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Formative Years of the Senate: 1787-1800

This collection of brief essays describes important events and personalities in Senate history, and highlights recurring themes in the Senate's institutional development during its formative years, 1787 to 1800 (click on title for full story).

November 10, 1775

The U.S. Marine Corps predates the U.S. Senate, but it took more than a century and a half for a marine to become a U.S. senator. The first was Arthur Walsh, a sergeant in the marines during the First World War who was appointed as a Democrat from New Jersey in 1943. World War II swelled the ranks of military veterans elected to Congress, and before long there were enough marines serving as members and staff in the House and the Senate to organize a Congressional Marines Group in 1953. To date, 30 marines have served in the Senate.

June 7, 1787

Who should elect United States senators? When the framers of the Constitution convened in Philadelphia in 1787, they struggled over three possible answers to this question.

June 19, 1787

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, framers debated the length of Senate terms. They considered terms ranging in length from one year to life-time appointments before settling on a compromised six-year term.

June 26, 1787

Who should pay a senator's salary—the state government electing the senator, or the new federal government? What would that salary be? Learn about this debate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.

July 16, 1787

On July 16, 1787, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, meeting at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, had reached a supremely important agreement. Their so-called Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise in honor of its architects, Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth) provided a dual system of congressional representation. Today, we take this arrangement for granted; in the wilting-hot summer of 1787, it was a new idea.

September 17, 1787

When was the Senate created? The Senate can claim several important "birthdays."

September 13, 1788

In September of 1788 the state of Pennsylvania elected William Maclay and Robert Morris to serve in the newly created United States Senate, the first two senators elected under the new Constitution.

March 4, 1789

On March 4, 1789, eight of the twenty-two new senators overcame difficult late winter travel conditions to reach the nation's temporary capital in New York City, to open business for the new United States Senate.

March 4, 1789

The framers of the Constitution set March 4, 1789, as the date for the first Senate to convene.

April 7, 1789

When the U.S. Senate achieved its first quorum on April 6, 1789, one of the first items of business was selecting a "doorkeeper"—a person to guard the Senate's closed sessions from the prying eyes of the public and press. The Senate elected James Mathers to the post on April 7, 1789, and the faithful doorkeeper served until his death in 1811.

April 8, 1789

Help Wanted. U.S. Senate seeks experienced public administrator. Samuel Otis met that requirement and became the first Secretary of the Senate. Elected to the Senate's highest administrative position on April 8, 1789, Otis served until his death in 1814.

April 15, 1789

In 1789 the House and Senate agreed on seven joint rules to guide action and cooperation between the two houses of Congress, as well as transactions between Congress and the president. Additional rules were added in years to come, but the process of joint rules proved unworkable.  In 1889 the idea of joint rules was abandoned.

April 27, 1789

As the Senate prepared for the very first presidential inauguration—George Washington taking the oath of office for the first time—its members were uncertain about protocol, titles, and the role the Senate would play in the new government.

April 30, 1789

On the morning of April 30, 1789, President-elect George Washington waited for the coach that would take him to Federal Hall in New York City. There, he would take his oath of office on an exterior balcony, in easy view of thousands, and then proceed to the Senate chamber, where he would deliver his inaugural address.

May 5, 1789

In the early years of the Senate, new members took a simple oath of office, swearing to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The crisis of the Civil War led to the creation of an "Ironclad Test Oath" designed to weed out traitors. In the relative calm of the post-war years, however, Congress repealed the Test Oath and adopted a simpler form still in use today.

May 15, 1789

As required by Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution, in May of 1789 the Senate divided its members into three classes for purposes of elections. Every two years, one class—one third of the members—faces election or reelection.

July 17, 1789

On July 17, 1789, with Senator Oliver Ellsworth as its primary author, the Senate adopted the Judiciary Act of 1789, establishing the federal Judiciary.

August 5, 1789

Many precedents were set during the Senate's first session in 1789, including establishing a senatorial pattern of deliberation when fulfilling its constitutional "advice and consent" role. Expecting quick "consent" without much "advice," President George Washington was irritated when the Senate refused to cooperate.

September 11, 1789

TestOn September 11, 1789, the president of the United States sent his first cabinet nomination to the Senate for its "advice and consent." Minutes later, perhaps even before the messenger returned to the president's office, senators approved unanimously the appointment of Alexander Hamilton to be secretary of the treasury.

September 14, 1789

What would be a fair salary for a member of the Senate?   The framers of the U.S. Constitution, in their wisdom, dodged that potentially explosive question. Seeking to narrow state powers over the central government, the Constitution’s authors provided that congressional salaries would come from the federal treasury, with Congress setting the actual amount.

September 25, 1789

In the fall of 1789, the First Congress submitted the first constitutional amendments to the states for ratification. Some members protested that the Constitution was so new that they ought not hurry to change it. But during the ratification process, opponents had complained that the Constitution lacked specific guarantees of individual rights. Representative James Madison told the House that he considered himself “bound in honor and in duty” to bring these amendments to a vote promptly.

