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First Federal Congress Project

The Open Doors

The Newsletter of The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791

The George Washington University
Washington, D.C. 20052

Number 1
August 1996

The editors of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress (DHFFC) are pleased to present this inaugural issue of our newsletter to the friends and supporters of the First Federal Congress Project. Like the first House of Representatives' fateful decision to throw open its doors to the public, we hope the newsletter serves to generate further interest in and access to the history of the First Congress, believing--in the approving words of a contemporary ediforialist--that "this method of laying open to the full view of the people the proceedings of their political Fathers, is productive of the happiest effects."

NEW-YORK, April 3. [1790]
"We are informed that there will soon be published, an history of this, and the preceeding session of Congress; and that the object of this history will be to point out the most interesting questions that have been debated, and to make such remarks on the proceedings at large as will shew the general complexion of the public business. This history will be rendered singularly entertaining, by furnishing a biographical account of the most distinguished characters in Congress; and by investigating the views and principles which appear to have governed the debates."

Table of Contents


An End to the Debate

A widely-reprinted notice that appeared in the [Philadelphia] Federal Gazette on 6 April 1790 (see above) serves as an excellent advertisement for the DHFFC's 5-volume series on the debates in the House of Representatives. The series began in 1992 with the publication of volumes 10 and 11, covering the first session (April-September 1789), continued in 1994 with the publication of volumes 12 and 13, covering the second session (January-August 1790), and recenfly concluded in January 1996 with the publication of volume 14, covering the third session (December 1790-March 1791). Until the appearance of these volumes, Gales and Seaton's mid-nineteenth century Annals of Congress was the standard but inadequate documentary source for most congressional historiography. The DHFFC's debate volumes improve upon the Annals, effectively doubling the documentary record, by providing all independent, contemporary accounts of the debates printed in newspapers at the seat of government.

In some cases, such as Rep. Roger Sherman's (CT) speech for assumption of the state debts, the text has been retrieved from a First Congress member's collection of papers; in others, such as Rep. John Page's (VA) speech on the Quaker antislavery petitions, the text was printed exclusively in the local newspaper of a member's home district, usually at the request of a member to clarify some controversial or unpopular measure. The debate volumes also provide the first printed transcription of Thomas Lloyd's shorthand notes of the debates taken on the floor of the House. For some dates Lloyd's notes are the only source. The reader will be rewarded for struggling through Lloyd's terse transcription with the sense of immediacy they convey, as well as the occasional gems that did not survive the editorial cut to appear in any printed accounts.

The five volumes will become the source of choice for historians, lawyers, jurists, and educators for the House debates on such important issues as the creation of a revenue system, the power of removal of executive officers, the Bill of Rights, the location of the federal capital, the funding of the Revolutionary War debt, the creation of the Bank of the United States, the organization of the militia, and federal regulation of the slave trade. Introductory notes to volumes 10, 12, and 14 bring together current scholarship on precedents for access to and reporting of congressional debates, major themes of the debates in each of the three sessions, the political culture of the House gallery, the architecture of Federal Hall and Congress Hall, and bibliographies of New York and Philadelphia newspapers. A 450-page appendix to volume 14, containing biographies of every member of the FFC--from the most prominent to the most obscure--is a source for all users of the DHFFC.

Users will concur with a correspondent for the Gazette of the United States of 27 May 1789, who predicted that the publication of the debates of Congress would gradually disseminate "principles of legislative wisdom and integrity." More than two hundred years after the fact, his observation still holds true: "Great advantages will be derived from having it in the power of the rising patriots, and legislators of our country, to take up a system of practical legislation from the beginning, and observe the regular gradations of a young nation growing into opulence, contentment and power."

Petition Volumes Near Completion

The more than six hundred petitions presented during the FFC, and Congress's response to them, are instructive for what they reveal about the American people at the dawn of the Republic: their concepts of justice, equity, civil rights, citizenship, and entitlement; their understanding of the Revolutionary War, their role in it, and their obligations to those who suffered to secure independence; the promise of their westward empire; their material aspirations; and their expectations of the federal government and the Constitution.

The impact of petitions on the legislative agenda of the First Congress transcended private claims, in several instances leading Congress to promulgate legislation of far-reaching significance. Important initiatives, such as the establishment of general patent and copyright procedures, a land office, and the debt funding plan were influenced by petitions seeking private legislation. Petitions also influenced legislation establishing federal revenues, mitigating fines, and locating the capital. Petitions influenced or directly led to other initiatives that failed to result in legislation: these include petitions on bankruptcy, the encouragement of manufacturing, the exemption from militia duty, the regulation of harbors, the establishment of public hospitals, and the regulation of the slave trade.

