March 4th is an important day in the America saga as Congress met for the first time in 1789 to start governing under the Constitution. So why don’t more people honor that day as a significant point in history?
Perhaps it is skepticism about the role of Congress in today’s society, or just a lack of appreciation for the important role Congress plays in the balancing act created by the Constitution. But there will be few public celebrations about this milestone moment.
And it could be the nature of that point in time on March 4, 1789, when only a handful of men made it to New York’s Federal Hall for first official sessions of the House and Senate.
The Founders who made it to New York met briefly at Federal Hall in the morning, and they realized most of their fellow Congressmen hadn’t shown up for the historic event. No business was done on the first day of Congress; the opening was pushed back by a day – at first.
In the House, minutes were taken of the brief event. Just 13 of the 65 members had arrived for the first session, leaving the House 20 members short of a quorum to start conducting business.
The House then convened seven other sessions in March, and it failed to get started as it lacked enough members to begin government under the Constitution in earnest. On March 11, James Madison and Richard Lee arrived from Virginia ,and others soon followed.
But the House had to wait until April 1, when James Schureman of New Jersey and Thomas Scott of Pennsylvania entered Federal Hall, and set the quorum needed to appoint House leaders. Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania was named as the House’s first speaker.
The House adjourned again and met briefly as it waited for the Senate to establish its own quorum, with Madison, Lee, Roger Sherman and others writing the House’s rules during the lull.
Back on March 4, only eight of the 22 U.S. Senators had arrived in New York. Those Senators were forced to write letters to their missing compatriots “earnest[ly] requesting that you will be so obliging as to attend as soon as possible.”
It took an additional month for four more Senators to show up in New York, and on April 6th, the Senate took up its first official business: convening the Electoral College to confirm George Washington as President and John Adams as Vice President.
The House was notified that the election was underway above them in a room in Federal Hall, and Muhlenberg and two other Representatives went to the Senate to monitor the vote count. Madison then appeared in the Senate to state that the House agreed that messages should be sent to Washington and Adams about their election.
After the March 4, 1789 kickoff of Congress, the House and Senate wouldn’t start business on a March 4th again until 1867. The original constitutional requirement after the first session of the 1st Congress was for a new Congress to start on the first Monday in December, or another day chose by Congress.
As for the birthday of Congress as a national holiday, the odds would appear to be long shot, especially since Congress would need to change the Monday Holidays Act, or pass a law naming a new holiday to honor itself.
The last federal holiday approved by Congress was the Martin Luther King holiday in November 1983. The costs of creating a 12th federal holiday would be prohibitive, and there also wouldn’t be the political will to eliminate a current holiday, and replace it with an event to honor Congress.
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