[The above, closes our account of the proceedings of the first Session of Congress, under the New Constitution. We have aimed to be impartial and accurate—and as particular as our limits would admit. If the avidity with which the sketches have been received and read, is not indicative of their intrinsic merit, it conveys these ideas very forcibly, that the Constitution is an object of prime consequence, and that the transactions of the General Government are considered as highly interesting to the good people of this confederated Republic. The original publications of these sketches in the newspapers of this city, has proved a fountain of information, to every part of the Union: The streams conveyed through the medium of the innumerable channels of Intelligence, with which these rising States are so highly favored, have served to give the government a more realized existence by bringing it home to the door of every citizen. This method of laying open to the full view of the people the proceedings of their political Fathers, is productive of the happiest effects: It prevents innumerable impositions arising from misrepresentation and falsehood; it unfolds principles, and exhibits characters in a just point of light; the people learn to know whom to trust, and to give honor to whom honor is due. May the Freedom of the Press always be justly prized, and sacredly preserved by the free citizens of the United States.] (Gazette of the United States, 30 Sept. 1789)
The Publication of Debates: Precedents
On 9 April 1789 the New-York Daily Gazette prefaced its first account of the debates of the United States House of Representatives with a deceptively simple statement: “Yesterday the doors of the House of Representatives, were thrown open for the admission of the Citizens.” Behind this statement and the historic event it heralded lay more than a century and a half of constitutional struggle in Great Britain, the colonies, and the states over the public's access to legislative debate and the freedom of the press to print it.
Despite the fact that the states had fought a long war to free themselves from British rule, citizens of the United States and their leaders still looked to the more liberal of English traditions for guidance. Therefore it is useful to review the history of the issue of access to and publication of debates in Great Britain.
By the seventeenth century Parliament believed the ancient privilege that its debates were neither seen nor heard by the public to be an essential tool in its struggle for power against the stronger Crown. At the same time, it recognized that publication of its proceedings could enhance the parliamentary cause with the public, and in 1650 it gave official sanction to the daily publication of its proceedings and votes. But with an eye to its political advantage, it desired control over which debates were published and which were not. The rise of printing as a profession and business and the birth of magazines and newspapers led to a confrontation with this desire for control, because a printer's success depended on a constant supply of information.
A variety of rules and orders governed the conduct of members. They were forbidden to discuss any statement made in the Lords or Commons except with a member of the same house; to provide anyone with notes on, or copies of, anything spoken on the floor; and even to read their speeches, because the written words could fall into the hands of outsiders. Nevertheless, some members made private records of debate. Between 1667 and 1694, Anchitell Grey, a member of Parliament, clandestinely took notes at his seat, but they did not appear in print until the mid-eighteenth century. When information did leak out, the responsible parties were punished; for example, in 1641 a member was censured for publishing a speech he had delivered, and the printed speech was ordered burnt by the common hangman.
During the seventeenth century Parliament took several actions to discourage the unauthorized disclosure of its proceedings by printers. Closing the doors of Parliament to nonmembers became essential to this increasing concern for secrecy. After a series of incidents the Commons resolved in 1650 that the sergeant at arms forbid strangers entrance to the House. By 1700 a single member could have the gallery cleared simply by saying, “Mr. Speaker, I spy strangers.”
With the Revolution of 1688 and the establishment of a limited monarchy, the custom and tradition of keeping its deliberations secret had become an affirmation of the special status of Parliament. Since secrecy was no longer necessary to protect it from the Crown, Parliament's only reason for insisting on the practice was to protect itself from the people. Indeed, as soon it had won the contest with the Crown, a new struggle over the issue arose between Parliament and the public and its ally, the popular press. Public curiosity and willingness to pay for knowledge spurred editors to seek out information and played an important role in the history of the publication of the debates of English-speaking legislative bodies.
The eighteenth century witnessed an ebb and flow in Parliament's willingness to enforce its rules. Gradually the people won access to the views of members of parliament through the publication of its debates. The first man to challenge the Commons on this issue was John Dyer. In 1694 he was summoned before the House for presuming in his newsletter to “take notice of the proceedings” of the House. He acknowledged his offense, begged the pardon of the House, and, on his knees, received the reprimand of the Speaker. After paying the various fees associated with his arrest, he was discharged. Other writers faced the wrath of the Commons, but it was Dyer who persisted: again and again he was brought to the bar of the House, where he confessed his fault, asked forgiveness, paid his fees, and was discharged.
