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March 4, 1789
The Senate Eight

Image of Federal Hall
Federal Hall, New York City

On March 4, 1789, eight conscientious senators overcame difficult late winter travel conditions to reach the nation's temporary capital in New York City.   Eleven states had by then ratified the Constitution.  Out of the twenty-two eligible senators, the Senate needed twelve present to achieve a quorum to conduct business.

At the appointed hour for the new government to begin, the eight senators-elect climbed the stairs of New York's old city hall.  Hoping to convince Congress to make New York the nation's permanent capital, city leaders had recently named that building Federal Hall (pictured) and tripled its size.  When the eight senators reached their elegant chamber on the building's top story, the Senate literally became the "Upper House."

All eight were men of distinction in government and politics.  Most had served in their state legislatures and the Continental Congress.  Six were framers of the Constitution.  

New Hampshire's John Langdon would become the Senate's first president pro tempore.  Connecticut sent William Samuel Johnson and Oliver Ellsworth.  As a senator, Johnson would continue in his other job—president of Columbia University.  Oliver Ellsworth was best known for his proposal at the Constitutional Convention creating the Senate as a body that represented the states equally—the so-called Connecticut Compromise.

Pennsylvania sent William Maclay, who would keep the only detailed record of what happened behind the Senate's closed doors during the precedent-setting First Congress.  His Pennsylvania colleague was Robert Morris.  One of the nation's wealthiest men, Morris had helped to finance the American Revolution and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

Without a quorum, the eight senators wrote to their missing colleagues "earnest[ly] requesting that you will be so obliging as to attend as soon as possible."  Two weeks passed before William Paterson ambled over from New Jersey and Richard Bassett arrived from Delaware.  This left the Senate two members short of a quorum, as the House of Representatives waited impatiently on the floor below.  Finally, on April 6, the necessary twelfth member arrived.  The Senate then turned to its first order of business—certifying the election of George Washington—five weeks after his presidential term had officially begun.

This delay created the first opportunity in American history for those critical of the Senate's slower pace to charge that its manner of doing business threatened a constitutional crisis.  It would not be the last such opportunity.

Reference Items:

U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989, by Robert C. Byrd, S. Doc.100-20, 100th Congress, 1st sess., Vol. 1, 1988. Chapter 1.


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