Copyright © 1999. The First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.

Historical Introduction
The First Federal Congress (FFC)

The First Federal Congress (1789-1791), the most important and productive Congress in American history, breathed life into the Constitution, established precedent and constitutional interpretation still guiding the U.S. government today, and held the Union together when sectional interests threatened disunion. Most significantly, it concluded the American Revolution and stabilized the new government. Through consensus and compromise this seminal Congress completed work on its full and difficult agenda and began the process of interpreting the Constitution on such issues as the balance of power between the states and the federal government and among the three branches of the latter. Among its many legislative accomplishments were: passage of the amendments to the Constitution that have become known as the Bill of Rights, fleshing out the government through the Judiciary Act of 1789 and acts establishing the first three executive departments, the creation of a revenue system for the new nation, the admission of two states into the Union, the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury's plan for funding the foreign, domestic and state Revolutionary War debts, establishment of a national bank, and the choice of a location for the U.S. capital city.

Establishing the Executive Departments

The First Federal Congress confronted the task of building upon the foundation for the federal government outlined in the Constitution, interpreting that document as it worked. Even at the time this Congress was seen as equivalent to a second sitting of the Federal Convention. It was responsible for shaping the executive and judicial branches--tasks not tackled by the Federal Convention to avoid potential controversy.

The 19 May 1789 introduction by Representative James Madison of Virginia of a resolution calling for the establishment of three executive departments (war, foreign affairs and treasury) brought on one of the most important and extensive congressional debates on the meaning of the Constitution in U.S. history. The debate centered upon the question: who has the power to remove executive officials? This question and others relating to the powers of the executive and relations between the executive and the legislature occupied part of the attention of the House of Representatives for months in 1789. During the debate members espoused four distinct possible answers to this question. The conclusion reached--that the power was impliedly granted to the President as part of his executive responsibilities--shaped the operation of the federal government much differently than the other answers would have.


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