Part I The United States In 1790


Chapter II Page: 16-17

The taking of the First Census of the United States brought home to each citizen the practical operation and influence of the newly adopted Constitution of the United States. It was the beginning of a series of distinctly Federal operations, recurring decennially, and increasing constantly in importance and in statistical value, which unquestionably have exerted great influence in unifying the states and demonstrating their community of interests. It will be appropriate, therefore, to describe briefly the area of the Republic and the conditions that prevailed at the beginning of constitutional government, with which, for all practical purposes, the First Census was coincident.

The year 1790 was an important one in the history of the principal nations of Europe, as well as of the young Republic in America. Monarchies responsible in but small degree to the people were rapidly becoming intolerable. In all civilized nations the growth of enlightened sentiment had been greatly accelerated by the results of the recent conflict in America. Europe was in a state of unrest and was already upon the verge of the French Revolution and the continental wars which followed. In England George III, a man of 52 years, and little considered in the affairs of the nations of Europe, still occupied the throne; William Pitt was prime minister and the energies of the nation, which had been somewhat impaired by the fruitless war in America, were being recruited for more profitable operations upon the Continent. In Prussia Frederick William II reigned as king, having succeeded his father, Frederick the Great. Catherine II, dissolute, but brilliant and powerful was Empress of Russia. In France Louis XVI clung to a tottering throne, and endeavored by ill-judged and fruitless concessions to placate a nation which was drifting toward revolution and anarchy.

In the United States less than a year of the first administration of the first President had elapsed, General Washington having been inaugurated in New York city, April 30, 1789. Indeed, when the First Census was ordered the machinery of Federal Government was but just constructed, and was undergoing its first and most critical test. The executive branch of the Government included four departments; State, Treasury, War, and Justice. Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State; Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury; Henry Knox, Secretary of War; and Edmund Randolph, Attorney-General. Congress consisted of 91 members, 26 in the Senate and 65 in the House of Representatives, the numbers specified by the Constitution, pending the enumeration of the inhabitants of the states.

On the 9th of July, 1790, Congress, then in session at New York, passed a bill selecting the District of Columbia as the permanent capital of the nation, but declaring that for ten years from the end of that session the Government should be located at Philadelphia. Under this act the seat of government was removed to Philadelphia in September, 1790. Congress assembled in the following December in that city, its sessions being held in the state house, on Chestnut street; and by the close of the year the Government was established in the temporary capital. The executive departments were located in small rented houses. In the Department of State, (1) there were, indeed, only five clerks.

According to Biddle's Directory, published in 1791, President Washington resided at No. 190 High street, below Sixth, in the mansion built by Richard Penn and occupied during the Revolution by General Howe, Benedict Arnold and Robert Morris. Vice-President Adams lived in the Hamilton mansion at Bush Hill. (2)

The year 1790 was probably the most critical year of General Washington's administration. (3) It was the first complete year of the Federal Government under the Constitution. Precedent was being made at every step. No office of the Government, not even the Presidency, had been in existence long enough to command any respect, except such as was imparted by the personality of the official himself. Political party lines, which became clearly defined by 1792, had not yet appeared. Many divisions of sentiment, however, had already developed, especially in connection with the interpretation of the Constitution. Every free-holder was deeply interested in such questions as slavery. Federal assumption of state debts, and the taxation necessary for raising the revenues required to conduct the National Government.

No service performed by General Washington in the successful prosecution of the Revolutionary War compared with that which he rendered in saving the Republic from itself during the early days of his administration. (1) The operation of the Government under the new Constitution had thus far proceeded without serious friction, but with considerable criticism and unrest. Popular confidence in and respect for President Washington, the hero of the Revolution, was probably the principal factor which prevented the early occurrence of serious disagreements. While the success of the struggle for liberty in America had profoundly impressed the nations of Europe, on the other hand the theories proclaimed by the radicals in France had already attracted attention in the United States and seriously affected a large element of the population. Indeed, French revolutionary ideas were destined to become of some political importance during the administration of President Washington, a consideration which doubtless caused the patient and sagacious President periods of grave anxiety. In fact, in 1790 problems arose on all sides. It appears to have been an open question, at times, whether a dozen self-willed commonwealths, having different views upon many questions of public policy, and great independence of thought and action ever could be brought to bend submissively to the control of a constitution created for the good of all, but requiring of necessity many mutual concessions and considerable breadth of view.

Footnotes (1), (2) and (3) on Page: 16

1."The force of the department at the time of the adoption of the Constitution was the Secretary, the chief clerk, and three subordinates, at a total cost of $6,500. During the First Congress the salary of the Secretary of State was fixed at $3,500, the chief clerk at $800, and clerks at not to exceed $500 each. IN 1800 the salary of the Secretary was increased to $5,000, but the total pay roll only amounted to $12,950."__John W. Foster: A Century of American Diplomacy, page 130.

2. Scharf and Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884, page 462.

3. "No man ever entered with a higher sense of responsibility upon a task which was to tax his wisdom, patience, and reputation to the utmost. In his inaugural address he said that no event could have filled him with greater anxiety than the notification of his election, and that the magnitude and difficulty of the trust, to which the voice of his countrymen called him, awakened a distrustful scrutiny into his qualifications."__John W. Foster: A Century of American Diplomacy, page 136.

Footnote (1) on Page: 17

1. "While the American Union was forming itself, some of the worst symptoms of social and political dissolution were manifesting themselves * * *. The greatest revelation rendered to all subsequent generations by these opening years of the American Republic is in the constant proof they exhibit of the prevailing power of the people for self-government * * *. It was reserved for the sagacity of Hamilton, an alien genius, a rare creation independent of race or time, to see through to the end, to uphold the possibilities of an empire. But the man of the time, the concrete actual personification of these godlike faculties, inchoate and dimly perceived in common men, was George Washington."__Weeden: Economic and Social History of new England, Vol. II, pages 864 to 967.


Website: The History
Article Name: Part I The United States In 1790
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  "A Century of Population Growth-From the First Census of the United States to the Twelfth 1790-1900."
Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of the Census.
Publisher: Washington Government Printing Office-1909
Time & Date Stamp: