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Washington in New York, chs 8 & 9


Oliver Ellsworth: now there’s a Founding Father you rarely hear about.

Ellsworth was not a pamphleteer like Thomas Paine, nor a mesmerizing orator like Patrick Henry, nor a war hero like George Washington, nor a student of government like John Adams.

Ellsworth was a Connecticut Yankee lawyer whose effectiveness was in smoke-filled rooms where the real business of politics takes place.  He was one of the few Founders who actually worked for a living.  He was among the four or five most influential delegates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, although you will not find his name on the document. Once the Constitution was finished and before delegates signed it, Ellsworth was on his way back to Connecticut to resume his law practice.

If Thomas Jefferson is the father of the Declaration of Independence and James Madison is the father of the United States Constitution, Oliver Ellsworth is the father of the United States judicial system.  Under his watch the third branch of government--the Supreme Court and the federal appellate court system--was fleshed out.

Curiously, there was no legal precedent for the U.S. Supreme Court. Having three separate-but-equal branches of government--legislative, executive, and judicial--each one acting as a check on the other--was the idea of a French philosopher named Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755).  Whether or not Montesquieu's idea would actually work was anybody’s guess.  The Founding Fathers, however, were determined to give it a try.  It was a question of achieving balance among the three branches of government.  If they could do that, individual rights and freedoms would not be trampled upon and the experiment that was the United States republic might actually have a chance of surviving.

Most of the debate at the Constitutional Convention was devoted to the creation of the legislative and executive branches.  By the time the delegates got around to creating the judicial branch, they were exhausted and ready to go home.  The only thing about the federal judiciary on which they all could agree was to say as little as possible and to let the first Congress figure it out later.

In 1789, the time had come for Congress to figure it out.  Enter Oliver Ellsworth.  Ellsworth was Madison's counterpart in the Senate. Madison was floor leader in the House.  Ellsworth was what today would be called the Senate Majority Leader.

On April 7 -- the day after Congress counted ballots and announced that George Washington was President -- the Senate appointed a Special Judiciary Committee with Ellsworth as chairman. The committee consisted of 10 members, one from each state (New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island were not yet represented). This many people on one committee, each one looking out for the interests of his own state while working on what was a potentially divisive issue, proved unworkable. After one month it was decided the task would be better addressed by a subcommittee of three, chaired by Ellsworth. The Senate subcommittee was comprised of Ellsworth, William Paterson of New Jersey, and Caleb Strong of Massachusetts.

Ellsworth's committee was confronted by two very big problems. One was legal, the other was political.

The legal problem: each of the thirteen states had derived its laws and legal procedures from Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, which in itself was a veritable legal maze, involving common law, equity, chancery, and statutory law.  On top of that, over the previous hundred years, the laws of each state had evolved along somewhat different lines. Each state originated as a colony with its own charter and it's own way of dealing with legal issues. With time, each state added new laws and interpreted English law to meet the needs unique to its particular region. By 1789,  American law was, as historian Forrest McDonald put it, Anglo-Saxon law compounded by a factor of thirteen.

Ellsworth's job was to create the Supreme Court and a network of inferior federal courts that would insure uniform law throughout the land. The federal court system would have power over the state courts, of course, but how much power?  The answer posed a sensitive political problem. The states had been asked to give up a fair amount of executive and legislative power when they ratified the Constitution, and they did so; but when it came to the judiciary they weren't quite as amenable.

Up to this point the anti-Federalists had been playing a losing game. With the federal judicial system being debated in Congress--and opinion about equally divided pro and con--the anti-Federalists saw an opportunity to make converts--should Ellsworth go too far, which seemed likely. Ellsworth was among the staunchest Federalists.

The most eloquent anti-Federalist in the land -- Patrick Henry of Virginia -- had been predicting all along that the national government would swallow up the states, and that the agent of the devouring would be--what else?--the federal judiciary.  Up to now, few had listened to him. His spokesmen in the Senate--Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson--were aping Henry's words and a number of Senators were beginning to listen.  In May, when Ellsworth's committee began to meet, it seemed likely that whatever they drew up, if it didn't make broad concessions to the states, would be defeated.