In 1711 Abel Boyer began publication of the Political State of Great Britain. It regularly included proceedings and occasionally debates with the speakers' names sometimes slightly veiled but easily recognizable. Boyer was extremely circumspect and nonpartisan. He reported the speeches of men who he knew would not object; indeed, some members provided him with copies of their remarks. Although Parliament ignored Boyer's activities, both the institution and the editor remained aware of the potential for parliamentary censure or even fines and imprisonment.
In 1732 two monthly magazines began publishing the debates of Parliament: Edward Cave's Gentleman's Magazine and Thomas Astley's London Magazine. Their rivalry furthered the cause of the people's right to know the details of legislative proceedings. Edward Cave left an account of how his magazine prepared the debates for publication. He and some friends sitting in the gallery of the House of Commons would take notes of speeches or their substance and then repair to a tavern where they compared and adjusted their notes with the help of memory. The crude text that resulted was then given to a stylist who put it in proper form. The most famous of these stylists, the essayist Samuel Johnson, was employed by Cave. The resulting text naturally varied considerably from what had actually been said.
The House of Commons took action against the magazines in 1738. Robert Walpole complained of reading reports of his speeches in which he was made to speak the reverse of what he had said, and accounts of debates where all the weighty arguments were on one side while the other side was made to look ridiculous. The House then reaffirmed that it was a breach of privilege to report any unofficial account of the proceedings and promised in the future to proceed harshly against anyone so doing. Both magazines found ways to circumvent the order. The Gentleman's Magazine, in an introduction by Samuel Johnson, explained that because the reporting of parliamentary debates had been forbidden, it had space to publish a sequel to Gulliver's Travels. The “sequel” proved to be an account of debates in Lilliput's legislature that happened to concern matters under debate in the British Parliament at the time. Even before a key to speakers was published, few readers would have had difficulty recognizing that Lilliput's Sir Rubs Waleup was England's Sir Robert Walpole. In 1747 both Astley and Cave were arrested for reporting an account of a trial before the House of Lords. Prime Minister Henry Pelham refused to follow suit in Commons, allegedly saying, “Let them alone, they make better speeches for us than we can ourselves.”
Matters came to a head during the so-called “unreported parliament” of 1768 to 1774. That controversial body, which contended with the American colonies and expelled the popular political radical and former periodical editor John Wilkes from his seat, strictly enforced the order for the expulsion of nonmembers. Fortunately, Sir Henry Cavendish, a member of Commons, filled forty-eight quarto volumes with shorthand notes of the speeches. The constitutional and political importance of the issues faced by this parliament created a public demand for information on its debates. As a result, a popular uprising against Parliament, backed by the press and the Lord Mayor of powerful London, occurred in 1771. Although the House of Commons arrested the Lord Mayor and placed him in the Tower of London, thereby establishing the priority of its privileges, it yielded on the question of the public's right to know, and in 1772 did not renew its contest with the London press. Secrecy was still enjoined but not enforced, except that the device of clearing the galleries was resorted to more frequently.
Even the House of Lords yielded. In 1775, the Lords ordered a London printer arrested, but he was not at home when the sergeant at arms called. At the instigation of the new lord mayor of London—none other than John Wilkes—the printer notified the sergeant of the time that he would be home and invited a visit. If the Lords had sent the sergeant, Wilkes would have arrested him, forcing the Lords in turn to arrest the popular lord mayor.
The freedom of the press to publish the debates was further abetted by the political process itself, for the opposition party generally wished to have the comments and actions of the ministry placed before the public. Thus in the mid–1770s, opposition leader Charles James Fox advocated publication as strongly as he had formerly opposed it, declaring in 1778 that the only way to prevent the misrepresentation of parliamentary debates was to make them as public as possible.
The decision by Parliament not to enforce its rules against publication of its proceedings came simultaneously with a major change in the manner of reporting the debates. Newspapers, not magazines, became the primary vehicle for publication and the accuracy of the reports increased dramatically. They were written for the newspapers by reporters who had actually heard the speeches rather than by stylists who prepared them as literary compositions from notes supplied by others. The most famous of these new reporters was William Woodfall, the first editor to publish the debates the day after they occurred. Relying entirely on his memory, Woodfall would listen intently to the debate and then, going back to his office, write out column after column of what had been said. In 1783 James Perry introduced the system of a corps of reporters who took turns in the galleries taking notes, transcribing them at the printing office, and then returning to take more notes. Despite the fact that reporters had access to the debates with only minor harrassment after 1775, it was not until 1909 that full and official publication of the debates began.
