George Washington’s Congress Got Off to an Embarrassing Start

The new federal government was plagued with absences and excuses—until James Madison helped kick things into gear

Old City Hall, Wall St., N.Y
"Old City Hall, Wall St., N.Y." Steel engraving by Robert Hinshelwood Wikimedia Commons

Cannons fired 11 shots at sunrise, one for each state that had ratified the Constitution. At noon, they fired again, to announce the opening of Congress. It was March 4, 1789, and a new federal government had dawned. But awkwardly, no one was ready. Only eight senators and 13 representatives showed up at New York’s newly renovated Federal Hall for the festivities. Where was everyone?

The excuses were various: The members of the new government were sick, late, slowed by weather, not even elected yet. Others simply didn’t bother to attend. The new republic had a new congress—but it was off to an embarrassing start.

Pennsylvania senator Robert Morris was just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, writing to his wife that “the wind blew so hard, the Evening so dark & Fogg so Thick,” he didn’t dare get on a boat. Congressman Theodorick Bland of Virginia was still in his home state, “shipwrecked & landwrecked, mired, fatigued with walking.” New York’s legislature, split between Federalists and Antifederalists, hadn’t yet chosen its U.S. senators.

Even new congressman James Madison, who had done so much to draft the new Constitution and argue for its ratification, got to New York late. Fresh off a victory over his friend James Monroe in Virginia’s congressional election, he’d stopped by Mount Vernon on the way north to help George Washington draft his inaugural address. Then he got caught on muddy roads.

When Madison got to Manhattan on March 14, most of Congress still wasn’t there.

“When a Quorum will be made up in either House, rests on vague conjecture,” Madison wrote Washington.

That was just fine with Washington, who was 57 and didn’t really want to come out of retirement. He decided to stay at Mount Vernon until Congress got its act together and counted the electoral votes for president.

“For myself, the delay [is] a reprieve,” Washington wrote to Henry Knox. “My movements to the chair of Government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”

Much like today, as the Congress of 1789 gathered, stakes were high and confidence in government low. Americans doubted this new government would be any more effective than the dithering old Articles of Confederation Congress.

The old Congress had managed to fight a revolution and forge a new republic. But the unproven new Congress wasn’t exactly off to a confidence-inspiring start. “No one, neither in Congress or outside it, knew if it would or could succeed,” wrote Fergus Bordewich in his 2016 book The First Congress.

As March dragged on, congressmen who’d actually shown up on time stopped by Federal Hall to see if they had a quorum yet. Finding none, they took long walks and lingered in coffee houses.

“The absent were begged, badgered, and cajoled, with only middling success,” Bordewich wrote. The eight senators wrote to their missing compatriots on March 11, asking them to get to New York immediately. A week later, they wrote again to “eight of the nearest absent members, particularly desiring their attendance,” according to the Annals of Congress.

“I never felt greater Mortification in my life,” wrote Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania to his friend Benjamin Rush on March 19. “To be so long here with the Eyes of all the World on Us & to do nothing, is terrible.”

On March 21, Charles Thomson, secretary of the expired Confederation Congress, wrote to Delaware senator George Read, who hadn’t left home yet. “What must the world think of us?” Thomson wrote. “As a friend, [I] entreat you to lay aside all lesser concerns & private business and come on immediately.”

It took until April 1 for the House to finally muster a quorum with 29 of its 59 members present. Meeting in a conference room, since the House chamber wasn’t finished yet, they elected their speaker, Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania. Five days later, the Senate, with 12 of 22 senators, gaveled to order at last.

Together, the two chambers counted the electoral votes from the Union’s 11 states. (North Carolina wouldn’t ratify the Constitution until November, Rhode Island not until May 1790.) The result: a unanimous 69 for George Washington and a mere 34 for John Adams, making him vice-president. The Senate sent the newly unemployed Thomson to Mount Vernon to fetch Washington.

Beyond that, Congress didn’t accomplish much in April. Early in the month, Madison tried to get the House to pass some tariffs on imports, since the new government had no income. Madison wanted to levy the tariffs fast, before spring shipping season. But Congress quarreled. Various representatives argued for lower tariffs on the goods that drove their states’ economies. A molasses tax inspired days of slow debate.

Adams arrived to assume the vice-presidency on April 21 and immediately started annoying people. Presiding as Senate president, resentful of his meager vote total in the Electoral College, Adams often argued with the senators. He pushed hard for Congress to bestow extravagant titles and honors on prominent citizens, starting with the president. “A Royal, or at least a Princely Title, will be found indisputably necessary to maintain the Reputation, Authority, and Dignity of the President,” Adams argued. He wanted the title of “His Highness” for Washington and “Excellency” for himself. But the House, at Madison’s urging, voted to simply call Washington the President of the United States.

Washington arrived in New York by boat on April 23, greeted at a wharf on the East River by a cheering, hat-doffing crowd. He’d asked Madison to find him “rooms at the most decent Tavern,” but Congress rented him a mansion on Manhattan’s Cherry Street instead. A week later, a parade of thousands followed him from the house to Federal Hall, where he took the oath of office on a balcony. Afterwards, he delivered his six-paragraph inaugural address to Congress, his hands shaking.

“Among the vicissitudes incident to life, no event could have filled me with greater anxieties,” Washington began. He went on to note his “incapacity as well as disinclination for the weighty and untried cares before me.”

Congress spent most of May and June quarreling. At an impasse over tariffs, it missed its chance to raise money off spring shipping. On June 8, Madison introduced the proposed constitutional amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, to much scorn. Fellow Federalists declared them unnecessary; the Antifederalist minority thought them inadequate to defang the beastly new federal government. Meanwhile, Washington was struck ill with a giant, life-threatening boil on his buttocks. Rumors spread that he would resign.

It took until mid-summer for the new Congress to finally kick into high gear. The House and Senate formed their first conference committee to negotiate a final tariff bill, which became law July 4. They created the first Cabinet departments: Foreign Affairs in late July, War in August, Treasury in September. Late that month, they also created the federal court system, passing the Judiciary Act of 1789. Washington, now fully recovered, signed it immediately. He appointed justices for the six-member Supreme Court, and the Senate approved them.

Just before leaving town for a three-month recess, the House and Senate also approved the Bill of Rights. “No one in Congress regarded passage of the amendments as much more than an exercise in political housekeeping,” wrote Bordewich. Most congressmen and senators saw them as a nod to the Antifederalists, who’d demanded radical changes to the Constitution’s structure and lost. After watching both houses of Congress rewrite his lofty declarations of freemen’s rights, Madison was left exhausted and disillusioned. “The difficulty of uniting the minds of men accustomed to think and act differently,” he wrote to a friend in Virginia, “can only be conceived by those who have witnessed it.”

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