Documents: Early Republic


After his unanimous election as the nation’s first President, George Washington delivered his First Inaugural Address to a joint session of both houses of Congress on April 30, 1789 at Federal Hall in New York City, the nation’s capital at that time. He acknowledged Providence as guiding the nation’s steps: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”

He explained that virtuous Americans would make the new nation a model for the world: “[T]he foundation of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens and command the respect of the world.”

Finally, he closed by putting the responsibility for the survival of the nation squarely in the hands of citizens. “[T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

Article III of the new U. S. Constitution adopted in 1789 specifically created only one national court: The U. S. Supreme Court. However, it said nothing about the number of members of the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to “ordain and establish inferior courts.” Congress took several important actions concerning the new judicial branch of the U. S. government in the Judiciary Act of 1789: (1) authorized only six Justices for the first U. S. Supreme Court; (2) established certain cases which the Supreme Court could hear; (3) created 13 lower courts below the Supreme Court; and (4) created the office of Attorney General of the U.S.

In 1803 in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison the Supreme Court established its power of judicial review when it declared unconstitutional Section 13 of the Judiciary Act which appeared to grant the Supreme Court original jurisdiction to hear certain cases outside of what the U.S. Constitution authorizes.

President George Washington’s Farewell Address was not delivered as a speech but was instead first published in the Philadelphia Daily American Advertiser on September 19, 1796 and then later in other newspapers around the nation. The opening paragraphs were largely taken from an earlier version written by James Madison in 1792 when Washington briefly considered not running for a second term. In 1796, Alexander Hamilton assisted Washington in writing the rest of the Farewell Address.

In this Address, Washington announced that he would not seek a third term as President and outlined what he hoped would be “guiding principles” for the new nation. He urged citizens to cherish the Constitution as the best means of preserving their liberty and reminded them that the document contains within itself the means for amendment. He asserted that religion and morality were the basis for justice and necessary for good government.

Finally, he discussed what he considered the two major threats to the young nation: one domestic and one foreign. First, he warned his fellow citizens about what he called “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Political parties, he argued, were a threat to the nation because they allowed “a small but artful and enterprising minority” to “put in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party.” Second, judged from the amount of the Address devoted to it, Washington felt the greatest threat to the nation was the dangerous influence of foreign powers. In foreign affairs, he called for the young nation “to steer clear of permanent alliances” with foreign powers.

The Federalist controlled U. S. Congress passed the Sedition Act, and Federalist President John Adams signed it into law on July 14, 1798. It was set to expire on March 3, 1801, which turned out to be John Adams’ last day as President. The law made it a criminal offense “to write, print, utter or publish any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the U. S., or either house of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame or bring either into contempt or disrepute.” Conviction for violation of the law was punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,000 and imprisonment for no more than two years. Adams claimed that the law was needed for national security because he wished to avoid war with France and argued that the restriction on speech and press was necessary to quell growing support for the French in the U. S. after the French Revolution. However, the obvious political motivation of the law is illustrated by two important facts: (1) the Vice President of the U. S., at the time Thomas Jefferson who was a leader of the new political group called the Democratic-Republicans, was not covered by the law; and (2) the only people charged with violating the law were Democratic-Republicans. The first person charged, tried, and convicted of violating the law was Matthew Lyon, a Jeffersonian Republican member of the U. S. House of Representatives from Vermont. Lyon had written a letter to a Republican newspaper in which he criticized President Adams for “a continued grasp for power” and for his “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self-avarice.”

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others argued that the Sedition Act was a clear violation of the U. S. Constitution’s First Amendment and its protection of freedom of speech and press, but the law was never challenged in the courts as to its constitutionality. However, historians believe that Federalist adoption of the law was a factor in their overwhelming defeat in the elections of 1800. In one of his first official acts as the nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those who had been convicted of violating the Sedition Act.

The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were adopted by the Virginia and Kentucky legislatures in 1798 in response to the Federalist-controlled U. S. Congress’ passage of the Sedition Act of 1798. Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President of the U. S. serving with President John Adams, authored the Kentucky Resolution, but he did not acknowledge this until years later out of fear that he himself might be charged with sedition. Both resolutions argued that Congress had no authority to exercise power not specifically delegated to it in the Constitution. Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolution further argued that the states had the power to nullify unconstitutional national laws: “[T]he several states who formed that instrument [the Constitution], being sovereign and independent, have the unquestionable right to judge of its infraction; and that a nullification, by those [states], of all unauthorized acts….is the rightful remedy.”

James Madison authored the Virginia Resolution which said that by enacting the Sedition Act, Congress was exercising “a power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto; a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.”

No other state acted in support of the Resolutions. However, in the 1830s, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina asserted that he was borrowing from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions when he argued for the states’ power to nullify national laws. During this 1830’s nullification controversy, Madison rejected the legitimacy of nullification and argued that it was not part of his Virginia Resolution of 1798.

Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter to a Baptist Church in Danbury, Connecticut in 1802. In the letter, he explained his beliefs about federalism and the meaning of the no establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. Jefferson did not address the subject of state-sponsored churches, but assured the congregation that the government of the U. S. could not interfere with their church or offer special favors to any specific sect. He wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson thus echoed the words of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams who in 1644 wrote about “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Several U. S. Supreme Court Justices through history have borrowed from Jefferson’s “wall of separation” metaphor. For example, Justice Hugo Black in 1947 in Everson v Board of Education of Ewing Township wrote: “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

Through the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson doubled the land size of the United States by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million. The purchase opened several hundred thousand acres of land west of the Mississippi River to settlement but also resulted in the further displacement of Native Americans.

The Purchase eventually raised issues about the expansion of slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 partially addressed this issue, but questions remained as to the power of Congress to regulate slavery in the new territory.