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The Significance of Congressional Correspondence

The thousands of extant letters to and from members of the First Federal Congress are a monument to one of the most fundamental developments in American political culture. Before the enactment of the Constitution in 1789, the direct constituents of delegates to Congress were the state legislatures that appointed them. Recognizing this, Edmund C. Burnett’s Letters of Members of the Continental Congress initially aimed at printing only official reports by delegates to their state officials. Even after broadening his selection criteria, Burnett himself acknowledged that the edition’s eight volumes were hardly enough to supplement the thirty-four-volume Journal of the Continental Congress by conveying “contemporary or nearly contemporary information about the doings of that body,” as had been originally intended. 1 The Library of Congress sought to redress the shortcomings of Burnett’s pioneering edition by commissioning an expanded twenty-six-volume edition of Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774–1789 as part of its American Revolution Bicentennial observance. Although it tripled the number of documents published by Burnett and printed them in their entirety, the newer edition’s selection was still limited to outgoing letters.

The nature of the federal government as altered by the Constitution and experienced by members of the First Federal Congress is reflected in the more comprehensive nature of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789–1791 ( DHFFC ). The closed-door proceedings of Congress before 1789 (a secrecy its delegates were solemnly sworn to uphold when directed by a majority vote), 2 its limited powers, and its accountability to state legislatures naturally limited the scope of the exchange between private citizens and their legislators. This changed with the First Federal Congress. Senators continued to be answerable to their state legislatures and met in secret. But the first House of Representatives summarily rejected the authority of formal instructions when it defeated a motion to add the people’s right “to instruct their representatives” to the proposed amendments to the Constitution. Representatives would remain directly responsible to an electorate as a whole without intermediaries, and, except on rare occasions, their proceedings and debates could be viewed by any spectator or newspaper reporter. Moreover, both Senators and Representatives were constitutionally endowed with a much broader range of powers, and their reliance on the input of constituents rose correspondingly.

The flood of requests for constituent services (primarily from petitioners or office seekers) and the opinions expressed on pending legislation attest to the common citizens’ perception of their new role. Apart from visits by distant constituents, letters and newspapers from home were the only way congressmen could stay alert to the collective interests they were supposed to be representing. Constituents sometimes mailed their hometown newspapers to their congressmen, but the supply was irregular and unreliable, limiting their impact. Georgia’s is the only state government known to have made provision for furnishing its delegation with newspapers from home, and the only known subscription by a member for his hometown paper—Grout’s subscription to Worcester’s Massachusetts Spy—is the exception that proves the rule: members of Congress were desperate to know what their constituents were thinking. 3 Incoming letters are therefore important testimonials to the new role of individual citizens and citizens groups in shaping Congress’s legislative agenda as well as the content of legislation.

Realizing that “the people have something else to do than barely to elect,” one of Moore’s constituents from southwestern Virginia envisioned the creation of a two- or three-member committee in each county to correspond regularly with its Representative, as well as with other county committees of correspondence within the district. There are only a few instances in which citizens groups are known to have approached this level of organization. The three most notable are the marine insurance offices of Massachusetts’ North Shore, which regularly corresponded with Goodhue through Michael Hodge; the eleven-member committee of merchants and traders of Portland, Maine, which occasionally corresponded with Thatcher on commercial subjects; and the committee of Philadelphia merchants that corresponded with the Pennsylvania delegation about matters relating to commerce. In July 1789 this last group even submitted a substitute draft Lighthouses Bill [HR-12], which influenced the final text of that act. The higher incidence of correspondence among the New Englanders bears out Fitzsimons’s complaint that they were more successful in soliciting and receiving advice from their constituents than were other congressmen. 4

Every member of the First Federal Congress served the dual function of representing not only the people to the government but the government back to the people. Yet the pressure on congressmen to publicize themselves and their activities was aggravated by the size and dispersion of their constituencies. Representatives (except those elected at large) were accountable to districts ranging in population from 16,250 (Jackson’s Georgia district) to 108,500 (Ashe’s North Carolina district) and in size from approximately 400 square miles (Laurance’s New York district) to 42,000 square miles (John Sevier’s North Carolina district). One result was that “men are brought into Public life upon a very short acquaintance with the People,” as one Bostonian wrote to Samuel Russell Gerry. Tucker of South Carolina feared the merely “nominal Representation” that would result from popularly elected congressmen being “totally unknown to nine tenths of their constituents.” As a case in point, he might have pointed to Massachusetts’ Maine district, where Thatcher was elected Representative with only 588 votes (of 948 cast) in a district of approximately 96,000 inhabitants. Because of these handicaps, a congressman’s critical role in transferring legitimacy to and confidence in the new government would have been impossible without the ties nurtured by the exchange of letters. 5