The Constitution does not specify the number of Supreme Court justices that are to sit on the bench, but in Article III it authorizes Congress to decide the exact number. Ellsworth and the Special Judiciary Committee fixed the number at six (today the number is nine). That was the easy part. The hard part was creating a system of inferior federal courts that somehow would overcome the objections of both the Federalists and the anti-Federalists.

Ellsworth and his committee drew up a mixture of jurisdictions--a compromise if you will, of federal courts manned by local judges--thereby granting a degree of concurrent jurisdiction to both state and federal courts.

How it worked: the committee proposed one district court for each state. The district courts would be federal, but the judges would be residents of the state to which they were appointed. This would insure that traditional local procedures would be followed, except when different procedures were carefully specified by national law, and thus imposed little that was alien to local lawyers.  Moreover, Ellsworth and his committee proposed creation of circuit courts, to consist of two traveling members of the Supreme Court and the district-court judge in the state in which trials were held, the primary function of the district-court judge being to make sure that trials were conducted according to local rules.  Finally, Ellsworth proposed to arrange jurisdiction so that in many cases state courts would have concurrent jurisdiction with federal courts, the sanctity of the Constitution being preserved by provision for direct appeal to the United States Supreme Court whenever the constitutionality of state law was in question.

Ellsworth’s subcommittee turned the bill over to the Senate at large on June 30. The Senate debated the bill at length, exploring all its aspects: common law, chancery, the number of justices on the Supreme Court, jurisdiction, and jury trials, while at the same time seeking outside advice from constituents, especially attorneys and judges. After 18 days of debate, the Federal Judicial Bill passed the Senate by a vote of 14 to 6.  The bill was then sent to the House.

The House sat on the bill for a month while it completed the federal revenue system and began work on the Bill of Rights. Taken up in late August, the bill was delayed yet again when debate began on relocating the capital.   When at last the bill was debated in the House, Senator Robert Morris noted that the representatives who were lawyers kept "snarling at it" but could find nothing objectionable. The House passed the bill 29 to 22. On September 24, the president signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 into law.

The Judiciary Act also created the office of Attorney General, and for each judicial district provided for the appointment of a district attorney, a marshal, and one or more deputy marshals.

Years later, James Madison wrote: "It may be taken for certain that the bill organizing the judicial department originated in his (Ellsworth's) draft, and that it was not materially changed in its passage into law."  It's likely Ellsworth wrote Section 25, the most important component of the Judiciary Act. This gave the Supreme Court the power to veto state supreme court decisions whenever the state supreme court upheld state laws that conflicted with the U.S. Constitution. At the time, this gave the federal government its only effective authority over state governments.

So it was done. In five months Ellsworth and his committee of two had managed to get the Judiciary Act written, passed by Congress, and signed into law.  However, more was needed if the Supreme Court was to be the equal of the executive and legislative branches.


The Founding Fathers considered the Supreme Court to be the “least dangerous” of the three branches of the federal government.  After all, Congress held the purse strings and the President commanded the army.  What commensurate power did the Supreme Court have?  The possibility that the Court could, under the  principle of judicial review, overturn duly approved legislative acts made it “dangerous” in the eyes of those who saw Congress as enactors of “the will of the people.”

Enter James Wilson.  Wilson is another Founder you rarely hear about it.

Born in Carskerdy, Scotland, Wilson attended a number of universities in his native country without actually receiving a graduate degree, prior to emigrating to the United States.  Once he arrived in American, he took up law and developed a thriving practice in Reading, Pennsylvania that made him rich.  He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and at the Constitutional Convention he spoke 168 times, more than anyone with the exception of James Madison.

At the Convention, everyone agreed the Supreme Court embodied a basic principle, that self-government could only function under the rule of law, with an independent judiciary interpreting its key provisions.  Judicial Review--the court’s ability to strike down laws that conflicted with the Constitution--would seem to fall under that provision, but most delegates did not not agree.  Judicial Review would give the Supreme Court too much power, they said, and render it “dangerous.”

