I’ve long believed that the U.S. Constitution of 1817 is more important than the U.S. Constitution of 1787. The Constitution of 1787 was only a specification: it had to be implemented to become more than just another piece of parchment. With trial and error, over the thirty years between 1787 and 1817, a constitution founded on hope became a constitution rooted in practice.
Many of those who did the crucial leg work that transformed the hope of 1787 into the reality of 1817 either helped draft the 1787 original or influenced those who drafted it. In 1787, we see them crossing their fingers. In 1817, we see many of the same men only now they are tempered by thirty years of troubled neutrality during the largest war in human history, a brief, disastrous, yet ultimately triumphant second round of war with the British Empire, partisan strife more vicious than any seen thereafter, a serious secession attempt by a disaffected region of the country, and the monumental effort it took to make that whole government of the people and by the people thing work.
Two of the first four presidents of the United States served at the convention: George Washington and James Madison. Two were serving abroad as ambassadors in mid-1787 but influenced the convention through their public and private influence: John Adams through his writings, most importantly his 1776 Thoughts on Government, Massachusetts’ state constitution of 1779, and 1787 A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States against some obnoxious Enlightenment-Era Eurotrash.
Thomas Jefferson helped by not being around to screw it all up.
The Constitution contains this requirement:
Section 3 – State of the Union, Convening Congress
He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient…
These yearly State of the Union reports make nice capsule reviews of happenings between 1787 and 1817. For my own amusement, I intend to run through every State of the Union between George Washington’s first State of the Union address made to Congress on January 8, 1790 and James Monroe’s first State of the Union report delivered to Congress on December 12, 1817 as often as time and mood permit. I will freely translate and annotate the reports as I see fit while linking to the original in all of its late eighteenth/early nineteenth century fulsomeness.
When most of us bother to think about the State of the Union address at all today, we tend to think of a televised hour or so of presidential bombast punctuated by scripted partisan applause, celebrity drop-ins, live props, and a cast of thousands. Things were different in days gone by: the 1st Congress that George Washington read his first report to was composed of 22 senators and 59 representatives drawn from the eleven states of the Union and gathered at Federal Hall in New York City. The 15th Congress that James Monroe’s written report was delivered to on December 12, 1817 was composed of 25 senators and 141 representatives drawn from the 19 states of the Union who were gathered at the temporary “Old Brick Capitol” in Washington, D.C. built by local real estate speculators who feared that Congress would move the capital elsewhere after the British burned it (including the original Capitol building) on August 24, 1814.
Washington read his eight reports to Congress in person, an example followed by John Adams. In 1801, Jefferson stopped reading it in person since he considered the practice monarchial. Instead he had his report delivered to and read to Congress by a clerk. Jefferson’s example was followed by all of his successors up to noted war criminal Thomas Woodrow Wilson (the original serpent in Eden) resuscitated Washington’s original practice of delivering the State of the Union to Congress in person.
But that’s another story…
I. First State of the Union, George Washington, January 8, 1790
With great satisfaction, I embrace this opportunity to congratulate you on the favorable prospects of our public affairs. Many present circumstances are eminently auspicious for our national prosperity:
- the recent ratification of the Constitution of the United States by the important state of North Carolina
- the rising credit and respectability of our country
- general and increasing goodwill towards the government of the Union
- the concord, peace, and plenty with which we are blessed
As you resume your deliberations for the greater good, you can only be encouraged when you look back on how well the laws you passed during your last session satisfied the needs of your constituents despite the novelty and difficulty of your work. To further realize their expectations and secure the blessings which Gracious Providence has placed within our reach calls for the cool and deliberate exertion of your patriotism, firmness, and wisdom in the course of the present and important session.
Among the many urgent needs that will engage your attention, the need to provide for the common defense merits particular attention. To be ready for war is one of the most effective ways to preserve peace.
A free people should not only be armed, but trained and disciplined. For this end, a uniform and well-digested plan is a prerequisite. The safety and interest of a free people also require that they promote the kind of manufacturing that will make them independent of other nations in producing essential goods, particularly in military supplies.
