Washington DC – The First Congress In DC (1800)

Of the United States, under the Constitution, began its session in New York on the 4th of March, 1789. In 1790 Congress removed to Philadelphia, and for ten years thereafter held its sessions in that city. On November 17, 1800, the Sixth Congress convened in Washington in the unfinished Capitol, and on the 22d of that month President John Adams appeared before both houses, in joint session in the Senate Chamber, and made the customary “annual speech.” Vice-President Thomas Jefferson presided over the Senate, and the Hon. Theodore Sedgwick, of Massachusetts, was the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

When Congress began its sessions in Washington, only the north wing of the Capitol was finished, and that was badly constructed. The Senate Chamber was mostly of wood and plaster, and was not completed in its present substantial, symmetrical manner until after Latrobe had reconstructed the building in 1815-17. The I-louse of Representatives at first was crowded into a room intended for the Senate officials, but a temporary apartment was soon arranged for it in the south wing of the Capitol. This apartment was facetiously called “the oven,” and was used until 1804, when the House removed to another apartment and remained there until it took possession in 1808 of its beautiful, classic hall. When the Capitol rose stately and capacious after the British conflagration, both Houses of Congress were amply accommodated in fine halls.

Many exciting and important parliamentary battles took place in these old halls of legislation. The momentous political questions of the times — the United States Bank, the Missouri Compromise, the protective tariff, the Mexican War, the annexation of Texas, nullification, the fugitive slave bill, and other issues as grave and significant—were debated by Congress, often with fierce wrangles which aroused high excitement and wrath. There was malevolent sectional feeling, and the harmony of the country was frequently disturbed. Indeed it continually required the greatest efforts of the wisest men to preserve the union of the states, and it was then that the grand statesmen and orators—the glory of American legislation—were developed, and they held the Ship of State firmly and steadily on its course.

The Senate for a time sat with closed doors, after the manner of the Continental Congress, but as there was decided objection to this secrecy, the chamber was opened to the public, except during executive sessions. The House of Representatives always transacted its business openly. In the early sessions the Senators discussed the matters before them in a colloquial way, and set speeches were rarely made ; but in the House there was considerable formal speaking. Many of the early congressmen wore powdered wigs, and retained the European fashions in dress which had been in vogue in 1700. Their wigs were curled and powdered every day with great care, and the barber was an important individual.

It was thought necessary for the Speaker of the House to have a symbol of authority, and the sergeant-at-arms was directed to procure the mace, which is ” a bundle of ebony rods, fastened with silver bands, having at its top a silver globe surmounted by a silver eagle.” When the mace was placed on the Speaker’s table it signified that the House was in session and under the authority of the Speaker ; when it was placed under the table, that the House was in committee of the whole. The sergeant-at-arms was required to bear aloft this glittering mace when executing the commands of the Speaker, and in many of the sessions in the old hall he was often compelled to brandish it in the flushed faces of angry debaters, and bid them to “be still.” An attempt was made to abolish the mace, but it was vigorously resisted, and failed, and the time-honored symbol is placed to-day at the Speaker’s right hand whenever the House is sitting.

For some years there was an official pen-maker in each house, whose duty it was to mend the goose-quills commonly used. Many of the congressmen were exceedingly particular as to the ” degree of flexibility and breadth of point” of their quills, and while some would use nothing but ” broad nibs,” others required the finest of “fine points,” and the pen-makers had no easy task in trying to suit the different writers. There were also official sealers, who were en-trusted with the sealing of letters and packages with red wax. The ” stationery ” used in both houses included pen-knives, scissors, razors, pocket-books, kid gloves, bottles of perfumery and bear’s grease, and numerous other little articles which the officials would purchase ” by request ” whenever they went to New York to get their supplies. For a number of sessions ” an innocent beverage called swichell, composed of molasses, ginger, and water,” was largely consumed by the Representatives, and it was popularly supposed that among its ” innocent” ingredients were good French brandy and Jamaica rum. It was always charged in the appropriation for stationery under the head of” syrup.”

Previous to 1816 the compensation of members of Congress was six dollars per day, and when a bill was passed in that year to raise the compensation to $1,500 a session, a sum barely sufficient to pay the expenses of a decent living in Washington, it aroused great excitement throughout the country. In an ancient record it is stated that “the whole nation was shaken to its centre ; parties were formed and political armies marshaled, and the patriotism of the country was aroused to ebullient indignation at the bare proposition that a member of Congress should dare to take thought for what he should eat and drink, or wherewithal he should be clothed, and the liberties of the country where menaced with destruction when Congress ventured to demand the necessaries of life in payment of its thankless services.” So great was the feeling that Congress, at its next session, repealed the obnoxious bill, and made the compensation eight dollars per day.

It was customary for the Representatives to wear their hats in the House during the sessions, and it was not until 1828 that the practice was discontinued. Ladies were excluded from the galleries for a time, but at last, after some discussion of the ” momentous question,” they were admitted, and even had seats reserved for them. As many congressmen were inveterate snuff-takers, urns filled with ” old Scotch” were placed in each house, and officials were charged with the duty of keeping them filled. Even to this day, in the Senate Chamber there is a large box containing choice snuff, which is freely used by the ” most potent, grave, and reverend ” Senators.

Duelling was quite common in the early days of Washington, and the Western and Southern congressmen usually had a case of duel-ling pistols as an important part of their outfit. In the museum of the Patent-Office there is a case of pistols owned by Andrew Jackson while he was in Congress, and the heavy, cruel-looking weapons bear the appearance of having been frequently used. The ” code ” was a matter of general conversation, and was carefully studied. Truculent congressmen were prompt to resent insulting words spoken in debate, and occasionally pistols would be drawn in the House during a session. Then the sergeant-at-arms would seize the mace and hasten to the contestants, hold the official symbol high over their heads, and command them to take their seats under penalty of being arrested for contempt of the House. Henry Clay and John Randolph once fought a duel. Randolph was always abusive in his remarks about Clay, and in debate one day referred to him in a very insulting manner. He declined to apologize for his words, and Clay sent him a challenge. They fought, but without injury to either.

There were many exciting scenes in the House in those good old days.” The debates were full of virulence, and the Speaker frequently had to exert his authority to the utmost to check the passion-ate members. Those who have looked on the House in these ” piping times of peace,” when an animated debate was going on—when all over the great legislative hall there was a furious din and babble ; members rising much excited and uttering sarcastic and exceedingly impertinent remarks, and apparently confusion worse confounded — can form some idea of how the old House appeared while debating the vexed questions in the turbulent times of the first part of the century, when congressmen had a ” code of honor” which necessitated the carrying of pistols, and when there were numerous ” crested jay-hawks of the mountains ” threatening violence to those who spoke the truth too plainly.