The first of 100 congresses

EARLY next year, the 100th Congress will formally convene in numbers and circumstances that differ markedly from its first counterpart in New York City in 1789. Thirteen states were represented in the First Congress, and a ``grave, almost sad'' George Washington, according to one observer, delivered an inaugural address to both houses that was conspicuous for its brevity and concern for constitutional propriety: ``By the article establishing the executive department,'' he said, ``it is made the duty of the President `to recommend to your consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.' The circumstances under which I now meet you will acquit me from entering into that subject further than to refer to the great constitutional charter under which you are assembled, and which, in defining your powers, designates the objects to which your attention is given.''

The US government owed exactly $54,124,464.56, according to the calculations of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The Constitution had been ratified by states on the expectation that amendments would be adopted forthwith. The old Confederation government left a legacy of unpaid clerks, and the US Army was confined mostly to paper, with an authorized strength of 840 men. Vermont flirted with annexation to Canada, and British troops remained in northwestern forts. To make matters worse, President Washington became seriously ill.

And yet the first Congress left a record of accomplishment that would ensure not only the survival but the development of the new nation. Administrative departments were created, the Bill of Rights was approved and sent to the states for ratification, the Judiciary Act established a system of federal courts with concurrent and appellate jurisdiction, and the government's fiscal posture was put on a solid foundation by tariffs and excise taxes.

Congress agreed to pay the state debts that had been contracted during the American Revolution and chartered the Bank of the United States as a depository for federal funds and a conservative influence on banking in the nation. To be sure, these accomplishments were not without controversy; eventually political parties were formed.

But in contrast to the paralysis that too often typified the Confederation Congress, the first Congress under the Constitution was a body of action - even meeting in three lengthy sessions: March 4 to Sept. 29, 1789; Jan. 4 to Aug. 12, 1790; and Dec. 6, 1790, to March 3, 1791. In sum, it seemed to begin to make good on the Constitution's resolve ``to form a more perfect Union.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University.

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