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Tag: Thomas Jefferson

Pirates: An Early Test for the New Country

Today’s post comes from Tom Eisinger, senior archivist at the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.

Richard O’Bryen's letter to Thomas Jefferson, first page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Richard O’Bryen’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, first page, July 12, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

When Richard O’Bryen, captain of the Philadelphia ship Dauphin, penned his July 12, 1790, letter to Thomas Jefferson, he had been a captive of the Barbary pirates in Algeria for almost five years.

This letter, and others, helped bring attention to an unexpected problem the Federal Government inherited from the government under the Articles of Confederation: pirates.

The new nation was faced with the questions: What could be done about the Barbary pirates? And what could be done for the American prisoners held for ransom in Algeria?

In the late 18th century, the Barbary pirates were a well-known problem in Europe. These pirates—who came from Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunisia—captured vessels sailing in the Mediterranean Sea and held their crews for ransom.

To free a captured vessel, European nations were forced to pay the ransom. Some European nations signed treaties with the four Barbary nations and paid tribute for safe passage of their vessels.

The Barbary pirates were not an issue for the American colonies while they were under the protection of the British Empire or during the Revolutionary War while they were under the protection of France. However, … [ Read all ]

The Compromise of 1790

Hamilton, Alexander. Painting  by John Trumbull (copy). (Records of Commissions of the Legislative Branch, National Archives)

Hamilton, Alexander. Painting by John Trumbull (copy). (Records of Commissions of the Legislative Branch, National Archives)

On June 20, 1790, when Congress was temporarily meeting in New York City, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hosted a dinner. In attendance were Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Representative from Virginia James Madison.

Keep in mind these men were on opposing ends of the political spectrum. Hamilton, a Federalist, wanted the Federal Government to hold the bulk of the political and economic power; Madison and Jefferson, Republicans, wanted that power to remain with the states.

Nonetheless, the three men met to discuss a prolonged deadlock in Congress, and this meeting was a pivotal turning point in what is known as the “Compromise of 1790.”

Back in January 1790, Hamilton had given his “First Report on Public Credit” to Congress. One of the most contentious issues in the report was Hamilton’s recommendation that the Federal Government assume the states’ substantial Revolutionary War debts.

James Madison. (National Archives Identifier 532836)

James Madison. (National Archives Identifier 532836)

Hamilton believed this was necessary to establish the United States’ credit and promote investment. Furthermore, the debt rested in the hands of a small number of wealthy citizens. Hamilton knew these men would take a keen interest in the success of a country that owed them money.

The assumption issue had been debated in Congress for months. Northern members supported … [ Read all ]

Congress Counts: History of the U.S. Census

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC. 

The Constitution requires that Congress conduct a census every 10 years to determine the representation of each state in the  House of Representatives. When the authors of the Constitution allocated seats in the House for the First Congress, they had no census data to guide them. As a result, the sizes of the first congressional districts varied dramatically. A Massachusetts congressman represented 96,550 people, while one from Georgia represented only 16,250.

To solve this problem, Congress had to determine how to conduct a census. The new nation was the first to institute a national, periodical census. The size of the United States made the task rather daunting. The Senate census committee worked for eight months before they decided to start from scratch in January of 1790.

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

An Act Providing for the Enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, March 2, 1790, Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives

Regional interests dominated the debate over the census. Northern representatives pushed for a rapid enumeration, but southerners insisted on more time, so that census-takers could canvas their large, rural states. On February 4, 1790, Congressman Theodore Sedgwick implied that Georgia’s population did not merit three representatives. A South Carolinian retorted that Sedgwick “would not be content until there were 24 members” representing … [ Read all ]

Taking the Constitution for a Test Drive

Today’s Constitution Day guest post was written by Jim Zeender, senior registrar in exhibits at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

The Constitution of the United States turned 226 this year and continues to be the oldest and longest-serving written constitution in the world. It consists of exactly 4,543 words and has been amended only 27 times.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in September 1787, the attendees had various opinions on the result of the Convention. Benjamin Franklin has probably been quoted most often from his speech that day, “I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it.”

Independence Hall

Exterior of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where the Constitution was signed. (National Archives Identifier 518208)

John Adams was not present in Philadelphia.  He was in London, serving as the U.S. envoy to Great Britain. Adams received a copy of the new constitution from Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry, and he later praised the Convention’s work in a letter to Jefferson, who was in Paris.

It seems to be admirably calculated to preserve the Union, to increase Affection, and to bring us all to the same mode of thinking. They have adopted the Idea of the Congress at Albany in 1754 of a President to nominate officers and a Council to Consent: but

[ Read all ]

Thomas Jefferson: Governor of Virginia

Today’s guest post was written by Jim Zeender,  senior registrar in Exhibits at the National Archives.

Photograph of a painting by Thomas Sully of Thomas Jefferson (ARC 532932)

This week, we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 270th birthday—April 13, 1743—and look at one particular year in his life, 1781. That year did not begin auspiciously for Jefferson, and on April 13 he would have matters on his mind more weighty than his birthday.  He was in the second of his two terms as Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The 10 months that preceded the great American victory at Yorktown were harrowing ones for the Governor, the General Assembly, and the rest of the Virginia government. Once in January and again in May, the British attacked and forced the evacuation of the new state capital at Richmond. To make matters worse, the initial British assault was led by none other than Benedict Arnold, the traitor who had escaped the Continental Army only months before, when his plan to turn over West Point to the British was discovered and foiled.

Before becoming Governor, Jefferson had spent 15 months in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, where he drafted the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. In September, he returned home and was elected to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates. Three years later, at the age of 36, Jefferson was … [ Read all ]