September 26, 1789

On September 26, 1789, the Senate confirmed six nominees to the Supreme Court in one day. There were a number of reasons for these accelerated confirmations, including no Judiciary Committee, no political parties, no Department of Justice, and since the federal judiciary had not yet asserted the right to declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, there were no complaints about judicial activism. While it is true that the Senate rubber stamped President Washington's first judicial nominations, very soon afterwards the senators began asserting their authority to advise and consent more rigorously.

August 12, 1790

When Congress convened for the first time on March 4, 1789, it met in familiar surroundings. The old building that had been used by the Confederation Congress had been converted into a splendid capitol, optimistically renamed Federal Hall.  The new Congress met in New York for just over a year before moving onto Philadelphia in 1790 and finally to its permanent home in Washinton, D.C. in 1800.

December 6, 1790

Prior to the creation of the District of Columbia, the Senate met first in New York City, and in 1790 moved to temporary headquarters in Philadelphia's Congress Hall.

February 20, 1792

The Presidential Succession Act of 1792 established the line of succession to the presidency, placing the Senate's president pro tempore and then Speaker of the House behind the vice president.  The order was altered in 1886, putting the Secretary of State first in line behind the vice president. One last revision in 1947 reverted to the original line of succession, but placed the Speaker ahead of the Senate's president pro tempore.

April 18, 1792

Why should the Senate open its proceedings to non-senators?  Members of the first Senate in 1789 had a ready answer to that question: “There is no reason.” Over time, however, members introduced legislation to change those rules, resulting in an overcrowded Senate floor. Over the years, senators have continued to propose legislation attempting to limit floor privileges, but inevitably, the list of those admitted to the floor expands.

September 18, 1793

On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol. Although two centuries later, the Architect of the Capitol is still searching for that cornerstone, the significance of that event was the personal interest that George Washington and other federal leaders took in this building. The Capitol stands as a reminder of the lasting impact of government actions--for decisions made in the 1790s continue to influence this building and this city more than two centuries later.

December 2, 1793

The framers of the Constitution, tied to an agriculturally based economy, with its cycle of planting, growing and harvesting, considered the dormant month of December as a particularly good time for members of Congress to begin their legislative sessions. Accordingly, they required that "The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by law appoint a different day."

June 24, 1795

The Senate's approval of the Jay Treaty in 1795 brought angry mobs to the streets and the burning in effigy of senators who supported the controversial agreement with Great Britain.

October 24, 1795

In 1795 Senator Humphrey Marshall faced a dilemma common to members of Congress, whether to vote the will of the people, according to their instruction, or to vote his conscience on an important treaty or bill. Marshall chose to follow the dictates of his conscience, and suffered public humiliation as a result.

December 9, 1795

When the Senate convened for the first time in 1789, it did so behind closed doors.  Over the next six years, the Senate heard repeated calls -- from the people, the press, and the state legislatures which elected its members -- to open the doors and allow public viewing its sessions.  Finally, to avoid charges of secrecy and conspiracy in its 1794 decision not to seat Senator-elect Albert Gallatin, the Senate began meeting in open session.

December 15, 1795

By a vote of 10 to 14 the Senate rejected President George Washington's nomination of John Rutlege to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Although Rutledge had enjoyed a long and distinguished career that included participation in the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, his openly hostile criticism of the Jay Treaty earlier in the year undermined his support in the Senate.

February 15, 1797

As the first vice president of the United States and therefore the first president of the Senate, John Adams influenced Senate procedures and precedents. Before leaving office in 1797, to take his position as the nation's second president, Adams praised the wise defenders of liberty in the U.S. Senate.

February 5, 1798

With only the sketchiest constitutional guidelines to lead them, the Senate faced its first impeachment trial in 1798, the trial of Senator William Blount of Tennessee. Before proceeding, the Senate adopted a special set of rules to guide their actions through this precedent-setting trial.

February 5, 1798

In order to compel the attendance of an impeached senator, the Senate expanded the duties and authority of its doorkeeper to include the powers of a Sergeant at Arms.

June 25, 1798

The Senate must achieve a quorum in order to conduct business.  A high rate of absenteeism in the early years of the Senate compelled the Senate to include in its rules a method by which they could compel attendance, including providing the sergeant at arms with sufficient authority to force absent members to appear.

March 27, 1800

William Duane, editor of the influential Philadelphia newspaper The Aurora, came under fire in 1800 when he published a proposed Senate bill, leaked to him by three senators, to create a committee to oversee the counting of electoral ballots. Duane's action prompted the Senate to create a "Committee on Privileges" and use the Sedition Act of 1798 to prosecute the outspoken editor.

May 13, 1800

The collection of art in the Capitol includes bronze and marble likenesses of senators who have resigned their Senate seats to accept cabinet posts. Why would a senator choose to leave the independence of the best elected legislative job in the world to become an appointed executive branch officer subject to the whims of a president?

November 17, 1800

In November of 1800 the U.S. Senate, along with the president and other federal offices, moved from its temporary home in Philadelphia to the still unfinished Capitol in the District of Columbia. Although grateful for a permanent home for the federal government, many senators were reluctant to leave behind the "convenient and elegant accommodations" of Philadelphia for the very rustic and raw environment of the new capital.