The last official day of Congress under the Articles of Confederation was March 3, 1789. To mark the occasion, thirteen cannon were fired at Fort George, located at the end of Broadway in New York City where Congress had met from 1785. But the old Congress did not “go out with a bang;” it did not even end with a whimper. Unable to muster a quorum since October 1788, it simply faded away.
Anticipating a new beginning, the sunrise on March 4 was greeted by the roar of eleven cannon, each representing one of the States included in the “more perfect union” established by adoption of the Constitution. At the same time, church bells tolled, flags were unfurled across the city, and excited crowds gathered. Robert Morris, one of Pennsylvania’s two recently elected Senators and a major leader in the Revolutionary War, predicted that the day “will no doubt be hereafter celebrated as a new era in the annals of the world.” History may have proven Morris to have accurately characterized the ultimate legacy of that day, but neither the day itself nor the weeks to follow provided evidence of such a prophecy.
For months Pierre L’Enfant had supervised remodeling City Hall, located at 26 Wall Street and the site of the 1765 Stamp Act Congress convened to protest “taxation without representation.” Here Congress had adopted the Northwest Ordinance forbidding slavery in the western territories and establishing procedures for creating new states. In February 1787 it had called for a Constitutional Convention that would succeed in drafting a new form of government. Now, renovations were nearly complete, and the building would house a chamber 50 by 70 feet in size with desks and chairs arranged in a semi-circle for members of the new House of Representatives. Senators would occupy a smaller chamber on the second floor, featuring a small platform three feet higher than the floor with an oversized chair for the presiding officer – the Vice President of the United States. The place would soon be called Federal Hall.
To the chagrin and embarrassment of those who arrived at Federal Hall on March 4, only eight Senators and thirteen Representatives were in attendance, far short of the number needed for a quorum. Even James Madison did not arrive until March 14, and by then only two more Representatives had arrived and no additional Senators.
Until a quorum was reached, no business could be transacted. Electoral College votes for President could not be counted. Nominations and approval of Supreme Court justices could not be concluded. Government departments could not be established. Modes of raising revenue to support the new government could not be determined.
Absence of a quorum left the nascent nation with no government at a time when its very existence was at stake. Due to uncertainty of the political situation in the United States, European nations were reluctant to engage in trade and other activities. Settlers were pouring into the western territories, provoking native tribes which, some believed, were being stirred up by British troops that remained in the region. Several States were in financial distress, farmers continued to resist burdensome taxation, and veterans were still complaining they had not received back pay and suffered under broken promises. Sectional rivalries between north and south as well as east and west continued to be reflected in divisions over slavery and the permanent location of the new government.
Anti-federalists continued to press for a convention to consider amendments while elections to Congress were contested in more than one State. In New York, the legislature was so divided on who should represent New York in the Senate, the decision was not made until mid-July when the Senate finally settled on Philip Schuyler, a former general in the Continental Army and father-in-law to Alexander Hamilton.
Finally, on April 1 a sufficient number of Representatives arrived to constitute a quorum. Their first action was to elect Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania as Speaker of the House of Representatives. Five days later Richard Henry Lee’s appearance made a quorum in the Senate. The author of the resolution that declared independence from Great Britain I776, Lee had been a lukewarm opponent of the Constitution and proposed a short list of amendments for which he would continue to advocate as a United States Senator.
On April 6, both Houses of Congress met in joint session to count the Electoral College votes for President and Vice President. As predicted and to the elation of the American people, George Washington was unanimously elected President. John Adams had recently returned from Great Britain and was elected Vice President. Immediately Congress turned its attention to preparations for the new President’s inauguration, including such details as the form by which President should be addressed. The inauguration of George Washington would take place on the second-floor balcony of Federal Hall on April 30.
The first legislation to emerge from Congress was the Oath of Office Act, signed by President Washington on June 1, 1789. Article VI of the Constitution requires that Senators and Representatives, members of State legislatures, and all federal and state executive judicial offices swear to support the Constitution. The Oath of Office Act prescribed the text of and procedure for administering the oath and read simply: “I, [name] do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”
Before the first session of the First Congress adjourned on September 29, Congress had established the Departments of State, War and Treasury; created the federal court system through the Judiciary Act; imposed a tariff; created the Customs Service; and approved and submitted to the States for their ratification twelve amendments, ten destined to be adopted and known as the Bill of Rights. The second session, meeting from January 4 through August 12, 1790, was equally productive, making provision for the census; assuming States’ Revolutionary War debts; passing laws pertaining to patents and copyrights; and defining federal crimes and relations with Native American tribes. During its third session, held in Philadelphia between December 6 and March 3, 1791, Congress created the First Bank of the United States and admitted the new State of Vermont to the Union. By then, North Carolina and Rhode Island had ratified the Constitution and joined the Union.