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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 2
June 1997

The editors of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress (DHFFC) are pleased to present our second newsletter to the friends and supporters of the First Federal Congress Project (FFCP). Like the first House of Representative s' 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 newspaper editor--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."

Table of Contents

FFCP and USCHS cooperate in Symposia

Following upon its highly acclaimed conferences on the American Revolution (held between 1978 and 1993), the United States Capitol Historical Society (USCHS) decided to focus its next series of symposia on the Federal Congress before 18 00. Society president Clarence J. Brown and Society chief historian Donald R. Kennon asked the FFCP to select the speakers and to work with the Society in other ways to produce the annual symposia. DHFFC coeditor Kenneth R. Bowling serves as program chair . Both the Society and the FFCP benefit from this cooperative venture.

The first symposium, held in 1994, provided a background for the entire series, covering such wide-ranging topics as legislatures in the classical world and Congress as an issue during the ratification of the Constitution. DHFFC director and coeditor Charlene Bickford closed the session with a paper on the First Federal Congress (FFC) and the media. In 1995 the FFC itself was the focus. Bickford spoke again-this time on the organization of the House and Senate; joining her was associate editor William C . diGiacomantonio speaking on the FFC's support for the arts, sciences, and public morality. The program also featured several undergraduates who had taken a George Washington University history department research seminar with Bickford and Bowling. The 1996 symposium, entitled "Neither Separate Nor Equal," investigated the relationships among the three branches of government during Congress's formative decade. This year's topic was the members themselves and included presentations by diGiacomantonio and Bowling who spoke on the role of the congressional wife and the social activities of congressmen at Philadelphia.

In 1998 the topic will be "Influencing Congress" and the papers will treat petitioning and lobbying. The topic was chosen to coincide with the publication of volumes 7 and 8 of the DHFFC, which cover all the Revolutionary War related claims and the requests on myriad other subjects that were submitted to the FFC by petition. The 1999 symposium will take an overview of the accomplishments and failures of the first five federal congresses as well as focus on the evolution of the institution itself. The fin al symposium, in 2000, will be an important scholarly contribution to the bicentennial celebration of the movement of the federal government to Washington, D.C.

Scholarly versions of the symposia talks will be published in volumes which will shed considerable and much needed light on the history of Congress. Historians have neglected Congress in the 1790s. Their focus on an executive branch dominated by three highly effective politicians-Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington-has distorted perceptions of the political history of that formative decade. One of the goals of the symposia is to draw attention to Congress and its members as they confronted and resolved as well as they could the many difficult and deeply divisive issues that confronted the young nation.

Project Loses NEH Support for 1997-98

Since 1992 grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) have partially supported two positions at the project and occasional student assistants, enabling the regular and frequent appearances of volumes since that time (seven by the end of 1997).

In April the NEH cited lack of funds (a reduction in funds available to editions of about 60%) as the primary reason for rejecting the FFCP's 1997-98 proposal. Since that time the project has turned to The George Washington University, which has agreed to continue the support that it had committed to in the NEH grant proposal.

We have also sent out around two dozen proposals or letters of inquiry to private foundations. Although some representatives of potential funders have stated that Congress or the federal government should support the publication of its own papers, we were successful in April in obtaining a $10,000 grant from the H.W. Wilson Foundation. Another round of proposals and letters will go out this summer.

Clearly, private sources--foundations, individuals, corporations--will need to be a larger proportion of the FFCP's budget in the future. It is this fact that lies behind the fundraising appeal accompanying this newsletter.

The Correspondence Series

Project staff look forward to turning their attention in the fall of 1997 to our final five volumes. The correspondence series will also include significant diary entries, newspaper articles, and miscellaneous documents. We plan to send the two first session volumes to the Johns Hopkins University Press in mid 1999. Topics covered will include proposals to establish non-hereditary titles for certain elected federal officials, the adoption of the first federal revenues, the Bill of Right s, the organization of the executive and judicial branches, the question of the president's power to remove executive officers without Senate consent, and the location of the national capital.

