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The First Two Senators

September 13, 1788

William Maclay

When the necessary ninth state ratified the U.S. Constitution in June 1788, the Congress under the Articles of Confederation began planning the transition to the new federal government. On September 13, 1788, that soon-to-expire Congress issued an ordinance giving states authority to begin conducting elections for their senators and representatives.

Less than three weeks later, on September 30, Pennsylvania became the first state to elect its two United States senators. By a vote of 66 to 1, its legislature accorded William Maclay the distinction of being the first person elected to the Senate and, by the closer margin of 37 to 31, gave the second seat to the more controversial Robert Morris. The two men stood at polar extremes from each other. Robert Morris was a wealthy Philadelphia merchant who distrusted governments based on popular choice. By contrast, Maclay was an agrarian "small d" democrat from upstate Harrisburg who distrusted Philadelphia aristocrats in general and Morris in particular. Each man savagely undercut the other, for example, in campaigns to have their respective cities chosen as the national capital.

Of William Maclay, one biographer has written that he was "reserved, pessimistic about human nature, and Calvinistic in his morality. Analytical and introspective, he was also self-assured, proud, self-conscious, and quick to take offense." Maclay vigorously fought what he considered to be the Senate's willingness to strengthen the presidency and soon became an outspoken anti-administration senator. Perhaps as an outlet to his growing frustrations, he kept a diary of Senate proceedings, which in his day were conducted entirely behind closed doors. Although Maclay served for only two years, his diary is indispensable for understanding the early Senate.

In the early 1780s, Robert Morris had served as superintendent of finance, making him the chief administrator of the Confederation government and the nation's second-most-powerful figure after George Washington. He had nominated Washington to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention and later loaned him the use of his finely appointed Philadelphia mansion when Washington resided in that city. One of the nation's richest men, Morris saw nothing wrong with using privileged government information to shape his personal investment strategy. While a senator, he became entangled in disastrous land speculation schemes, which led to his financial ruin. Several years after leaving the Senate in 1795, he entered into another term of service—three years in a debtors' prison.