recognized as partisan political lines. In fact, half the country hated this deal with the old enemy from the Revolution. These folks, known as Jeffersonian Republicans, wanted to ally the country with France, which was then at war with Britain. But Washington’s supporters, known as the Federalists, pushed it through because the country needed good relations with the British, who still dominated American trade. The Jay Treaty is a good example of the Senate waking up to its constitutional responsibilities. But another reason this example makes the list is because of a great quip supposedly made by John Jay, the chief American negotiator (and first Chief Justice of the United States). Jay noted that the treaty aroused so much popular anger against him that he could travel from Boston to Philadelphia at night solely by the light of his burning effigies. I’m pretty sure he didn’t try to do that, but it’s a great line.

Number Three: The political party system. The Jay Treaty also highlighted the rise in Congress of political factions divided by ideology. There’s nothing in the Constitution about the need or desire for political parties, but they were forming anyway. In the early 1790s two big parties were slowly coalescing from the debris of the contentious Constitutional debates of a few years earlier, and they were increasingly at each others’ throats. On one side were the Federalists, originally a faction formed by Alexander Hamilton, and they supported passage of the Constitution, believed in strong federal government, and backed strong ties with the British. On the other side of this deepening divide were the Jeffersonian Republicans, an opposing faction formed around Thomas Jefferson, who was becoming a bitter opponent of Hamilton in Washington’s first presidential cabinet. This group remained more ambivalent about the Constitution, favored a less activist federal government and sided with the French. The differences between these two groups were at the time becoming irreconcilable.

Number Two: The Fugitive Slave Act. We’re not allowed to forget about slavery in the early Republic, nor should we. This act was dutifully passed by Congress in 1793. It set up a legal mechanism for enforcing a provision in Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, which guaranteed the right of slave owners to repossess any “person held to service or labor.” That term of art was one of the euphemisms for slaves included in the document. Like the Constitution itself, this act did not include a single mention of the words “slave” or “slavery.” It still managed to make clear, however, that fugitive slaves could be seized by any local authority and returned to the owner. Furthermore, any person aiding such a fugitive could be fined up to $500. Not one of Congress’ finest moments here.

So that’s four out of five. Note that I didn’t include the passage of the Bill of Rights in this list, since it passed both Houses while in New York and only happened to take effect while Congress was in Philly. I also didn’t include some pretty significant events such as the creation of the United States Navy and the U.S. Mint, and the passage of the 11th Amendment. I left out the Alien and Sedition Acts (my college journalism professor would kill me for that). I even skipped over Washington’s Second Inauguration, which happened upstairs in the Senate chamber in March 1793.

So what’s left?

Well, there is something that happened in Congress Hall, on March 4, 1797, that I think tops all these other events: the inauguration of John Adams as the second president.

We take it for granted today that, love them or hate them, presidents aren’t going to be around forever. They get four years in office, plus another four if the voters are up for it, and that’s their lot. This republic, unlike a lot of republics, doesn’t do presidents for life. More than anyone else, we have George Washington to thank for that.

We should be eternally grateful for the fact that Washington was always a reluctant president. He was dragged into the 1787 Constitutional Convention by the other founders—especially Madison—and later cajoled into taking the top job against his natural instincts. He was then prevailed upon to serve a second term, and did so reluctantly. The other founders all acceded to this, recognizing that no other single individual could unite the fractious young country in its birth pangs as Washington could. He was the father of the nation, the indispensable American. His fellow citizens could imagine no other man filling his shoes. Had he actually wanted to stay in the job, he undoubtedly could have done so, and set up a precedent of a president who could serve for life. He could have been a dictator. There were those who even wanted to make him king of America. Remember, the Constitution is only words on paper. It requires the actions of real people to give these words real meaning. History is replete with new countries that pass shiny new constitutions that are promptly ignored then ripped up by strongmen who decide their desire for personal power trumps the good of the nation. Who’s to say that couldn’t have happened in the United States in the 1790s?

But that’s not what happened. Washington had previously shown his mettle by deferring to civilian control while Commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and then, like his Roman hero Cincinnatus, gave up power to return to his farm at the end of the war in 1783. In 1796, in his seventh year in office, Washington wrote a farewell address to the nation where he made it abundantly clear that he was done. Once again, he was gong to step aside voluntarily. So the 1796 election pitted two new candidates for the presidency—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adams won and, on that March day in 1797, as laid out in the Constitution, he took the oath of office from Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth and stepped into the office as Washington stepped out of it. Tellingly, Adams as the new First Citizen led the procession out of Congress Hall while Washington, now just another citizen, dutifully fell in behind.

Washington thus began the precedent of the two-term maximum for presidents. This was a tradition maintained until FDR won his extraordinary third and fourth terms in the 1940s. It was later enshrined in the Constitution as the 22nd Amendment—the American people apparently felt that the old tradition was so important it should be backed up by the country’s supreme law. That’s why today, if you’re sick of whoever’s currently serving as president, you know that you’ll eventually get to pick a completely different guy.


Congress Hall: Capitol of the United States, 1790-1800 (1990). National Park Service Handbook, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia.

Congress Hall. Historic Structures Report. National Park Service.


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