Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress 1789-1791
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    A View of Mount Vernon
A View of Mount Vernon 
(Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art)

"The President . . . may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments . . . ."

Article II, Section 2

Discussion of the divisive issue of an executive dated back to 1776. During the Revolutionary War, commitment to government by legislatures and the popular resentment against the king, royal governors, and their ministers proved so powerful that Congress performed executive functions by committees or by delegating them to a sitting member. In 1781 Congress instituted three semi-independent executive departments--war, foreign affairs, and finance--headed by non-delegates. The Federal Convention was guided by little federal precedent when it designed the presidency. The results were vague and incomplete. The existence of the executive departments and the power to create them is in the Constitution only by implication. Antifederalists had complained about the executive, who they feared would be a virtual monarch, almost as much as about the judiciary. On May 19, Madison proposed the creation of three departments--foreign affairs, war, and treasury. Congress established all three by the end of the first session.



Web resource:  The online "mini-edition" version of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress also presents transcriptions of documents related to the the establishment of the first three executive departments.

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