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December 6, 1790
The Senate Moves to Philadelphia

Painting of Congress Hall in Philadelphia
Congress Hall

On a cold Monday in December of 1790, the Senate convened for the first time in Philadelphia. The Residence Act of 1790 settled Congress in that city until 1800, when the entire government would move to the District of Columbia.

As Pennsylvania's capital and the nation's largest city, Philadelphia in 1790 was rapidly developing as a prosperous commercial center, with well-paved and regularly laid-out streets. As one newly arrived member observed, Philadelphians "believe themselves to be the first people in America as well in manners as in arts, and like Englishmen, they are at no pains to disguise this opinion."

Fifteen of the Senate's twenty-six members attended that initial session in Congress Hall (pictured). This imposing two-story Georgian brick building, designed to complement the State House—Independence Hall—directly to its east, had been completed only the year before. In the Senate's elegantly outfitted second-floor chamber, senators found two semicircular rows of mahogany writing desks and a canopied dais for the presiding officer. A specially woven Axminster carpet, featuring the Great Seal of the United States, covered the plain board floor. The chamber's thirteen windows, hung with green wooden Venetian blinds and crimson damask curtains, provided added daytime illumination, while candles placed on members' desks lit the chamber for rare late afternoon and evening sessions.

The members who inaugurated this chamber were an experienced lot. More than three-quarters had served in the Continental Congress and in state legislatures. Ten had participated in the Constitutional Convention. Nearly half were college graduates; two-thirds had some legal training.

Despite Philadelphia's attractions, senators encountered significant hardships, among them the high cost of living, the greater attractiveness of state-legislative service, and the difficulty of a six-year absence from one's livelihood. While most members attended faithfully in the early months of a session, some tended to slip away in the spring and early summer. During the 1790s, in the final weeks of each Congress' first session, fully a quarter of the Senate's members failed to participate in votes. Senators also resigned at a high rate. Of the eighty-six who served in the Senate during its ten-year Philadelphia residence, one-third departed before their terms expired. It was not uncommon for as many as four senators to successively fill one seat over the course of a six-year term. Only three senators served all ten years in Philadelphia!

Reference Items:

Baker, Richard A. “The United States Senate in Philadelphia.” In The House and Senate in the 1790s: Petitioning, Lobbying, and Institutional Development, edited by Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2002.


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