American colonial and early state legislatures also proved hostile to the publication of their proceedings and often sparred with printers, who were eager to publish information about debates. Research in progress indicates that the British pattern was repeated, even to the publication of mock debates in which the speakers were readily identifiable. By the mid–1780s some American newspapers were beginning to report debates without legislative harrassment. Perhaps the earliest was the Charleston Evening Gazette, which in 1785 began to cover debates in the South Carolina House of Representatives. In 1786 Mathew Carey published a pamphlet containing excerpts from the debate over the rechartering of the Bank of North America in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Legislative debates proved so popular among readers that Carey's Pennsylvania Evening Herald became a triweekly, rather than a biweekly, publication during sittings of the legislature. Excerpts from the legislative debates of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York were also published. The practice exploded with the debate over the Constitution of 1787, and the debates of most state ratification conventions were published in newspapers or in pamphlets, although not without controversy over their content.
The delegates to the First Federal Congress's antecedent bodies, the Continental and Confederation Congresses, had met in secret, simply publishing a journal of their proceedings. During this time, the most famous breach of privilege case occurred in 1779, when Congress called Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to its bar for revealing that France was secretly supplying the United States with military aid while it denied the fact to Great Britain. Dunlap named congressional employee Thomas Paine as his source, an assertion that surprised no one.
The Federal Convention also practiced secrecy and the Constitution it proposed required only that, “Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgement require Secrecy.” Of the states that proposed amendments to the Constitution when ratifying it, only New York suggested an amendment to require open sessions of both houses. The Senate chose to continue the precedent of meeting behind closed doors, a practice finally abandoned in 1795 after several efforts to overturn it.
Access to and Reporting of House Debates: First Session
The institutions that had resulted from the drawing together of the colonies or states—the Continental Congresses, the Confederation Congress, and the Federal Convention—were all representative of the state governments. The Senate was designed for this same purpose, but the House of Representatives was conceived as an innovation, a national body representative of the people. Individual members of that body held a personal responsibility to the people of their district. Perhaps more than any other factor, this personal accountability made opening the House doors during debate inevitable. Also, in light of the history of the issue in England and the states, it must have seemed natural for the body that represented the people—the democratic component of the new government—to open its doors. During a debate in July 1789 on the procedure for considering Madison's proposed amendments to the Constitution, Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts gave voice to this concept of accountability:
Are gentlemen afraid to meet the public ear on this topic? Do they wish to shut the gallery doors? Perhaps nothing would be attended with more dangerous consequences—No, sir, let us not be afraid of full and public investigations; let our means, like our conclusions, be justified; let our constituents see, hear, and judge for themselves.
The House went far beyond the minimal constitutional requirement when it exposed its deliberations to public scrutiny. Because no reports exist on the debates between the first of April, when the House attained a quorum, and the eighth, no evidence is available to determine whether this important question was even discussed. Letters written by members during March, while they awaited their absent colleagues, include no indication that the issue was being discussed privately. The House rules passed in early April do not mention it. Comments made by members in late September 1789 in a debate on a motion to banish reporters from the floor of the House show that this omission was probably deliberate. Members expressed reluctance to put any motion relating to the publication of the debates on the record for fear of giving the reporters a quasi-official sanction.
Despite the lack of documentation for this decision, its importance cannot be overemphasized. By allowing citizens and reporters with the declared intention of publishing accounts of the debates to observe from the galleries, the House substantially increased public access to information about legislative business and process. Sitting in the House gallery that first day was the future constitutional commentator James Kent. Years later he described the event:
… all ranks & degrees of men seemed to be actuated by one common impulse, to fill the galleries, as soon as the doors of the House of Representatives were opened for the first time, & to gaze on one of the most interesting fruits of their struggle, a popular assembly summoned from all parts of the United States. Col.[Alexander] Hamilton remarked to me that … such impatient crowds were evidence of the powerful principle of curiosity. … I considered it to be a proud & glorious day, the consummation of our wishes; & that I was looking upon an organ of popular will, just beginning to breathe the Breath of Life, & which might in some future age, much more truly than the Roman Senate, be regarded as “the refuge of nations.” 1
The opening of the new Congress was clearly seen as a newsworthy and important event, and the House of Representatives' decision to open its debates to the public opened new opportunities for journalists to cover the activities of the federal legislature. Although the House did not even discuss the possibility of printing its own debates or giving its sanction to a private venture to publish them, newspaper publishers in New York City undoubtedly recognized that the debates would add substance to their papers and thus increase sales. Two individual entrepreneurs, Thomas Lloyd (The Congressional Register) and John Fenno (the Gazette of the United States), came to New York with the expressed intention of covering the congressional debates. Lloyd planned to publish the debates exclusively and hoped for support from the Congress, whereas Fenno would start a Federalist newspaper to lend support to the new government and provide an impartial reporting of the debates. In addition to Lloyd and Fenno, reporters from at least two established New York City papers, the Daily Advertiser and the New-York Daily Gazette, attended the sessions. During the first session the Gazette of the United States and the Daily Gazette reported primarily summaries of the debates, while the Daily Advertiser provided the most comprehensive immediate accounts. The Congressional Register was the most extensive source. The newspapers, although not as complete as the Congressional Register, are a more contemporary source, because Lloyd took weeks, and frequently months, to edit his notes into a finished product.
