All Commentary
Thursday, February 1, 1973

The Founding of the American Republic: 19. Establishing the Government

Dr. Carson, noted lecturer and author, is Chairman of the Department of History at Hillsdale College in Michigan. The articles of this series will be published as a book by Arlington House.

“Great oaks from tiny acorns grow,” run the words of an old saying. They seem particularly appropriate to the United States government, as we look back on its small, uncertain, and precarious beginnings from the twentieth century when the lineal descendant of that government has grown to immense proportions. It is difficult for us who are used to this Leviathan with its symmetry, stability, and massiveness even to imagine the frail beginnings and the contingency of its existence. The government, which has long since proceeded on the momentum of an established institution, once had to be made to go by conscious and concentrated effort; and a little of that story needs to be told.

The first Congress was so slow in assembling that there was some reason to doubt whether the government might even get underway. It was scheduled to begin with its sessions on March 4, 1789 in the city of New York. But only a few members of either house had arrived by that date. Historian Claude Bowers describes the further difficulties of Congress this way: “A week after the date set for the opening of Congress but six Senators had appeared, and a circular letter was sent to the others urging their immediate attendance. Two weeks more and neither House nor Senate could muster a quorum…. ‘The people will forget the new government before it is born,’ wrote [Fisher] Ames. ‘The resurrection of the infant will come before its birth.’” This was unduly pessimistic, however, for the houses had the necessary quorums for organizing to do business on April 6.

A few days later, April 16, George Washington set out by carriage from Mount Vernon to make the journey to New York City to be inaugurated as the first President of the United States. The electors were unanimous in selecting him to the post, though their unanimity dissolved when it came to selecting John Adams as Vice-President. Along the way on his journey north, Washington was greeted with pomp and ceremony and by throngs of people. The Governor of Pennsylvania, Thomas Mifflin, greeted Washington at the border of his state with a troop of calvary and escorted the President-elect into Philadelphia where his arrival was celebrated by thousands of inhabitants. Trenton, New Jersey, however, provided him the most effusive welcome. “There a triumphal arch composed of thirteen flower-bedecked pillars straddled the road. In front of it stood thirteen maidens in white, each with a flower basket on her arm. As the great man, now astride a white horse, rode into view the maidens burst into song.”

Virgins fair and matrons grave, Those thy conquering arm did save, Build for thee triumphal bowers; Strew, ye fair, his way with flowers Strew your hero’s way with flowers)

Republican simplicity had not yet replaced monarchical pomposity in America, but it is doubtful that any monarch was ever so genuinely admired, loved, and respected as the hero chosen to be chief of state of this Republic.

Inauguration in New York City

Quite a spectacle was prepared in New York City for Washington’s arrival. The inauguration day was set for April 30. A splendid procession formed at Washington’s residence to escort him to the place of inauguration, Federal Hall. He took the oath of office in public view, and then went into the Senate chamber to deliver his inaugural address to both houses of Congress there assembled. Washington had taken great care in preparing this address and had practiced the delivery of it before he had left Mount Vernon. Even so, he appears to have had great difficulty with giving it utterance. Fisher Ames noted that the President was “grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention.”2 Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania declared that “this great man was agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket. He trembled, and several times could scarce make out to read.”3

It is certain that Washington was no orator, nor was he comfortable in attempting to fulfill that office. But there was good reason aside from that for him to approach the highest office in the land tremulously. There is evidence that he entertained doubts as to his capabilities for the task ahead. One historian says that “Washington in some respects was a humble man, despite that massive outer shield of dignity which served to freeze the over familiar and even to awe his closest friends. He knew his own limitations. He had a sufficient faith in his powers as a military strategist and commander in the field; he had no such confidence in his abilities as a statesman in time of peace.”4 But even a man lacking his modesty might well have blanched before the prospect of the difficulties he would face. Indeed, all those who undertook leading roles in the new government had their work cut out for them.

Starting from Scratch

L. D. White, who made extensive studies of the early administrations, says that when Washington became “the first President under the new Constitution, he took over almost nothing from the dying Confederation. There was, indeed, a foreign office with John Jay and a couple of clerks to deal with correspondence…; there was a Treasury Board with an empty treasury; there was a ‘Secretary at War’ with an authorized army of 840 men; there were a dozen clerks whose pay was in arrears, and an unknown but fearful burden of debt, almost no revenue, and a prostrate credit. But one could hardly perceive in the winter of 1789 a government of the Union.”

Indeed, the problems of getting an effective government underway in early 1789 were greater than even the above would suggest. The population of the country was not so great, of course. The census of 1790 showed it to be just under 4,000,000. But it was spread over a vast area. Though the bulk of the population was on or near the Atlantic seaboard, that fact hardly indicated that the population was concentrated. The seaboard itself stretched for perhaps 1500 miles from Maine through Georgia. Along this great stretch of coast population was located mostly in clumps here and there, and these were frequently separated from one another by considerable distances. Back of the seaboard was a vast area, split by the Appalachians, much of it inhabited by Indians, by and large still in its primeval condition, and most of it as yet unsurveyed. Travel from one place to another was often an unpleasant adventure, and from some parts of the country to others a virtual impossibility overland.

Differences to Contend With

Although the preponderance of the population, save for the Blacks, was British in background and tradition, there were many differences among the people in any given area as well as many regional differences. Americans as a whole had not yet been governed by a real government located on this continent, and even British rule had not bound them together; that had held them only to the mother country as best it could. There were differences of religion: they were Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Quakers, and members of a multitude of small sects, though, again, Americans were usually Protestant. The middle states differed decidedly from the New England, and the Southern ones from all the rest. These diversities made any union by government appear unlikely, if not impossible.

The financial situation of the government of the United States was so precarious that it might well be said that the new government was receiver for the bankrupt Confederation. Even after the repudiation of the Continental currency the debts of the states and the Union which were left over from the war were large and growing, for in many instances not even the interest was being paid. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton estimated that the United States owed to foreign creditors £11,710,378, of which $1,640,071 was interest. The principal of the domestic debt he declared to be 827,383,917, to which would be added interest arrears to the amount of $13,030,168.5 States had debts, too, which had been contracted during the war and which might be charged to the United States government.

Complex Foreign Affairs

To these difficulties were added those of dealing effectively with foreign powers. The United States had not yet earned the respect or fear of foreign countries. British troops still held sway in the Old Northwest from forts on the Great Lakes. The Spanish dominated much of the Mississippi River as well as egress from it. As if this were not enough, on July 14, 1789, only two-and-a-half months after Washington’s inauguration, a mob in Paris stormed the Bastille, signaling the onset of the French Revolution. There were undoubtedly many in America who thought that the early events of that revolution were a good augury for the United States. Much of the rhetoric of the revolutionaries bore a family resemblance to that just used by Americans. (This was neither entirely coincidence nor attributable to the Zeitgeist alone; Thomas Paine devoted himself to the French cause as he had lately done to the American one.) This was to be a revolution in defense of the rights of man, so Americans heard, and were gladdened. Moreover, the French proclaimed a republic in 1792, and Americans welcomed company in that aspiration.

But out of the French Revolution grew such activities, contests, and, eventually, wars that all of Europe was caught up in them and repercussions reached to many other parts of the world. If George Washington, in preparing his inaugural address, had foreseen the trial that the wars and disturbances surrounding the French Revolution would be to the United States, he might have given up in despair, though it was hardly in his character to do so. War broke out in Europe in 1793, receded and expanded, but continued until 1815 with only one intermission of peace for about a year. It involved not only all the European powers at one time or another, and most of them several times, but also their empires in the rest of the world and any neutral nations trading with Europe. The American Republic needed peace very much for the development of unity; instead it was pressed toward war and torn between the warring parties of Europe.

