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The new federal Congress that assembled in New York in the spring of 1789 and the newly inaugurated president, George Washington, faced enormous tasks. An entire government had to be created in the aftermath of a bitter national battle for ratification of the new federal Constitution. All administrative offices and the military forces had to be created and organized. All federal officers had to be appointed. A federal judiciary had to be created and staffed. Opposition to the new federal Constitution had to be defused. Inventiveness, cooperation, and compromise were the governing principles in these Herculean endeavors.

"In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."

James Madison, Federalist No. 10, November 23, 1787

Concerns about Constitution

Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), America’s most prominent female writer during the Revolutionary War era, strongly objected to the absence of a bill of rights in the federal Constitution of 1787. In Observations on the New Constitution, Warren expressed the concern that the Constitution set no limits on the power of the judiciary and contained no rotations of offices or term limits for federal officials.

[Mercy Otis Warren]. Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions, by a Columbian Patriot. Boston, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (069.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0069, us0069_01, us0069_03, us0069_04, us0069_05]

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Celebrating Ratification of Constitution

The ratification of the Constitution by the Eleventh Pillar (New York) is celebrated in this newspaper editorial cartoon. The two remaining pillars North Carolina and Rhode Island did not ratify the Constitution until the new government went into operation and the Bill of Rights was adopted by Congress and sent to the states for approval in 1789.

The Federal Edifice. Massachusetts Centinel, August 2, 1788. Woodcut. Serial and Government Publications Division Library of Congress (70.00.00) [Digital ID# us0070]

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Rallying Support for the New Constitution

While the New York ratification convention was meeting in Poughkeepsie, supporters of the new federal Constitution rallied support with a parade down Broadway in New York City on July 23, 1788. Two days later, the convention ratified the Constitution with an assertion of the need for amendments, making New York the eleventh state to officially enter the new federal republic.

Order of procession, in honor of the Constitution of the United States . . . by order of the Committee of Arrangements, Richard Platt, chairman, July 23 [1788]. New York: 1788. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (70.02.00) [Digital ID# us0070_02]

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Unanimous Election of George Washington

John Langdon (1741–1819) was presiding over the new United States Senate on April 6, 1789, when the electoral votes electing George Washington as president and John Adams as vice president were counted. Langdon's letter notifying Washington of your unanimous election was carried to Mount Vernon by Charles Thomson, secretary of the outgoing Confederation Congress.

Letter from John Langdon to George Washington, April 6, 1789. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (71.00.00) [Digital ID# us0071]

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George Washington Elected as President

The final transition from government under the Articles of Confederation to the new federal government under the United States Federal Constitution began with this letter from Charles Thomsons notifying George Washington of his election to the presidency.

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  • Charles Thomson. Address to President Washington, April 14, 1789. Letter book. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (71.02.01) [Digital ID#s us0071_02p2, us0071_02p1]

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  • Charles Thomson. Address to George Washington, April 14, 1789. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (071.01.00) [Digital ID# us0071_01]

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Washington's First Inaugural Address

President George Washington’s brief first inaugural address was delivered in the Senate Chamber of Federal Hall in New York City on April 30, 1789. Washington expressed confidence that Congress would amend the new Constitution with “a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony.” This brief, eight-page speech replaced his original draft of more than seventy pages.

George Washington. First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (72.00.04) [Digital ID#s us0072_6, us0072_8, us0072_3; us0072tt_1, us0072tt_2, us0072tt_3, us0072tt_4, us0072tt_5, us0072tt_6, us0072tt_7, us0072tt_8, us0072tt_9, us0072tt_10]]

Read the transcript

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First Federal Congress Meets in New York's Federal Hall

Federal Hall was the site of the meeting of the first federal Congress in 1789. Built in 1700 Federal Hall, previously New York's principal municipal building, had also been the site of key events on Americas road to freedom, including Peter Zenger's trial for libel and the Stamp Act Congress in 1765. After only two sessions of Congress, the federal government moved to Philadelphia for ten years while the District of Columbia was prepared as the country's capital.