Newspapers publicizing House debates also helped congressmen explain themselves to their constituents and demystify the workings of the government. It was with placid resignation that Francis Hopkinson—himself a former member of the Continental Congress—wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1785 that “we know little more of Congress here than you do in France, perhaps not so much. They are seldom or ever mentioned in the Papers and are less talked of than if they were in the West Indies Islands.” Four years later, the decision to open the doors of the House to the public and the press was seen as heralding a new era in which public affairs were brought “home to the door of every citizen.” 6

Original accounts of congressional debates and proceedings were routine features in several of the seven newspapers published at the seat of government and regularly reappeared in dozens of the ninety-eight newspapers published within the United States in 1789. Thirty-two of these papers were published east of the Hudson, and another twenty-three south of the Potomac; Pennsylvania, with sixteen, had more than any other single state. The number of copies circulated weekly, according to one enterprising New Yorker’s estimate in October 1789, was 76,483. Such coverage went far to answer the public’s need for information. Since the Confederation, the postmaster general had permitted printers to exchange their newspapers with publishers in other cities free of postage. Congressmen facilitated this process by mailing additional issues to their home districts under their “frank,” a signature or sign permitting free postage for official mailings. Exercising that congressional privilege made a greater number of newspapers available for redistribution and copying by the local newspapers and ensured their conveyance via the post rider’s more reliable official portmanteau. Members’ letters frequently refer the recipient to an enclosed newspaper. Not until December 1790 did the First Congress formally resolve to charge the Treasury for supplying members with newspapers published at the seat of government. That practice, begun during the Confederation Congress, seems to have persisted unofficially throughout the First Congress. 7

Still, many citizens wanted more. George Nicholas on the Kentucky frontier could read about the public actions of Congress in the newspapers, but he sought from Brown’s letters “the secret movement” of government. “Pray, Sir, don’t let your letter contain mere news-paper news,” beseeched one of Thatcher’s constituents; “give me something that I could not obtain otherwise.” “Do let us know how the Cat Jumps,” begged another . . . or how proceeds “the Continental Waggon” or the drift of “the ship of state,” according to the writer’s idiom. Many incoming letters contain grateful acknowledgments for past attention and hungry demands for more. Congressmen’s letters in fact became coveted tokens, an index of status. More than one correspondent reminded Thatcher that he neglected to write influential constituents at his peril and that they were jealous of the attention he paid to his Antifederalist correspondents. 8

Letters to and from members of the First Congress were important not only as a medium of political information or influence but as a critical component in the personal life of the member. Long absences from home excluded them from the network of familiar relationships that gave life meaning and pleasure. The “literary visits” that Wingate looked forward to in his correspondence with family members and the “little town news” that Wadsworth relished hearing helped congressmen maintain their mental health by sustaining a lively connection with hearth and home. 9

The Survival of Members’ Papers

Although the number of extant letters by and to members documenting the work of the First Federal Congress is impressive, they constitute only a proportion of those actually written. The papers and correspondence of northern members have survived in far greater numbers than have those of southern members. We believe that this has far more to do with those members’ sense of history than with the ravages of the Civil War and find it reflected in the contrasting recordkeeping practices of Senate Secretary Samuel A. Otis (of Massachusetts) and House Clerk John Beckley (of Virginia). 1 Not to be forgotten is the powerful influence of a humid climate on even the best paper.

Although we have not attempted to trace in detail what happened to the papers of the men who served in the First Federal Congress, certain information has come to light about how those manuscripts survived (or disappeared) during the more than two centuries since Congress sat. All or portions of the papers of some members were sold on the autograph market (many of these now reside in manuscript repositories): Fitzsimons, Paterson, Gerry, and Langdon are examples. Burke made sure that his papers did not survive by ordering his executor to burn them. Dalton’s papers burned in 1794 along with the ship that was transporting his possessions to the future District of Columbia, where he was a partner in the mercantile firm of Tobias Lear and Company. Hawkins’s papers, including his diary of Senate proceedings during the first half of the 1790s, was lost when Creek Indians burned his home just after the War of 1812. Giles’s papers burned with Richmond, and some of Butler’s burned with New Orleans, both during the Civil War. Maclay made efforts to see that his papers survived, but only his diary is extant.

