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The Senate Moves to Washington


1787-1800

November 17, 1800
The Senate Moves to Washington

Image of U.S. Capitol in 1800

A late fall storm snarled travel along the east coast. Senators trying to reach Washington from their homes in time for the new session experienced frustrating delays. A heavy blanket of snow forced cancellation of a welcoming parade.

On November 17, 1800, following a ten-year stay in Philadelphia, the Senate of the Sixth Congress met for the first time in the Capitol Building. Work on the Capitol had begun in 1793, but materials and labor proved to be more expensive than anticipated. Facing major funding shortfalls, the building's commissioners in 1796 decided to construct only the Senate wing (pictured). Although some third-floor rooms remained incomplete by moving day, the wing was substantially ready to receive the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and district courts.

When the Senate convened in the ground-floor room now restored as the old Supreme Court chamber, only fifteen of the necessary seventeen members answered the quorum call. Four days later, the Senate finally achieved its first Washington quorum and, with the House, notified President John Adams that Congress awaited any communication he might wish to make. The following day, the president arrived in the crowded, leaky, and unheated—but elegantly appointed—Senate chamber. He began his annual address to the joint session by congratulating members on their new seat of government and—pointedly—"on the prospect of a residence not to be changed." He added, optimistically, "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."

As President Adams continued with his address—the last annual message any president would personally deliver to Congress for the next 113 years—the chilled members sadly contemplated the unfinished Capitol and its rustic surroundings. While some fondly recalled Philadelphia's "convenient and elegant accommodations," as the Senate had put it in a resolution of thanks when departing that city six months earlier, a New York senator privately offered what is perhaps the first known instance of "Washington bashing." He volunteered sarcastically that the city was not so bad. To make it perfect, it needed only "houses, cellars, kitchens, well informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind."

Reference Items:

Ferling, John.  John Adams: A Life.  Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.  


Thompson, C. Bradley.  John Adams & The Spirit of Liberty.  Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.  


Young, James Sterling.  The Washington Community, 1800-1828.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.