When the First Federal Congressconvened in March 1789, it seemed unlikely that the experiment represented by the new Federal Constitutionwould succeed. The United Stateshad a population of four million and its area was larger than any European stateexcept Russia. There was no example in history and no support in traditional political theory to encourage those who would attempt to govern such a nation by a republican form of government based on the consent of the governed. Many Federalist supporters of the Constitution, as well as Antifederalist critics, doubted that the plan of government devised by the PhiladelphiaConvention would work in practice, unless changes were made—either formally by amendment or informally by interpretation—to bring the new Constitution closer to their sometimes-conflicting standards of perfection.
Yet the Americanexperiment did succeed. For almost two centuries, this has astonished skeptics. “God,” a familiar epigram observes, “looks after fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” Indeed, the success of the Americanform of government has been remarkable; not only has the U.S. Constitutionoperated to provide a greater degree of justice, prosperity, and liberty to its citizens than that realized by any nation in recorded history, but it has also shown such impressive stability that it is now the oldest written constitution in operation in any modern state.
How can we account for this success? Much credit belongs to the genius of the framers of the Constitution—their historical and intuitive knowledge of man and politics. Yet that is not the full explanation. Many nations have come to ruin under constitutions deliberately patterned on the Americanmodel. It was the way in which the Americanpeople implemented their Constitution that made a functioning system from the document's abstractions. Nothing was more essential to the enduring success of that system than the First Federal Congress, which held its first and second sessions in New York Cityfrom March 1789 to August 1790, and then held a final third session in Philadelphiafrom December 1790 to March 1791.
The Congress was the first of the institutions created by the Constitution to take solid form. It antedated the Presidency, for the Congress made the arrangements for counting the ballots of the first electoral college and for inaugurating George Washingtonand John Adamsas the first executive officers. The first executive departments—War, State, and Treasury—and the office of Attorney General were set up by acts of the First Congress. The Congress antedated the judicial branch of the government as well, for Congressional legislation was needed to erect the system of federal courts and establish the Supreme Court, implementing the general provisions of the Constitution's third article. The Congress was also the first to act under the U.S. Constitution; thus, even when it dealt with routine and trivial matters, or followed practices established by the British Parliament, state legislatures, or the old Continental Congress, it was setting precedent.
The First Federal Congressconvened in a time of national crisis. The first nation to win independence from a Europeancolonial empire and a new nation less than a decade removed from its Revolution, the United Statesfaced real dangers of falling into anarchy or despotism. In fact, the First Congress confronted in one form or another almost every problem that would rise to plague or threaten the Union of the States in the future: secession (two states, North Carolinaand Rhode Island, were out of the Union when the First Congress convened), States' rights, constitutional amendment, admission of new states, threat of war, military preparedness, inflation, depression, unfavorable trade balance and tariff reform, taxation, speculation, sectionalism, slavery, Indianaffairs, veterans' pensions, congressional salaries, election irregularities, government support of science, government patronage of the arts, administration of public lands, and many others. Some of the problems it solved; some it merely postponed. Yet, despite its difficulties, the Congress survived, leaving to the future a sturdy foundation on which a great nation could build.
The Documentary History of the First Federal Congresswill provide a full record of the debates and actions of the First Congress. The nature of the record suggests a division into two parts, the first presenting the official papers of the Congress and the second comprising all unofficial material (letters to or from Congressmen, newspaper accounts, shorthand transcriptions of debates, diary entries, etc.) that may illuminate the proceedings. This documentary history presents special problems; because their focus is an institution rather than an individual, the documents lack the obvious unity that the life of a particular person would provide. It would be impractical, therefore, to impose a single set of editorial procedures on the diversity of materials handled in these volumes.
