First Congress

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One year after the constitutional convention of 1787 adjourned, the Confederation Congress called the first federal elections. An overwhelming majority of Federalists were elected to this First Congress, which was expected to function as a quasi-constitutional convention. The tasks facing the new Congress were formidable because, according to Congressman james madison, the legislators would be traveling "in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide" them. If Congress acted wisely, however, Madison felt that its "successors [would] have an easier task."

Not surprisingly, experienced men were selected to serve in the new Congress. Eleven of the first senators and nine congressmen had been delegates to the federal convention, and fourteen senators and twice as many congressmen had served in state ratifying conventions. george washington told Lafayette that the new Congress "will not be inferior to any Assembly in the world."

The whole country anxiously anticipated the meeting of Congress at Federal Hall in New York City on March 4, 1789. However, much to the chagrin of Federalists, neither house had a quorum on the appointed day. Almost a month elapsed before the house of representatives attained a quorum on April 1, followed five days later by the senate; at this time, a joint session of Congress performed its constitutionally assigned function of counting the presidential electoral votes. George Washington was declared President by a unanimous vote, while john adams, a distant second, was proclaimed vice president. Messengers were sent to Washington and Adams as Congress made plans for their reception and inauguration.

Early in April the House elected Frederick A. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania speaker and John Beckley of Virginia clerk. The Senate elected john langdon of New Hampshire president pro tempore and Samuel A. Otis of Massachusetts secretary. The House voted to hold open sessions except on sensitive matters such as Indian or military policy, whereas the Senate chose to keep its sessions closed. Two delegations came to the House under a cloud; opponents formally contested the elections of William Loughton Smith of South Carolina and the entire New Jersey delegation. Acting under Article I, section 5, of the Constitution, the House investigated the elections and declared that Smith and the New Jersey congressmen had been duly elected. The Senate, acting under Article I, section 3, drew lots to determine which senators would have initial terms of two, four, or six years that would give the Senate its distinctive staggered election every second year.

A week before Washington's inauguration, the Senate debated the titles to be given the President and vice president. Advocates of grandiose titles, such as "His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties," felt that the new republic needed such titles to command the respect of European nations. The House, however, disagreed, and the first conference committee settled the matter when the Senate agreed to the simple title of "Mr. President." The debate set the tone for the new government and symbolically marked a clear break with monarchy.

As expected, the House of Representatives initiated most legislation and the Senate became primarily a revisory body. The House proposed 143 bills to the Senate's 24. Except for the judiciary act of 1789, the Residency bill, and the act establishing the postmaster general, all major legislation originated in the House. Because neither house established a system of standing committees, each bill was submitted to an ad hoc committee that drafted legislation which was then considered by the committee of the whole.

The first bill enacted by Congress required all federal and state officials to take an oath to support the new Constitution. Within two years, Congress created the executive departments, provided for the federal judiciary, set the country's finances in order, proposed a federal bill of rights, approved a federal tariff, reenacted the north-west ordinance, took over the states' lighthouses, and passed legislation for naturalization and copyrights and patents.

Early in Congress's first of three sessions, James Madison notified the House that he intended to introduce amendments to the Constitution. With little support from other congressmen who thought that the consideration of amendments was premature, Madison persevered; and on August 24, the House sent seventeen amendments in the form of a bill of rights to the Senate. The Senate combined some of Madison's amendments, tightened the language of others, and eliminated the amendments prohibiting the states from infringing on the freedoms of conscience, speech, and press and the right to jury trial. On September 25, 1789, Congress approved twelve of Madison's amendments, which were sent to the states for their legislatures to adopt.

Unquestionably, the most controversial issues during the First Congress centered on the secretary of the treasury's Report on Public Credit. In his report alexander hamilton proposed the funding of the federal debt, the federal assumption of the states' debts, the levying of an excise on distilled spirits, and the incorporation of a federal bank. No one denied the responsibility of the federal government to pay its own debt; however, some congressmen, led by Madison, opposed paying the debt at face value to speculators who had over the years accumulated a large percentage of the outstanding federal securities at greatly depreciated prices. Madison advocated paying speculators only a fraction of the face value of their holdings while providing partial compensation to the original holders. Madison also led the fight against other aspects of Hamilton's plan, arguing that the Constitution gave Congress no authority to take over the states' debts or to create a bank. To a great extent, the debate over these issues centered over a strict or broad interpretation of the Constitution. Did Congress only have delegated powers or, as Hamilton argued, did the necessary and proper clause allow Congress to exercise implied powers? President Washington agreed with Hamilton's broader interpretation and refused to veto the bank bill. Madison, in fact, had earlier compromised his strict interpretation of the Constitution by supporting the federal assumption of state debts in exchange for northern support for the movement of the federal capital from New York City, first to Philadelphia for ten years, and then permanently to a site on the banks of the Potomac River.

Precedents were also set by the First Congress in establishing the relationship between the Senate and the President. With some hesitation, the Senate welcomed President Washington to its chamber as he presented the Treaty of New York with the Creek Nation for ratification. The Senate felt uncomfortable with the executive waiting in its chamber for an immediate adoption of the treaty, and the President disliked the Senate's insistence on examining the treaty in greater detail. Washington vowed never again to present a treaty in person. Except in one case, the Senate confirmed Washington's appointments. A protracted debate occurred over the President's power to dismiss department heads without the Senate's approval. The controversy ended when John Adams broke a tie vote on a motion to strike wording from a foreign-relations bill giving the President the right of removal. By not specifying this right in terms of a congressional grant, Congress strengthened the presidency while restricting the Senate's executive power.

In two short years the new Congress had assuaged the fears of Anti-Federalists and stifled their attempts to call a second constitutional convention. Congress had breathed life into the new Constitution, set legislative precedents, created a structure of government, enacted the first phases of Hamilton's financial plan, and established working relationships between its two houses, between itself and the other two branches of the federal government, and between the federal government and the states. The actions of the First Congress, particularly its handling of the financial morass left by the Revolution, divided the new nation economically and ideologically and set the groundwork for the first nationwide political parties. John Trumbull wrote to Vice President Adams that "In no nation, by no Legislature, was ever so much done in so short a period for the establishing of Government, order public Credit & general tranquility." It was an auspicious beginning.

John P. Kaminski


Baker, Richard Allan 1989 The Senate of the United States: "Supreme Executive Council of the Nation," 1787–1800. Prologue 21:299–313.

Bickford, Charlene Bangs and Bowling, Kenneth R. 1989 Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress 1789–1791. Madison, Wis.: Madison House.

Silbey, Joel H. 1987 "Our Successors Will Have an Easier Task": The First Congress under the Constitution, 1789–1791. This Constitution 17:4–10.

Smock, Raymond W. 1989 The House of Representatives: First Branch of the New Government. Prologue 21:287–297.

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First Congress

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