In a few cases the papers of a member—composed of incoming letters and sometimes retained copies of his outgoing letters (usually as drafts or copied into letterbooks) and miscellaneous documents—have survived relatively intact, although not necessarily in one place. The best examples of such collections are the papers of Langdon (most of which arrived at repositories in the 1990s), Adams, Thatcher, Goodhue, Sedgwick, Johnson, Wadsworth, Schuyler, King, Read, R. H. Lee, Madison (unique in that, when organizing papers in his retirement, he asked for and got back his letters to several prominent individuals), Monroe, Johnston, and Butler. Other examples, generally smaller in size and richer in the years before or after 1789–1791, are the papers of Wingate, Gerry, T. Foster, Sherman, Trumbull, Boudinot, Morris, C. Carroll, Stone, Brown, Izard, Smith (S.C.), and Sumter.

Because it was an age when few people retained copies of outgoing personal and political correspondence, the actual letters written by members of the First Congress are generally found in the collections of their recipients. This is where we located many of the letters of Wingate, Ames, Huntington, Sherman, Clymer, Fitzsimons, Hartley, Wynkoop, Smith (Md.), Bland, R. B. Lee, Page, White, Smith (S.C.), Tucker, and Baldwin. The two most fruitful recipients’ collections are the thirty-five letters of Bland, Page, and Tucker in the Tucker-Coleman Papers at the College of William and Mary and the at least sixty-nine letters by members of the Pennsylvania delegation, in addition to a handful by members from seven other states, in the Tench Coxe Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Two other collections once contained dozens of letters written by Pennsylvania members of the First Congress, but they were removed and sold on the autograph letter market. Benjamin Rush’s papers were willed to the Library Company of Philadelphia by his son, but before they arrived a family member removed the letters of prominent individuals. These letters were sold in 1943 and 1944; included were 116 letters written during the First Congress by Adams, Boudinot, Madison, Maclay, Clymer, Fitzsimons, and the Muhlenberg brothers. We have been fortunate in locating texts for all but twenty-one of these very revealing political letters. The papers of John Nicholson, comptroller general of Pennsylvania, sat unguarded in the basement of the Pennsylvania capitol for decades after the state sequestered them around 1800. 2 Beginning at least as early as the 1880s, hundreds of letters (particularly those by Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution) made their way to the New York autograph market. The collection at one time probably contained more than the twenty First Federal Congress letters from Morris, Hartley, Hiester, and Maclay (including drafts of some of his newspaper articles) that we have located.

Whether in their own papers or in the collections of their correspondents, the letter-writing efforts of certain members have survived in greater numbers than have those of others. Goodhue holds the record (more than 150); more than fifty letters each survive from Ames, Fitzsimons, Gerry, Hartley, R. H. Lee, Maclay, Madison, Morris, Sedgwick, Sherman, Smith (Md.), Thatcher, Wingate, and Wynkoop. By contrast, for members who served in all three sessions, none or fewer than five letters survive from Coles, Floyd, A. Foster, Gale, Grout, Gunn, Hathorn, Henry, Huger, Laurance, Mathews, Schureman, Scott, Seney, Sinnickson, Sturges, Sumter, Van Rensselaer, and Vining.

For details on the surviving letters of each member, see the end of the member’s biographical sketch in DHFFC 14.

Circular Letters

Circular letters bridge the gap between personal letters and newspapers, combining the specificity and immediacy of the first with the periodicity and distribution of the second. Ames’s frequent letters to George R. Minot employ an easy, seemingly artless style; he would write, in fact, “as I am used to converse with you.” 1 Yet, despite the tone of intimacy, Ames never wrote Minot without knowing that his letters would be shared with the other members of the “Wednesday Night Club,” a social gathering of his male friends in Boston. Goodhue’s frequent letters to Michael Hodge regularly updated an important audience of businessmen along the North Shore of Massachusetts, while excerpts from Thatcher’s letters to his friend Thomas B. Wait regularly and expectedly found their way into the pages of Wait’s Portland, Maine, Cumberland Gazette. These three examples show how letters to strategically placed sources at home functioned as virtual circular letters.

