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

Establishing the Executive Departments

The First Federal Congress confronted the task of building upon the foundation for the federal government outlined in the Constitution, interpreting that document as it worked. Even at the time this Congress was seen as equivalent to a second sitting of the Federal Convention. It was responsible for shaping the executive and judicial branches--tasks not tackled by the Federal Convention to avoid potential controversy.
The 19 May 1789 introduction by Representative James Madison of Virginia of a resolution calling for the establishment of three executive departments (war, foreign affairs and treasury) brought on one of the most important and extensive congressional debates on the meaning of the Constitution in U.S. history. The debate centered upon the question: who has the power to remove executive officials? This question and others relating to the powers of the executive and relations between the executive and the legislature occupied part of the attention of the House of Representatives for months in 1789. During the debate members espoused four distinct possible answers to this question. The conclusion reached--that the power was impliedly granted to the President as part of his executive responsibilities--shaped the operation of the federal government much differently than the other answers would have.