While editorial consistency will be maintained as far as possible, we do not wish to be consistent at the expense of clarity or convenience to the reader. An editorial note in the introduction of each volume will explain the practices peculiar to it. The editorial apparatus will be sparser in the official volumes than in the unofficial. We will attempt to place editorial aids—glossaries, biographies, maps, tables, and extended explanatory notes—in the volumes where they seem most useful. But, as far as possible, extensive aids and elaborate annotation will be excluded from the volumes of official records. Since the entire collection of documents serves, in fact, as a gloss on the official materials, any relaxation of a policy of sparse annotation in these volumes would swell them to an impractical bulk.
This volume, the Senate Legislative Journal, begins the series of official documents. These Senate records, which were the Secretary's charge from the earliest days of the office, include all documents produced by the order of the Senate or directed to the Senate. Other documents for which the Secretary of the Senate is today responsible were specified by rule 32 of the standing rules of the Senate. That rule as amended December 14, 1887, which probably reflects earlier practice, requires that “all papers referred to Senate committees and not reported on at the close of a session of Congress” would be returned to the Secretary. Note that this rule does not include documents produced by a Senate committee and that committee documents were often not deposited with the Secretary. Many of these, however, were returned to Senate files after the passage of the Congressional Reorganization Actof August 2, 1946. Section 1404 of that act provided that “the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives are authorized and directed, acting jointly, to obtain at the close of each Congress all of the noncurrent records of the Congress and of each committee.” We shall therefore consider all of these documents, including those produced by committees, to be official records of the Senate, whether they are now found in the National Archives or in private repositories.
The original custodians of the official documents of the Senate were Samuel A. Otis, the Secretary of the Senate, and his staff: Benjamin Bankson, principal clerk, and Robert Heyshamand Samuel A. Otis, Jr., engrossing clerks. 1 Mr. Otiswould doubtless have been pleased to learn how well his files have survived the years. The Senate records have not always enjoyed the careful, even reverential, handling they enjoy today; yet despite some damage sustained with the passage of time, they are essentially intact.
The files of the Senate were moved several times. In 1790, when the First Congress adjourned from New Yorkto Philadelphiafor its third session, Mr. Otismoved his records. A second move occurred ten years later when the national capital was permanently established in Washington, D.C.An emergency evacuation of the Senate records from the Capitol was accomplished safely in 1814, although the House lost almost all its earliest records when the Britishburned the building. 2 As the years passed, storage of Senate records taxed the capacity of the Capitol; papers were crammed into out-of-the-way storage rooms and overflowed into the attic and basement of the Old State Department building. The pressure was relieved by Senate Resolution No.99, Seventy-fifth Congress, first session, which was adopted on March 29, 1937, and which authorized the transfer of official Senate files that were not currently needed to the National Archives where they are now housed.
The Senate Legislative Journalwas the Secretary's special trust. The keeping of a journal is a duty imposed by the Constitution itself, 3 and preparation of this record was among the chief occupations of Otisand his staff. Otisbegan the work by keeping minutes—a rough journal—at every session of the Senate. Since the minutes for each day were recorded in his hand, it seems clear that he took this responsibility seriously and never missed a session. The rough journal was read in the Senate each day in accordance with Senate standing rule 1 “to the end that any mistake may be corrected that shall have been made in the entries,” 4 and Otisrevised the notes and inked in directions for the clerks. The lads in the Senate office were then set to copying out the smooth journal in a fine round hand. Their completed manuscript would be signed by Otisand sent to the printer.
One day, late in the first session, before the printer had received the copy, an accident befell the smooth journal. The exact nature of the accident is unknown, but it involved large amounts of some kind of liquid. Whether it was damaged by a sudden rainstorm when it was being taken to Thomas Greenleaf's shop, or whether someone carelessly upset a teapot, or whether the roof of Otis's office leaked during the night, the entire manuscript became so sodden that every page was damaged and some parts became completely illegible. The journal, which had already been copied at least through the session of September 9, had to be completely redone.
The water-damaged manuscript was not discarded, but preserved in a bound volume entitled “Journal/Senate/U.S.A./Fol. 1/Preliminary/draft/Office of the/Secretary Senate/1789.” It was clearly intended as a smooth journal and had no characteristics of a “rough journal” or “minutes book.” There is no “preliminary journal” for the second or third sessions; such an accident was not apt to be repeated. The damage must have occurred before the copy was delivered to the printer because Greenleaf's printed version is unquestionably based on the second clean copy, now known as the “smooth journal,” of the first session.
