While Washington was bearing with military fortitude the rigors and annoyances of the imitation court in which he was confined, Congress reached decisions that had a vast effect in determining the actual character of the government. The first business in order of course was the raising of revenue, for the treasury was empty, and payments of interest due on the French and Spanish loans were years behind. Madison attacked this problem before Washington arrived in New York to take the oath of office. On April 8 he introduced in the House a resolution which aimed only at giving immediate effect to a scheme of duties and imposts that had been approved generally by the States in 1783. On the very next day debate upon this resolution began in the committee of the whole, for there was then no system of standing committees to intervene between p27the House and its business. The debate soon broadened out far beyond the lines of the original scheme, and in it the student finds lucidly presented the issues of public policy that have accompanied tariff debates ever since.
Madison laid down the general principle that "commerce ought to be free, and labor and industry left at large to find its proper object," but suggested that it would be unwise to apply this principle without regard to particular circumstances. "Although interest will, in general, operate effectually to produce political good, yet there are causes in which certain factitious circumstances may divert it from its natural channel, or throw or retain it in an artificial one." In language which now reads like prophecy he referred to cases "where cities, companies, or opulent individuals engross the business from others, by having had an uninterrupted possession of it, or by the extent of their capitals being able to destroy a competition." The same situation could occur between nations, and had to be considered. There was some truth, he also thought, in the opinion "that each nation should have within itself the means of defense, independent of foreign supplies," but he considered that this argument had been p28urged beyond reason, as "there is good reason to believe that, when it becomes necessary, we may obtain supplies abroad as readily as any other nation whatsoever." He instanced as a cogent reason in favor of protective duties that, as the States had formerly the power of making regulations of trade to cherish their domestic interests, it must be presumed that, when they put the exercise of this power into other hands by adopting the Constitution, "they must have done this with the expectation that those interests would not be neglected" by Congress.
Actuated by such views, and doubtless also influenced by the great need for revenue, Madison was on the whole favorable to amendments extending the list of dutiable articles. Though there were conflicts between members from manufacturing districts and those from agricultural constituencies, and though the salt protectionists of New York had some difficulty in carrying their point, the contention did not follow sectional lines. Coal was added to the list on the motion of a member from Virginia. The duties levied were, however, very moderate, ranging from five to twelve and one-half per cent, with an exception in the case of one article that might be considered a luxury.
p29 The bill as it passed the House discriminated in favor of nations with which the United States had commercial treaties. That is to say, it favored France and Holland as against Great Britain, which had the bulk of America's foreign trade. Though Madison insisted on this provision and was supported by a large majority of the House, the Senate would not agree to it. During the early sessions of Congress the Senate met behind closed doors, a practice which it did not abandon until five years later. From the accounts of the discussion preserved in Maclay's diary it appears that there was much wrangling. Maclay relates that on one occasion when Pennsylvania's demands were sharply attacked, his colleague, Robert Morris, was so incensed that Maclay "could see his nostrils widen and his nose flatten like the head of a viper." Pierce Butler of South Carolina "flamed away and threatened a dissolution of the Union, with regard to his State, as sure as God was in the firmament." Thus began a line of argument that was frequently pursued thereafter until it was ended by wager of battle. On several occasions the division was so close that Vice-President Adams gave the casting vote. Although there was much railing in the Senate p30against imposts as a burden to the agricultural sections, yet some who opposed duties in the abstract thought of particulars that ought not to be neglected if the principle of protection were admitted. Duties on hemp and cotton therefore found their way into the bill through amendments voted by the Senate. Adjustment of the differences between the two houses was hindered by the resentment of the House at the removal of the treaty discrimination feature, but the Senate with characteristic address evaded the issue by promising to deal with it as a separate measure and ended by thwarting the House on that point.
On the whole, in view of the sharp differences of opinion, the action taken on the tariff was remarkably expeditious. The bill, which passed the House on May 16, was passed by the Senate on June 2, and although delay now ensued because of the conflict over the discrimination issue, the bill became law by the President's approval on July 4. This prompt conclusion in spite of closely-balanced factions becomes more intelligible when it is observed that the rules of the Senate then provided that, "in case of a debate becoming tedious, four Senators may call for the question." p31Brief as was the period of consideration as compared with the practice since that day, Maclay noted indignantly that the merchants had "already added the amount of the duties to the price of their goods" so that a burden fell upon the consumers without advantage to the Treasury. Such consequence is evidence of defect in procedure which the experience of other nations has led them to correct, but which has continued to increase in the United States until it has attained monstrous proportions. Under the English budget system new imposts now take effect as soon as they are proposed by the government, the contingency of alteration in the course of enactment being provided for by return of payments made in error. The general tendency of civilized government is now strongly in favor of attaching the process of deliberation upon financial measures to the period of their administrative incubation, and of shortening the period of formal legislative consideration.
One of the tasks of Congress in its first session was to draught amendments to the Constitution. The reasons for such action were stated by Madison to be a desire to propitiate those who desired a bill of rights, and an effort to secure acceptance p32of the Constitution in Rhode Island and North Carolina. Promises had been made, in the course of the struggle for adoption, that this matter would be taken up, and there was a general willingness to proceed with it. Under the leadership of Madison, the House adopted seventeen amendments, which were reduced by the Senate to twelve. Of these, ten were eventually ratified and formed what is commonly known as the Bill of Rights.
Apart from this matter, the session, which lasted until September 29, was almost wholly occupied with measures to organize the new government. To understand the significance of the action taken, it should be remembered that the passions excited by the struggle over the new Constitution were still turbulent. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, a member without previous national experience, who watched the proceedings with keen observation, early noticed the presence of a group of objectors whose motives he regarded as partly factious and partly temperamental. Writing to a friend about the character of the House, he remarked: "Three sorts of people are often troublesome: the anti-federals, who alone are weak and some of them well disposed; the dupes of local prejudices, who fear eastern influence, p33monopolies, and navigation acts; and lastly the violent republicans, as they think fit to style themselves, who are new lights in politics, who are more solicitous to establish, or rather to expatiate upon, some sounding principle of republicanism, than to protect property, cement the union, and perpetuate liberty." The spirit of opposition had from the first an experienced leader in Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. He had seen many years of service in the Continental Congress which he first entered in 1776. He was a delegate to the Philadelphia convention, in whose sessions he showed a contentious temper, and in the end refused to subscribe to the new Constitution. In the convention debates he had strongly declared himself "against letting the heads of the departments, particularly of finance, have anything to do with business connected with legislation." Defeated in the convention, Gerry was now bent upon making his ideas prevail in the organization of the government.
On May 19, the matter of the executive departments was brought up in committee of the whole by Boudinot of New Jersey. At this time it was the practice of Congress to take up matters first in committee of the whole, and, after general p34conclusions had been reached, to appoint a committee to prepare and bring in a bill. A warm discussion ensued on the question whether the heads of the departments should be removable by the President. Gerry, who did not take a prominent part in the debate, spoke with a mildness that was in marked contrast with the excitement shown by some of the speakers. He was in favor of supporting the President to the utmost and of making him as responsible as possible, but since Congress had obviously no right to confer a power not authorized by the Constitution, and since the Constitution had conditioned appointments on the consent of the Senate, it followed that removals must be subject to the same condition. He spoke briefly and only once, although the debate became long and impassioned. But he was merely reserving his fire, as subsequent developments soon showed. Without a call for the ayes and nays, the question was decided in favor of declaring the power of removal to be in the President. The committee then proceeded to the consideration of the Treasury Department. Gerry at once made a plea for delay. "He thought they were hurrying on business too rapidly. Gentlemen had already committed themselves on one very important p35point." He "knew nothing of the system which gentlemen proposed to adopt in arranging the Treasury Department," but the fact was worth considering that "the late Congress had, on long experience, thought proper to organize the Treasury Department, in a mode different from that now proposed." He "would be glad to know what the reasons were that would induce the committee to adopt a different system from that which had been found most beneficial to the United States."
What Gerry had in view was the retention of the then existing system of Treasury management by a Board of Commissioners. In 1781 the Continental Congress had been forced to let the Treasury pass out of its own hands into those of a Superintendent of Finance, through sheer inability to get any funds unless the change was made. Robert Morris, who held the position, had resigned in January, 1783, because of the behavior of Congress, but the attitude of the army had become so menacing that he was implored to remain in office and attend to the arrears of military pay. He had managed to effect a settlement, and at length retired from office on November 1, 1784. Congress then put the Treasury in the hands of three commissioners appointed and supervised by p36it. Gerry was now striving to continue this arrangement with as little change as possible.
When debate was resumed the next day, Gerry made a long, smooth speech on the many superior advantages of the Board system. The extent and variety of the functions of the office would be a trial to any one man's integrity. "Admit these innumerable opportunities for defrauding the revenue, without check or control, and it is next to impossible he should remain unsullied in reputation, or innoxious with respect to misapplying his trust." The situation would be "very disagreeable to the person appointed, provided he is an honest, upright man; it will be disagreeable also to the people of the Union, who will always have reason to suspect" misconduct. "We have had a Board of Treasury and we have had a Financier. Have not express charges, as well as vague rumors, been brought against him at the bar of the public? They may be unfounded, it is true; but it shows that a man cannot serve in such a station without exciting popular clamor. It is very well known, I dare say, to many gentlemen in this House, that the noise and commotion were such as obliged Congress once more to alter their Treasury Department, and place it under the management of a Board of p37Commissioners." He descanted upon the perils to liberty involved in the course they were pursuing. Surround the President with Ministers of State and "the President will be induced to place more confidence in them than in the Senate. . . . An oligarchy will be confirmed upon the ruin of the democracy; a government most hateful will descend to our posterity and all our exertions in the glorious cause of freedom will be frustrated."
Gerry's speech as a whole was tactful and persuasive, but he made a blunder when he appealed to the recollections of the old members, men who had been in the Continental Congress, or else in some position where they could view its springs of action. Their recollections now came forward to his discomfiture. "My official duty," said Wadsworth of Connecticut, "has led me often to attend at the Treasury of the United States, and, from my experience, I venture to pronounce that a Board of Treasury is the worst of all institutions. They have doubled our national debt." He contrasted the order and clearness of accounts while the Superintendent of Finance was in charge with the situation since then. If the committee had before them the transactions of the Treasury Board, "instead of system and responsibility they p38would find nothing but confusion and disorder, without a possibility of checking their accounts." Boudinot of New Jersey said he "would state a circumstance which might give the committee some small idea of what the savings under the Superintendent were. The expenditure of hay at a certain post was one hundred and forty tons; such was the estimate laid before him; yet twelve tons carried the post through the year, and the supply was abundant, and the post was as fully and usefully occupied as it had ever been before." Of course there was an outcry against the Superintendent of Finance; "he rather wondered that the clamor was not more loud and tremendous." He remembered that "one hundred and forty-six supernumerary officers were brushed off in one day, who had long been sucking the vital blood and spirit of the nation. Was it to be wondered at, if this swarm should raise a buzz about him?" Gerry fought on almost singlehanded, but he could not refute the evidence that he had invited. He lost his temper and resorted to sarcasm. If a single head of the Treasury was so desirable, why not "have a single legislator; one man to make all the laws, the revenue laws particularly, because among many there is less responsibility, system, p39and energy; consequently a numerous representation in this House is an odious institution."
The case for the Treasury Board was so hopeless that nothing more was heard of it; but the battle over the removal question was renewed with added violence, when the bill for establishing the Department of Foreign Affairs came up for consideration. White of Virginia now led the attack. He had been a member of the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788, and a member of the ratifying convention of his State. Although he voted for a provisional acceptance of the Constitution, he had supported an amendment requiring Congress to collect direct taxes or excises through State agency, which would have been in effect a return to the plan of requisitions — the bane of the Confederation. In an elaborate speech he attacked the clause giving the President power to remove from office, as an attempt to impart an authority not conferred by the Constitution, and inconsistent with the requirement that appointments should be made with the advice and consent of the Senate. The debate soon became heated. "Let us look around at this moment," said Jackson of Georgia, "and see the progress we are making toward venality and corruption. We already p40hear the sounding title of Highness and Most Honorable trumpeted in our ears, which, ten years since, would have exalted a man to a station as high as Haman's gibbet." Page of Virginia was ablaze with indignation. "Good God!" he exclaimed. "What, authorize in a free republic, by law, too, by your first act, the exertion of a dangerous royal prerogative in your Chief Magistrate!" Gerry, in remarks whose oblique criticism upon arrangements at the President's house was perfectly well understood, dwelt upon the possibility that the President might be guided by some other criterion than discharge of duty as the law directs. "Perhaps the officer is not good natured enough; he makes an ungraceful bow, or does it left leg foremost; this is unbecoming in a great officer at the President's levee. Now, because he is so unfortunate as not to be so good a dancer as he is a worthy officer, he must be removed." These rhetorical flourishes, which are significant of the undercurrent of sentiment, hardly do justice to the general quality of the debate which was marked by legal acuteness on both sides. Madison pressed home the sensible argument that the President could not be held to responsibility unless he could control his subordinates. "And if it should happen that p41the officers connect themselves with the Senate, they may mutually support each other, and for want of efficacy reduce the power of the President to a mere vapor; in which case, his responsibility would be annihilated and the expectation of it unjust."
The debate lasted for several days, but Madison won by a vote of 34 to 20 in committee, in favor of retaining the clause. On second thought, however, and probably after consultation with the little group of constructive statesmen who stood behind the scenes, he decided that it might be dangerous to allow the President's power of removal to rest upon a legislative grant that might be revoked. When the report from the committee of the whole was taken up in the House, a few days later, Benson of New York proposed that the disputed clause should be omitted and the language of the bill should be worded so as to imply that the power of removal was in the President. Madison accepted the suggestion, and the matter was thus settled. The point was covered by providing that the chief clerk of the Department should take charge "whenever the principal officer shall be removed from office by the President." The clause got through the Senate by the casting vote p42of the Vice-President, and a similar provision was inserted, without further contest, in all the acts creating the executive departments. It is rather striking evidence of the Utopian expectations which could then be indulged that Daniel Carroll of Maryland was persistent in urging that the existence of the office should be limited to a few years, "under a hope that a time would come when the United States would be disengaged from the necessity of supporting a Secretary of Foreign Affairs." Although Gerry and others expressed sympathy with the motion it was voted down without a division.
When the bill establishing the Treasury Department was taken up, Page of Virginia made a violent attack upon the clause authorizing the Secretary to "digest and report plans." He denounced it as "an attempt to create an undue influence" in the House. "Nor would the mischief stop here; it would establish a precedent which might be extended until we admitted all the Ministers of the government on the floor, to explain and support the plans they have digested and reported; thus laying the foundation for an aristocracy or a detestable monarchy." As a matter of fact, a precedent in favor of access to Congress already existed. The p43old Superintendent of Finance and the Board which succeeded him had the power now proposed for the Secretary of the Treasury. Livermore of New Hampshire, who had been a member of the Continental Congress, admitted this fact, but held that such power was not dangerous at that time since Congress then possessed both legislative and executive authority. They could abolish his plans and his office together, if they thought proper; "but we are restrained by a Senate and by the negative of the President," Gerry declared his assent to the views expressed by Page. "If the doctrine of having prime and great ministers of state was once well established, he did not doubt but that we should soon see them distinguished by a green or red ribbon, or other insignia of court favor and patronage."
The strongest argument in favor of retaining the clause referred to was made by Fisher Ames, who had begun to display the powers of clear statement and of convincing argument that soon established his supremacy in debate. He brought the debate at once to its proper bearings by pointing out that there were really only two matters to be considered: whether the proposed arrangement was useful, and whether it could be safely guarded p44from abuse. "The Secretary is presumed to acquire the best knowledge of the subject of finance of any member of the community. Now, if this House is to act on the best knowledge of circumstances, it seems to follow logically that the House must obtain the evidence from that officer: the best way of doing this will be publicly from the officer himself, by making it his duty to furnish us with it." In one of those eloquent passages which brighten the records of debate whenever Ames spoke at any length, he pictured the difficulties that had to be surmounted. "If we consider the present situation of our finances, owing to a variety of causes, we shall no doubt perceive a great, although unavoidable confusion throughout the whole scene; it presents to the imagination a deep, dark, and dreary chaos; impossible to be reduced to order without the mind of the architect is clear and capacious, and his power commensurate to the occasion." He asked, "What improper influence could a plan reported openly and officially have on the mind of any member, more than if the scheme and information were given privately at the Secretary's office?" Merely to call for information would not be advantageous to the House. p45"It will be no mark of inattention or neglect, if he take time to consider the questions you propound; but if you make it his duty to furnish you plans . . . and he neglect to perform it, his conduct or capacity is virtually impeached. This will be furnishing an additional check."
