Notified on July 2, 1788, that nine States had voted approval of the Constitution, Congress, on September 13th, set the first Wednesday in January, 1789, for the choice of electors, the first in February for their ballot, and the first in March for putting the new government in motion. The first Wednesday in March, 1789, happening to fall on the 4th, this date has since remained as the initial one for presidencies and congresses. The First Congress had no quorum in either branch on March 4th, and did not complete its organization till April 6th. Washington was inaugurated on April 30th, in New York, where the First Congress, proceeding to execute the Constitution, held its entire first session. Its second session was in Philadelphia, the seat of Congress thence till the second session of the VIth Congress, 1800, since which time Congress has always met in Washington.
The inauguration of our first President was an imposing event. As the hero moved from his house on Franklin Square, through Pearl Street to Broad, and through Broad to Federal Hall, corner of Wall Street, people thronged every sidewalk, door-way, window, and roof along the entire line of march. About him on the platform after his arrival stood John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Baron Steuben, Generals St. Clair and Knox, Roger Sherman, and Chancellor Livingston. Washington advanced to the rail, placed his hand upon his breast, and, bowing low, said audibly, as the Chancellor in his robes solemnly recited the words, "I swear, so help me God," reverently kissing the Bible as if to add solemnity to his oath. "It is done," cried the Chancellor; "long live George Washington, President of the United States!" The great crowd repeated the cry. It was echoed outside in the city, off into the country, far north, far south, till the entire land took up that watchword, which his own generation has passed on to ours and to all that shall come, Long live George Washington!
Let us study for a moment the habitat of the people over which the new Chief Magistrate was called to bear sway. By the census of 1790, the population of the thirteen States and of the territory belonging to the Union numbered 3,929,214. It resided almost wholly on the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. Not more than five per cent of it was west of the mountains. The line of inner settlement, now farther, now nearer, ran at an average distance from the coast of two hundred and fifty-five miles. The coast land of Massachusetts, southern New England, and New York was the most densely covered. The Hudson Valley was well peopled as far as Albany. Farms and hamlets were to be met all the way from New York across New Jersey to the Delaware, and far up the Delaware Valley westward from that river. Maine, still belonging to Massachusetts, had few settlements except upon her coast and a little way inland along her great rivers. Vermont, not yet a State and claimed by both New Hampshire and New York, was well filled up, as was all New Hampshire but the extreme north.
The westward movement of population took mainly four routes, the Mohawk and Ontario, the Upper Potomac, the Southwestern Virginia, and the Western Georgia. The Mohawk Valley was settled, and pioneers had taken up much land on Lake Ontario and near the rivers and lakes tributary to it. Elmira and Binghamton had been begun. Pennsylvania settlers had pressed westward more or less thickly to the lower elevations of the Alleghanies, while beyond, in the Pittsburgh regions, they were even more numerous. What is now West Virginia had squatters here and there. Virginian pioneers had also betaken themselves southwestward to the head of the Tennessee. North and South Carolina were inhabited as far west as the mountains, though the population was not dense. In Northern Kentucky, along the Ohio, lay considerable settlements, and in Tennessee, where Nashville now is, there was another centre of civilization. In the Northwest Territory, Detroit, Vincennes, Kaskaskia, Prairie du Chien, Mackinac, and Green River were outposts, at each of which a few white men might have been found.
The following table shows pretty nearly the population of the several States about the end of the Revolution: New Hampshire 102,000 Massachusetts 330,000 Rhode Island  51,869 [2,342 of them negroes, 464 mulattoes, 525 Indians.] Connecticut  208,870 New York  215,283 New Jersey 138,934 [10,500 of them negroes.] Pennsylvania 330,000 Delaware 37,000 Maryland 250,000 [80,000 of them negroes.] Virginia 532,000 [280,000 of them negroes.] North Carolina 224,000 [60,000 of them negroes.] South Carolina 188,000 [80,000 of them negroes.] Georgia [rough estimate] 80,000 [20,000 of them negroes.]
