George Washington Inaugurated Here as First U.S. President
On April 30, 1789, the corner of Wall and Broad streets was awash in people. As a hush settled on the crowd all eyes fixed on the tall man standing above them on the balcony. He was surrounded by officials of the new government of the United States and of the city and state of New York. The man was George Washington, and he was by now a living legend. His journey from Mount Vernon to this balcony had been one long parade, with town after town turning out to greet him with salutes, bands, and elaborate pageantry.
Already older than most people present, the building where Washington stood had been built in 1703 for the British royal governor's council and the assembly of New York. This was also New York City Hall, so prisoners were held and trials conducted here. In an influential verdict in 1735 a jury found printer Peter Zenger not guilty of libel. Articles in Zenger's newspaper had criticized the Royal Governor. Zenger's defense was that he only printed the truth!
After Britain's imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765, delegates of nine colonies met here to air grievances, declaring "no taxation without representation." In 1775 the revolutionary Provincial Assembly of New York took over use of the building. After the American Revolution this became the nation's capitol when, in 1785,the Congress under the Articles of Confederation sat here.
Washington's arrival inaugurated a new era in the life of the struggling young nation. Four years earlier, representatives of Virginia and Maryland had met at Mount Vernon to discuss weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the United States' first plan of government. Their discussion led to meetings at Annapolis, Md., and, in 1787, Philadelphia. This last meeting would produce the system of government under which the United States of America operates to this day.
Ratifying the new Constitution had been a hard-fought battle, and many Americans harbored serious doubts about the document. The Constitution was indeed a compromise, a framework that would be filled in by experience and the actions of the new government. Most important was the passage here in 1790 of the first amendments to the Constitution, which became known as the Bill of Rights. Here at New York's old colonial city hall, now newly refurbished by architect Pierre L'Enfant and renamed Federal Hall, a new experiment would begin.
From City Hall to Federal Hall and Beyond
A Bill of Rights and the First Congress Launch the Nation
As the new government met, the stakes were high, and all eyes were again on new President George Washington and the Congress. Despite Washington's universal popularity, many worried about what presidential precedents he might set. The nation's direction was still in doubt.
Many states, including New York, had withheld approval of the Constitution until assured that it would guarantee rights like freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. North Carolina and Rhode Island still had not ratified the document as the new government met. However, passage of 10 of the proposed 12 new amendments guaranteed basic rights and fostered broad acceptance of the new system of government, even among skeptics.
This single, seven-month session of the first Congress left a lasting mark on the United States by filling in the framework of the Constitution with laws and precedents. In addition to the Bill of Rights, Congress passed the Judiciary Act that established the coexistence of state and federal courts and laws. Some important precedents set were the Senate's role in diplomacy, Presidential control of cabinet appointments, and how the President should be addressed. The republic was launched.
Custom House and U.S. Sub-Treasury
The first Congress sidestepped a root question: how could the government secure funds? Federal reliance on states for money had doomed the Articles of Confederation. By 1812, when Federal Hall was demolished, tariff and banking issues divided the nation.
The present building arose in 1842 as a splendid Greek Revival Customs House, by which time Wall Street was already established as a center of finance. In 1862 the building became one of six Federal 5ub-Treasuries storing silver and gold, until replaced by the Federal Reserve Bank in 1920.
Planning Your Visit
Federal Hall, at 26 Wall Street between Nassau and William streets, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday except national holidays. Parking is limited and very expensive; use public transportation. Visit www.mta.info for bus and subway routes and schedules. Exhibits and a video honor the site's history. A museum, bookstore, and both guided and self-guiding tours are available.
Source: NPS Brochure (2011)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
A History of the Seals of the City and State of New York (John Reilly, August 1964)
Documentary Study for a Historical Base Map, Federal Hall National Memorial, New York City (John O. Littleton, July 1957)
Finding Aid: Federal Hall National Memorial National Park Service Administrative Records, 1790-1990 Catalog Number FEHA 1925 (Rachel M. Oleaga, January 2013)
John Peter Zenger: A Historical Study (Irving G. Cheslaw, December 1949)
Junior Ranger, Federal Hall National Memorial (Date Unknown)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form
Federal Hall National Memorial (Ricardo Torres-Reys, December 1972)
The Continental Congress in the New York City Hall, 1785-1788: Background and Evaluation Study (John D.R. Platt, May 1969)
The Physical Characteristics of the Seventeenth Century Dutch Wall (Constance Kroll, October 1963)
The Stamp Act Congress (Alfred Mongin, March 27, 1963)
The Stamp Act Congress: Supplementary Research Study for Exhibit #14, Federal Hall National Memorial (Alfred Nongin,, May 1964)
The United States Independent Treasury System, Federal Hall, N.Y. (John D.R. Platt, December 30, 1968)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 01-May-2021