Sedgwick of Massachusetts made a strong speech to the same effect. "Make your officer responsible," he said with prophetic vision, "and the presumption is, that plans and information are properly digested; but if he can secrete himself behind the curtain, he might create a noxious influence, and not be answerable for the information he gives."
The weight of the argument was heavily on the side of the supporters of the clause, and it looked as though the group of objectors would again be beaten. But now a curious thing happened. Fitzsimmons remarked that, if he understood the objection made to the clause, "it was a jealousy arising from the power given the Secretary to report plans of revenue to the House." He suggested that "harmony might be restored by changing the word 'report' into 'prepare'." Fitzsimmons was esteemed by the House because of his zealous support of the War of Independence and also p46because he stood high as a successful Philadelphia merchant, but he did not, however, rank as a leader. Early in the session Ames described him as a man who "is supposed to understand trade, and he assumes some weight in such matters. He is plausible, though not over civil; is artful, has a glaring eye, a down look, speaks low, and with apparent candor and coolness." He was hardly the man to guide the House on a matter pertaining to the organization of public authority.
While the removal issue was before the House, Madison had been prominent in debate, and had spoken with great power and earnestness; but up to this time he had said nothing on the issue now pending. He now remarked that he did not believe that the danger apprehended by some really existed, but twice in his speech he admitted that "there is a small possibility, though it is but small, that an officer may derive a weight from this circumstance, and have some degree of influence upon the deliberations of the legislature." In its practical effect the speech favored the compromise which Fitzsimmons had just proposed; in fact, the only opposition to the change of phrasing now came from a few extremists who still clamored for the omission of the entire clause. The decisive p47effect of Madison's intervention was a natural consequence of the leadership he had held in the movement for the new Constitution and of his standing as the representative of the new Administration, of his possessing Washington's confidence and acting as his adviser. Washington, then being without a cabinet, had turned to Madison for help in discharging the duties of his office, and at Washington's written request Madison had drafted for him his replies to the addresses of the House and the Senate at the opening of the session. It was a matter of course in such circumstances that the House accepted Fitzsimmons' amendment, — "by a great majority," according to the record, — and thus the Secretary of the Treasury was shut out of the House and was condemned to work in the lobby.
The consequences of this decision have been so vast that it is worth while making an inquiry into motive, although the materials upon which judgment must rest are scant. No one can read the record of this discussion without noting that Madison's approval of the original clause was lukewarm as compared with the ardor he had shown when the question was whether Washington should be allowed to remove his subordinates. This p48contrast suggests that Madison's behavior was affected by fear of Hamilton's influence. Would it be prudent for him to give Hamilton the advantage of being able to appear in person before the House, and probably to supplant Madison himself as the spokesman of the Administration? Divergence between the two men had already begun in details. At the time the vote on the powers of the Secretary of the Treasury was taken, the tariff bill and the tonnage bill were still pending, and Hamilton's influence operated against Madison's views on some points. Moreover, the question of the permanent residence of the federal government was coming forward and was apparently overshadowing everything else in the minds of members. Ames several times in his correspondence at this period remarks upon Madison's timidity, which was due to his concern about Virginia State politics. Any arrangement that might enable Hamilton to cross swords with an opponent on the floor of the House could not be attractive to Madison, who was a lucid reasoner but not an impressive speaker. Hamilton was both of these, and he possessed an intellectual brilliancy which Madison lacked. Ames, who respected Madison's abilities and who regarded him as the leading p49member of the House, wrote that "he speaks low, his person is little and ordinary; he speaks decently as to manner, and no more; his language is very pure, perspicuous, and to the point." Why Fitzsimmons should be opposed to the appearance of the Secretary in person in the House, as had been Robert Morris's practice when he was Superintendent of Finance, is plain enough. Maclay's diary has many references to Fitzsimmons's negotiations with members on tariff rates. It was not to the advantage of private diplomacy to allow the Secretary to shape and define issues on the floor of the House. But Fitzsimmons could not have had his way about the matter without Madison's help.