Another table exhibits approximately the number of houses in the principal cities of the country in 1785-86. It was customary then in estimating population to allow seven persons to each house. This multiplier is probably too large rather than too small.
Population, multiplying Houses. number of houses by seven. Portsmouth, N. H 450 3,150 Newburyport 510 3,570 Salem, Mass 730 5,210 Boston 2,200 15,400 Providence 560 3,920 Newport 790 5,530 Hartford 300 2,100 New Haven 400 2,800 New York 3,340 23,380 Albany and suburbs 550 3,850 Trenton 180 1,260 Philadelphia and suburbs 4,500 31,500 Wilmington 400 2,800 Baltimore 1,950 13,650 Annapolis 260 1,820 Frederick, Md. 400 2,800 Alexandria 300 2,100 Richmond 310 2,170 Petersburg 280 1,960 Williamsburg 230 1,610 Charleston 1,540 10,780 Savannah 200 1,400
The first New York City Directory appeared in 1786. It had eight hundred and forty-six names, not going above Roosevelt and Cherry Streets on the East side, or Dey Street on the West. There were then in the city three Dutch Reformed churches, four Presbyterian, three Episcopal, two German Lutheran, and one congregation each belonging to the Catholics, Friends, Baptists, Moravians, and Jews. In 1789 the Methodists had two churches, and the Friends two new Meetings. The houses in the city were generally of brick, with tile roofs, mostly English in style, but a few Dutch. The old Fort, where the provincial governors had resided, still stood in the Battery. The City Hall was a brick structure, three stories high, with wings, fronting on Broad Street. Want of good water greatly inconvenienced the citizens, as there was no aqueduct yet, and wells were few. Most houses supplied themselves by casks from a pump on what is now Pearl Street, this being replenished from a pond a mile north of the then city limits. New York commanded the trade of nearly all Connecticut, half New Jersey, and all Western Massachusetts, besides that of New York State itself. In short it did the importing for one-sixth of the population of the Union. Pennsylvania and Maryland made the best flour. In the manufacture of iron, paper, and cabinet ware, Pennsylvania led all the States.
Over this rapidly growing portion of the human race in its widely separated homes there was at last a central government worthy the name. The old Articles of Confederation had been no fundamental law, not a foundation but a homely botch-work of superstructure, resembling more a treaty between several States than a ground-law for one. In the new Constitution a genuine foundation was laid, the Government now holding direct and immediate relations with each subject of every State, and citizens of States being at the same time citizens of the United States. Hitherto the central power could act on individuals only through States. Now, by its own marshals, aided if need were by its army, it could itself arrest and by its own courts try and condemn any transgressor of its laws.
But if the State relinquished the technical sovereignty which it had before, it did not sink to the level of an administrative division, but increased rather in all the elements of real dignity and stability. Over certain subjects the new constitution gave the States supreme, absolute, and uncontrollable power. The range of this supreme state prerogative is, in fact, wider on the whole than that of national. For national action there must be demonstrable constitutional warrant, for that of States this is not necessary. In more technical phrase: to the United States what is not granted is denied, to the State what is not denied is granted. It is a perpetual reminder of original state sovereignty, that no State can without its consent be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate. Each State also must have at least one representative. States cannot be sued by private persons or corporations. Even upon subjects constitutionally reserved for national law, if Congress has not legislated state statute is valid.
Precisely as its advocates had prophesied, this revised order worked well, bringing a blessed new feeling of security. On commerce and business it conferred immense benefits, which rapidly became disseminated through all classes of the population. The sense and appearance of unity and consequent strength which the land had enjoyed in the early days of the Revolution came back in greater completeness, and was most gratifying to all. There was still a rankling hatred toward England, and men hostile to central government on other grounds were reconciled to it as the sole condition of successful commercial or naval competition with that country.
The consequence was a wide-spread change of public feeling in reference to the Constitution very soon after its adoption. Bitterest hostility turned to praise that was often fulsome, reducing to insignificance an opposition that had probably comprised a popular majority during the very months of ratification. Many shifted their ground merely to be on the popular side. With multitudes Washington's influence had more weight than any argument.
