Federal Hall—over 300 years of American History

Imagine visiting the locations where America’s freedom of the press was born, the slogan that started American revolution—”no taxation without representation”—was declared, the Bill of Rights was penned, and George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president of the United States.

But you don’t have to visit different places: all of them happened in the same spot. Federal Hall, located on Wall Street, had been the site of government activity and momentous national historic events since early 1700s.

The earliest structure, built in 1703, was once New York’s City Hall. Though the building housed various administrative offices as well as a prison, its courtroom was what made history. It was there that the colonial era-publisher John Peter Zenger was tried, and acquitted, of seditious libel in 1735. By the laws of the time any critique of the government was considered to be libel—a punishable offense. Zenger faced this charge because he had printed harshly critical, but truthful, comments about the British royal governor in his newspaper. Instead of denying Zenger’s actions, his lawyer argued that since his client’s writings were true, they could not be considered libel. It was Zenger’s acquittal that established the freedom of the press in America, which was later enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights, incidentally, was drafted in the same spot when it became  Federal Hall in 1789. 

Next, the building played a critical role in America’s early history in 1765, when it served as a meeting place for delegates from nine of the original 13 colonies. Calling themselves the Stamp Act Congress, these men gathered to debate and protest the recent Stamp Act, a piece of legislation passed by the British Parliament requiring colonial businesses to use special revenue stamps on every official document. To the colonists, this represented an unfair tax that they had to pay despite having no representation of their own in parliament. Similarly to the more famous Boston Tea Party, this episode would serve as a spark that eventually ignited the American Revolution.

After the American Revolution, New York City became the United States’ first capital in 1785. What was then still known as City Hall served as the meeting place for the Congress of the United States while it functioned under the Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to the Constitution. In 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified, City Hall was renovated and renamed Federal Hall, becoming the young nation’s first Capitol building. It continued to serve as the seat of American government until 1790 when it moved out of New York City to Philadelphia – a temporary capital while Washington, D.C. was being built.

Federal Hall is where in 1789 George Washington, standing on the open-air second floor balcony, took the oath of office to become the nation’s first president.

The building held the first offices of what today is known as the Supreme Court, in addition to those of the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury.

The current structure was was built as the U.S. Custom House in 1842. One of the best surviving examples of Greek Revival architecture in New York, it was designed by architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis and took more than a decade to complete. It was later used as one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations.

In 1939 the building was designated as Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site and finally re-designated a national memorial in 1955.

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