Today in 1789: The first session of the First Congress ends

September 29, 2016

Today in Legal HistoryMuch ado has been made about the lack of productivity of our recent congresses.  Unfortunately, this goes beyond negative public perception: many commentators agree that the lack of accomplishments by the congresses of the past several years are on something of an historic level.  In short, Congress truly has been as unproductive as the general consensus among the public seems to believe.

While it may not be a completely fair comparison, let’s look at the accomplishments of the very first session of the First United States Congress, which began on March 4, 1789 and ended on September 29, 1789, 227 years ago today.

On April 6, 1789, the House and Senate, in a joint session, certified that George Washington had been elected President of the United States and John Adams elected as Vice President.

Of course, that’s simply the execution of a magisterial duty; what about the passage of actual laws?

On that front, the first session of the First U.S. Congress was nothing short of impressive, helping lay the foundation of the nation through the enactment of some momentous laws.

On July 4, 1789, Congress passed its first major act with the Tariff Act of 1789, also known as the Hamilton Tariff.  This act established the first schedule of import duties and served as an important source of revenue for the fledgling nation.

Such a law may be too stilted to most to be convincing of the importance of the first session of Congress.  But during this time, Congress also created a number of vital U.S. Cabinet departments.

On July 27, 1789, the U.S. Department of State, then-named the Department of Foreign Affairs, was established.  On August 7, 1789, the Department of War was established.  This department would eventually become what is today known as the U.S. Department of Defense.  Finally, on September 2, 1789, the U.S. Department of the Treasury was established.

Okay, fine.  So the first session of the First Congress expanded the federal government quite a bit.  Some among certain ideologies today would argue that such deeds should not be celebrated at all.  But to lawyers and legal professionals, the First Congress is responsible for one indisputably important law: the Judiciary Act of 1789, passed on September 24 of that year.

The act created the three-part judiciary that we all know today, comprised of district courts, circuit courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Furthermore, the act created the circuit system that directly evolved into what we currently have.  It also established the Supreme Court as having one chief justice and five associate justices, and that all decisions of the Court would be final.  Finally, the act created the office of Attorney General.

So in other words, the first session of the First U.S. Congress wasn’t only productive in the strictest sense of the word – such to a level that would put recent Congresses to shame; it was transformative on the nation as a whole.

That is, the United States is the country that it is today because of the actions of the First U.S. Congress.