The Business of the New Congress

From the lecture series: America's Founding Fathers

By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D., Gettysburg College

On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance. The Ordinance mandated the organization of territorial governments in the western stretches of the United States between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, and north of the Ohio River. What else did the Congress do in the crucial years from 1787 to 1789?

A vintage, black and white drawing of  the street view showing the Federal Hall in New York.
New York became the seat of the new Congress under the new Constitution in 1789. (Image: Cornelius Tiebout, Hatch & Smillie, J. &. G. Neale./Public domain)

In the process of “extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty”, the Northwest Ordinance decreed that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory”, thus setting the stage for the conflict which, in1861, would test the viability of a constitution which at that moment was still being debated.

The Confederation Congress now proceeded to decide whether the new Congress under the Constitution should meet in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington, or even the inland town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

It was not until September 14 that the members set New York as the meeting place, and set the first Wednesday in January as the day for each state to appoint presidential electors, and the first Wednesday in February for the electors to assemble and cast their votes for the first president under the Constitution. All the new operations of the new Congress and government were to begin on the first Wednesday in March 1789.

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Ratification Conventions of North Carolina and Rhode Island

North Carolina and Rhode Island still truculently declined ratification. North Carolina finally ratified in November 1789. The holdouts in the Rhode Island legislature fought the calling of a ratifying convention until January when the governor took advantage of the absence at church of one Anti-Federalist diehard to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor.

The ratifying convention met in South Kingston, Rhode Island, on March 1, 1790—and then, maddeningly, adjourned. Not until the new Congress voted, in exasperation, to embargo all trade with Rhode Island, did the ratifying convention reassemble and vote, very stubbornly, 34–32 to ratify the Constitution.

Learn more about George Washington’s fears about post-Revolutionary America.

The Influence of Patrick Henry in Virginia

Writing to Thomas Jefferson in Paris, James Madison predicted that, “Notwithstanding the formidable opposition made to the new federal Government there is now both a certainty of its peaceable commencement in March next and a flattering prospect that it will be administered by men who will give it a fair trial.” And Madison fully expected to be one of those men.

Patrick Henry, in a spasm of vengeance, secured the election of two Anti-Federalists—Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson—to be Virginia’s first two senators, and tried to induce the state legislature to rig the boundaries of Madison’s new congressional district to deny him election to the House of Representatives. But Henry’s influence really extended no further than the legislature itself, and when Virginia voters went to the polls on February 2, Madison was easily elected as a representative from Virginia to the new House of Representatives, beating James Monroe and winning his own home county by a margin of 216–9.

The Presidential Candidates

A portrait of John Adams.
John Adams had spent many years abroad as a diplomat. (Benjamin Blyth/Public domain)

What was not up for grabs was the presidency. “General Washington will certainly be called to the Executive department,” Madison informed Jefferson. Washington, of course, would not deign to campaign for election. He refused even to declare whether he would serve if elected.

John Adams, the veteran of the Continental Congress who had spent most of the years between 1778 and 1788 abroad as a diplomat, had just published his lawyer’s overview of A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. Washington impulsively suggested that Adams, with his “extensive knowledge of the interests and resources of this country”, might be worth considering as an alternative to himself as president. But nobody was listening. Not even Adams, who Madison learned “is pledged to support” Washington and “will probably be the vice president.”

Learn more about Patrick Henry, the governor of Virginia.

The First Ballot for Washington

When the state electors met on February 4, 1789, all of them cast their first ballot for Washington—a total of 69 votes; Adams was “duly elected Vice President”. By mid-February, word was in that “your excellency has every vote for president”.

Nothing would actually be official until the new Congress assembled on March 4 and staged a formal counting of the electoral votes. But Washington went to work anyway on an acceptance speech—which, by the time he had finished, stretched out to 73 pages, and, even worse, lobbed one attack after another on “the adversaries to this Constitution”, on “the rotten” Articles of Confederation. When Washington laid the speech before Madison for his comments in February, the latter persuaded Washington to write a much briefer speech of 1400 words, with much more bland vocabulary. And it was this, which became Washington’s first inaugural address.

The Stragglers of the New Congress

The new Congress assembled for its first session on March 4, 1789, only to prove shy of a quorum in both houses. Only eight senators from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Georgia were in attendance, and so they “adjourned from day to day”. When no other senators appeared after a week, the “same members” resolved to send “a circular letter to the absent members, requesting their immediate attendance”. Even more humiliating, when no one responded, they were forced to send a second letter on March 18.

The stragglers finally began to appear on March 19, beginning with William Paterson, and finally, on April 6, a quorum was declared—all of 12 senators. They proceeded at once to drawing up an official tally of the electoral votes in the Senate chamber on April 7. John Adams took the chair of the Senate on April 21, politely protesting his own inadequacy and praising the election of Washington.

This is how the new Congress finally sat down to do its business.

Common Questions about the Business of the New Congress

Q: When did North Carolina ratify the Constitution?

North Carolina finally ratified the Constitution in November 1789.

Q: When were the operations of the new Congress and government set to begin?

All the operations of the new Congress and government were to begin on the first Wednesday in March 1789.

Q: Why did George Washington choose John Adams as the presidential candidate in place of himself?

George Washington suggested that John Adams, with his “extensive knowledge of the interests and resources of this country”, might be worth considering as an alternative to himself as president.

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