The First Congress of the United States: The Bill of Rights and War Debt

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, 2ND EDITION

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

When the first Congress of the United States met, it was faced with a complex situation: the states were afraid of an over-powerful federal government, and the federal government wanted to be free to implement its own financial policies. Read on to know how the first Congress handled the challenging situations.

Image of a steel engraving that shows people in Wall street with the Old City Hall on the right, which was the first seat of the first Congress of the United States
The first Congress of the United States met in New York in March 1789 to discuss what they could do to allay the fears of the states. (Image: Robert Hinshelwood/New York Public Library/Public domain)

Allaying the Fears of the States

It is difficult to appreciate the sense of suspicion with which the Constitution of the United States was greeted, when the government it created finally began to operate in the spring of 1789.

Support for the Constitution of 1787 had, almost literally, to be bought with promises that in exchange for ratifying the Constitution, the new Congress that it created would pass amendments that would placate the interests of the states.

When the first Congress assembled in New York City in the spring of 1789, almost the first thing it did was to quickly pass 10 amendments to the Constitution. These became known among the ranks of those who mistrusted the new Constitution as the Bill of Rights.

Learn more about a place where European ideas of society no longer applied.

The Bill of Rights: Main Provisions

A photograph of the original manuscript of the Bill of Rights, showing the date and location of the meeting of the First Congress.
The Bill of Rights was passed when the first Congress assembled in New York City in 1789. (Image: 1st United States Congress/Public domain)

The First Amendment promised the states that the federal government would do nothing to establish a national state church. This obviously pleased states that had no officially designated religious establishment. It also pleased those which did have one, but who feared that Congress might establish a different church as the official national church of the United States.

The amendment also promised that the federal government would do nothing to restrain freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

The federal government was also supposed to do nothing to restrain the cherished republican independence of the citizens of the states by such potential outrages as restricting the creation of armed state militias, imposing search and seizure policies, quartering federal troops on private property, or in fact doing anything else that the federal Constitution did not precisely specify as a power of the federal government.

The last of these ten amendments summed up the promises of republican restraint by declaring that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

New Problems of Governance

In the December of 1790, the new President, George Washington, and the Congress uprooted themselves from New York City and set up operations in the old Pennsylvania statehouse in Philadelphia. Hardly had the Congress convened on the first Monday in December before President Washington found it necessary to circumvent what some of those amendments had promised.

A few of the ways in which Washington and the Congress in Philadelphia inched around the promises of the amendments were simply matters of necessary procedural arrangements, without which the new government could hardly have functioned at all. The Constitution, for instance, made no provision for the creation of an official presidential staff of advisers and administrators.

Learn more about Washington’s early life.

Creating a Presidential Staff

The sad experience of government under the Articles of Confederation had shown that some kind of administrative staff was a necessity, so Congress authorized Washington to create four administrative departments: War, Treasury, State, and Attorney General.

A portrait of Alexander Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury. He was to implement key financial policies that would steer the new country. (John Trumbull/Public domain)

Washington was to fill those offices at his discretion. He appointed Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson to the Department of State, Henry Knox—Washington’s wartime artillery chief—to the Department of War, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia as the Attorney General.

The Constitution also created a federal judicial system to balance the legislative powers of Congress and the president. The problem was that having brought a federal judiciary into existence, the Constitution did nothing to spell out its structure or its responsibilities, beyond providing for a federal Supreme Court, and leaving such inferior courts as might be necessary to be created by Congress.

The Federal Burden of War Debt

Then there were problems that required even more dramatic end runs around the prohibitions in the Tenth Amendment. The new federal government inherited, from the Continental Congress and from the Articles of Confederation, a burden of war indebtedness from the Revolution.

This amounted to over $75 million, $42 million of which was owed by the federal government to its own citizens—Americans who had bought government bonds or government securities, or who had accepted Continental IOUs for goods or services during the Revolution.

Nothing in the Constitution spelled out how the federal government was to deal with this problem, and nothing in the experience of the Continental Congress or the Articles of Confederation gave much hope that the states would.

The states had their own war debt to pay off, and they were not going to welcome a rival in settling those debts in the form of the federal government in Philadelphia. There was no sign that the states were going to permit much leeway to the federal government in dealing with this problem of indebtedness.

Alexander Hamilton, however, saw in the federal debt crisis not only an opportunity to serve the nation and prove himself as the Secretary of the Treasury, but also a means for pushing the shape of the new republic into the mold of his own particular sense of what a republic should be.

For Hamilton, the survival of the American republic depended on keeping the jealous interests of the individual states at bay and in balance. At the same time, the independence of the United States was linked to how successfully it could develop its own systems of foreign commerce, manufacturers, and credit.

Common Questions about the First Congress of the United States

Q. What did the first Congress do to allay the suspicions of the states about the American Constitution?

The first Congress of the United States had to quickly pass 10 amendments, known generally as the Bill of Rights, to the Constitution to placate the interests of the states and overcome the suspicion that the states had towards the Constitution.

Q. What did the First Amendment to the American Constitution promise?

The First Amendment promised, first, that the federal government would do nothing to establish a national state church. The amendment also promised that the federal government would do nothing to restrain freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Q. What were the four government departments created by the first Congress, and who was appointed to head them?

The first Congress of the United States authorized George Washington to create four administrative departments: War, Treasury, State, and Attorney General. Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson to the Department of State, Henry Knox to the Department of War, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia as the Attorney General.

Q. What was the financial problem facing the first American federal government?

The financial problem facing the first Congress was that they had inherited a huge war debt of over 75 million dollars, 42 million of which they owed to their own citizens. The states had war debts of their own to pay, so they were not inclined to help the federal government.

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