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About the Author:
Robert V. Remini is a professor of history emeritus and research professor of humanities emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago
The guns at the Battery in New York City shattered the stillness of the morning with an eleven-gun salute to announce to a barely awakened population that this was March 4, 1789, the day the new government, formed by the recently ratified Constitution, would be inaugurated.
Then church bells around the city added to the din, setting up a joyful cry to remind everyone that at eleven o'clock both houses of Congress would meet and count the electoral ballots submitted by each state and announce to the world that the great hero of their Revolution had been elected President of the United States. Even without an electoral count everyone knew that George Washington would head -- indeed, must head -- the new government. He was so much beloved and honored that it was inconceivable that anyone else should or could be selected President. It was also expected that John Adams of Massachusetts would be chosen Vice President. His remarkable career and his northern connection, despite his monarchical leanings, made him the appropriate choice.
Virtually every building in the city hung flags to celebrate the momentous event, andas each hour passed people poured into the streets and headed for Federal Hall, where Congress would assemble. "Marks of evident satisfaction were visibly imprinted on every countenance," wrote a reporter for the Massachusetts (Boston) Centinel.1 In a city of a little less than thirty thousand individuals, with approximately two thousand black slaves, a city recovering from the effects of British occupation during much of the Revolution, it seemed that most of the population joined in the celebration. In part the excitement centered on the fact that a republican form of government had been established that was indeed representative of the people and their states. True, this tripartite form of government contained traces of a monarchical system with its office of chief executive, along with elements of oligarchy or aristocracy in the structure of the Senate. But the House of Representatives was truly democratic since it was composed of members chosen directly by the electorate, either at large or from districts in each state. Every two years the representatives of the House had to go before their constituents and win approval for another two years in office or be replaced by someone else. It had taken more than a century and a half of colonial government for Americans to appreciate the need, and invent the way, to provide for democratic rule. As George Mason, who framed the Virginia Declaration of Rights, declared, the House is "the grand repository of the democratic principle of the Government."2 As such it was totally unique, and everyone at the time knew it and hoped and prayed it would work.
In the national elections that followed the ratification of the Constitution, the friends of this new document, called Federalists, fortunately won an overwhelming majority in the local and state contests, rather than its critics, the Anti-Federalists, who fought to defeat ratification of the Constitution because it failed to provide a Bill of Rights and conferred what seemed like enormous powers on the central government and thereby weakened the states. Disputed contests for House seats occurred in only fifteen out of forty-three districts, but forty-nine out of fifty-nine Federalists were elected.3 Now these congressmen had the enormous responsibility of implementing the Constitution. They had to flesh out the bare bones of a governmental structure that contained any number of ambiguities and inherent problems. And the Framers of the Constitution had to guess at state populations in apportioning the number of seats for each state in the first House of Representatives.4
So, there was fear and expectation, excitement and hope as the elected members of Congress filed into Federal Hall, a building at the corner of Wall and Nassau Streets, which served as New York's City Hall. Major Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, a young French architect and engineer who had fought in the Revolution as a volunteer, had been hired to convert the building into a handsome and appropriate site for the nation's new government. At a cost of $65,000, financed by a local tax and lotteries,5 the structure measured 95 feet in width and 145 feet in depth.6 With large portals off the covered walkway on the street level, it sported four columns on the second floor and a huge American eagle on the pediment of the portico. Rather strikingly, the building marked the beginning of the country's commitment to the uniquely Federal style of architecture.
As congressmen entered the building they found a three-story central vestibule with a marble floor and a splendidly decorated skylight under a small cupola. The House chamber was located off this vestibule; it was a handsomely adorned two-story octagonal hall, with committee rooms and an office for a clerk connected to it. Senators found their chamber on the second floor via two stairways, one of which was reserved for congressmen, and was almost immediately referred to as the upper house.7 "It is very true," wrote Peter Muhlenberg to Benjamin Rush, "that the appellation of Lower House will perfectly apply at present to the House of Representatives, but in this case, the upper and lower House derive their different rank from the whim or plea-sure of the Architect."8
The building won instant praise as a "superb edifice," one worthy of the greatest and best cities of Europe.9 "Let us all hope," editorialized the New York Morning Post and Daily Advertiser on March 14, "that as the Building of this House has been attended with singular success so may our wishes be fulfilled in every respect...by a swift and successful administration of Government."10
Workmen were still putting the final touches to L'Enfant's elegant structure when the representatives arrived on March 4, so the congressmen had to temporarily find makeshift space in another part of the building. Some sixty-five representatives were expected on that first day but only thirteen . . .
Excerpted from The House by Robert V. Remini Copyright © 2006 by Robert V. Remini. Excerpted by permission.
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