The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

Sources and Editorial Method

Legislative Histories

The legislative histories of the acts creating the first three executive departments (War Department Act [HR-7], Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8], and Treasury Act [HR-9]) provide the best keys to accessing the remainder of the documents. These legislative histories, which are taken from volumes IV and VI of the DHFFC and are the first three items in the list of documents after the introductory editorial material, begin with the act (or law) that was finally passed. Each act is followed by a calendar which details the progress of that legislation through the two houses of Congress. The calendars were prepared by the editors of the DHFFC from information compiled from the House and Senate Journals, official documents, Senator Maclay's diary and newspaper accounts of the debates and proceedings of the House. Textual notes to these documents supply information about proposed or actual amendments to the legislation. Links in these notes send the user to the sources cited that are part of the sample. The documents have been transcribed literally with the only modifications from the original manuscripts being the lowering of superscript letters and the elimination of one punctuation mark when two marks appeared.

House Debates

Unlike previous U.S. legislative bodies, the House of Representatives opened its doors to the public instead of meeting in secret. The public was understandably eager to learn about the actions and debates of its representative body, but the First Federal Congress kept no official record of its debates, instead simply conforming to the Constitutional requirement to keep a Journal of its proceedings. Two established newspapers (The [New York] Daily Advertiser and The New York Daily Gazette), a new newspaper (the Gazette of the United States, launched for the purpose of supporting the new federal government by John Fenno who moved from Massachusetts to New York), and The Congressional Register (a publication started in 1789 by shorthand reporter and entrepreneur Thomas Lloyd to report the debates of the House) began to cover the debates. The debates taken from these sources, which make up the bulk of this mini-edition, present all the contemporary accounts of the debates in the House of Representatives on the subject of Executive Departments. Every independent report of the debate is presented. A row of asterisks in the text means that a portion of the debate that was reprinted from other sources printed has been left out.

Senator Maclay's Diary and the notes of other Senators

Since the first Senate met in secret sessions, information about its debates is scarce. Only the invaluable diary kept by Pennsylvania Senator William Maclay and preserved by his family provides extensive firsthand observations of the happenings on the floor of the first Senate. The manuscript diary is now preserved in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Maclay's diary provides insight into such incidents as President George Washington's personal appearance to seek the Senate's advice and consent on an Indian treaty negotiation and the assertion by the Senate of its right to consider the issue before giving its consent. In addition to this diary, various notes on speeches or debates by other Senators and Vice President John Adams are extant and several of these documents relate to the debate on the executive departments.
These documents are transcribed literally. In the Maclay diary manuscript the punctuation is very erratic, and in the published diary the editors chose to indicate the endings of complete thoughts with a noticeable space. This cannot be done in electronic format and rather than insert punctuation silently or within brackets, the editors have decided to leave the punctuation as it was in the original. This decision may increase the difficulty of using the diary excerpts, but it is truer to the original. The same policy holds for the notes of other Senators and Vice President Adams.

The Correspondence

This mini-edition presents only a portion of the existing correspondence on this subject to and from the members of the First Federal Congress and letters from individuals with firsthand knowledge of happenings in Congress. The letters, like other documents in the mini-edition, are presented with the original spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, as well as words crossed out and/or inserted, retained. At this point in time the mini-edition does not have all the annotation that will accompany the correspondence in the printed volumes. In some cases only the part of the letter relating to executive departments is presented while in others the entire text is available. These letters have been collected from numerous manuscript repositories. See the acknowledgments for a list of these institutions.

The Biographies

Ninety-five men served in the First Federal Congress. Volume XIV of the DHFFC contains short essays about each of these men, focused upon his congressional career. A sampling (10) of those biographical essays is presented in the mini-edition. Links at the member's name in the text allow the user to go to the biography.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]

Copyright 1999. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.