Wilson argued otherwise.  The purpose of a Supreme Court was not to undermine legislative authority or to “confer upon the judicial department a power superior, in its general nature,”  Wilson said.  Judicial Review would give the federal government something it would dearly need if the framers were serious about protecting individual liberty against government encroachment, and that was the power of reflection, the power to decide whether a particular law fit within the framework of the Constitution.  Judicial Review would act not in defiance of the will of the people, Wilson said, but in addition to it, since judges would sit not as a body of legal experts but as a body of citizens.

As Wilson saw it, the Supreme Court would be one of the United States’ most democratic institutions, and would become “the jury of the country.”  Congress might be enactors of “the will of the people” but the Supreme Court would be protecters of people’s individual rights.  Despite Wilson’s eloquence, a majority of delegates did not agree.  After considerable debate Judicial Review was voted down.

As a result, in the first decade (1790-1800), the Supreme Court was hardly the equal of the executive and legislative branches.  The first chief justice, John Jay, quit the Court because he thought it had no future.


Enter John Marshall.  Unless you’re a student of Constitutional Law, Marshall is yet another Founder you rarely hear about.  He was not a delegate at either the Continental Convention or the Constitutional Convention.  Born in a log cabin in a Virginia frontier settlement, he never left home until he joined Washington’s army.

Marshall never went to college.  He was instructed at home by his father.  Later, he spent a few months listening to legal lectures at the College of William and Mary.  That was the extent of his education.  He married, settled permanently in Richmond, and by character and brilliance rose to prominence as one of the nation’s leading attorneys.

In 1788, at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in Richmond, Marshall spoke in favor of Judicial Review.  He told delegates that an independent federal judiciary was a necessary bulwark against an overreaching Congress.  If Congress were to exceed its powers, argued Marshall, it would be the duty of the judiciary to declare such action void.

Marshall caught the attention of Washington and Adams who both had an eye for talent.  In 1797, President Washington appointed Marshall to a three-man diplomatic team to France to negotiate the infamous XYZ affair.  Marshall then served briefly as secretary of state under Adams prior to being appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1800.

Marshall’s appointment to the bench was partly Adams’ way of getting back at his political nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, for having defeated him in the politically messy 1800 presidential election.

Jefferson was determined to destroy everything the Federalist party had done to strengthen the national government.  Well, Adams would see about that.  With the appointment of John Marshall, Adams appointed the staunchest Federalist in the land to the one governmental department Jefferson could not control--the Supreme Court.  Jefferson was furious with Adams, but there was nothing he could do about it.  The lame duck Congress quickly approved the appointment and that was that.

Incredibly, Marshall would put his stamp on nearly every important decision issued from the bench for the next 35 years and in so doing foil every attempt by Jefferson’s party to restore power to the states.

“My gift of John Marshall to the people of the United States was the proudest act of my life,” Adams said later.

With Jefferson in office, and his party firmly in control of the House and Senate, Marshall feared for the republic’s life.  He bided his time, however, waiting for a case that would address the balance of power among the three branches of government.  He picked a case so trivial and ruled so cleverly that it seemed to give Jefferson the victory.

The case was Marbury v. Madison.  The facts were these: President Adams made last-minute, lame-duck appointments of 42 justices of the peace in the District of Columbia, including one William Marbury.  Led by Secretary of State James Madison, Jefferson’s party withheld a number of these commissions, and Marbury sued.  It was a small but implicitly fundamental challenge to the judiciary.  Marbury’s brief commission had actually expired when the decision was made.  Marshall criticized Madison but ruled Marbury out on a technicality: He didn’t have standing.

Jefferson won.  Or had he?  In a unanimous decision, the court said Marbury didn’t have standing because he had brought his case under an earlier congressional act that was unconstitutional.  The court ruled in Jefferson’s favor by asserting the court’s own right to overthrow acts of Congress.