Putting Ideas to Practice

To contend with these difficulties in 1789, the United States government had a Constitution — a piece of paper — consisting of a few articles setting forth a plan of government. The United States was a vision in 1789, its government was a dream, and a mere hope was its dominion over the vast continental territory vouchsafed to its keeping. Americans had proved themselves masters of rhetoric: they could pen declarations, draw up constitutions, add to them bills of rights; they had even fought a war successfully; but it was still very much in doubt that they could effect a permanent union, would submit to the necessary taxation to retire their debts, could govern the domain, and could take their place as a nation among nations.

Words are wonderful things; ideas move men; and plans contain the necessary patterns for human endeavor. But there is a missing link between words on paper — though they compose a constitution or some other noble document — and the realities of unity, government, stability, and liberty. That missing link, if it is supplied, is supplied by men. Man is a frail reed, but his proposals are evanescent without his energies. It was men who breathed the breath of life into the government, who provided the flesh to the bones of the Constitution, who in their contests with one another held the government in check, and who gave impetus and direction to it. But it was neither the generality of men who did this nor even all of those who held office in the government. Madison’s comment after looking over the roll of those elected to the first Congress may have been somewhat harsh, but it was much to the point: he said that there were few members who would take an active hand “in the drudgery of the business.”6 That part would be played, as it usually is, by a few men with the tenacity, the ambition, the drive, and the determination to make the government work. Critics abound; leaders who get things done are few.

The Greatest of These…

The number of the men who played the leading roles in making the new government work were few and can be named on the fingers of a single hand — almost. Of course, there were others who played important parts, and no government could succeed without widespread support from the populace (and the social base which their activities provide); but given all these things, it still required and had the leadership of a remarkable set of men. The ones that stand out above all the others in the early years of the Republic are: George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and John Marshall.

Americans were jealous of their rights and loath to grant that power over their lives and fortunes which is necessary even for limited government. Nor was it easy to reconcile them to the potential concentration of power that was vested in the office of President. If such power had to be vested in men, even many of those at the Constitutional Convention thought, it would be better imparted to three men than one. What made it finally acceptable to Americans to have but one man as President was that the man would be George Washington at first. Washington’s reaction to all this is summed up by a biographer:

Even before the Constitution was adopted, public opinion had fixed on Washington as the first president. He repelled the suggestion when it was made to him and opposed it wherever he decently could. Fame he had never coveted and the purely military ambition of his youth had long since been burned out, as he had gained close acquaintance with the scourge of war. At the age of fifty-six he had no “wish beyond that of living and dying an honest man on my own farm.”7

It was this modesty, this lack of personal ambition, this humility, and his sense of stewardship and honor that made him so right for the post. Washington could be trusted, that was the key: trusted to stick to his post until he had accomplished the goal, trusted to do the honorable thing, trusted with the affairs of the people, and trusted to think in terms of the Union. He would not be expected to achieve daring coups, to make risky innovations, or to use his office for purely personal ambitions. He would and did bring dignity to the office and make of it a symbol of unity for a people.

James Madison

Wispy James Madison is a strange choice for one of the essential leaders in establishing the government. Historians and biographers did not make the choice, though it should be said that they have affirmed it. Nor could it be said that for most of his career he was the choice of the people. With his quiet voice, his unassuming manner, and his small stature, he was not one to be picked for leadership. The Virginia legislature passed over him for one of their Senators, and he had to make do with being a member of the House of Representatives. In a sense, Madison must have chosen himself for the role. He had it, at any rate, because of his cultivated intellect, his determination to have a national government, and because he spoke with such cogency and authority on the Constitution. Where others doubted or vacillated, he was certain and determined. He was the man who had so much to do with drawing the Constitution, getting it adopted, making a Bill of Rights, and guiding through the House the early legislation by which the government was established.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was, and has remained, a controversial figure in the history of the early years of the Republic. Given his brilliance, his audacity, his drive, and his ambition, it probably could not have been otherwise. He was the man with a plan, a plan he intended to see adopted, and a plan over whose merits men were sharply divided. Perhaps what he achieved could have been accomplished without the acrimony he aroused, but we may doubt it. He wanted an energetic government which men would look upon as the government, and any program to achieve it was bound to stir up deep animosities. Hamilton was a nationalist; much less than any other leading figure of these times was he associated by allegiance with any state. He was born and partially educated in the West Indies. He came to Boston in 1772 or 1773, at the age of 15-18, depending on which birth date is accepted and which year he arrived. Shortly, he moved to New York for such local base as he ever had for his political ambitions. He had hardly arrived when he entered the lists of pamphleteers against British measures. He served in the army during the war, was appointed an aid to General George Washington and at that post learned much about the country. He was instrumental both in getting the Constitutional Convention called and less so in helping with its work. He was, however, a leading figure in securing its ratification in New York. Washington appointed Hamilton to what many considered the most important post in the new government, that of Secretary of the Treasury. If it was not the most important, he acted as if it were, and from it he proceeded to the establishment of a financial system for the United States. His over-all achievement has been aptly described this way:

