Constitution Daily

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A few lessons for the current Congress from the First Congress

October 16, 2013 by Thomas B. Allen


Author Thomas B. Allen looks at George Washington’s personal copy of the Constitution, and what it helped the First Congress accomplish, as a comparative point for today’s folks in Washington.


folioOn January 5, 2011, when newly elected members of the current Congress stood and raised their hands to take the oath of office, they used as their guide the “correct Copy of the Constitution of the United States” in a book published in 1789 by the First Congress. The book, brought to the House chamber from the Library of Congress, would be a lesson in productivity for today’s 112th Congress, whose principal accomplishment has been shutting down the government.


That First Congress, the most industrious in history, created the United States of America in five months. Those original 91 lawmakers—65 Representatives and 26 Senators—established the departments of State, Treasury, and War; devised a federal judiciary system consisting of “the Supreme and other Courts”; built a structure for the raising and collecting of taxes and tariffs; and passed the numerous laws needed by the new nation, such as provisions for the patenting of inventions, for conducting a national census, and “for the establishment and support of Lighthouses, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers.” They did all that by using the Constitution as a blueprint from which to build the nation.


By the time the First Congress began assembling in New York in March 1789, every state except Rhode Island and North Carolina had ratified the Constitution. No one knew if the 4,400 words of the Constitution could be transformed into the foundation of a nation. That First Congress, which did not have a quorum until April, went to work and did the job. To show what they had done, they ordered the printing of 600 copies of a book of their achievement. The Constitution had the place of honor in the front of the book, whose title—Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America—describes the rest of its contents.  


Congress gave seven copies of the book to President George Washington. Each had an elegant, hand-tooled binding, and on its cover, embossed in golden letters, were the words President of the United States. (Editor’s note: Washington’s version is the one that sold at auction in 2012 for $9.8 million.)


Washington pasted his armorial bookplate to the marbled endpaper of the inside covers. He signed the title pages with a flourish, as he did on many of his books. Then he did something that made one of his copies unlike any other: He wrote, in pencil, along the margins of certain pages, beginning with the Constitution’s Article I, Section 7:


“Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law.”


Washington drew a long, neat bracket alongside those words and in the margin wrote President.


Section 7 continued on the next page:


“But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively. If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.”


Washington bracketed those words and wrote President.


He also wrote President and added a bracket alongside the end of Section 7 on the next page:


“Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.”


Article II, Section 1, of course, caught his eye:


“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years….”


And again he wrote President and bracketed the words of Section 1. He passed on to Section 2:


The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States….


And wrote two words: President and Powers. With a long bracket he linked Commander in Chief to the other powers:


“Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment…. to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur… by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States… to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”


Finally, in the margin of Article II, Section 3, he read:


“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; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.”


He bracketed those words and in the margin wrote Required, clearly seeing the difference between presidential power and what the Constitution obliges the President to do. Washington seemed to view Acts as a manual for governing. He gave copies of the 106-page book to the most important officials he had appointed: John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the five Associate Justices, along with Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.


The copy of the book that bore Washington’s marginal notations would be with him through his years as President, would go with him when he retired to Mount Vernon, and would be one of the books on the shelves of his study when he died in 1799. George Washington’s marginal notes gave it extraordinary value, which grew with time.

How Washington’s Constitution returned home

Mount Vernon, neglected or mismanaged by heirs after Washington’s death, was crumbling in 1853, when Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina began enlisting the women of America in a campaign to do what both the state of Virginia and the federal government had refused to do: Buy Mount Vernon and preserve it as a national treasure. In five years, her Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association raised $200,000 to buy the mansion and 200 acres around it from John Augustine Washington, George Washington’s great-grandnephew.


John Augustine left behind an almost empty mansion, which the Ladies began slowly restoring into America’s most-visited historic home. At the same time, Acts of Congress, as the unique book became known, began a long odyssey, first passing through heirs. Then, beginning in 1876, the book was purchased by a succession of collectors, including William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate.


Acts seemed destined never to return to Mount Vernon. But in June 2012 the book appeared in a catalog of Christie’s, the famed auction house.  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association sent their Regent, Ann Bookout, to acquire it. Christie’s gave her a bidding paddle with the number 222—conjuring Washington’s February 22 birthday—and she waved it to make bids. She paid $9,826,500, a world record for an American book or historical document.


The book, visible in a glass-door vault, is the jewel of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The 45,000-square-foot library opened last month, finally fulfilling Washington’s wish: I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.”


Thomas B. Allen is the author of Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, a narrative history of Loyalists in the American Revolution. Other books include Declassified: 50 Secret Documents that Changed History and George Washington, Spymaster.


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