Constitution Day and Citizenship Day

Commentary: A look back at the U.S. Constitution’s first few years


When the requisite number of states ratified the Constitution, steps were taken to implement it. However, the combination of missing or vague language and the need for quick action made the first few years of the new government challenging. By 1792, many questions were answered and precedents set.

As Congress members first met March 4, 1789, they were tasked with specifying critical provisions involving the presidency and the judiciary, figuring out which city would serve as the national capital and passing laws for the economic and security benefit of the fledging government.

Congress moved to Philadelphia from New York in December 1790 and almost immediately began planning for a permanent home. Because the first federal Congress met for three sessions rather than two over almost three years, it was quite productive in passing needed laws. For example, the national legislature passed initial bills dealing with tariff in 1789; patent, copyright and naturalization in 1790; tariff and bank matters in 1791; and coinage in 1792. Also in 1792, the first national conscription law was approved by Congress.

After his delayed inauguration April 30, 1789, President George Washington and his aides started constructing the executive branch. Whereas only committees of Congress during the Articles of Confederation, the departments of State, War and Treasury were established in summer 1789. By late 1791, the secretaries of those departments became part of the president’s Cabinet. Washington’s early actions gave clarity and credence to several powers assigned to the chief executive in the Constitution, including the treaty power and veto authority. Washington was also aware of the importance of symbolic actions: His 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation set the tone for that holiday, and his practice of greeting citizens on New Year’s Day became a custom after 1791. Finally, once the new capital location was selected, planning for a permanent home for the incumbent president began in earnest.

Other than a Supreme Court, most of the features of the judiciary were sparsely delineated in Article III of the Constitution. That left it up to Congress to fill in the blanks. Among the items provided in the Judiciary Act of 1789 were the number of justices comprising the high court — a figure that would be adjusted five more times before stabilizing at nine in 1869 — along with creation of one level of lower federal court. The Supreme Court’s ultimate authority of judicial review would not be fully realized until the court’s ruling in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison case.

The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution as the first 10 amendments in 1791. While it provided rights for those citizens at the time, it also gave hope to those who weren’t. Just a year earlier, Congress received its first emancipation petition, submitted by Quakers through the Society of Friends. The eventual elimination of slavery, expansion of voting and civil rights for minorities and women, and protection of personal rights for all at the state level owe some to those who prioritized these concerns in the nascent years of our constitutional republic.

For the Founding Fathers, getting it right the second time around after independence was paramount. They understood that starting out strongly would quiet naysayers, infer viability, engender momentum and foster sustainability. From the vantage point of 232 years after the Constitution started, most would say they succeeded.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University. He has taught and published extensively on American constitutional topics.