The First Federal Congress

“Scarcely a day passes without some striking evidence of the delays and perplexities springing merely from the want of precedents. ”

Representative James Madison to Edmund Randolph, May 31, 1789

The Congress of the United States established by the new Constitution met for the first time at New York City’s Federal Hall on March 4, 1789. It is arguably the most important Congress in U.S. history. To this new legislature fell the responsibility of passing all the legislation needed to implement the new system, solving the difficult political questions left by the Constitutional Convention, setting up the rules and procedures of the House and Senate, and establishing the roles of its officers such as Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

Most actions of the First Congress broke new ground. The first law passed set oaths of office not only for Congress but for state legislators, Federal executive officers, and state and Federal judges. Other early legislation raised revenues by setting duties on imported goods; established the Departments of State, War, and Treasury (and a temporary post office department); created a Federal judiciary; set compensation for government officials; provided for lighthouses; authorized expenses for negotiating with Indian tribes; and reenacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. At the end of the first session, an attempt to locate a capital-or seat of government-failed.

Serving in Congress in the 18th century was a distinct honor, but also a hardship. Traveling between home states and New York City or Philadelphia, where Congress met between 1785 and 1800, could be arduous. Living in these cities, while stimulating, was expensive and congressmen received pay of only $6 a day. It also meant several months of each year living away from livelihood and usually from family. During the 1790s, one-third of the members of the Senate resigned while in office.