A View of the Federal Hall of the City of New York, As It Appeared in the Year 1797. New York: George Holland and H.R. Robinson, [1847]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (73.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-19164]

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New York's Federal Hall

Federal Hall in New York was the site of the meeting of the first federal Congress in 1789. Built in 1700 as New York's City Hall and demolished in 1812, it also was the site of key events on America's road to freedom. After the first and second sessions of Congress in 1789 and 1790, the federal government moved to Philadelphia until 1800, when it moved to Washington.

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Plans for the Future Capital District

This plan for the United States capital district, which became known as Washington or the District of Columbia, was drawn by Thomas Jefferson in 1791. As secretary of state, Jefferson was one of the leaders in planning the capital district. Jeffersons rough map shows the Capitol and presidents house before final placement decisions were made. The federal government did not move to Washington until November 1800.

Thomas Jefferson. Map of the Capital District, 1791. Manuscript map. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (74) [Digital ID# us0074]

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New Federal Capital City in the District of Columbia

The Constitution calls for a federal district, separate from the states, to serve as the permanent national capital. The federal government located its new capital on land carved from Maryland and Virginia as a result of the Compromise of 1790, whereby some Southern representatives agreed to support federal assumption of state debts in return for a bill locating the permanent capital on the Potomac River. George Washington selected the site and in 1791 chose Pierre L'Enfant (1754–1825), a French engineer and veteran of the American Revolution, to design the new city.

J. Good. Plan of the City of Washington. [London]: J. Good, 1793. From the Literary Magazine and British Review, January 1793. Hand-colored engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (74.01.00) [Digital ID# ct000511]

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English Declaration of Rights

Fearing abuses of rights and the restoration of the Roman Catholic Church under the Catholic King James II (reigned 1685–1688), the English parliament deposed James. They invited his Protestant daughter and son-in-law to assume the throne, but imposed the 1689 Declaration of Rights on the King William III (reigned 1689–1702) and Queen Mary II (reigned 1689–1694) as a precondition to being crowned. However, Parliament was more concerned with protecting its own rights and privileges than those of individuals.

Declaration of Rights in Anno Regni Gulielmi et Mariæ Regis & Reginæ Angliæ, Scotia, Franciæ & Hiberniæ, Primo. London: Charles Bill and Thomas Newcomb, 1689. Law Library, Library of Congress (108.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0108, us0108_01, us0108_1, us0108_03]

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Celebrating the Federal Constitution

The federal Constitution was to go into effect once nine states had ratified it. After New Hampshire and Virginia became the ninth and tenth states to ratify the new federal Constitution in June 1788, Pennsylvania nationalists held a parade in Philadelphia to celebrate the establishment of the new federal republic. New York followed suit in July 1788, but Rhode Island and North Carolina did not join until after the 1789 formation of the new government.

Order of Procession in Honor of the Constitution of the United States. Philadelphia: Hall and Sellers, July 4, 1788. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (070.03.00) [Digital ID# us0070_03]

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Celebrating the Fourth in 1788

Beginning in 1777, Americans commemorated the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the fourth of July with readings of the document, firework displays, feasting, and toasts, as well as in commemorative speeches, poems, and songs. In this poem or ode, the author, said to be Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791), a signer of the Declaration of Independence and noted American author and composer, contributed these verses to celebrate July 4, 1788, in Philadelphia.

[Francis Hopkinson]. An Ode for the 4th of July 1788. [Philadelphia]: Printed by M[atthew]. Carey, [1788]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (070.04.00) [Digital ID# us0070_04]

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Congressional Preparations for the President

A Joint Committee of Congress made the arrangements for the inauguration of the first president of the United States on April 30, 1789. Special emphasis was given to plans for taking the oath of office, the order of procession to St. Paul’s Chapel for divine services, and the public reception  that followed at the door of the church.