It is likely that reporters began the first session taking their notes in the galleries of the House, but moved to the front of the chamber sometime early in the session and with the tacit consent of the House. This position, facing the members as they spoke, would have afforded them the best opportunity to note correctly both the names of the speakers and what they said. It also distanced them from the distractions caused by the public in the galleries. Attending the daily meetings of the House had rapidly become a popular pastime for New Yorkers and a prime “tourist attraction” for visitors to the city. Observers often remained for hours, frequently chatting with each other and even engaging in such disruptive activities as nut cracking.
But even sitting on the floor did not make the task of noting the debates an easy one. Reporters were faced with trying to make an accurate record of speeches delivered at varying volumes and speeds with only the most rudimentary tools and without all the aids available to the modern reporter such as dictating equipment, recorders, and pictorial directories of House members. In addition, noise from the busy street outside the chamber hindered their ability to hear what was said.
Little is known about the methods used by the reporters to record the debates. During the first session Thomas Lloyd personally took notes in shorthand and later expanded upon them; by the second session he had hired an assistant. Newspaper editors either took notes themselves or sent employees to record the debates. Since we know that Francis Childs of the Daily Advertiser took shorthand notes at the New York ratifying convention, we can assume that he used a form of shorthand to record the debates. In the only discussion during the first session on the publication of the debates, the members refer to the reporters as “shorthand writers,” so clearly the persons taking the notes must either have had some shorthand training or resorted to their own shorthand methods, probably less sophisticated than Lloyd's, to take down as much as was humanly possible.
Some evidence exists that members occasionally supplied publishers with a written copy of a particular speech or reviewed and corrected a speech before publication. During the debate of 15 January 1790 Alexander White contended that any errors in the accounts of the debates must have been caused by haste or inadvertence rather than design, because he had observed the
disposition the publishers had manifested to correct any errors that were pointed out, and the pains they sometimes took to ask gentlemen what were their particular expressions, when they either did not hear distinctly, or did not comprehend the speaker's meaning.
Although the Congressional Register's accounts of the debates were extensive from its first publication on 6 May (covering 1–14 April), it took the newspapers a while to prepare for attending and publishing the debates. As the first session progressed, the coverage by the newspapers expanded while Lloyd struggled to keep up with his ambitious project.
Early in the first session the House and Senate appointed a joint committee to consider the issue of supplying newspapers to members of Congress at public expense. Under the old Congress, delegates had received subscriptions to all the papers printed at the seat of government at public expense. The joint committee report, which was agreed to by the House but failed to pass in the Senate, recommended retrenchment of this policy but:
as your committee consider the publication of news-papers to be highly beneficial in disseminating useful knowledge throughout the United States, and deserving of public encouragement, they recommend, that each member of Congress be supplied at the public expence, with one paper, leaving the choice of the same to each member. 2
It is clear from this statement that Congress saw public subscriptions as much as a subsidy to the papers that informed the public as a way of informing the members.
The one record of payments for newspapers that has survived demonstrates that newspapers were purchased for senators at public expense despite the defeat of the committee report in that body and enables us to learn something about what newspapers the members chose to subscribe to. The record kept by the Secretary of the Senate indicates that Otis paid John Fenno (Gazette of the United States, $30.95), Archibald McLean (The New-York Daily Gazette, $87.75), William Morton (The [New York] Morning Post, $87.62), and Thomas Greenleaf (the New-York Journal, $49.52). There was also a payment to Childs and Swaine (the Daily Advertiser, $91.42) that is not labeled and could have been either for newspapers or printing for Congress or for both. 3 Ironically, two of the larger payments went to publishers (Morton and Greenleaf) who were reporting debates only in the form of reprints from other New York papers.
In New York City there was widespread “borrowing” of accounts of debates by the papers. Many examples can be cited of the papers that usually published independent accounts relying upon their colleagues on occasion. In fact, the editor of the Daily Advertiser acknowledged on 21 May 1789 that he had been unable to attend the debates of 20 May and was reporting information provided by his friends. In some instances, such as the virtually identical reports of the debate on 22 January 1790 in both the Gazette of the United States and the New-York Daily Gazette of 23 January, it appears likely that the two papers may have cooperated on the account. Although the practice of reprinting from other accounts seems to have been generally accepted, the following notice printed in the Daily Advertiser on 22 June 1789 indicates that the efforts to disguise plagiarism sometimes caused indignation:
It is requested that a certain Printer, who copies the Debates of the House of Representatives, as published in this paper, would copy them literally and faithfully, and not attempt to disguise the transcript by dishonest interpolation, and disingenuous alterations of phrases, to give it the air of originality. Men of sense and observation will easily detect the ungenerous plagiarism through this thin veil of concealment; but many readers, who have not an opportunity or curiosity to make comparisons, may not see the mangled imitation, and may place confidence in the poor finesse of a regular attendance in the gallery, with the pencil and Ass's skin, and the imposing boast of a more than Woodfall's memory.
Newspapers all over the country received and reprinted reports of the debates from the New York papers. 4 Some members also sent copies of papers to friends and constituents who were regular correspondents. Vice President John Adams described this circulation of information about the federal government's actions in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush: “The Continent is a kind of a Whispering Gallery and Acts and Speeches are reverberated round from N. York in all Directions” 5 .
The accuracy of the reports came under occasional criticism, primarily from James Madison, who complained that “the reasonings on both sides are mutilated, often misapprehended, and not infrequently reversed.” 6 Madison himself must bear some of the responsibility if his speeches were distorted by the reporters, since the newspapers occasionally stated that Madison spoke so low as not to be heard. Complaints aside, members frequently referred their correspondents to the newspaper accounts, indicating that they at least believed them to be a reliable source for finding out what happened on the floor. So did others. George Washington wrote to his friend David Stuart on 26 July 1789, advising that:
I shall not trouble with the Legislative, or any other details that are recited in the Public Gazettes; … If the Successor of Mr.Richards would get the Federal Gazette (Published by Mr.Fenno) from this City, it would enable him to Collect all the transactions, & news of this theatre 7 .
Undoubtedly there were many misquotations in reports of debates because of the obstacles the reporters faced in trying to record them. It must also be acknowledged that the editors necessarily had to be selective. The House of Representatives met for four to six hours each weekday and with some regularity on Saturdays. Thus, the newspaper editors, with a limited number of column inches available, were confined to printing only abbreviated versions of speeches. But even Lloyd, who was not subject to space constraints, could not have recorded entire debates word for word.
The editors of these volumes believe that complaints arose because the accounts reflected too well the unpolished oratory of the debates. For example, Rep. Fisher Ames's own version of a speech he made on 28 April on the subject of the molasses duty appeared in the Massachusetts Centinel. This printing, although obviously the same speech as the one in the New York papers, reads far better than those versions, but it is likely that the New York editions mirror more accurately the speech as actually delivered. The authenticity of the newspapers is also supported by the fact that the individual speaking styles of the members are apparent in the accounts. For instance, the consistently fiery speeches of James Jackson of Georgia can be recognized even with no name attached to them.
Although the only notes extant for the first session of the First Federal Congress are those used by James Madison on 8 June when he introduced the subject of Amendments to the Constitution, the possibility that similar notes were used on occasion exists. Notes for speeches in the second and third sessions by Elias Boudinot of New Jersey have been discovered. The speech by Fisher Ames mentioned above is the only example discovered of a member actually preparing a speech for publication during the first session.
On 26 September, Rep. Aedanus Burke of South Carolina took the floor to call up a resolution he had introduced on the 21st of that month. That resolution accused the printers of misrepresenting the debates and creating the “most glaring deviations from the truth.” Burke argued that the reports threw:
over the proceedings a thick veil of misrepresentation and error; which being done within the house, at the very foot of the speaker's chair, gives a sanction and authenticity to those publications, that reflects upon the house a ridicule and absurdity highly injurious to its privileges and dignity.
Although Burke's motion did not state what actions the House should take, his resolve that the House should no longer give sanction to these misrepresentations aimed at sending the reporters off the floor.
The speeches from the debate that ensued illustrate the members' opinions of the publication of the debates. Michael Jenifer Stone of Maryland acknowledged that his words had been misrepresented in reports “but he should never think of suppressing what the world thought valuable information, on this account.” He believed the problem lay with the newspapers and that the Congressional Register was generally free from inaccuracies. Antifederalist Elbridge Gerry contended that the papers “had a tendancy to exalt some members, and to depress others,” but he was more concerned that the papers reported the speeches in full on the side of an issue they favored, while stating only in part the viewpoints of the other side. Saying that the printers had the power to inflate or ridicule a speaker “in the eyes of the world,” Gerry warned that:
Viewing the publications in this point of light, they were matters of serious reflection; and, if they were conducted on principles of party, they might be one of the most dangerous engines in the hands of faction, and have a malignant and mischievous tendency upon the public voice of America.
Nevertheless, Gerry favored dissemination of the debates. John Page of Virginia, after moving to table Burke's resolve, said he believed that those who thought they had been misrepresented had had their revenge and the reporters had been warned. He objected to any action that would drive the reporters from the floor. Burke countered that the debates of Parliament were published based on notes taken in the galleries and he would be content to have it the same way, “but did not like that the world should suppose these publications were authorized by the house.” He admitted that his motion was aimed at one printer “who sat at the foot of the chair,” presumably Thomas Lloyd, and said, “He did not see him there now, but if he saw him there again, and he continued to print falsely, what was said by gentlemen on this floor, he would renew the motion which he now withdrew.”
Even though Burke withdrew his resolution, the debate continued because Thomas Hartley of Pennsylvania wanted a decision on the motion which he saw as “involving in it an attack upon the liberty of the press.” Thomas Sumter of South Carolina then made the first recorded suggestion that the Congress authorize the publication of its debates “in an able and impartial manner, by a gentleman who was thought qualified for the purpose,” and Gerry agreed. Unfortunately for future scholars, lawyers, judges, and others, this proposal was not seized upon as an acceptable solution to the problem, and in fact the speakers who followed, including Virginia's Richard Bland Lee, James Madison, and Alexander White, opposed giving congressional sanction to any publication of the debates.
South Carolina's Thomas Tudor Tucker then moved “that every person, who was permitted to take down the debates, ought to do it to the best of his ability, in an accurate and impartial manner,” and was supported by Theodorick Bland of Virginia. The responses to this motion and Sumter's by Bland, Madison, and White all supported the printers' right to report and print the debates but opposed voting on any motion that put the House on record as recognizing these publications in any way. Tucker then withdrew his motion.
This revealing debate occurred as the long and productive first session drew to a close. The frustrations felt by some of the members when they read the printed accounts of their deliberations were an inevitable result of the decision to open the House debates to public scrutiny.
Publication of First Congress Debates: The Annals of Congress and the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress debate volumes
For years historians, lawyers, and others have been dependent on Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States (42 vols., Washington, Gales and Seaton, 1834–56, 1st Congress, 1st Session through 18th Congress, 1st Session) as the only source for the debates of the early Congresses. Known popularly as the Annals of Congress, the series has been cited in Supreme Court decisions, and historians regularly consult and quote these volumes without being aware that different contemporary versions of the debates may exist. Partly because of Gales and Seaton's position as the printers of the congressionally sanctioned Register of Debates in Congress, the Annals have achieved nearly the same status as the Congressional Record, and historians and other users, through their citations, inadvertently perpetuate the myth that the Annals represent a complete and accurate account.
Clearly the editors of the Annals were well intentioned and responsible. As early as 1818 William Winston Seaton and Joseph Gales, Jr., conceived the idea of compiling the debates of the early period and sent a circular letter to all members of the Fifteenth Congress proposing to take on this task at a later date. 1 In the circular letter Gales and Seaton related that during a recent debate on the floor of Congress on the case of John Anderson:
reference was repeatedly made by members to a decision in 1795, of a particular case, the Debate on which occupied many days. The principles on which that case was decided were so little known, as to depend upon the recollection of members who had heard their predecessors say on what grounds the decision of that day had been made. It was not even distinctly known, whether the powers of the House had been brought into question. 2
They argued that a record of the debates with a “copious index” was important as a reference source in this and many other such cases. They also appealed to the vanity of the members of Congress by making the argument that those who devote themselves to pursuit of their individual interests, fill the chief executive offices of the nation, or serve in the military all attain a kind of glory and recognition that the youth of the nation can look up to.
