Our Trailblazing First U.S. Congress

The very first Congress created under the U.S. Constitution met this week (March 4) in 1789 in New York City.  Well, sort of.  Since only 13 of the 59 new members of the House of Representatives and only eight of the 22 new senators showed up, they lacked a quorum.  So everyone went home, including the very disappointed crowd that had assembled to cheer on this new government.

It was not an auspicious start, but a month later a quorum was finally reached, and members of this new Congress got down to business.  Well, sort of, depending on whether you consider it “business” to spend weeks fighting for committee memberships and chairmanships, while immediately renewing the same small-state-versus-big-state and slave-state-versus-free-state arguments that they had argued during the convention in Philadelphia that produced the Constitution.

Fortunately, Congress regained its focus in late April when John Adams, the elected vice-president, finally reached New York (President-elect Washington was still on his way).  As president of the Senate, Adams immediately called that body to order and formally requested that the Senate consider its first important piece of business:  What to call the president-elect.

Starting things off on a high note, Adams himself suggested that Washington be called “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of the Rights of the Same.”  However, other suggestions were immediately forthcoming, and “His Exalted Highness,” “His Most Illustrious and Excellent President,” and “His Majesty the President” subsequently underwent serious consideration and much heated debate.  Alas, when a member of the Senate pointed out that the Constitution prohibited the use of royal-sounding titles, they finally, reluctantly, settled on “Mr. President.”

Moving on, the next order of business was whether the Senate should be called “The Upper House,” and the House of Representatives should be called “The Lower House.”  The Senate supported this distinction, the House did not, and after much debate it was finally dropped.

On a roll now, Congress next considered its financial compensation, with the Senate insisting that its members be paid an extra dollar a day over the $6-per-day that House members received.   Again, the Senate supported this distinction, the Housed did not, so a compromise was reached.  The Senate would get an extra dollar a day for seven years, and then all would get equal pay.

That critically important part of the nation’s business completed, Congress finally passed the nation’s first law — the Oath Act.  This law formally proscribed the words of the oaths that government officials, including the president-elect, were to take when sworn in.

And then they rested.  The point being, keep in perspective your disgust at the inanity and pettiness of Congress today.  It has a long history.