The Compromise of 1790

The Compromise allowed for the founding of the new nation's capital, Washington D.C.
Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington
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In one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s catchiest tunes in the musical Hamilton, Hamilton’s doppelganger Aaron Burr sings longingly about being in “the room where it happens,” on the inside, shaping momentous actions.  Anyone who has spent time around political types will recognize how spot-on Miranda’s insight is: ideals and policies are fine, but the central engine of most political ambition is to squeeze into the room where it happens. For generations, American historians have decreed that the central legislative compromise of 1790 by the new American republic occurred in Thomas Jefferson’s dining room in New York. Based on Jefferson’s writings years later, the myth is that Congressman James Madison and Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton sorted out the location of the nation’s capital and its future economic life while Jefferson looked on with benign good will.

It’s a fairy tale.

Thomas Jefferson

In the spring of 1790, everyone connected with the new government knew that a deal had to be struck to enact two key pieces of legislation:  Hamilton’s program for managing the towering debt from the Revolutionary War, and where to locate the new national capital (usually described then as the “residence of Congress”). Because Congress was to reside in an entirely new city to reflect the unprecedented nature of the American republic, Congress also needed a temporary residence while the new city was built at the permanent location.

For months, legislators attempted to strike compromises to resolve both issues, but every coalition crumbled as soon as it was assembled. The debt issue foundered on the competing interests of the twelve states then represented in Congress; those who had paid their war debts had very different views from those still saddled with heavy obligations. Two cities vied to be temporary capital (New York and Philadelphia), while five locations in three different states competed to become the permanent seat of government.

James Madison

In Jefferson’s telling, he came upon a distraught Hamilton outside the president’s residence in Manhattan. The legislative logjam, Hamilton despaired, was defying his efforts to broker a deal. With magisterial calm, Jefferson proposed a dinner with Madison to work things out, where the deal was resolved.

That dinner likely happened, though there’s no record that either Hamilton or Madison ever referred to it, omissions that undermine its significance.  As do many other factors.

Begin with the identities of the three men in that room? Two (Jefferson and Hamilton) were heads of executive departments, appointed by President George Washington and serving at his pleasure. The third, Madison, had been Washington’s closest political confidant for the previous five years and was the key proponent of the administration’s legislative program. He was constantly in conference with the president through the nation’s first year.

These three men were not haggling with each other.  They were all on the same side, trying to figure out how to win approval of the legislation that the boss, Washington, wanted.

Consider, also, the perennial question about the eventual compromise: cui bono (who benefits)? Hamilton desperately wanted the national government to assume the debts of the states but hated the idea of placing the permanent congressional residence at the southernmost location, on the Potomac River. Jefferson and Madison loved the Potomac location but disliked national assumption of state debts; indeed, Madison voted against it.

Who, then, supported both the Potomac site and national assumption of state debts? President Washington.

Alexander Hamilton

Now look more closely at the horse-trading of those key months in New York. Washington’s hand can be seen at key points. Weeks before Jefferson’s dinner, two of Washington’s personal aides (Major William Jackson and Colonel David Humphreys) attempted to cobble together a legislative compromise to achieve a Potomac capital and national debt assumption, but it fell apart.  Jefferson, too, tried to assemble the votes for a compromise, but also failed.

Then the president left New York for three days of ocean fishing off the coast of New Jersey. His companions for this jaunt are significant:  Jefferson and Hamilton. Those three gentlemen were not social confreres, nor were the two subordinates known devotees of fishing. Washington enjoyed the company of his Virginia neighbors and relatives, of those who had been closest to him in the Continental Army, or those with whom he could fleetingly shed the burdens of his office. But rarely with either Jefferson or Hamilton, much less both at the same time.

The fishing trip was an eighteenth-century version of a corporate retreat.  It was an extended business conference among men who shared one overriding interest at that moment: the need for a legislative bargain on debt assumption and the congressional residence. It is inconceivable that they spent three days on that boat without strategizing how to make it happen. Perhaps we should call it “the boat where it happened.”

Three days before Jefferson’s dinner, Washington met for several hours with a key Massachusetts congressman on a matter the legislator said would determine “the future complexion of the government.” Key votes for the eventual compromise would come from the Massachusetts senators. So that took care of the Senate.

To slide the final deal through the House of Representatives, four congressmen switched their votes. All were from the Potomac Valley – two Virginians and two Marylanders. All four were friends of President Washington.

Could these be mere coincidences, or did Washington, largely concealed from view, manage the legislative maneuvering that led to the final bargain?

Based on the available evidence, it isn’t entirely clear which room, or boat, should be deemed where the critical Compromise of 1790 happened. But there’s ample evidence for concluding who made it happen.

David O. Stewart has published four historical novels and five works of American history, including George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, in February 2021.

David O. Stewart is the author of George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.