Properly establishing an army, which I believe is indispensable, is a task entitled to your most mature consideration. WIth any arrangements that you decide to make about establishing an army, it is important to reconcile the comfortable support of our officers and sailors with the need to conserve our resources.
There was reason to hope that the peaceful measures we adopted towards certain hostile tribes of Indians would relieve the inhabitants of our southern and western frontiers from their depredations. From the information contained in a communication from the Commonwealth of Virginia which I shall lay before you, you will perceive that we ought to be ready to provide protection to those parts of the Union and, if necessary, to punish aggressors.
The interests of the United States demand that our relations with other nations should be facilitated by funds that will allow me to fulfill my duties in that area in the way circumstances may make most conducive to the public good. To this end, compensation for future employees should defined by law according to the nature of the position and enough funds designated for this purpose that we can defray any expenses we incur in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Various considerations make it expedient that the terms under which foreigners can earn the rights of citizens should be speedily defined by a naturalization law that is uniform throughout the Union.
It is important that we have uniformity in the currency, weights, and measures within the United States. I am persuaded that you will duly attended to this need.
Since it is clear that you should advance our agriculture, commerce, and manufactures by all proper means, I trust I do not have to recommend that you do so. But I must emphasize the need to encourage introduction of new and useful inventions from abroad and exertions of skill and genius that produce inventions at home. I must also emphasize the need to facilitate commerce between distant parts of our country by paying serious attention to our postal service and post roads.
I am sure that you will agree with my opinion that there is nothing that deserves your patronage more than the promotion of science and literature. In every country, knowledge is the surest basis of public happiness. It is particularly essential in a country like ours where the sense of the community makes such an immediate impression on measures of government. Knowledge contributes to the security of a free Constitution in various ways:
- by convincing those entrusted with the public administration that the best support for every valuable goal of government is the educated confidence of the people
- by teaching the people themselves to know and value their own rights so they can discern and protect against invasions of those rights
- to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority and between burdens arising from deliberate neglect of their wants and those that result from the inevitable exigencies of society
- to distinguish between the spirit of liberty and the spirit of licentiousness, cherishing the first while avoiding the last
- to unite a speedy but temperate vigilance against encroachments on their rights with an inviolable respect for the laws.
Whether acquisition of knowledge is best promoted by providing aid to seminaries of learning already established, by instituting a national university, or by any other expedients is worthy of a place in your deliberations.
Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:
At the end of your last session, I noted with pleasure the resolution you passed that expressed your opinion that supporting our public credit is a matter of high importance to our national honor and prosperity. With this sentiment I entirely agree. To my perfect confidence that you will devote your best efforts to make provisions that truly consistent with that end, I add my equal confidence that the other branch of the Legislature will reliably and cheerfully cooperate with you in fulfilling that end. It would be superfluous for me to provide specific inducements for you to protect our public credit when the character and permanent interests of the United States are so obviously and so deeply concerned with its protection and that you have already explicitly sanctioned its protection with your declaration.
Gentlemen of the Senate and House of Representatives:
I have directed the proper officers to lay before you papers and estimates about those affairs that I recommend that you consider and that are necessary to convey to you that information on the state of the Union which it is my duty to provide.
The welfare of our country is the great object to which all of our cares and efforts ought to be directed. I shall derive great satisfaction from cooperating with you in the pleasing though arduous task of ensuring to our fellow-citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.
2 thoughts on “First State of Union, January 8, 1790: George Washington”
“I’ve long believed that the U.S. Constitution of 1817 is more important than the U.S. Constitution of 1787.”
It has been a long time since I was in graduate school, and a long time since my Federalist period seminar, but I don’t recall any Constitution of 1817.
The 12th Amendment was ratified in 1804, but there were no more Amendments until after the Civil War.
Can you help me out here?
I believe Mr. Fouche chose 1817 because he sees that as the period in which the Constitution moved from being an idea and the beginning of an experiment that might fail to the time when it was an established institution that was likely to endure. And 30 is a nice round number. I would have chosen 1824 because that was the end of the period when the President was one of the founders and most of Marshall’s important opinions had been written.
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