But, of those who, in the arduous and rugged path of legislative duty, exhaust the prime of their lives, laboring for the happiness of their country and the success of its institutions, how scanty the rewards—how few the gratifications, on their retirement! When their children, anxious to learn their father's public services and imitate his virtues, enquire for the records of his actions or the history of his political life, they ask in vain—the patriot's devotion survives in the happiness of his country, but the name of the benefactor is forgotten. These considerations have forced themselves on our attention; and have added to the measure of our regret, that no means have been taken, under the authority of government, to recover and embody what yet remains, in scattered fragments, of the history of Congress…. For, thus would be afforded not only the means of a due investigation of the constructions given to our constitutional provisions important to be understood, but also the materials of our history, which are daily perishing by the gradual but certain dilapidations of Time on the fugitive sheets in which they have heretofore been casually registered and preserved.
Son and son-in-law of Joseph Gales, Sr., who had reported congressional debates at Philadelphia in 1796–97, Gales and Seaton were well aware that the task would be as “unprofitable and thankless as laborious,” but they hoped for a congressional subsidy and were encouraged by recent congressional support for a new edition of the laws and the edition of state papers (the Serial Set begun in 1817) to ask for such a subsidy. They concluded their circular letter as follows:
We have already intimated that this work, involving great labor as well as expense—for nearly every line of it will have to be transcribed, to prepare it for the press—cannot be undertaken without legislative aid. It only remains to add, that it will never more be thought of by the undersigned, unless such a decidedly favorable disposition towards it shall be manifested, as shall induce us to offer proposals for the work.
Having attempted to pave the way with their letter, Gales and Seaton petitioned Congress on 17 March of the same year “praying a subscription for such number of copies as may be required for the public institutions of the country.” The petition was committed and later that same month the committee reported itself to be
fully impressed with the importance of this work. Nothing can be more useful than a correct legislative history of the United States…. The views and opinions of the great actors on the theatre of government, are not less necessary to be known than their acts themselves…. To a right understanding of statutes, nothing is more essential than a knowledge of the causes and motives which produced their enactment. 3
The committee recommended legislation authorizing an appropriation to pay for 1,000 copies of the proposed history of Congress, but when the bill came up for consideration by the Committee of the Whole House, Josiah Butler of New Hampshire opposed the appropriation as an unnecessary and extravagant expenditure of public funds. Stating that he “expected to encounter the eloquence of all the orators of the House, among whom he had not the vanity to expect to be classed,” he contended that he “could not be satisfied that the utility of such a publication would justify so great an expenditure of public money.” 4
The Committee of the Whole agreed to Butler's resolution to delete the authorization of an appropriation from the bill, but then the House refused to accept this amendment. In an effort to satisfy some of the objections, a proviso was passed requiring that the publishers enter into a bond with a $20,000 penalty and security, that the series include material to the end of the second session of the Fourteenth Congress, and that it be completed in ten years and ten volumes. An additional proviso would have allowed Congress to rescind its subscription at any time. A motion to reduce the number of subscriptions from 1,000 to 250 was then agreed to, and the legislation was tabled, not to be taken up again. 5
Thus, Gales and Seaton's first proposal to publish the debates of the early congresses withered on the vine, but during the period from 1818 to 1834, when the first volumes of the Annals were published, they were engaged in two other ventures. The first was the publication of the Register of Debates in Congress, which was the first contemporary report of the debates of a semiofficial nature. Congress's decision to subsidize this publication came as a result of the democratic fervor that swept the nation in the 1820s. In addition, with the 1831 authorization by Congress, Gales and Seaton were selected to publish the American State Papers, a compilation of official documents from 1789 into the 1820s and 30s.
It was not until 1833 that the two collaborators returned to the project of publishing the debates (or history) of the first eighteen congresses. In July of 1833 they wrote to James Madison announcing that they had “made a beginning of a work which we long since projected.” Gales and Seaton particularly stressed the importance of recovering the debates of the First Congress and having them “collected & preserved in a durable form.” They appealed to Madison, stating that the debates “were often unavoidably imperfectly reported, having ourselves only the volumes of Lloyd, & Fenno's Gazette with the Journals, to compile from, it has occurred to us that you might have some material which you would spare to us for the purpose of embodying in this work.” Madison, while replying that his memories were “very barren,” claimed that Thomas Lloyd's Congressional Register was the only report of the debates of the period that he could recall. He was critical of Lloyd's reports which, he said, were “very defective, and abound in errors, some of them very gross, where the speeches were not revised by the author.” 6
Joseph Gales, Sr., joined the effort as compiler and the publishers began to seek out original material. By the time they began to advertise their intentions, they were widely considered experts on the debates of Congress.
