Debates on the Judiciary during the Convention and Ratification

Anticipating the First Congress

The Constitution provided enough details about how the Congress was to be constituted and how the President was to be selected that the new national government was able to begin operations in the spring of 1789.   Elections for the House of Representatives took place between November 1788 and February 1789 under rules set by each state.  Each state legislature selected two United States Senators.  The Electoral College met on February 4, 1789, and unanimously elected George Washington as President.  He was sworn in on April 30.  The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress identifies members of the First Congress as either Pro-Administration or Anti-Administration.  That designation captures the fact that candidates did not run for office in the First Congress under the banners of organized political parties.  Instead, candidates sought a place in the First Congress based on their  positions about the shape the new national government should take. 

Generally speaking, members of Congress labeled as Pro-Administration  had supported ratification and looked to service in the First Congress as an opportunity to shape a national government capable of taking on virtually any national issue. They had no trouble envisioning the United States as a large, commercial empire with a strong presence in the international arena.  Those labeled as Anti-Administration generally had opposed ratification but stood for office to assure that their voices defending the rights and powers of the states, and the need for a Bill of Rights to limit the national government, would continue to be heard.  Centinel, for example, continue to publish papers after the Constitution had been ratified.  Many of his papers urged voters to elect members to the First Congress who would set up a “modest and frugal” national government, and add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.  

Some opponents of ratification, such as Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, stood for election to the House of Representatives. Gerry pledged to fight for a Bill of Rights that would, among other things, place limits on the powers of the federal courts.  Richard Henry Lee (of Federal Farmer fame) permitted his name to be placed before the Virginia legislature to be named to the Senate.    Lee worked tirelessly to assure that the law organizing the federal judiciary would constrain the federal courts and limit the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.