The Committee of Both Houses of Congress Appointed to Take Order for Conducting the Ceremonial of the Formal Receptions of the President of the United States on Thursday Next. New York: April 29, 1789. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (139.00.00) [Digital ID# us0139]

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Fears of a Second Constitutional Convention

Nationalists, such as James Madison and George Washington, were wary of calls from state ratifying conventions for a second national constitutional convention. They feared that a new convention would result in changes to the Constitution that would weaken a federal government or, worse, create a deadlock that would make establishing the federal government impossible. Ultimately, Madison and Washington endorsed mild constitutional amendments as a way of avoiding structural changes to the federal government.

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First Meeting of the Federal Government in New York

The federal government under the new United States Constitution first met in Federal Hall (formerly City Hall) in New York City during the spring of 1789. This plan of the city of New York by John McComb (1763–1853) shows the city and environs and indexes many important landmarks, including Federal Hall.

John McComb. Plan of the City of New York. [New York], 1789. Hand-colored map. Peter Force Map Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (074.03.00) [Digital ID# ar111300]

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George Washington Accepts Call to Presidency

Charles Thomson (1729–1824), secretary of the Continental Congress, presented the formal notification from John Langdon (1741–1819), president pro tempore of the United States Senate, that George Washington had been unanimously elected president of the United States. This letterbook copy records the brief letter of acceptance George Washington wrote to Senator Langdon. Washington left almost immediately for New York, where he was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789.

Letter from George Washington to John Langdon, April 14, 1789. Letter book copy, in the hand of Tobias Lear. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (079.04.00) [Digital ID# us0079_03]

Read the transcript

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New York Prepares for the New President

As the new federal Congress began to meet in New York City, plans for residential and office accommodations for the new president took shape. On April 23, 1789, George Washington took up residence in a house at Cherry and Franklin streets owned by Samuel Osgood (1748–1813), which had been used by presidents of the Confederation Congress. His office was in the newly remodeled Federal Hall, formerly the Old City Hall.

Letter from John Jay to George Washington, April 17, 1789. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (085.02.00) [Digital ID# us0085_02]

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North Carolina Insists on Declaration of Rights in Constitution

The North Carolina Convention for the ratification of the federal Constitution met in July and August 1788 but adjourned without acting because the Constitution did not include a bill of rights. The convention adopted the Declaration of Rights shown here. After the Federal government had proposed amendments to the Constitution consistent with a bill of rights, the North Carolina convention reconvened and ratified the Constitution November 21, 1789.

State of North Carolina, In Convention, August 1, 1788. . . . [Hillsborough: Printed by Robert Ferguson, 1788]. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (107.03.00) [Digital ID# us0107_03]

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Virginia as the “The Tenth Pillar”

Nine states were required to ratify the federal Constitution. After New Hampshire and Virginia became the ninth and tenth states or “Pillars,” supporters of the Constitution used these ratifications as leverage to convince the three remaining states to approve the Constitution and join the establishment of the new federal republic. New York followed suit in July 1788, but Rhode Island and North Carolina did not join until after the 1789 formation of the new government.

“The Tenth Pillar Ratification of the Constitution by Virginia,” Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser. (Philadelphia) July 1, 1788. Serial and Government Publications Division Library of Congress (075.03.00) [Digital ID# us0073_03]

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Washington’s Triumphal Progress to New York

George Washington journeyed from his home at Mount Vernon in Virginia to New York City for his April 30, 1789, inauguration as the first president of the federal government. Along the way, he was greeted by crowds and officials eager to celebrate their new national leader. In this frequently reproduced image, first published by Currier and Ives a century later, the women of Trenton, New Jersey, shower Washington with adoration and flowers at a bridge that leads into the city.

Washington’s Reception by the Ladies, on Passing the Bridge at Trenton, New Jersey, April 1789. [New York]: John Jacob Hipp, ca. 1889. Color lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (073.05.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca.24336]

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