He created as from a void a firm public credit; he strengthened the government by not merely placing it on a sure financial foundation, but also uniting great propertied interests behind it… He saw the importance of what he called “energy in the administration”…, and if only because he went further than any other member of the government in exercising the powers of the Constitution, he must rank as one of the boldest and most farsighted of the founders of the nation.8

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson has had the loftiest of reputations among the Founders. There was something somewhat Olympian about him; he had more skills and abilities than any man ought: he was architect, inventor, lawyer, statesman, writer, and linguist, among other accomplishments. But his Olympian position may owe more to his absence from the center of most continental and national efforts during the crucial years of the late 1770′s and the 1780′s. When other prominent men were engaged in the War for Independence he was serving ineptly as Governor of Virginia. While the new Constitution was being drawn and ratified he was serving as Minister to France. While others were engaged in the heat of the contest for ratification or alteration, he could and did write calm and judicious letters about the document. Even after he was brought to the center of affairs in Washington’s Administration as Secretary of State, he remained in the shade of the more energetic and imaginative Hamilton; and it would have been a sensible judgment that he was unsuited to the rough and tumble of politics. It is ironic, then, that he is included among the list of men who established the government for his role in partisan politics. Jefferson did grasp the nettle of involvement in the exercise of power, forge a political party which attracted a large national following, establish what a succession of Presidents became, and bring republican simplicity to government as well as make political parties another instrument in the balance and containment of power in America. He hardly wished to be remembered as a partisan politician, or even a politician for that matter; yet he adorns history books largely in that role, and in the largest view this is as it should be. It is in the rough and tumble of politics that ideas are tested along with the mettle of those who advanced them. To be founder of a political party appears to be a lesser thing than to be “Father of the Constitution,” but Jefferson’s reputation has been more secure than that of James Madison. (Lest someone remind me that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, I note again that indeed he did, and maintain also that this authorship would have given him a secure place in American history but it would probably have no more made him a Founder than did Paine’s authorship of Common Sense and The Crisis.)

John Adams

Why include John Adams in the list of eminent establishers of the government? There is no doubt, of course, that he should have a secure niche among the Founders for his service over the years in working for independence and for his dogged diplomacy in Europe. Moreover, he was the first Vice President of the United States and the second President. These latter activities are the ones that give trouble, however, for he has frequently been adjudged a weak and ineffective President, one who inherited from Washington and kept a cabinet which he could not dominate, and who lacked the authority to keep the Federalists in line. The consensus of historians has sometimes been more generous with him, however. About twenty years ago historian Arthur M. Schlesinger queried over half a hundred prominent historians and political scientists asking them to evaluate the Presidents on a scale ranging from Great to Failures. John Adams finished in the top ten, and was rated as near Great.9 Perhaps, if the reason for rating him so high must be simplified it is that as President he steered the United States on a course of neutrality and independence in the world, averted both serious internal troubles and a major foreign conflict, and achieved out of it an accord with France.