Only a few First Congress letters share a resemblance to the circular letter format subsequently followed, primarily by southern and western congressmen, during the later Federalist and Jeffersonian eras. Narrowly defined, they were reports and observations on the overall proceedings of Congress, not merely on a single issue. Typically addressed to an unidentified “friend” or “Sir,” they were composed intentionally for a wider dissemination and were frequently reprinted in newspapers. Sevier’s letter of 10 January 1791 and Steele’s of 27 January 1791 are examples of this type. In a broader sense, Sumter’s letter of 24 August 1789 also qualifies as a circular letter: it did not circulate initially in print, but it was clearly intended for several readers and ultimately enjoyed wide newspaper distribution, first in Charleston, South Carolina’s City Gazette and later in at least Boston and Providence, Rhode Island, newspapers. 2

The Content of the Letters

The correspondence published in this series illuminates several of the fundamental themes that have continued to resonate throughout American political discourse. Letters discussing the issues of the power of removal and the establishment of a national bank reveal the First Congress engaged in the interpretation of the Constitution by legislative construction. When congressmen and their constituents exchanged views on assuming the states’ Revolutionary War debts and on the power of the federal courts, federalism and states’ rights were at issue. Overt sectionalism peaked for almost a year after the subject of locating the seat of government was formally introduced in August 1789, while distributing the burden of impost duties and peopling and protecting the West sparked sectional conflict almost from the moment Congress convened. Reconciling the powers of the executive and the judiciary with republican ideals, which had fueled so much Antifederalist anxiety during the ratification period, remained a serious concern as Congress turned to the organization of the “great departments,” the structure and jurisdiction of the judiciary, and a suitable nonhereditary title for the President. At the same time, keeping Congress’s own house in order provoked a highly charged exchange over congressional salaries and the perceived proliferation of congressional officers. Punctuating these broad recurring themes are details about the legislative history of many bills and candid t(tm)te-à-t(tm)te revelations of behind-the-scenes compromises, as well as procedural maneuvers unrecorded in either the official Journals or the unofficial printed debates.

The largest single subject treated in the correspondence is the age-old pursuit of appointed public office. Even would-be “placemen” who personally attended on congressmen at the seat of government often pressed their case with letters of recommendation from the home district. The Constitution calls for the President to nominate federal officials and the Senate to confirm the nominations; consequently, letters of application or recommendation addressed to congressmen were generally forwarded by them to the President. In some cases, applicants launched letter-writing campaigns and congressmen accumulated veritable dossiers on the careers and pretensions of job seekers. Often the only special qualifications cited were patriotism and poverty.

Dim corners previously deemed peripheral to the “public sphere” are illuminated in these letters to show congressmen’s multidimensional lives. In addition to their public service and the ideologies that influenced their politics, portions of the letters printed in this series also convey information relating to members’ ongoing family, professional, and financial concerns.

A congressman’s most intimate correspondence was often with his spouse and kin at home. But leaving out bachelors, widowers, and members who resided with their families at the seat of government, only slightly more than half the members of the First Congress had wives at home, and correspondence is extant for only fourteen of those. The salutations and closings of many of these letters are evidence of the late eighteenth century’s significant development of marital partners into “friends.” A prudish Congregationalist like Huntington would always address his wife Anne as “Dear Mrs. Huntington.” But others such as Few and Wadsworth consistently addressed their wives as “Dear Friend,” while Sedgwick rarely addressed his wife of fifteen years by anything less affectionate than “My Dearest Love.” Nicknames playfully convey some of this new collegiality, such as “Affy” for Paterson’s wife Euphemia or the more obvious “Getty” for Gertrude Read. Well into middle age Elias and Hannah Boudinot still referred to each other by their courting names, “Narcissus” and “Eugenia.” 1

In her husband’s absence, the congressional wife at home exercised considerable autonomy over matters of domestic economy. Yet the letters show that congressmen continued to attempt to exercise some direction over important household matters, such as the education of their children. Butler maintained an iron grip on the education of his only son Thomas, sent at a young age to school in England. Thatcher’s approach was probably more representative of those with adolescent children. He accepted the inevitable division of labor and deferred to his wife’s implementation of the passages he had begun transcribing for her in February 1789, from his readings of the educational theories of Lord Kames. 2

