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

The Congressional Register

[Text omitted. -Ed.]***
On motion of mr. Vining, the house resolved itself into a committee of the whole on the state of the union.
Mr. Boudinot being placed in the chair,
Introduced a resolution for the adoption of the committee, by which it declared, [printed in Gazette of the United States, 25 July].
Objected to some of the duties mentioned in the resolution, he thought the less the government corresponded with particular states, the better, and there could be no necessity of an officer to see to the execution of the laws of the United States; when there was a judiciary instituted with adequate powers.
Was not convinced that there was a necessity for establishing a separate department; for any or all of the duties contained in the resolution. The correspondence with the states belonged to the executive: To see to the execution of the laws was the duty of the judiciary: The great seal might be kept by the secretary of foreign affairs, the lesser seal might be deposited in the same hands: Commissions might be made out by the departments to which the officer is connected: The secretary of the senate and clerk of the house might transmit the public acts, and keep records thereof: What have congress to do with the acts of the states? If they interfere with the constitutional powers of the government, the judges will prevent their operation: The papers of the late congress may be distributed among the officers to which they relate, the rest may be deposited with the officers of congress: The want of the reports on manufactures, agriculture and commerce may be supplied by congress: The post roads may be left to the post-master-general: The census must be returned to congress, and they will preserve it among their files: And it can hardly be thought necessary to establish a great department, for the purpose of receiving the models, specimens, and books presented by authors and inventors. If none of these things are requisite to be done by a great department, why should the United States incur the expence, which such an arrangement must necessarily draw along with it.
Thought the secretary of foreign affairs was not so much overcharged with business, but that he might attend to the major part of the duties, mentioned in the resolution.
Said, he had waited until the great executive departments were established; but none of those had embraced the duties contained in his proposition, which he conceived to be of great importance; many of the duties were as essential as those of any other department, except the treasury. As for their belonging to the executive, as was said by the gentleman from Virginia, he admitted it— but they were nevertheless, as proper to be put in the hands of a principal officer under the president, as the war office, or office of foreign affairs; the duties of these were specially within the executive department of the government. He conceived that the president ought to be relieved from the inferior duties of his station, by officers assigned to attend to them under his inspection; he could then with a mind free, and unembarrassed with the minutiae of business, attend to the operations of the whole machine.
If the office was admitted to be necessary, and he was certain the performance of the duties were useful, and essential; the expence could be no solid objection; because the information it would furnish, would more than counter-balance that article.
The question he conceived to be reduced to this, whether a confidential officer would not be more useful than any other, and whether the duties could be distributed among the officers already instituted: For his part he conceived the most of them foreign to either of those officers: And that they could not be performed with advantage, any other way, than by an officer appointed specially for the purpose. He thought every gentleman would admit that the duties were important, and he assured them, that his only reason for bringing the motion forward, was to provide for the public good: He had no personal motives in pressing it, he disclaimed every idea of serving any particular man by the arrangement,[1] and rested it solely upon its merits.
Believed the honorable gentleman in his assertions, that he had no personal motive in pressing this business; he believed that he thought it essential, and if his sentiments were the same, he would join the gentleman in supporting the motion; but after duly considering the subject, he was inclined to believe that the office was unnecessary, and would be squandering the public money, at a time when the greatest oeconomy was requisite. He thought the principal part of the duties might be assigned to the secretary of foreign affairs; and he would, if the committee negatived, the present motion, introduce another for that purpose.
Thought the burthens of the people, would be sufficiently great in providing the supplies absolutely necessary for the support of the government; therefore it would be improper to add expences which might possibly be avoided, the people who are viewing the proceedings of congress, with an attentive solicitude, and if they observe that we erect officers, for which there is no apparent necessity, they will be apt to think we are providing sinecures, for men whom we favor, they will reluctantly pay what is extracted from their earnings to a government which they think is regardless of oeconomy: They will suspect a further view in the change of government: They will suppose that we contemplate the establishment of a monarchy, by raising round the executive, a phalanx of such men as must be inclined to favor those of whom they hold their places.
Why do gentlemen say that such an office is unnecessary, when they are forced to admit that all the duties are essential? Or how can they say it is more expensive to establish it in this way, than in another? Suppose these duties distributed in the manner which some gentlemen have mentioned, it is not fairly to be presumed that the departments to which any of them are attached, will require an extra pay for these extra services? If so, will there be any oeconomy in this mode of procedure? All that is to be wished for, is to have a confidential person employed, let his salary be what you please, if it is not worth 1500 dollars per annum, let it be 500: But it would be better to have a principal to manage the business, than have it consigned to clerks in the other departments.
Said, that something was necessary to be done with respect to the business brought forward by the honorable gentleman from Delaware, he conceived that an officer of the rolls, or some inferior officer ought to be appointed to transact the business detailed in the resolution, he did not insist upon making it a great department.
Agreed with the gentleman from New-York, but he thought that business might be thrown into some other department, and save to the union the expence of the one, which the gentleman from Delaware wished to establish, by the name of the home department. He thought the resolution proposed altogether so improper, that he hoped the committee would rise.
A desultory conversation arose, whether the committee should decide upon the resolution or not, after which a question was taken on the rising of the committee, and passed in the negative.
Then the question was put on the first part of mr. Vining's proposition, viz. that an executive department ought to be established, to be denominated the home department; and lost by a considerable majority.
It was then moved and seconded, that the committee rise, which being agreed to, mr. speaker resumed the chair and mr. Boudinot reported, that the committee had, according to order, had the state of the union under consideration, but had come to no resolution thereon.
A motion was then made by mr. Sedgwick, that a committee be appointed to bring in a bill, supplementary to the act for establishing the department of foreign affairs, declaring that department to be hereafter denominated , and that the principal officer in that department shall have the custody of the records, and seal of the United States, and that such bill do contain provision for the fees of office, to be taken for copies of records, and further provision for the due publication of the acts of congress, and other matters relating to the premises, as the committee shall deem necessary to be reported to this house.
And the question being put thereupon, it passed in the negative.
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    [1.] Many members of Congress knew that Charles Thomson, secretary of the Confederation Congress since 1774, wanted to become secretary of a home department. In May he had declined to provide Vining with a statement detailing the department's possible functions, but gave some idea of his vision for it. His letter can be found in Edmund C. Burnett, ed. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress 8(Washington, D.C., 1936):835-36. See also Kenneth R. Bowling, "Good-by 'Charle,'" Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 100:314-35.