John Marshall

John Marshall came late to the role of establishing the government. He did take part in the war and in politics during the 1770′s and 1780′s but in positions that did not bring him to the forefront of the attention of Americans. He was prominent in the Virginia convention which took up the question of ratification of the Constitution and debated in favor of adoption. But he only emerged as a major national figure in 1800 when John Adams appointed him Secretary of State. And, in 1801 he was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position which he occupied until his death in 1835. It was, of course, as Chief Justice that he distinguished himself and played a prominent part in giving stability to the United States government.

Marshall does not exactly fit our image of an eminent jurist. He was not particularly well-stocked with formal education; his academic training in the law was restricted to a few lectures by George Wythe which he attended. A contemporary said he was “’tall, meagre, emaciated,’ loose-jointed, inelegant in ‘dress, attitudes, gesture,’ of swarthy complexion, and looking beyond his years, with a countenance ‘small in proportion to his height’ but pervaded with ‘great good humour and hilarity…’”¹º Even so, he came to dominate the court in fairly short order, a fact which is the more remarkable because he was a Federalist, and the men appointed to be his brothers on the court over the years were Republicans. He had a mind which could go the nub of the matter; he was unencumbered by any great knowledge of the law; and he would carry the field with the force of an argument. His great strength lay in his devotion to the Constitution and his determination to have it hold sway regardless of what there might be in ordinary law to the contrary. The impact of his opinions on the Constitution raised that document far above the realm of ordinary law and did much to make the Constitution into a Higher Law. As Justice Story said in the dedication of his Commentaries to Marshall:

Your expositions of constitutional law enjoy a rare and extraordinary authority. They constitute a monument of fame far beyond the ordinary memorials of political and military glory. They are destined to enlighten, instruct, and convince future generations; and can scarcely perish but with the memory of the constitution itself.”

Building from the Blueprint

The great task which confronted the men who would establish the government of the United States at the outset, aside from getting respect for it, was to flesh out the very general outline for a government contained in the Constitution. Their work can be likened to that of a master carpenter who has the task of constructing a house from a blueprint. The blueprint indicates what the house should be like, but it rarely tells in any detail how the effects are to be achieved. That is the task of the builder. So it was with the men who took the reins of the government. Moreover, they had the momentous job of deciding which way, among numerous ways, things should be done in the knowledge that once a way was chosen it would be a precedent for the future. The writers of a constitutional history text comment on this point in the following way:

The decisions made by the statesmen who launched the new government were of especial importance, for the institutions they erected and the policies they inaugurated established precedents that were certain to affect profoundly the entire subsequent development of the constitutional system.¹²

The Setting of Precedents

There were many such presidential decisions in the early years, some trivial, or apparently so, others momentous. For example, the Senate spent some little time over what the proper form of addressing the President should be. A Senate committee actually recommended that Washington be addressed as “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Many in the Senate were outraged, and under Madison’s leadership in the House, that body insisted that he be addressed as the Constitution implies he should, namely, as “the President of the United States,” and so he has been ever since.13

There was considerable discussion over whether or not heads of departments should be permitted to appear before the houses of Congress to present and discuss legislation. The decision was against it. President Washington appears to have been uncertain himself as to how he was to get the “advice and consent” of the Senate to treaties. He came in person to the Senate to present his first treaty. He was so disgruntled at the proceedings there, however, that he vowed after a second visit over this same treaty that he would never return on a similar errand, and he did not. Since that time, Presidents have caused treaties to be drawn, have sent them along to the Senate for approval, emendation, or rejection, and have considered themselves to be thus complying with the Constitution.

How Many Terms as President?

Perhaps the best example of a precedent being set which men adhered to for a very long time was in the matter of the number of terms a President would serve. There had been considerable concern when the office was set up that election to the office once would amount to election for life, for a President might be expected to be re-elected time after time. No doubt some even hoped that this would be the case. George Washington, however, decided to retire after his second term. His example carried such weight that every other man who had the opportunity stepped down voluntarily after two terms for the next 144 years. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first President to attempt to succeed himself for a third term. The precedent was still so highly valued, however, that the two-term limit has since been made part of the fundamental law.