To render as complete a portrait as possible, a conscious effort has been made to include all information about the petitions. More non-First Congress material has necessarily been included than elsewhere in the series: earlier or later versions of a First Congress petition have been provided, when possible, from the papers of the Confederation Congress or later federal Congresses. Failing that, an attempt has been made to include drafts of the petitions from private collections or summaries culled from letters or newspaper accounts. When extant, items that originally served as enclosures to secretaries' reports, but were subsequently alienated, have been retrieved and included from among the papers of the Continental and Confederation Congresses, from which they were frequently copied or borrowed during the First Congress. Private correspondence relevant to the petitions has also been referred to or included. Consequently, the volumes are partly unofficial in their nature, occupying a proper place between the official volumes which preceded them and the unofficial volumes which follow.

From the Files of the First Federal Congress Project

I last Evening recd. yours by Mr. Dane and this morning had your box of models carried to Mr. Ramsen and have informd. him I shall pay every expence, and have desired him to pay particular attention to the sub]ect, he has promised me he will, and you may rely on my best endeavours to promote your interest-- compliments to Mrs. Read

with sincerity I am your
Friend & Servt.
B. Goodhue

This letter by Rep. Benjanmin Goodhue of Salem, Massachusetts, to Nathan Read illustrates the variety and extent of legislator-constituent relations during the First Congress. Read (1759-1849), a Harvard-educated apothecary living in Salem, first petitioned the House on 8 February 1790 for "an exclusive privilege for constructing sundry machines and engines, which he has invented for improving the art of distillation, for facilitating the operation of mills and other water-works, and for promoting the purposes of navigation and land carriage." Read's modifications of the steam engine were discussed widely not only in New England, but also by those interested in their application to the region's early industries. Under the nation's first Patents Act [HR-41], on 22 April 1790 the patent commission ordered "letters patent" to be issued to Read for his portable furnace boiler, steam cylinder, and multitubular stills. Read apparently withdrew these patent applications and submitted others in January 1791. Goodhue--as this letter attests--served as Read's liaison with the patent commission when he applied for additional patents at that time. Read went on to patent several more inventions, directed the Salem Iron Factory from 1796 to 1807, and sat as a Federalist in the Sixth and Seventh Congresses.

Henry Remsen, Jr., as chief clerk of the Department of State, served as secretary to the patent commission, which consisted of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary at War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. "Mr. Dane" almost certainly refers to Nathan Dane, lawyer of Beverly, Massachusetts, state legislator, and former member of the Confederation Congress.

Goodhue's letter to Read was discovered during a search of the Nathan Read Papers at the Phillips Library of the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, in September 1995, by Assistant Editor Chuck diGiacomantonio. A preliminary search of this repository in 1969 failed to uncover the letter. Conducting similar follow-up searches, principally in the Northeast, is an on-going priority for the First Congress Project.

About the First Federal Congress Project

The First Federal Congress was the most important and productive Congress in American history, a second sitting of the Federal Convention. Without its tremendous legislative output, the new constitutional experiment would almost certainly have failed. By passing legislation to raise a federal revenue, pay the state and federal war debt, locate the national capital, and regulate interstate commerce--issues which had obstructed the functioning of the central government since at least the end of the Revolutionary War-the First Congress brought to conclusion the American Revolution and found a way to retain the North and South in the union when both sides were threatening an end to it.

The First Federal Congress Project was established at The George Washington University with the goal of locating and publishing all documents relating to the implementation of the Constitution by the First Federal Congress. Twelve volumes of the projected 19 volume series have been published by the Johns Hopkins University Press since 1972. The bulk of the project's direct support comes from federal grants. The project must raise substantial private funds to retain staff and meet production schedules in the face of federal budget cuts.

Your tax-deductible gifts made out to The George Washington University are earnestly solicited. Contributions and inquiries should be sent to:

Charlene B. Bickford, Director
The First Federal Congress Project
The George Washington University
Washington, D.C. 20052
FAX: 202-496-9055
e-mail: bickford@gwu.edu

"In no nation, by no Legislature, was ever so much done in so short a period for the establishment of Government, Order, . . . & general tranquility" (John Trumbull to John Adams, 20 Mar. 1791).

Co-sponsors and funders:

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission
The George Washington University
The National Endowment for the Humanities

Project Staff:

Charlene B. Bickford, Co-editor and Director
Kenneth R. Bowling, Co-editor
Helen E. Veit, Associate Editor
William C. diGiacomantonio, Associate Editor


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