U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.

U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and Citizenship Naturalization, 1790

Important tasks for the First Congress of the U.S. were establishing the requirements for the first census of the country and for becoming a citizen by naturalization. [1]

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the very First Congress of the U.S. enacted a statute for the first U.S. census and a statute establishing requirements for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, both of which distinguished between “white” individuals and “slaves.” Nevertheless, it was still startling for me to discover these two statutes and the subsequent history of these aspects of U.S. law.

The First U.S. Census

On March 1, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that established the following categories for the first enumeration or census: “Free white males of sixteen years and upwards, including heads of families; Free white males under sixteen years; Free white females, including heads of families; All other free persons; and Slaves.” (Emphasis added.) It also called for identifying an individual’s occupation.[3]

These provisions were not controversial. There, however, was controversy, according to Fegus Bordewich, over whether the first census “was too ambitious, too detailed, and subdivided the population into [occupational] ‘classes too minute’” and was too invasive of privacy. (P. 196)

The First Naturalization Statute

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, in which he said, “Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.”(P. 180) [4]

Thereafter the members of the First Congress debated whether an oath of allegiance should suffice, whether there should be a residence requirement, whether there should be a national or a state-by-state requirement and whether foreign seamen could easily become citizens. The answer to these fears apparently was provided by Virginia’s Representative John Page, a large slave owner: “’It is nothing to us whether Jews, or Roman Catholics, settle amongst us; whether subjects of kings or citizens of free states wish to reside in the [U.S.], they will find it their interest to be good citizens; and neither their religious or political opinions can injure us, if we have good laws, well executed.’” (Pp. 196-97)

On March 26, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that limited naturalization to an “alien, being a “free white person.”(Emphasis added.) Although the statute did not define that term, it clearly excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and Asians from this method of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Other requirements were being a “resident” for one year of a state, possessing “good character,” and having taken “an oath or affirmation . . . to support the constitution of the [U.S.].” [5]

As discussed in another post, the “white” racial category (with subsequent additions of other racial categories) for naturalization remained in U.S. statutes until 1952 when Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act, 60 Stat. 163, 239 (1952), which states in section 311, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married.” [6]

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[1] See generally The U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2017); Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016)[the above text of this post cites to to specific pages of this book].

[2]  The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[3] An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790), U.S. Constitution.  The “white” category has been used in every decennial census through 2010 while “slave” was used through 1840.

[4] President Washington, State of the Union Address,  (Jan. 8, 1790), presidency.ucsb.edu/was/?pid=29431 , http:www.

[5] An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” 1 Stat. 103 (1790),

[6] Long History of Racism in U.S. Laws Regarding United States Citizenship, dwkcommentaries.com (June 24, 2016).

U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791

The First Congress of the United States of America and thus the official commencement of the U.S. federal government under the U.S. Constitution began on March 4, 1789, and ended on March 4, 1791.[1]

This Congress’ First Session (March 4, 1789—September 29, 1989) and Second Session (January 4, 1790—August 12, 1790) took place at Federal Hall in New York City. The Third Session (December 6, 1790—March 3, 1791), at Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Below are drawings of those buildings:

Federal Hall
Federal Hall
Congress Hall
Congress Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the start of the First Congress there were 22 senators and 59 representatives. After ratifications of the U.S. Constitution by North Carolina on November 21, 1789, and by Rhode Island on May 29, 1790, there were 26 senators and 64 representatives.

There were no standing committees of this Congress. Instead the Senate and House of Representatives acted as committees of the whole to consider individual bills. Thus, there are no committee reports regarding bills like those that exist today. Moreover, there are no transcripts of debates such as exist today in the Congressional Record. The record of the 94 separate pieces of legislation produced by the First Congress, however, is available in 204 pages of 1 U.S. Statutes.

In addition, the 1st Federal Congress Project at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. serves as a research/education center for the First Congress and has collected, researched, edited and published the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, l789-l791 (DHFFC). Fergus Bordewich,the author of The First Congress, acknowledged his indebtedness to this Project, which has “brought together virtually every known piece of writing composed by or about the members of the First Congress . . . as well as the best official records of their debates.” [2]

As Mr. Bordewich puts it in The First Congress, “Beginning less than two years after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention and before all thirteen states had ratified that document, the First Congress was charged with creating a new government almost from scratch. No one, neither in Congress nor outside it, knew if it would or could succeed. How it did so is an epic story of political combat, vivid personalities, clashing idealisms, and extraordinary determination. It breathed life into the Constitution, established precedents that still guide the nation’s government, and set the stage for political battles that continue to be fought our across the political landscape of the twenty-first century.” (P. 1)

Subsequent posts will examine the First Congress’ adoption of the first congressional proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution; the statute creating the federal courts (the Judiciary Act of 1789); the statutes creating the requirements for the first census (An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790)) and an individual’s becoming a U.S. citizen (the Naturalization Act of 1790); and debates regarding slavery.

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[1] Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster; New York, 2016); 1st United States Congress, Wikipedia; Federal Hall, Wikipedia; Toogood, U.S. Congress (1790-1800), Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; 1 U.S. Stat. 23-225 (1845)  (the statutes of the First Congress).

[2] I have not done any original research regarding the First Congress other than examining the constitutional amendments it proposed and some of the statutes it enacted. Instead for the purpose of this and subsequent posts I have relied on Mr. Bordewich’s book, but I confess that it would be fascinating to examine the records at the 1st Federal Congress Project.