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Located in the Financial District of New York City, New York, Federal Hall National Memorial is a historically significant monument where many of the nation’s important events took place. It has gone through some remodeling in order to get to where it is today. Federal Hall National Memorial was once simply known as Federal Hall, and prior to that, City Hall. Laws were enacted such as the Naturalization Act of 1790 & the Copyright Act of 1790, which still affects the public to some degree in today’s world. It housed the first official government of the United States of America post-Revolutionary War and is considered a national treasure by the National Trust of Historic Preservation in 2015.

Image of Federal Hall with arrowhead

Image of Federal Hall with arrowhead

George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall

George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall

Exterior of Federal Hall

Exterior of Federal Hall

Prior to being known as Federal Hall, it was once City Hall, where it housed the New York government. It was also where the Zenger Trial took place, which would influence and help establish the idea of free press about half a century before it was written as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. 

  After the revolutionary war, City Hall become the meeting place for the Continental Congress. While in a convention in Philadelphia, Congress realized the need for a government with more authority and they sent out a federal constitution to be ratified on September 17, 1787. They hired architect and engineer Pierre L’Enfant to turn City Hall into Federal Hall in 1788. Federal Hall housed the Senate, House of Representatives, and the office of the President, therefore making New York the capitol of the United States. Many laws were enacted by the government at Federal Hall such as the Naturalization Act of 1790 and the Copyright Act of 1790. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization of immigrants to those who were free whites. In practice, only white males could become citizens while women and people of color, for example, could not. The law produced a legal category, stating “aliens ineligible for citizenship”, which mainly affected Asian immigrants “and limited their rights as non-citizens to key realms of life in the United States such as property ownership, representation in courts, public employment, and voting.” Over time, eligibility would expand to include others but racial restriction would stick around until 1952, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 was enacted. This act would continue to uphold the Immigration Act of 1924, and at the same time end “Asian exclusion from immigrating to the United States and introduced a system of preferences based on skill sets and family reunification”.  

  The Copyright Act of 1790 would give citizens permission and rights to printing, reprinting, publishing, and vending of maps, charts, and books for the purpose of learning. This law only protected works published by U.S citizens in the U.S. British writers were upset over the law and several wrote a petition to Congress to allow their works to be copyrighted in the U.S. However, British writers were not entitled to royalties made from their works, which were sold by American booksellers. After a while, Congress finally acknowledged them in 1891, when the International Copyright Act of 1891 came out. There have been a few revisions of the law since, including a recent one from 1998— the Copyright Term Extension Act. This act extended copyright protection to “be the life of the author’s plus 70 years.” Opposition came mainly from librarians and archivists, who argued that longer copyright protection would make it difficult for people such as educators to use copyrighted works. According to them, it would “hinder “the progress of science and useful arts”.”  

  In 1790, Congress moved to Philadelphia and the building re-housed the city government until 1812, when it was torn down. Because Federal Hall was built upon older City Hall structure, the city decided to tear it down, sell its pieces for scrap, and build a new structure, re-opening in 1842 to serve as a U.S Customs House for the Port of New York. In 1862, Customs had moved to a new location and the New York Sub-Treasury took over. During its time in the building, it conducted over two-thirds of the money transactions between the government and the public. Up until the Federal Reserve Bank was built and replaced the treasury in 1920, the Treasury had millions of dollars' worth of gold and silver in their basement vaults. In 1933, the Department of Interior was granted jurisdiction over the building and declared it a National Historic Shrine. The building received National Historical designation in 1939 and was named Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site. This happened during the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration, and during the same year, Federal Hall started to be managed by both the National Park Service (NPS) and the Federal Hall Memorial Associates until 1961, when the NPS took over the responsibility. It was re-designated as a national memorial in 1955.   

  During the late 1930’s, Federal Hall was threatened to be torn down and sold as government property. However, a group of leaders from Wall Street banded together and raised up to half a million dollars in order to save the building. Those group of leaders would be known as Federal Hall Memorial Associates.  

  During the 9/11 attacks, Federal Hall served as an emergency shelter for about 250-300 people, including emergency workers. A year later, Congress met at the site for the first time since 1790 for a commemoration to show support for the city, at the request of New Yorkers who pushed for one month's earlier. 250 House members and 50 senators attended the commemoration, giving speeches and presenting the people of New York with a flag that was flown over the Capitol during 9/11. After the attacks, airport-style security devices were installed at the entrance of the memorial, but this had the opposite effect on visitors. Some refused to enter the building and others sent letters or notes to the rangers or parks, stating they were very intimidated by them. In response, the NPS developed new security measures with the police department and removed the devices. Shortly afterwards, attendance has significantly increased.  

"History" Federal Hall. Date accessed: November 5, 2019. 

“The New York Weekly Journal and the Arrest of John Peter Zenger” National Park Service. May 25, 2015. 

“The Congress at Federal Hall” National Park Service. August 31, 2016. 

"Nationality Act of 1790" Immigration History. Date accessed: November 5, 2019.

Jessiekratz. "Protecting Copyright and the 'Encouragement of Learning'" National Archives Pieces of History. May 29, 2015.

David W. Dunlap. "A Wall Street Landmark seen by Millions, but Often Overlooked" The New York Times. December 2, 2015.

"Federal Hall National Memorial Administrative Records, 1790-1990" Manhattan Historic Sites Archive. Date accessed: December 5, 2019.

"The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarren-Walter Act)" Office of the Historian. Date accessed: December 5, 2019.

Katherine Flynn. "Introducing Federal Hall, Our Newest National Treasure" National Trust for Historic Preservation. December 2, 2015.

"A Special Session at Federal Hall in New York City" History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives. September 6, 2002.

Deirdre Carmody. "Federal Hall Memorial is Reopened as Museum" The New York Times. October 21, 1972.

"History & Culture" National Park Service. May 30, 2015.

"Federal Hall National Memorial NYC" Free Tours by Foot. Date accessed: December 5, 2019.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

National Park Service

National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy

National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy