EARLIEST AMERICAN FEDERAL LAWS
April 2, 2013
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While the 113th Congress grapples with the serious business of governing the United States, you might imagine the challenges experienced by the first Congress to establish laws that would govern this new country. The laws enacted in Congress’ first session were fairly short and addressed a single statute or topic, unlike modern public laws that address a wide range of federal statutes. Below, we set forth the first three public laws that were enacted.
Our very first public law, signed by President George Washington on June 1, 1789, related to the “administering [of] certain Oaths.” [1 Stat. 23]. This new law set forth the oath for the Senate and House of Representatives to be: “I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” (Id.) This oath was required to be administered within three days after the passing of this first act by any Senator to the President of the Senate and by the Speaker of the House to all members who have not taken a similar oath. The three-day limit was modified in case the member was absent, so that the oath should be administered when he finally appeared.
President Washington’s next law signed was on July 4, 1789 which was an “Act for laying a Duty on Goods, Wares, and Merchandises imported into the United States.” [2 Stat. 24]. The long list of duties that were laid by this second act included, but was not limited to: distilled spirits of Jamaica proof (imported from any kingdom or country) the duty of 10 cents per gallon, on Madeira wine the duty of 18 cents per gallon, on soap the duty of 2 cents per pound, on manufactured tobacco the duty of 6 cents per pound, on coal the duty of 2 cents per bushel, and on dried fish the duty of 50 cents per quintal. (Id., page 25) Teas were also a major part of this new law, with duties imposed on teas imported from China, India and Europe in ships built in the U.S. and belonging to a U.S. citizen or in ships or vessels built in foreign countries owned by U.S. citizens. (Id.) The duty ranged from six cents per pound of bohea tea to sixteen cents per pound of all other green teas. (Id.) The itemized list of duty products also extended to goods, wares and merchandises imported from China and India, such as gunpowder, blank books, cabinet wares, ready-made clothing, leather gloves, and playing cards. (Id., page 26)
And the third very earliest public law, which was signed on July 20, 1789, was a short bill enacting “An Act imposing Duties on Tonnage.” [3 Stat. 27] This bill imposed duties on ships or vessels built within the States and owned by U.S. citizens in the amounts of 6 cents per ton, and for foreign ships or vessels at the rate of 50 cents per ton.