Members of the First Congress corresponded with family members, friends, and constituents of all types-thoughtful, politically influential, single issue, and sometimes even apparently mentally unbalanced. Consequently, the volumes in this series will breathe life into the official record and reveal much about the behind-the-scenes negotiations and compromises that were so important to the successful accomplishment of the Congress's agenda. The letters, more than any other part of the DHFFC, provide a human perspective on Congress. Motives, inter-personal relationships, the impact of family separation, and social life at the seat of government are just some of the subjects that the letters illuminate. Readers will find some familiarity in comment s such as those describing New York City (which then lay more than a mile south of Greenwich Village) as polluted, odoriferous, crime ridden, and gridlocked.

The letters reveal how members practiced politics and public service, viewed the role of the new federal government, and dealt with their often conflicting roles as representatives of states, constituents, and the people or nation at large. In particular , the letters shed considerable light on how the founding generation wrestled with sectional conflict and issues of constitutionality and federalism. Read one after another, they reveal how very fragile the Union was in 1789 and 1790 and how difficult it was for Congress to achieve the compromises that held the states together at that difficult time and laid the foundation for the economic and political growth of the nation for the next half century.

The letters are also important for what they tell us about the evolution of the member-constituent relationship. Members actively sought constituent input on issues before Congress. Constituents asked support for nominations to federal office, for private claims often growing out of service to the country during the Revolutionary War, and for the transaction of business with the executive branch. Favors requested of the staff-less members were frequent and varied and included such things as obtaining information about relatives in other states with whom they had lost touch and the purchase of books, newspapers and other items more easily obtained at the capital than at home. The bolder and more intimately acquainted ones even asked members to use their postage frank to forward personal mail unrelated to public business.

As these volumes are published over the next several years, a rich new source on the beginnings of our national legislature will be made available for generations to come.

The 18th Century Meets the 21st

With the assistance of the Model Editions Partnership (MEP), the First Congress Project is actively exploring the possibilities of creating either a CD-ROM or internet edition of the DHFFC. The process began two years ago, when the First Congress Project accepted an invitation to participate as one of seven experimental projects in the initiative sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives. The other model edition partners include the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, the Lincoln Legal Papers, the Nathanaiel Greene Papers, the Henry Laurens Papers, the Margaret Sanger Papers, and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers.

A preliminary site visit in August 1995 by MEP coordinator David Chesnutt (of the Laurens Papers), and co-coordinators Michael Sperberg-McQueen (of the Text Encoding Initiative) and Susan Hockey (of Rutgers' Center for the Electronic Text in the Humanities) yielded several observations. First they categorized the DHFFC as a "transitional edition." With over half of its projected 19 volumes already published, abandoning the letterpress format was not an option. Second, the edition printed a wide variety of document types, official and unofficial, from Journals, bills, resolutions, and motions, to petitions, debates, newspaper editorials, and private correspondence. The coordinators of MEP accepted the challenge these conditions posed, and determined that the DHFFC would be used as a model of how the documents could be linked by chronology or by subject, by way of live indices to scanned computer images of typeset pages. (A "live index," like a "live text," is one that the user can "click" into and scan on the computer screen.) Possible variations and refinements include unifying the page images of the letterpress editions with live text supplements of unpublished documents, such as maps and annotations to standard biographic and bibliographic sources.

Soon after the initial meeting, the FFCP began to select sections of text from each of the relevant volumes. In late September 1995, Project Director Charlene Bickford and Assistant Editor William diGiacomantonio joined representatives from the six other model edition partners at a steering committee meeting in Columbia, S.C. (home of the Laurens Papers). The product of this meeting was a working draft of the "Prospectus for Electronic Historical Editions," which was presented for consideration at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing held in Baltimore in late October. MEP participants took the opportunity to explain the goals, formats, and principles of electronic historical editing to the documentary editors likely to be creating some version of them in the future. The First Congress Project participated by showing a computer demonstration of its own electronic model edition. Eventually a subject oriented model, linking various materials on the same subject-the creation of the executive departments-across the series, was settled upon. We continue to work with MEP coordinators and partners as they seek "to develop a foundation for the next generation of historical editions."

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 H. W. Wilson Foundation
The U.S. Capitol Historical Society

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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