Duties of Congress

The Congress had the most immediate task of getting the government underway. It had to pass legislation that would call into being powers and functions that had been authorized by the Constitution. The first order of business was to provide revenue for the government. The first act, then, was the Tariff Act passed July 4, 1789. Though there were some protectionist features to it, the average duties laid were only 8 per cent, making it an act for revenue primarily. On July 20, a Tonnage Act was passed, levying a tax on goods unloaded in American ports. The rate was to be 50 cents a ton on foreign shipping and 6 cents a ton on domestic. These duties, while not prohibitive, did obviously discriminate in favor of American ships. These things done, the Congress busied itself much in the next couple of months with creating departments of the government. The first departments called into being were State, War, and Treasury, in that order, and these were followed shortly by authorizations for a Postmaster General and an Attorney General, though these dignitaries did not yet oversee departments. A Federal Judiciary Act was passed on September 24, which provided for a Supreme Court with a chief justice and five associates. Three circuit courts were authorized, each of which was to have the attention of two Supreme Court justices. And Congress established 12 district courts. Though that body had been empowered by the Constitution to establish such courts, it was a discretionary power. The bringing of the lower courts into being was a decisive measure by the Congress and set the United States in the direction of having two distinct court systems, those of the United States and those of the states.

The leadership in originating and pressing through much of this legislation was taken by James Madison. With respect to part of the legislation, one historian says; “In the formulation of the fiscal policies of the new government, James Madison asserted over Congress the same high order of leadership that he had exercised over the Constitutional Convention.”14

Presidential Coordination

It was now President Washington’s turn to take the necessary actions to get all this functioning. Men had to be appointed to high offices with the consent of the Senate, and others had to be appointed to the more mundane jobs. Washington was finally able to persuade Thomas Jefferson to serve as the first Secretary of. State. He got his old comrade at arms, Henry Knox, to become Secretary of War, which involved for him, mainly, continuing the post he occupied under the Confederation. Hamilton was the first Secretary of the Treasury, Edmund Randolph the first Attorney General, and John Jay the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Department heads were not at first thought of as composing the President’s Cabinet. They began to be convened as a cabinet, however, when Washington found it more convenient to have their opinions in concert rather than individually on certain matters. However, the Cabinet, as such, has only such power and influence as the President accords it. With Washington this was considerable. “He surveyed his Cabinet with justifiable complacency. All were men of ability, and two were men of genius. With such as these, he wrote, ‘I feel myself supported by able Co-adjutors, who harmonize well together.’”15 This estimate, however, turned out to be much too optimistic.

With these things done, the government began slowly to function. Some of the most basic laws had been passed, men appointed to posts, and the tasks of performing functions assigned. The three branches of government were acting or ready to act, their separate functions becoming more clearly delineated, the relationships among them being sorted out. What had been a dream and a hope only a few months before was by 1790 becoming a reality.

Next: Steering a Course for the Nation.



¹ Nathan Schachner, The Founding Fathers (New York: Capricorn Books, 1954), p. 6.

2 Ibid., p. 11.

3 Ibid., p. 12.

4 Ibid., pp. 3-4.

5 Curtis P. Nettels, The Emergence of a National Economy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), p. 115.

6 Schachner, op. cit., p. 33.

7 John C. Fitzpatrick, “George Washington,” The American Plutarch, Edward T. James, ed. (New York: Scribner’s, 1964), p. 51.

8 Allan Nevins, “Alexander Hamilton,” ibid., p. 113.9 Morton Borden, ed., America’s Ten Greatest Presidents (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1961), p. 4.

¹0 Edward S. Corwin, “John Marshall,” James, op. cit., p. 164.

¹¹ Ibid., pp. 171-72.

¹2 Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution (New York: Norton, 1955, rev. ed.), p. 167.

¹3 Schachner, op. cit., pp. 46-47.

¹4 John C. Miller, The Federalist Era (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), p. 15.

¹5 Schachner, op. cit., p. 63. 

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.