In April 1789, The First Congress had just begun under the new Constitution.
Many Americans felt uncertain about whether the Constitution would be an improvement over the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first government. But some, like the mechanics and manufacturers in New York City who wrote this petition to Congress, were thrilled to have a new government that was intended to address the many problems that arose under the Articles. For Constitution Day on September 17, your students can get a sense of the economic problems that existed under the Articles of Confederation by reading this petition from citizens who were directly—and negatively—affected by them. The petitioners explained the economic problems they faced under the Articles, and then expressed their hope and confidence that the new Federal Congress would quickly address them.
Direct your students to closely read the eighteenth century language to identify the petitioners’ concerns. At the beginning of the petition, the New Yorkers described their elation at the success of the Revolution: “They contemplated this event as the point at which a happy era was to commence, and as the source whence a new system of blessings should spring.” But they quickly realized that the central government under the Articles was too weak to prevent Great Britain from dominating trade. Despite America’s immense resources, attempts at manufacturing new items were hampered by lower British prices. The Articles gave the central government no power to tax the British imports, and the manufacturers in New York and elsewhere discovered that they could not compete: “They soon perceived with the deepest regret, that their prospects of improving wealth were blasted by a system of commercial usurpation, originating in prejudices and fostered by a feeble government.”
The petitioners believed that they could achieve commercial success if the government could tax imports to make their products comparable in price: “Wearied by their fruitless exertions, your Petitioners have long looked forward with anxiety for the establishment of a government which would have power to check the growing evil, and extend a protecting hand to the interests of commerce and the arts.” The new Constitution allowed them to feel optimistic about their chances for future economic success: “Such a government is now established. On the promulgation of the Constitution, just now commencing its operations, your Petitioners discovered in its principles the remedy which they had so long and so earnestly desired.” The petitioners then stated to Congress their confidence that it would act to resolve the problem they had described: “To your Honorable Body the Mechanics and Manufacturers of New York look up with confidence, convinced, that, as the united voice of America has furnished you with the means, so your knowledge of our common wants has given you the spirit to unbind our fetters and rescue our country from disgrace and ruin.”
The petitioners were correct to be confident in the new government—the second act passed by the First Congress was for the taxation of imports (“An Act for laying a duty on goods, wares, and merchandises imported into the United States, as introduced in the Senate,” May 18, 1789, from the Records of the U.S. Senate, seen above). (The first act was for an oath of office.) This act answered the New Yorkers call, and established support for a government strong enough to protect its own business.
The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225thAnniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via Tumblr, Twitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.