The first session of the First United States Congress (1789–1791) began on March 4, 1789, but it would be another month before the House officially conducted any business. At the time, 11 of the 13 original states had ratified the new U.S. Constitution (North Carolina and Rhode Island would not approve it until later in the Congress). Travel was slow and by Opening Day only 13 duly elected Representatives had arrived to take their seats in New York’s Federal Hall, the temporary home of the U.S. Congress.
When enough Members finally filtered in to achieve a quorum on April 1, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was elected Speaker of the House and Congress began building America’s new government. At times, the First Congress turned to established parliamentary procedure to inform its decisions; at other moments, it created new precedents. Over the spring and summer of 1789, Members elected House Officers, formed ad hoc committees, crafted rules to govern debate, and outlined legislative processes.
These first Representatives also filled in much of the rest of the federal government’s other two branches. Congress voted to establish executive agencies and formalized the arrangement of the Supreme Court, which had only existed conceptually in the Constitution as sitting atop the judicial branch.
When it came to matters of policy, the First Congress broke new ground as well. Lawmakers approved the federal government’s assumption of state debts remaining from the Revolutionary War, created a national revenue system to fund government activities, and firmly intertwined the financial future of the various states. Congress continued the foundational work of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when it approved and sent to the states for ratification the Bill of Rights, a series of constitutional amendments enumerating the rights of individual citizens. Amid this effort, Congress moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790 and approved the creation of a permanent national capital on the banks of the Potomac.
This Edition for Educators celebrates Independence Day with a look back at the First Federal Congress.
Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania
Frederick August Conrad Muhlenberg had several advantages that set him apart as a candidate to become the first Speaker of the House on April 1, 1789. Muhlenberg came from an established Pennsylvania family and had practical experience as the presiding officer of the Pennsylvania legislature. His selection as Speaker was also something of a political compromise that symbolized sectional balance in the new republic: President George Washington of Virginia, was a southerner; Vice President John Adams of Massachusetts, was a New Englander; and Muhlenberg was from the mid-Atlantic. Muhlenberg also looked the part. Columbian Magazine once observed that his “rubicund complexion and oval face, hair full powdered, tamboured satin vest of ample dimensions, dark blue coat with gilt buttons, and a sonorous voice, all corresponding in appearance and sound with his magnificent name.”
James Madison of Virginia
Long before winning election as the fourth President of the United States, Virginia Representative James Madison was a principal architect of the United States Constitution and went on to serve in the first four Congresses. Madison sponsored the first major legislation in the First Congress, the protective Tariff of 1789, which made it more expensive to import goods to the United States. This controversial tariff, signed into law by President Washington on July 4, ignited political passions in early American politics and became a factor in the creation of the first party system. In the House, Madison also reversed his earlier opposition to enumerated individual rights and introduced the resolutions that became the Bill of Rights.
The Opening of the First Congress in New York City
The First Congress was scheduled to meet in New York City on March 4, 1789, but primitive modes of transportation—horseback, stage, and sailing ship—made the journey arduous for many of the House’s 65 Members as they trekked toward the capital. Members slowly straggled into town. The opening was delayed for days, then weeks. The House finally achieved a quorum nearly a month later, on April 1.
The Creation of the Formal House Rules and the House Rules Committee
On April 7, 1789, after just five days of discussion, the House Select Committee on Rules unveiled the first set of parliamentary guidelines that would eventually become the formal House Rules. They established the office of the Speaker, outlined the legislative process, and set parameters for both general debate and debate in the Committee of the Whole. Variations of these early rules continue to influence daily business in the House.
The Oath of Office Bill
On May 21, 1789, the Oath of Office Act, the first legislative action of Congress, was signed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. President Washington signed the bill into law on June 1, 1789. The simple text read, “I, A.B., do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”
The Establishment of the Supreme Court
On September 17, 1789, the House agreed to establish the Supreme Court and the larger federal court system as defined by Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution. President Washington signed the Judiciary Act of 1789 into law on September 24, 1789. The bill provided for a Supreme Court composed of five associate justices and one chief justice, as well as for the establishment of 13 judicial districts throughout the country.
Unfortunately, when the British military burned the Capitol in 1814 during the War of 1812 many of the House’s earliest records and artifacts were destroyed. While the House Collection does not include any artifacts from the First Federal Congress, it does feature several portraits of the Members who made up that historic body.
In 1788, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts routed the aged firebrand Samuel Adams to win election to the First Congress. Ames went on to serve eight years, caucusing with the emerging Federalist Party until poor health forced his retirement. This popular print was based on a Gilbert Stuart portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Chester Harding’s portrait of Maryland’s Charles Carroll—Member of the Continental Congress, First Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence—was acquired in 1870. The painting, which depicts Carroll not long before his death in 1832, has not had an entirely peaceful life in the Capitol. In 1966, it was one of four paintings slashed with a knife by a vandal.
Printing the Acts of Congress
This report chronicles decisions by the House about printing the acts and proceedings of Congress. The Clerk of the House John Beckley and the Secretary of the Senate Samuel Allyne Otis were authorized to hire a contract printer to reproduce and bind 600 copies of the Acts of Congress and 700 copies each of the House Journal and Senate Journal. The report specifies that the Secretary and Clerk would supply the paper at public expense.
A “Troublesome and Greatly Derided Custom” — Answering the Annual Message
As with so many other practices relating to the function of the federal government, President Washington established key precedents for the format and setting of the speech that, until 1947, was known as the President’s Annual Message. Accompanied by his Cabinet, Washington visited Congress in its quarters in New York City’s Federal Hall on January 8, 1790, and delivered his remarks to a Joint Session of the House and Senate. Afterward, the House met in the Committee of the Whole, forcing Members from across the political spectrum to hash out a collaborative reply. Following this time-consuming and contentious process, all the Members of Congress paraded a short distance to the President’s residence to deliver their response in-person, with the Speaker reading the House’s reply aloud.
Edition for Educators—Hamilton and the House
This Edition for Educators explores how the life of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and a Member of the Continental Congress, intersected with the early history of the House of Representatives. Published to coincide with the streaming release of the Broadway smash hit Hamilton, this blog provides more context on many of the events seen in the show’s second act, including the famous compromise in “The Room Where It Happens.”
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory