Constitutional Places: Federal Hall in NYC, the Demolished Site of Washington’s Inauguration and the First Congress

November 28th, 2012

Federal Hall in New York City served as the home of President Washington’s first inauguration, the first Congress, the enactment of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and so many other amazing firsts for our Republic. Too bad it was demolished in 1812. Seriously. The capital of the United States moved from Federal Hall in New York to Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1790. For some time, Federal Hall was used for local government offices, but eventually the building was razed in 1812. Unbelievable. In Manhattan, the air rights above Grand Central Station were protected for historical value, but not the home of our first government.

In any event, in 1842 the United States reacquired the land and built a Customs House. It later served as a United States Sub-Treasury. In case you ever read The Slaughter-House Case (which identified access to sub-treasuries as the among the most fundamental privileges or immunities of citizenship), one could trade in greenbacks at the Sub-Treasury for gold there. In 1955, the new building was designated as a national memorial.

Anyway, here are some cool pictures of this pseudo-landmark.

There is a huge statue of General Washington in front of the redesigned Federal Hall.

And I really like it from this angle–the General is staring down the New York Stock Exchange.

This relief was also very well executed.

 Keeping with the trend of not having actually authentic stuff, the museum had a replica of George Washington’s desk.

One of the only remaining remnants of the original edifice is this stone plaque. The park ranger told me that someone purchased it at auction for roughly $400. The inscription reads:

Standing on this stone in the balcony of federal hall, pril 30 1789, George Washington took the oath as the first President of the United States of America.

What’s also fascinating is how obscure the National Park Service makes the fact that the current building was not the site of Washington’s innaguration. I seemed to recall from some previous research that the original Federal Hall was no longer in existence but after spending 25 minutes at the Hall I thought maybe I was mistaken. Nope. This tidbit was buried in a small sign in the exhibit. The last sentence reads:

This great landmark was demolished in 1812.

Interestingly, Ohio dedicated a plaque commemorating the Northwest Ordinance, which was enacted under the Articles of Confederation in Federal Hall.

Another neat artifact was a document from the First Congress listing the salaries of officers of the United States–the total amount was roughly $25,000. 

Note: Judges in the Northwest Territories earned $800 per year. Alexander Hamilton was raking it in with $2,000 a year.

One note: the first actual meeting of the United States Supreme Court took place in Philadelphia in 1791, as SCOTUS did not have any business to transact 1789 and 1790.

Here is a photo of a plaque commemorating the first court from my recent Philadelphia trip.