The Constitution ordered that the Senate Journal should be printed, and a joint resolution effective June 3, 1789authorized Otisto make the necessary arrangements. The work was contracted to Thomas Greenleaffor the first session 5 and to John Fennofor the second. Fennocontinued to serve as printer to the Senate during the third session after the move to Philadelphia. Their printed journals have been taken as the basic text for this edition. 6 Technically, of course, the smooth manuscript journal, signed by Otis, is the official text. But the printed volumes, which were meant to be a true copy of the manuscript, were the texts actually used for reference in the office of the Secretary of the Senate 7 and in the offices of other federal and state officials. It is the printed version that Senators in the First Congress themselves had at hand when they cited the Journal.
The primary aim of the annotation in this volume is to establish an accurate text. Variations between the four forms of the journal—rough, preliminary, smooth, and printed—are noted. Particular care has been given to recording every variation from the official smooth journal and, for the first session, from the preliminary journal as well, since deviations from the copy signed by Otis, however slight, were introduced by the printer as a departure from the form authorized by the official order of the Senate. Therefore, while notation of obviously trivial matters (broken letters, insignificant typographical errors such as the omission of a single quotation mark at the end of a line, slight variations in type face or capitalization, and consistent misspellings) has been avoided, any actual alteration of even a single word or the order of phrasing has been noted.
The rough journal could not practically be handled in this manner, since variations in phrasing, vocabulary, and even the order of paragraphs appear on almost every page; noting each variation would double the size of this volume for no essential purpose. Variations from the rough journal are therefore noted only when the rough form includes some matter omitted from the printed text or when the variation changes the sense from that in the printed form.
Finally, the printed version was silently edited to correct obvious typographical errors, to delete archaic punctuation at the ends of display lines (such as titles, signatures, and lists of names) that does not affect the sense of the text, to adjust quotation marks for the sake of clarity, and to regularize spelling of proper names of Senators to conform to that used by the Senators themselves in contemporary signed documents. The appendix to the first session Journal, the proposed amendments to the Constitution as sent to the states, has been retained. But the appendix to the third session has not been printed in its entirety. Originally it included a list of bills passed in that session, and indexes to the Journal. These have been omitted and replaced by our own more complete versions.
In addition to clarifying the text, notes have been provided to identify all official documents. Most of these documents were retained by the Secretary of the Senate or the Clerk of the House and are housed today in the National Archives. Occasionally a document mentioned in the Journal or a document whose existence can be implied from a reference in the Journal, could not be found in these official files. Where we have located the original or a copy in another repository it is noted. We have also noted copies that include annotations, such as amendments to a bill, which provide documentation not available in the official versions.
Documents are identified in a footnote at the first point they are mentioned in the Journal. All items have been connected to the journal text as far as possible. The “journalized date” for these items will be used as identification when official records are published in later volumes. Evansnumbers 8 are included for readers who may wish to consult the documents on Readex microcards.
Documents mentioned in the Journal that have not been located are noted as missing, but a continuing search for these items is in progress and any that are found will be included in the appropriate volume.
Such items as simple resolves or House messages are not necessarily documentary in character. They may have been delivered orally, never having existed in a written form. These are not considered “missing” unless there is good reason to believe that they did exist in writing at one time.
A final form of annotation in this volume is journal cross-referencing. The reader who wishes to trace congressional action on any particular subject through the three congressional journals—Senate, Senate Executive, and House—may do so without consulting the index, by following the cross-reference notes. These notes trace the action on any subject through all three sessions and both Houses of Congress. They lead from date to date, not from action to action. Thus if the Senate read a bill one morning and later during the same day read it a second time, there will be no note leading from the first to the second reading. The reader should also be aware that the Senate frequently considered several bills on related topics, all of which must be followed separately, since the cross-reference notes do not lead from one bill to another on a related topic unless one of them is introduced as a substitute for another.