Jefferson was nobody’s fool.  He knew what Marshall had done, and suspected that the chief justice was hoping to set a precedent that with time would harden into irrevocable law.  The only way he could counteract Marshall was to appoint judges who were members of his own party, which Jefferson and his like-minded successors did.  It didn’t work.  Marshall was charismatic as well as smart and made converts of them all.  Despite a number of Jeffersonian appointments over the years, under Marshall’s watch, decisions invariably went against Jefferson’s party and were usually unanimous.

From the Marshall court emanated a subtle offensive of Federalist ideas: the rule of law, the sanctity of property, the corporation clothed like an individual, the rights of expanding capitalism, the supremacy of the national government.  At the same time, Marshall elevated the Supreme Court to a status equal with that of the executive and legislative branches.  The result was what the framers hoped to achieve all along: a government of checks and balances.

Marshall rarely cited cases.  He launched his opinions as though they were inevitable deductions from self-evident propositions. When a precedent was called for, he asked Justice Joseph Story--a renowned legal scholar--to find the necessary precedent, saying, “There, Story; that is the law of this case; now go and find the authorities.”

While Marshall was not present at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, he was the last great founder of the Constitution.  The Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution--he put them together and found their essence.

From Marshall’s time down to ours, it has not been the legislature nor the presidency, but the Supreme Court that has been the nation’s protector of individual rights and freedoms.


You had to be there.

It was Saturday, August 22, 1789.  The Senate was in session and who should appear at the door dressed in full military regalia but President George Washington, with the Secretary of War Henry Knox at his side.

The Constitution states that the president shall make treaties "with advice and consent of the Senate." President Washington and Secretary Knox were negotiating a treaty with a southern Indian tribe and were calling on the Senate to seek advice.

The Senate doorman announced Washington's presence.  Silence engulfed the chamber as the President entered, dignified, erect, the best-dressed man in the room.

Here's what precipitated the meeting. On August 7, Washington asked Congress to approve his effort to reach an accord with the Creek Indians through "a temporary commission . . . to consist of three persons, whose authority should expire with the occasion." Both Houses agreed and appropriated the necessary funds to carry out the negotiations. Washington selected Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to head up the commission and asked Secretary Knox to draw up instructions.  As an afterthought, Washington decided this was the appropriate time to seek the "advice and consent of the Senate."

By prearrangement, Washington wrote out a series of questions.  As he entered the chamber he handed his questions to the president of the Senate, Vice President John Adams. What with the street noise coming through the windows, and confusion on the Senate floor, Adams had to read the document twice before submitting the matter to the floor for debate. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania protested against taking immediate action and sought to have the questions sent to committee or to have action deferred. Therein a prolonged debate ensued over questions of procedure that became increasingly heated and turned into a shouting match.

How long Washington stood still for this is unknown. At some point, probably when the shouting subsided, Washington declared, "This defeats every purpose of my coming here." He then turned and abruptly walked out.  He did so as one witness reported, "with a discontented Air ... of sullen dignity."  And with this parting shot: "I'll be damned if I ever come here again."

In fact, Washington did return, two days later. Cooler heads prevailed, and Washington received the Senate's approval for all that he asked, though he found the debate to be deadly dull. It was the last time Washington would visit the Senate.

As with nearly every action he took as president, Washington had set a precedent. Ever since, presidents have not called in person on the Senate for advice.  What, if anything, was lost?

Here's what three of Washington’s biographers have written:

Joseph J. Ellis: "From that time onward, the phrase "advise and consent" meant something less than direct executive solicitation of senatorial opinion, and the role of the Senate as an equal partner in the crafting of treaties came to be regarded as a violation of the separation of powers principle."

James Thomas Flexner: "Thus was forever ended the possibility that the American executive might, like the British, present and defend its acts at legislative sessions."

Richard Norton Smith: "(the Senate) had asserted (its) independence, undone the executive's plan to treat them as a kind of privy council, and laid the groundwork for a very different set of presidential advisers, the Cabinet."


