The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789-1791

The Daily Advertiser

Mr. GOODHUE gave notice that on Friday next he would move for the house to go into a committee to determine the allowance to be made to the President, Vice-President, Senators and Representatives.
The house then resolved themselves into a committee of the whole, on the arrangement of the great departments of the executive. Mr. Trumbull in the chair.
The question on the subject of the treasury department, whether there should be one or several officers at the head of it, occasioned a very long and interesting debate. From the unavoidable absence of the Printer during the proceedings of this day, he is rendered unable to give such an account of this debate in detail, as is necessary for the compleat satisfaction of the public. He gives the present Sketch from the information which his friends have afforded him.
Mr. GERRY opened the debate by a description of the difficulties which would attend such a department under the administration of an individual. He took up and examined the detail of the powers and duties proposed by the mover of the resolution to be annexed to the office of secretary for the treasury department, and thought they were too numerous and complicated to be discharged and executed by any one man whom the United States afforded.
He then went into a train of observations to shew the danger of corruption in an office filled by a single man possessed of such great controuling and uncontroulable powers: Whereas a number of commissioners, possessing equal authority, would be a mutual check to each other, and corruption would be thereby rendered more difficult.
He objected further, that the constitution had provided in the senate a council to advise the president in the execution of government, but that the creation of a financier with all the splendor and powers of office, would be the establishment of a ministry, which would be a dangerous instrument in the hands of the executive.
He then moved for an amendment to the resolution by striking out that part relative to a secretary for the treasury department, and substituting a clause for the appointment of a board of commissioners.
Mr. GERRY was followed and opposed by Mr. WADSWORTH, who confined himself to the proving the superiority which single men of abilities possessed over boards, in the transaction of public business. He reprobated in the strongest terms the conduct of boards of commissioners in general, and especially the late board of treasury, not because they were deficient in integrity or talents, but because there was a radical vice in the very nature and principles of those institutions which was productive of perpetual obstructions in the transaction of affairs, of want of harmony, and that decision and dispatch which were the soul and spirit of public business.
He drew a comparison between the conduct of the late financier[1] and the board of treasury; and said, that the parallel was entirely to the advantage of the former in every point of view. Under the administration of that man, public business had been conducted with a simplicity, accuracy and dispatch, which saved our finances from destruction— Immense savings had been made in all the departments, civil and military, over which he had had any controul, and which before had been in such a state of distraction. Under the administration of the late commissioners, the finances had been in a state of darkness and confusion. Uncertainty, indecision and weakness appeared in all their transactions— He spoke from experience— The difficulties and delays he had met with in doing business with boards, convinced him that there was some great defect in their formation which was incurable.
Mr. BENSON supported the same side of the question. He observed that all the arguments respecting the danger of corruption, & c. would extend to the heads of all departments as well as the treasury. It would extend to the President himself.
The debate was continued by Mr. BALDWIN, Mr. MADISON and Mr. BOUDINOT, the latter of whom spoke largely. These opposed the amendment; and Mr. BLAND supported it.
The question was put upon the amendment, which was negatived without a dissenting vote.
Mr. BLAND then moved that a clause should be added, instituting a board of treasury, under the superintendance of the financier. He had before, in the course of the debate, observed, that he was not opposed to the creating a minister of the finances, who should have a general superintendance over the finance establishment, and be vested with the power of devising, forming and recommending systems for the improvement of the revenue; but he wished he might not possess any immediate controul over the revenue itself— He wished he might have no authority or agency whatever in the receipts and disbursements of money: For such purposes as these he thought a board was necessary— A board who should possess powers which could not safely be trusted with an individual in so elevated a station as the financier.
On this motion the question was put and lost.
A question was then taken, whether this officer should be removable by the President, and carried.
After this a question was taken, whether there should be a department of war, at the head of which should be an officer; to be called the secretary for the department of war, which was decided in the affirmative.
Mr. VINING then moved that there should also be established a department for domestic affairs at the head of which, & c. He supported his motion by a number of observations pointing out the expediency of such an establishment. The motion was seconded by Mr. Boudinot and Mr. Huntington.
Mr. BENSON objected— He thought it would be proper to postpone this part of the establishment till a future time. However extensive the object of such an office might be, he was not sure that the office itself was necessary. The duties which would properly come under this department he conceived might be divided and distributed among the other departments. For instance, all domestic matters which related to the revenue might be managed by the treasury department. All domestic matters of a military nature might be conducted by the secretary at war. If, however, a distinct department should be found necessary, it could be established at any time.
To this Mr. VINING replied by enumerating a number of objects which could not come within the management of either department, such as the numerous and increasing objects of a territorial nature, and the extensive correspondence between the federal government and its western dependencies. He also mentioned the propriety of instituting this office for the authentication of public instruments of every kind. At present there was no office to affix the seal of government to the numerous acts which would take place relative to domestic regulations.
To this idea of Mr. VINING it was answered, that for the purpose of authenticating public acts by seal, there would undoubtedly be an officer appointed; but it would be very improper to establish a great department with a large salary to perform such an inconsiderable duty. An officer would probably be created in proper time, with a salary proportionate to the extent and importance of the object.
    [1.] Between 1781 and 1784 the Confederation Congress placed its finances under the management of a superintendent of finance. The office was held by Robert Morris (1734-1806), later senator from Pennsylvania. His power and his advocacy of a strong central government subjected him to widespread political acclaim and abuse.