Gibbon remarks that the greatest of theological controversies which racked the Roman Empire and affected the peace of millions turned on the question whether a certain word should be spelled with one diphthong or another.a A like disproportion between the vastness of results and the minuteness of verbal distinction is exhibited in this decision by the House. The change of "report" into "prepare" threw up a ridge in the field of constitutional development that has affected the trend of American politics ever since. This is the p50explanation of a problem of comparative politics that has often excited much wondering notice: why it is that alone among modern representative assemblies the American House of Representatives tends to decline in prestige and authority. The original expectation was that the House of Representatives would take a dominant position like that of the House of Commons, but its degradation began so soon that Fisher Ames noted it as early as 1797. Writing to Hamilton he observed:
"The heads of departments are chief clerks. Instead of being the ministry, the organs of the executive power, and imparting a kind of momentum to the operation of the laws, they are precluded even from communicating with the House by reports. . . . Committees already are the Ministers and while the House indulges a jealousy of encroachment in its functions, which are properly deliberative, it does not perceive that these are impaired and nullified by the monopoly as well as the perversion of information by these committees."
Justice Story, who entered Congress in 1808 as a Jeffersonian Republican, noted the process of degradation, and in his Commentaries he pointed out the cause: "The Executive is compelled to resort to p51secret and unseen influences, to private interviews and private arrangements to accomplish its own appropriate purposes, instead of proposing and sustaining its own duties and measures by a bold and manly appeal to the nation in the face of its representatives."
The last of the organic acts of the session was the one establishing the judiciary. The student will be disappointed if he examines the record to note whether there was any vision of the ascendancy which the judiciary was to obtain in the development of the American constitutional system. The debates were almost wholly about the possibilities of conflict between the state and the federal courts. Although Maclay's diary gives a one-sided and distorted account of the proceedings in the Senate, the course of the debate is clear. Ellsworth of Connecticut had principal charge of the bill. At the outset Lee and Grayson of Virginia made an ineffectual effort to confine the original jurisdiction of the federal courts to cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and argued that jurisdiction over other cases involving federal law might be conferred upon state courts. This was a point on which there had been some difference of opinion between Hamilton and Madison. p52The former held that it was within the competency of Congress, when instituting tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court, to adopt the state courts for that purpose. Madison held that nothing less than a system of federal courts quite distinct from the state courts would satisfy the requirements of the Constitution. When the bill was taken up in the House, there was a long debate over this matter. The costly duplication of judicial establishments that has ever since existed in the United States is certainly not necessary to a federal system, but is an American peculiarity. The advocates of a unified system were hampered by the fact that this view was pressed by some in a spirit of hostility to the Constitution. The decisive argument was the untrustworthiness of the state courts. Madison urged this fact with great force and pointed out that in some of the States the courts "are so dependent on the state legislatures, that to make the federal laws dependent on them, would throw us back into all the embarrassments which characterized our former situation." Such was the low repute of the state legislatures that the only way in which this argument could be met was to argue that "Congress shall have power, in its fullest extent, to correct, p53reverse, or affirm, any decree of a state court." This high assertion of federal authority was made by Jackson of Georgia in the course of a long legal argument. The debate did not follow sectional lines, and in general it was not unfairly described by Maclay as a lawyer's wrangle. The bill was put into shape by the Senate, and reached the House toward the close of the session when the struggle over the site of the national capital was overshadowing everything else. It was so generally believed that nothing important could be gained by attempts at amendment that, after an airing of opinions, the House accepted the measure just as it had come from the Senate.
a Gibbon's disingenuous bon mot refers to the controversy over homoousion and homoiousion; referring to Christ, whether he was, repectively, the same as God, or merely like God. The latter opens the door to polytheism.
It's also worth noting that in introducing this parallel, Ford is not just seeking to lighten a rather dry little topic; he meant it as ammunition for one of his main contentions, that eventually the American representative system would evolve into a parliamentary one, which he thought of as an improvement — as we can read in his next few paragraphs. Nearly a hundred years later, though, Ford was no closer to prescient than he was then.
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