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–by Joanna Hallac

Two hundred and twelve years ago this month, then-President John Adams walked through the Senate vestibule at the U.S. Capitol to open the first session of Congress in the new building after a decade-long stint in Philadelphia. A mid-November storm caused major travel issues along the east coast that delayed a number of the members from getting to the new capital on time, but eventually, on November 17, 1800, the Senate gathered in its new chamber, which is now restored as the old Supreme Court chamber, albeit several members short of a quorum. Four days later, the Senate achieved that quorum and joined the House in sending word to President Adams, who made his way over to give the last in-person address to the House and Senate that any president would make for 113 years, opening up the first session of the Sixth Congress.

Following the Residence Act of 1790, which set forth an area along the Potomac River for the nation’s new capital city that would become Washington, D.C., construction on the Capitol began in 1793; however, due to funding issues, the building’s construction became increasingly delayed. Finally, in 1796, the building commissioners decided to just focus on getting the north wing, which would house the Senate chamber, done in time for the move to D.C. in 1800—the House would have to wait for its permanent chamber and met in a round, hot temporary room called “the Oven.” Much of the building remained unfinished until about 1810.

The U.S. Capitol circa 1800 (U.S. Senate)

In the many years since, the Capitol has been burned, rebuilt, and expanded to fit the increasingly large House and Senate, which each grew in membership as the country grew in size and population. The building has stood and continues to stand as our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom and democracy, beckoning millions of visitors from around the world to its majestic halls every year. In looking at the Capitol’s beginnings, however, it certainly didn’t always go so smoothly. Even Adams made note of this somewhat difficult start in his address when he said, “Although there is some cause to apprehend that accommodations are not now so complete as might be wished, yet there is great reason to believe that this inconvenience will cease with the present session.” His optimistic outlook on the building, while slow to catch on with the members in the early decades of their time in the District, eventually came to be true, and all those who work in the Capitol today consider it their great honor to do so.

Have you ever visited the Capitol? If so, what’s your favorite part? Let us know as we love to hear from our readers.

Sources consulted:

Senate Art and History website
Architect of the Capitol website

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