History of the House of Representatives

By George B. Galloway | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
PRECEDENTS ESTABLISHED IN FIRST CONGRESS

THE FIRST SESSION OF CONGRESS under the new Constitution was scheduled to meet in New York City on March 4, 1789. But only thirteen members of the House of Representatives, from five of the eleven states that had ratified the Constitution up to that time, appeared and took their seats on that day. So the House met and adjourned from day to day until a quorum finally appeared on April 1. They came by ship, wagon, and stagecoach; some were delayed by bad roads, others by storms and shipwreck.

In its composition the first House of Representatives resembled the membership of the state legislatures of that period. "The members were good eighteenth century Americans," Harlow remarks, "average representatives of the ruling class of the time."1 Mostly men of moderate views, the first Congress "contained many men of talent, character, and wide legislative experience."2

We are indebted to Fisher Ames, a Federalist member of the first four Congresses from Massachusetts, for a contemporaneous description of his colleagues. An impulsive and prolific letter writer, Ames said of the first House: "The House is composed of sober, solid, old-charter folks. ... There are few shining geniuses; there are many who have experience, the virtues of the heart, and the habits of business. It will be quite a republican assembly...."3

The first House of Representatives contained fifty-five Federalists and ten Anti-Federalists. The South accounted for half the seats in the House;

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