, ,

–by William diGiacomantonio

Rep. Fisher Ames (Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives)

March 4, 1789 was the date assigned by the Confederation Congress for the inauguration of the new federal government. Massachusetts Representative Fisher Ames wrote a constituent that the occasion “was announced by the firing of guns, & ringing of bells”—following which transports of joyful expectation, “we repaired to the City Hall, but could not form an House or Senate.” Ames’s characteristically dry sarcasm needed no elaboration; the sense of anti-climax must have been palpable to everyone involved. Even “City Hall” remained unready, pending its busy re-purposing as the nation’s capitol (soon to be known as Federal Hall). As few as thirty Representatives were required to make a quorum that morning, but a scant thirteen showed up—including only two from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Senate attendance was statistically higher: eight out of a required twelve members appeared—including only one from south of Pennsylvania (a Georgian who had married a New Yorker the summer before, and resided in New York ever since).

Representatives and Senators of the eleven states that had ratified the Constitution continued to straggle in over the ensuing weeks. Five Representatives presented their credentials on 5 March; the next big windfall—in both numbers and talent—occurred on the 14th, when James Madison appeared, with two fellow Virginians. The Senate, demonstrating a zeal perhaps unrecognizable today, sent out dire summonses to their absent colleagues over the next two weeks. Despite these importunities, the unpredictability of eighteenth-century travel, illness, pressing private business, and even tardy elections or election returns continued to hinder members from taking their seats. (In neighboring New Jersey, some polls were still open on 4 March, while even the host state of New York would not elect its two Senators until mid-July.) It all must have seemed eerily familiar: the outgoing Confederation Congress had not even managed to attract enough members to declare itself dissolved when the Federal Congress technically took over.

Richard Henry Lee (Library of Congress)

Finally, two more members appeared in the House on one Wednesday morning darkened by snow and sleet, and “(tho’ the 1st. of April) we began business.” April Fool’s Day, a holiday with roots in the ancient Roman and Hindu calendars, was already well established in the Anglo-Saxon world by the early eighteenth century. The coincidence proved an ominous portend, as the House quickly deadlocked over whether New York’s chief justice should swear in the members, and whether the Speaker’s vote could break the tie. (The Speaker did, and the Chief Justice didn’t—not until the 8th, that is.) Richard Henry Lee’s appearance on April 6th ensured the like development in the Senate, minus the procedural maze over the Senators’ oath-taking (which was administered on 3 June by the Senate President, as that officer does to this day). Wrote Ames, “I hope the rapidity of doing business will bear some proportion to the gross neglect (for I think it such) and tedious delay of many members.”