Volumes one and two of the Annals cover the First Federal Congress and were published in 1834. The debates for 1789–91 were taken primarily from Thomas Lloyd's Congressional Register, which itself had sometimes been merely reprinted from the New York press, and, after Lloyd ceased publication on 8 March 1790, from the Federalist John Fenno's Gazette of the United States. The editors of these volumes have located only one speech in the Annals of Congress that did not come from one of these two sources: James Jackson's speech of 22 May 1789 on the petition of David Ramsay. The source of that speech could not be determined, but it has been printed as part of this complete compilation of the extant debates.
Long considered the definitive account, the Annals are incomplete, since only one source text was used in the compiling process. Gales and Seaton apparently believed it was unnecessary to make a comparison of the sources available to them or to present variant accounts. The evidence suggests that they were unaware that newspapers other than the Gazette of the United States had covered the debates independently. In addition, they introduced new errors into the text through mistranscriptions from the original source.
The five volumes of House of Representatives debates published as part of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789–1791 will replace the Annals as the source of choice for debates on such important issues as creation of a revenue system, the power of removal of executive officers, the Bill of Rights, the location of the federal capital, the funding of the Revolutionary War debt, the creation of the Bank of the United States, and federal regulation of the militia. They will contain more than twice as much material as the Annals, drawn from a thorough search and comparison of the Congressional Register and all accounts of debates printed in newspapers at the seat of government. They also make available for the first time a transcription of the extant shorthand notes taken by Thomas Lloyd on the floor of the House. Some examples of the differences between the Annals and the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress are:
First Session: On 17 April and 4, 7, 12, and 13 May 1789 important debates were recorded in Lloyd's shorthand notes, but not published by Lloyd in his Congressional Register. On 4, 14, 20, 22 May, 25 June, 1 and 2 September 1789 debates were reported in the New York newspapers that were not included in the Congressional Register, and thus were omitted from the Annals.
Second Session: Lloyd's Congressional Register ceased publication on 8 March. His shorthand notes through 3 June have survived and add much material, especially on 16–31 March, 12–26 April, and 11 May–3 June. Exclusive use of the Gazette of the United States by the editors of the Annals ignored the independent and often more extensive reports, particularly in the Daily Advertiser. These accounts add much to the available sources for the period of 8 March–5 August 1790. In addition, the only accounts of a speech on 31 March 1790 by Aedanus Burke attacking Alexander Hamilton and a speech by Elbridge Gerry on 7 July 1790 defending himself against charges that an earlier speech encouraged New Yorkers to take mob action against Congress appeared in the New-York Journal (on 15 April and 16 July 1790).
Third Session: The editors of the Annals relied almost entirely on the reports in the Gazette of the United States, but did not even include all of these. Other newspapers printed in Philadelphia (the seat of government in the third session) report almost twice as much material, including long debates on 11, 16, 17, 23, and 24 December 1790 and 5, 6, 11, and 25 January 1791.
These volumes will provide the user with the entire extant record of the debates, complete with the variations and inconsistencies among the accounts that inevitably occur when different persons report on the same event. The historical record of the debates of the First Federal Congress will remain imperfect, but these five volumes of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress will greatly expand access to the complete available record. Used together with other volumes of this series, they will enable scholars to reconstruct what occurred in that seminal Congress.
1 To Elizabeth Hamilton, 2 Dec. 1832, Hamilton-McLane Papers, DLC.
2 HJ, p 75.
3 Contingent Expenses of the Senate, 1790, Office of the Financial Clerk, Senate Records, DNA.
4 A chart indicating which New York sources were reprinted in newspapers outside the seat of federal government will appear in an appendix to volume XIV of this series.
5 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 18 Apr. 1790, Papers of Benjamin Rush, DLC.
6 To Edmund Randolph, 24 June 1789, Madison Papers, DLC.
7 Dorothy Twohig, ed. The Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series 3:325-26. Washington was referring to George Richards, the publisher of the Virginia Journal in Alexandria who had died on 4 July.
8 26 Jan. 1818, Madison Collection, Rare Book Room, DLC.
9 In this case, Anderson came to the boarding house of a member of Congress and delivered a letter offering and containing a bribe for his support of a particular issue. The debate that ensued when the member charged Anderson on the floor of the House centered on the Constitutional issue of whether Congress had the right to try and punish Anderson for contempt of Congress.
10 Annals of Congress, 15th Congress, 1st sess., col. 1650.
11 Ibid., col. 1663.
12 Ibid., col. 1680–81.
13 Gales and Seaton to Madison, 29 July 1833; reply, 5 Aug. 1833, both in Madison Papers, DLC.