Far more than most scholarly undertakings, a large-scale documentary history is a cooperative product. It is produced by blending thousands of individual acts of judgment on all levels of significance by many different persons and by careful performance of clerical routine by everyone who has contact with the project's files. Every trivial error can flaw the final product. As editors, we of course, assume full responsibility for this volume's imperfections, but we wish to acknowledge our indebtedness to the many persons whose contributions to the project have, we trust, kept these to a minimum.
We thank our sponsors, The George Washington Universityand The National Historical Publications Commission, for the support that keeps our offices functioning.
We congratulate the present and former members of the First Federal Congressproject staff for their patience and perseverance: Judith Hendren, Judith Freeman, John Rowland, William Weneta, Christine Waters, Frances Falt, John Wilson, Joanne Bodnar, Mary Sittig, Rona Rosenblatt, and Mary Barnes.
We salute The George Washington UniversityFirst Federal Congressresearch fellows who have performed many of our office's most boring and essential tasks: Rosemary Fry, Gail Ross, Harold Williams, and especially Roger Davisand James Holmeswho created the index for this volume.
We recognize our heavy debt to the editors and staff of the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitutionand the First Ten Amendmentsand the Documentary History of the First Federal Elections, both now directed by Merrill Jensen. We particularly thank Gaspare Saladinofor allowing us to share the benefits of their very efficient searching and splendidly organized files.
We also appreciate the labors of many workers in the National Archives, particularly the staff of the National Historical Publications Commission, who did much preliminary work on the Congress records before this project was organized. Our thanks particularly to Buford Rowland, George Perros, H. B. Fant, Marion Tinling, and James Masterson.
Finally, we are profoundly grateful for the support and advice of two men who stand outside categories: Leonard Rapportand Kenneth Bowling. We have shamelessly exploited Mr. Rapport's unmatched expertise on archival matters and his extraordinarily catholic knowledge of late eighteenth-century documents. Mr. Bowlinghas done much of the searching for this project and has shared his expert knowledge of First Congress documents and his scholarly insights into early federal politics.
1 Senate Journal, August 28, 1789; Office of the Financial Clerk of the Senate, RG46, Records of the United States Senate, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Accounts of Receipts and Expenditures of Public Monies by the Treaurer of the United States, RG233, Records of the United States House of Representatives, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
2 An account of the Britishburning of the Capitol may be found in the [ Washington] National Intelligencer, September 6, 1814.
3 Article I, Section 5.
4 Senate Journal, April 16, 1789.
5 The printed documents of the first session are discussed in detail in James B. Childs, “The Story of the United StatesSenate Documents, 1st Congress, 1st Session, New York, 1789,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America56 (1962): 175–94.
6 Journal of the First Session of the Senate of the United States of America( New York: Thomas Greenleaf, 1789). E–22207. Journal of the Second Session of the Senate of the United States of America( New York: John Fenno, 1790). E–22982. Journal of the Third Session of the Senate of the United States of America( Philadelphia: John Fenno, 1791). E–23901.
7 An extended discussion of the nature and functions of the Journal occurred on the floor of the Senate during the first session of the Twenty-fourth Congress in 1836. See Register of Debates in Congress( Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1836), pp.877–933, 1593–98, 1884–97.
8 We use the term “ Evansnumbers” to apply to the numbers assigned to printed documents in any one of the three related bibliographies of early Americanimprints: Charles Evans, AmericanBibliography, vols.7 and 8 ( New York: Peter Smith, 1942); Clifford Shiptonand James Mooney, National Index of American Imprintsthrough 1800, The Short-Title Evans( Worcester: The American Antiquarian Society and Barre Publishers, 1969); Roger Bristol, Supplement to Charles Evans' AmericanBibliography( Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1970). The Readex Microprint Corporation's edition of Early AmericanImprints, 1639–1800, edited by Clifford Shipton, is keyed to these numbers.