More than George Washington, it was James Madison who directed the ship of state during the first year of the federal government. Madison was the president's chief advisor.  As floor leader of the House of Representatives, he steered all major legislation through Congress.  While he didn't always get precisely what he wanted--the 1789 Tariff Act being a prime example--what he did get served the federal government’s purpose.

The final piece of important legislation passed in the first session of the First Congress was the creation of the executive departments, and here again Madison was the major player.

On May 19 Elias Boudinot of New Jersey opened the debate, but Madison soon took charge. It was generally agreed that three departments were necessary and that they should have the same responsibilities as the earlier administrative arms of the Confederation: foreign affairs, war, and finance.

As with the Confederation, the primary concern was with the enormous power vested in the treasury department. The Confederation Congress had addressed the matter in 1874 by replacing Robert Morris--who was thought to have had too much power--with a three-man Board of Treasury.

Debate caused more than one temper to flare in what was a renewal of an old controversy, between those who had supported Morris as superintendent of finance in 1781-1783 and those who had opposed him. Those who had supported Morris believed his financial wizardry saved the nation from certain defeat by the British, while those who had opposed him were convinced he mismanaged public funds, fattened his own purse and those of his friends, and by his actions actually prolonged the war.

Madison favored a single treasury secretary, and steered the thinking in that direction.  When the matter was put to vote, advocates of a single treasury secretary prevailed by a narrow margin.  However, the uneasiness aroused by the debate led to another decision--to tie the Treasury Department’s power to Congress.  The Treasury Secretary would be equally accountable to the President and to Congress.  Unwittingly, the effect was to pave the way for the first Treasury Secretary--Alexander Hamilton--to become for all practical purposes prime minister, similar to the chancellor of the exchequer who served in that capacity in England.

The bills establishing the three executive departments were enacted in late summer. The Department of Foreign Affairs (re-designated as the State Department on September 15), was enacted on July 27; the War Department on August 7; and the Treasury Department on September 2. In addition, Congress also provided for the two federal agencies that had less than departmental status: the office of Attorney General, wherein a lawyer was to be placed on retainer to advise the president on matters of constitutionality and law; and the office of Postmaster General, to oversee the execution of the Constitutional mandate for Congress to establish post offices and post roads.

As the summer of 1789 progressed and as Congressional Acts were signed into law, Washington found himself with nearly a thousand appointments to make for a variety of government positions. In making appointments, Washington consulted a number of people, but for the highest offices he consulted with Madison.

For Secretary of State, he wanted John Jay, but Jay had served in that capacity for nearly five years and wanted out. Instead, Washington appointed him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Washington went with Madison's choice to head up the State Department--Thomas Jefferson.  Washington’s friend Henry Knox was retained as head of the War Department. For Secretary of the Treasury, Washington named his former aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton. Rounding out the major appointments, Edmund Randolph of Virginia was named Attorney General, and Samuel Osgood of Massachusetts (the same Samuel Osgood who owned the Palace Mansion) was named Postmaster General.


Washington supervised the activities of his department heads closely. One didn't drop in on the president "to talk things over."  Washington wanted everything in writing--questions, ideas, opinions, policy issues. The President was good at delegating.  He had his department secretaries writing reports on matters he referred to their attention: proposed plans of action, opinions, drafting of public papers, and so on. Usually, after an exchange of letters, Washington would invite a respective department head to breakfast where an issue would be discussed until the president was satisfied he understood the matter fully, and had agreement as to the best course of action.

Washington's administration was not about friendship; cabinet members were not  cronies.  He expected cabinet members to keep him informed, to work hard, and to get results.  George Washington would never be mistaken for an “old boy.”

