History Timeline 1790s

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U.S. Timeline - The 1790s

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  • 1792 Detail

    April 5, 1792 - The presidential veto is used for the first time when President Washington turns down a bill to apportion representation amongst the states.

    George Washington at Congress Hall

    It was a power vested within the Constitution, although the word veto never appears, that a President, in this case the first, George Washington, would have the right to veto legislation he did not like. The Constitution states that a bill must be presented to the President within ten days of passage, and that the President must sign or refuse to sign the bill within ten days. Upon refusal, he must send the bill back to Congress with stated objections, ... i.e. the veto.

    Of course, Congress would have the power to overcome that veto with a super majority of votes, two-thirds in both houses. So, from the start of the Republic, it had been intended that the President had some authority over the second branch, as they did over him. How that would play out had not been attempted, however, until Congress decided how they would legislate their own representation within the states.

    There had been no vetoes of legislation in the First Congress, but as the Second Congress took place in Congress Hall, Philadelphia, a bill, H.R. 163, was debated and passed after considerable consternation and adjustment by the Senate. The Senate had passed its version by one vote in two votes on March 12 and March 22, amending it to read that there would be one hundred and twenty members. Finally, the bill, called "An Act for an Apportionment of Representatives among the Several States according to the First Enumeration," was passed 31 to 29 by the House on March 23, 1792. It was presented to President Washington on March 26, 1792.


    Full Text, Original Apportionment Bill


    An Act for an Apportionment of Representatives among the several States, according to the first Enumeration.

    "be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That, from and after the 3d day of March, in the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, the House of Representatives shall be composed of one hundred and twenty members, elected within the several States, according to the following apportionment, that is to say: Within the State of New Hampshire, five; within the State of Massachusetts, sixteen; within the State of Vermont, three, within the state of Rhode Island, two; within the state of Connecticut, eight; within the state of New York, eleven; within the state of New Jersey, six; within the state of Pennsylvania, fourteen; within the state of Delaware, two; within the state of Maryland, nine; within the state of Virginia, twenty-one; within the state of Kentucky, two; within the state of North Carolina, twelve; within the state of South Carolina, seven; and within the state of Georgia, two.

    "JONATHAN TRUMBULL,
    "Speaker of the House of Representatives
    "JOHN ADAMS,
    "Vice President U.S. and President of Senate."

    There was disagreement among Washington's advisors on the bill. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph thought the bill unconstitutional, interpreting the Constitution as reading that representation could not be just the population of the nation divided by the thirty thousand persons mentioned, but that it must be done in a divisor system on a state by state basis. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of War Henry Knox did not think that the bill should be vetoed and that the method used by Congress, as long as it was in the public interest, should be accepted.

    Washington was unsure if he wished to use the veto, thinking that its use might be viewed as preferential toward the Southern States, but, in the end, he agreed with Jefferson and Randolph, now buoyed by a similar opinion by James Madison, that the bill was technically unconstitutional and that allowing it to pass would set a bad precendent.

    On April 5, 1792, Washington turned the legislation down, sending it back to the House of Representatives with the following message.


    Washington's Veto Message to Congress


    United States, April 5, 1792.

    "Gentlemen of the House of Representatives:"

    "I have maturely considered the act passed by the two Houses entited 'An act for an Apportionment of Representatives among the several States, according to the first Enumeration;' and I return it to your House, wherein it originated, with the following objections:

    "First. The Constitution has prescribed the Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers; an there is no one proportion or divisor which, applied to the respective numbers of the States, will yield the number and allotment of Representatives proposed by the bill.

    "Second. The Constitution has also provided that the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand; which restriction is, by the context, and by fair and obvious construction, to be applied to the separate and respective numbers of the States; and the bill has allotted to eight of the States more than one for every thirty thousand,

    G. WASHINGTON."


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    Response of Congress


    When the House of Representatives convened the next day, they read the bill again in open session, as well as the President's objections. They voted again. It was voted down, this time with only 28 yeas to 33 nays. With the bill rejected, well below the Constitutional threshold of two-thirds, the first attempt to enact an Apportionment failed.

    On April 9, 1792, the House of Representatives took up another attempt to craft an apportionment bill that could pass both houses of Congress as well as be signed by the President. It would use the ratio mentioned in the Constitution, one per thirty thousand, as well as in Washington's objections. If that meant that representation increased the number of Representatives, that could be agreed upon. In the end, they increased the number of per persons from thirty thousand to thirty-three thousand, and the new bill passed both houses on April 10, 1792. It was approved by President George Washington on April 14.

    The Act would go into effect with the Third Congress on March 4, 1793 and include one hundred members in the House of Representatives.



    Apportionment Act, April 10, 1792


    An Act for apportioning Representatives among the several States, according to the first enumeration.

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the third day of March one thousand seven hundred and ninety-three, the House of Representatives shall be composed of members elected agreeably to a ratio of one member for every thirty-three thousand persons in each state, computed according to the rule prescribed by the constitution; that is to say: Within the state of New Hampshire, four; within the state of Massachusetts, fourteen; within the state of Vermont, two; within the state of Rhode Island, two; within the state of Connecticut, seven; within the state of New York, ten; within the state of New Jersey, five; within the state of Pennsylvania, thirteen; within the state of Delaware, one; within the state of Maryland eight; within the state of Virginia, nineteen; within the state of Kentucky, two; within the state of North Carolina, ten; within the state of South Carolina, six; and within the state of Georgia, two members.

    Image above: Print of painting of George Washington during March 4, 1793 inauguration at Congress Hall, date unknown, Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Lithograph of Congress Hall and Independence Hall, 1848/9, Laurent Deroy, Augustus Kollner. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo source: Library of Congress. Info source: Library of Congress; History.house.gov; senate.gov; Washingtonpapers.org; U.S. Statues at Large, legisworks: Wikipedia Commons.

    Congress Hall, Philadelphia

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