The Constitution's unfortunate elasticity of interpretation also for the time worked well. People who had fought it saw how their cherished views could after all be based upon it. All parties soon began, therefore, to swear by the Constitution as their political Bible. The fathers of the immortal paper were exalted into demigods. Fidelity to the Constitution came to be pre-eminently the watchword of those till now against its adoption. They in fact shouted this cry louder than the Federalists, who had never regarded it a perfect instrument of government. It came to pass ere long that nothing would blast a public measure so instantly or so completely as the cry of its unconstitutionality.
Map Showing the Progressive Acquisitions of Territory by the United States (Image courtesy of Project Gutenberg)
Few can form any idea of the herculean work performed by the First Congress in setting up and starting our present governmental machinery. The debt which we owe the public men of that time is measureless. With such care and wisdom did they proceed, that little done by them has required alteration, the departments having run on decade after decade till now essentially in their original grooves. The Senate formed itself into its three classes, so that one-third of its members, and never more than this, should retire at a time. Four executive departments were created, those of State, the Treasury, War, and the Attorney-Generalship. The first occupants were, respectively, Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Randolph.
Of the present departments of government the post-office alone has come down from colonial times, Benjamin Franklin having been general superintendent thereof under the British Government. He was re-appointed by the second Continental Congress, in July, 1775. The First Congress under the Constitution erected a general post-office, but its head attained the dignity of a regular cabinet officer not till about 1830, and then only by custom. To begin with, in fact, there was strictly no cabinet in the modern sense. Washington's habit was to consult his ministers separately.
Under the Articles of Confederation there had been a treasury board of several commissioners, and a superintendent of finance. The new arrangement, making one man responsible, was a great improvement. A law was passed forbidding the Secretary of the Treasury to be concerned in trade or commerce, that is, to be a merchant. The late A. T. Stewart, appointed by President Grant to the office, was rejected as ineligible under this law. Yet no department of our Government has had a finer record than the Treasury.
Not only had the First Congress to vote revenue, but to make provision for the collection of this. Revenue districts had to be mapped out, the proper officers appointed, and light-houses, buoys, and public piers arranged for along the whole coast. Salaries were to be fixed, and a multitude of questions relating to the interpretation and application of the Constitution to be solved by patient deliberation. The United States Mint was erected, and our so felicitous monetary system, based upon the decimal principle along with the binary, established in place of the desperate monetary chaos prevailing before. Hitherto there were four sorts of colonial money of account all differing from sterling, while Mexican dollars and numberless other forms of foreign money were in actual circulation.
The noblest part of all this work was the organization of the federal judiciary, through an act drawn up with extraordinary ability by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. A Chief Justice--the first one was John Jay--and five associates were to constitute the Supreme Court. District courts were ordained, one per State and one each for Kentucky and Maine, not yet States; also three circuit courts, the eastern, the middle, and the southern; and the jurisdiction of each grade was accurately fixed. As yet there were no special circuit judges, nor, excepting the temporary ones of 1801, were there till some eighty years later. Clerks, marshals, and district-attorneys were part of this first arrangement. Originally the Attorney-General was little but an honorary officer. He kept his practice, had no public income but his fees, and resided where he pleased.
As his title implies, the Secretary of War was to have charge of all the nation's means of offence and defence, there being until April 30, 1796, no separate secretary for the navy. We had indeed in 1789 little use for such a functionary, not a war-vessel then remaining in Government's possession. In 1784 our formidable navy consisted of a single ship, the Alliance, but the following year Congress ordered her sold.
The senators most active in the creations just reviewed were Langdon, King, and Robert Morris, besides Ellsworth. In the House, Madison outdid all others in toil as in ability, though worthily seconded by distinguished men like Fisher Ames, Gerry, Clymer, Fitzsimmons, Boudinot, and Smith. The three Connecticut representatives, Sherman, Trumbull, and Wadsworth, made up perhaps the ablest state delegation in the body.