Why Did Congress First Meet in New York City?

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Published on 9-7-02

To honor the dead in 9-11, on September 6 the United States Congress is holding a formal session in New York City. This is the first time since the founding of the government that Congress has met in New York. (It is the second time the Congress has met outside Washington D.C. in special session; the first time was in 1987 in Philadelphia to honor the bicentennial of the Constitution.)

Why did the first Congress first meet in New York?

Through the American Revolution the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, the largest city in the country. Meeting in New York was not possible even if it had been considered desirable. Much to the chagrin of George Washington, the British early on in the war occupied New York City.

The Continental Congress remained in Philadelphia until 1783, the year a peace treaty was signed with Great Britain. That June, a threatening mob of angry veterans marched on Philadelphia demanding back pay, which the Congress had been unable to provide owing to the weakness of the government under the Articles of Confederation. Eventually the veterans, armed with muskets and bayonets, made their way to the Statehouse where Congress was meeting and began heaping insults on the members. At one point the vets gave Congress an ultimatum either to pay up or face the consequences. In the afternoon, at three o'clock, the members bravely filed out past the soldiers and no one was injured. But the assault inspired Congress to move. In 1785, after trying out several locations, Congress settled on New York.

One of the last decisions the Continental Congress made before being replaced by the United States Congress was to make New York the seat of the new government under the about-to-be-approved U.S. Constitution. The mayor of New York, delighted by the decision, turned over city hall to the new Congress. After a make-over directed by L'Enfant costing $60,000 Congress officially set up shop on March 4, 1789 in the newly designated Federal Hall, located on Wall Street. The House of Representatives met on the first floor in a grand room featuring a high ceiling, detailed ornamentation, long stately windows, and several semi-circular tables. The speaker of the House sat on a raised platform pushed against a side wall. The Senate met upstairs.

To be precise, the Congress actually met for the first time in April. It took a month for enough members to appear to form a quorum in either house. The House, prodded by James Madison, immediately took up the question of finances and taxes. In contrast the Senate, led by Vice-President John Adams, wasted a month debating the titles high officials should be given, a committee recommending that Washington be addressed as"His Highness, the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same."

The second Congress of the United States assembled in Philadelphia. The change was part of a deal Thomas Jefferson had struck with Alexander Hamilton one night over dinner. The Northern states, which were burdened by heavy debts leftover from the Revolutionary War, wanted the federal government to assume them. The states in the South, which had paid off most of their debts, objected. A compromise was reached by which the state debts would be assumed by the federal government in exchange for the relocation of the government to the site which was to become Washington, D.C. For the next decade, however, the government was to operate from Philadelphia, a bone thrown to the leaders of the middle states.

Source: Alvin M. Josephy, The Congress of the United States (American Heritage Publishing Co., 1975). See also: NYT 9/7/02.

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Charles Orndorff - 11/13/2002

Congress actually moved to Philadelphia for the final session of the First Congress, not at the beginning of the Second Congress. This session lasted from December 1790 through March 1791.