Thomas Jefferson, who didn't join Washington’s administration as Secretary of State until March 1790, gave the following description of how the executive departments functioned under the first President:

“Letters of business came addressed sometimes to the President, but most frequently to the heads of departments. If addressed to himself, he referred them to the proper department to be acted on; if to none of the secretaries, the letter, if it required no answer, was communicated to the President, simply for his information. If an answer was requisite, the secretary of the department communicated to the letter & his proposed answer to the President. Generally, they were simply sent back after perusal, which signified his approbation. Sometimes he returned them with an informal note, suggesting an alteration or a query. If a doubt of any importance arose, he reserved it for conference. By this means, he was always in accurate possession of all facts and proceedings in every part of the Union, and to whatsoever department they related; he formed a central point for the different branches; preserved an unity of object and action among them; exercised that participation in the suggestion of affairs made incumbent on him; and met himself the duo responsibility for whatever was done. . . . (Washington's system) gave, indeed, to the heads of departments the trouble of making up, once a day, a packet of all their communications for the perusal of the President; it commonly also retarded one day their dispatches by mail. But in pressing cases, this injury was prevented by presenting that case singly for immediate attention; and it produced us in return the benefit of his sanction for every act we did.”

Washington proceeded cautiously in 1789 and relied heavily on the advice of others, particularly James Madison. Once he got his bearing, however, he became what Alexander Hamilton described as an “Energetic Executive.”

“Energy in the executive,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist Essay No. 70, “is a leading character in the definition of good government.”  He described this quality as “decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch” and as “vigor and expedition.”

“The man at the vital center” was how John Kennedy described an energetic executive.  That was George Washington: the man at the vital center, with everything revolving around him.  In the affairs of the State Department, Washington believed himself an expert; and in the affairs of the War Department he unquestionably was an expert. In practice he was his own secretary of state and his own secretary of war, which often reduced the roles of Jefferson and Knox to that of mere clerical workers. Jefferson, who was not fond of clerical work, was not always as diligent an administrator as he might have been. Given a free hand on a subject that interested him, he worked promptly and thoroughly, but if he was given only a passive role or (as increasingly happened as time went by) Washington adopted policies with which he disagreed, Jefferson tended to be an obstruction by doing as little as possible. Knox was diligent and relished his position, never initiated or questioned anything, and executed orders with promptness. Hamilton, on the other hand, was an expert in finance and commerce, matters clearly outside of Washington's interest and expertise. As a result, Hamilton enjoyed a much freer hand.  Nonetheless, Washington questioned everything he did.


On the first of September, a letter arrived at the Palace Mansion.  It came while dinner was being served.  The company was good, the mood was light, and the food and drink were plentiful. The President was in high spirits. His health, which was as much a topic of conversation in New York as the latest debate in Congress, was good although Washington was still weak from his June illness. Rumors of a second constitutional convention had mostly ceased. With the 1789 Tariff Act in force, the national government at last had a revenue stream: money to pay salaries and to cover expenses.

Baron Friedrich von Steuben, drillmaster of the Continental Army, and Washington's chief of staff during the final years of the war, was among the dinner guests. The Baron had everyone in stitches, until a mail courier arrived. He had a letter from Fredericksburg, Virginia which was handed directly to the President.

The color in Washington's face drained immediately.  He had been dreading this letter since arriving in New York in April. He knew what it said before he opened it.  It was word from home that his mother had died. Washington excused himself to read it. Dinner was effectively over and guests departed.

For most of his adult life, Washington's mother had been an embarrassment to him.  During the Revolution, she encouraged a motion in the Virginia legislature to grant her a pension, which prompted the General to dash off a letter of protest to the Speaker of the House: "Before I left Virginia, I answered all her calls for money, and since that period, have directed my steward to do the same. Whence her distresses can arise, therefore, I know not . . . she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her. . . ."  Mary Ball Washington never acknowledged her son's many accomplishments and his wide-spread fame.  As one Washington biographer put it, she was stingy with praise and lavish with demands.

Washington ordered black cockages (a type of flower), sword knots and arm-ribbons to be worn by the men of the Palace household, but he did not "go into deep mourning." The regular levees were suspended for a week; after that social activity resumed as before.

On September 13 Washington wrote his sister Betty Washington Lewis, revealing something of how he felt:

“My dear Sister, Colonel Ball's letter gave me the first account of my Mother's death--since that I have received Mrs. Carter's letter written at your request--and previous to both I was prepared for the event by some advices of her illness communicated to your Son Robert.

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score. Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator--When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more.”


On another occasion at the Palace Mansion, during a public dinner, something both comic and nearly tragic occurred.  A woman attended wearing a tall headdress made of ostrich feathers. The ceiling was low and she brushed her headdress against the candles on the overhead chandelier and the feathers caught fire. The fire was put out quickly and no one was hurt, but for George Washington it was yet another reason why he wanted to move.

The Palace Mansion at 1 Cherry Street had proved too small to meet the President's needs. There were not enough rooms to meet the growing needs of the nation’s chief executive. And there was that low ceiling.  It was fine if you were, say, five-foot-seven, as most men were then, but not if you were six-foot-two, as Washington was. There were other problems as well.  When the house was built in 1770, the neighborhood was among the finest in the city; since the war, however, the neighborhood had deteriorated.  Two blocks over from the mansion, the wharves along the East River had extended farther north and now crowded the waterfront, bringing with them the noise and smells of commercial activity. Since moving to New York, Washington missed the view of the Potomac, and the East River was no Potomac. The East River was the business-side of Manhattan, where longshoremen were forever transferring cargo on and off ships.

Washington wanted a house on the west side of Manhattan, one with a view of the Hudson.  There were two such houses that met the President's needs.  One was Richmond Hill, situated a mile north of town on a high promontory overlooking the Hudson.  It had two problems.  One, it was occupied by vice president John Adams, and, two, it was too far out of the way.  The second house was located on Broadway.  Currently, it was rented by the French minister, the Comte de Moutiers, who, as luck would have it, would be returning to France after the first of the year. This was the Macomb House, at 39 Broadway. Built in 1786, the Macomb House was the largest residence in the city: four-stories tall and occupying most of a city block. Washington planned to take possession in February.

There was a third house to consider, but it had yet to be built. It was called The Government House and was designed expressly to be the permanent residence of the President of the United States. It was yet another attempt by New York politicians to convince Congress to keep the nation’s capital in Manhattan.  Government House was to be built at the foot of Broadway and to face Bowling Green Park. The windows facing south would have an unobstructed view of Upper New York Bay.  The state legislature passed an act to build the house on March 16, 1790. Commissioners announced “they are desirous of receiving plans for a house to contain, a room for the reception of the Legislature on public business, and drawing and dinning room for special occasions; a drawing and dining room for private use, a room for a library with other requisite apartments and accommodations."

The state also planned to widen Broadway and to build a larger Capitol Building, on Broadway or possibly across the East River, in Brooklyn.

By April 20, 1790 the commissioners agreed on a plan and authorized the construction of The Government House to begin. The cornerstone was laid on May 21, and the building was completed the following year, in the spring of 1791. By that time, the federal government had moved to Philadelphia.  Government House became the home of state governors until 1799, when the state capital moved to Albany.  After that, it was used as a customs house until 1815, when it was unceremoniously torn down.

There were three other executive mansions, bringing the total to six. One was the Masters-Penn-Morris House at 190 High Street in Philadelphia, which served as the Presidential Mansion for the ten-year period the capital was in Philadelphia; another was The President’s House, on Ninth Street, in Philadelphia.  The President’s House, like New York’s Government House, was built expressly for the President in what was Philadelphia’s attempt to keep the capital in that city.  Also like Government House, no president ever lived there.  The sixth Presidential house is in Washington, D.C.  Today it is known as the White House.  With the exception of George Washington, every president of the United States has lived there.  For 100 years it was known as the Executive Mansion. It was Theodor Roosevelt who, in 1901, first referred to the Executive Mansion as  “The White House.”  He had the name printed on presidential stationary and it caught on with the press.  Thereafter the Executive Mansion has been known as “The White House.”


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