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This Day in History: A bumpy opening for the First Congress

On this day in 1789, the United States Congress meets for the first time in New York. Or, at least, it tried to.

The Constitution had just been ratified and the outgoing Confederation Congress had designated March 4, 1789, as the day for the new U.S. Congress to convene. On that day, however, only 8 Senators and 13 Congressmen had assembled—not nearly enough to begin congressional business. The Senate needed 12 members to make a quorum; the House needed 30 members.

Those who were there waited . . . and waited . . . and waited.

The picture is of New York’s Federal Hall, the initial meeting place for the first U.S. Congress.

The long wait was hard to take—even a bit embarrassing. “[T]he Members that are already come forward,” one of the new Senators wrote, “meet daily . . . And Alass neither House are Yet a Quorum—I never felt greater Mortification in my life. to be so long here with the Eyes of all the World on Us & to do nothing, is terrible.”

George Washington would speak of America’s unique brand of self-governance as an “experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” But would that experiment fail, right from the beginning?

The Senators who were present sent a circular letter to their missing members, but it didn’t work. Thus, they soon sent a second letter, pleading for members to move more quickly. This latter note was dispatched to only 8 Senators: Those who were closest to New York.

In the meantime, Washington was receiving occasional updates on the status of the congressional quorum from James Madison and Henry Knox.

Remember, Washington had not been formally elected President yet. The electoral votes had been cast, but Congress couldn’t count ballots without a quorum.

Surely everyone gave a big sigh of relief when the House finally achieved its quorum on April 1, and the Senate achieved its quorum just a few days later, on April 6.

Congress was finally able to meet in joint session, and congressmen counted the electoral votes. Washington had won, of course. A committee was appointed to write a letter informing Washington of his victory, and the secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, was asked “to wait upon General Washington, with a certificate of his being elected to the Office of President of the United States of America.”

Washington was inaugurated on April 30, 1789. Now, finally, the new U.S. government could begin.

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