Details from business-related correspondence are omitted from this edition. But high among the nonpolitical themes sounded in these letters is the ever-present financial burden some congressmen experienced from the necessary suspension or curtailment of their normal business activities. Large southern plantation owners like Butler and Izard, much of whose business was already in the hands of full-time overseers, were the least inconvenienced by the demands of public office. Lawyers like Sedgwick and Silvester, by contrast, kept their practices alive by corresponding with partners or prot(c)g(c)s about caseloads and circuit court appearances scheduled for congressional recesses. Merchants like Morris and manufacturers like Wadsworth continued to manage their affairs by an attenuated but diligent attention to business. Morris was aided by the clerk he kept with him at the seat of government, but other merchant members relied more on their partners or designated proxies. “I would have you do in every particular relating to my business as you think will be for the best,” Goodhue wrote his brother Stephen, also a merchant, shortly after arriving for the first session. “Whether it should turn out so or not I shall be content,” he added, but hedged his bets by supplying continual advice thereafter about buying and selling shipments of goods. 3

Franking and the Mail

The value to the nation of congressional correspondence had been recognized as early as 8 November 1775, when the Second Continental Congress passed an ordinance “that all letters to and from the delegates of the United Colonies, during the sessions of Congress, pass, and be carried free of charge.” The ordinance survived subsequent restructuring of the post office department and remained in force up through the First Federal Congress. The one instance in which the practice is known to have been questioned in Congress underscores its importance within the political culture of the time. In December 1782, with franking privileges being extended to a widening circle of civil servants and departmental officers of the army, Congress defeated a call for the total abolition of the frank or its limitation to a set number or weight of letters. Congressmen arguing against the proposal pointed out that delegates and citizens of their respective states would be unjustly taxed by the expense in direct proportion to their distance from the seat of government and that an abridgement of the frank would confine a general knowledge of public affairs to the immediate vicinity of Congress. Both arguments drew force from the looming sectional dispute over the location of the seat of government. 1 In reply to the very practical consideration of lost revenue, congressmen in 1782 maintained that little, if any, additional revenue would be raised if the frank were withdrawn because the number and size of their letters would be correspondingly reduced. They rather disingenuously added that franked letters “however voluminous did not exclude from the mail any private letters” subject to postage. The various resolutions extending the frank to civil servants stipulated that it was only for letters written in an official capacity. Letters “on public service” were expected to bear an endorsement to that effect, until Congress—supposing that the endorsement subtly impugned the honesty of its users—resolved in February 1783 that the frank would no longer be withheld “for want of the words On public service. 2

A major argument against the frank was revenue loss from its excessive use. Opponents claimed that the losses prevented the post office department from expanding service via post roads into the interior, again linking the debate to underlying sectional tensions. The losses incurred during William Bedlow’s tenure as postmaster of New York City while the Confederation Congress resided there from 1785 to 1789 amounted to £475 in arrearages to the government. In March 1790 he was forced to petition the First Congress for a temporary suspension of legal proceedings to recover the debt from his personal estate. Weeks later, in the only explicit reference to the frank known to have been made on the floor during the First Congress, Wadsworth argued that the postal department could be more lucrative “under proper regulation,” calculating that seven-eighths of its revenue was lost to private carriers and the frank. 3

The franking of congressional correspondence was so well established by the time of the First Federal Congress that constituents and congressmen alike invited abuse by applying the broadest possible interpretation of “public service.” Congressmen franked letters that were all personal business but for a line or two referring to the anticipated date of adjournment or the final vote on a bill. In violation of the standing post office ordinance engaging them “upon their honour not to frank or enclose any letters but their own,” 4 congressmen often enclosed or forwarded under their frank private letters to or from constituents. Doing so became in effect a type of constituent service, as much as presenting petitions or filing for pension benefits.

A notable example is the merchant Samuel Emery. Residing in Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1789, he frequently wrote franked letters to Thatcher with enclosures for business associates in Boston, which Thatcher dutifully forwarded under his frank. Emery rationalized that he was not subtracting from the post office’s revenue because “I assure you If the postage was to be paid I should not write.” The newly created justices of the Supreme Court did not enjoy franking privileges, but at least once Dalton compensated for this by franking a letter from Mrs. Sarah Jay to her husband the chief justice, who was then on circuit in New Hampshire. 5

Preventing abuse of the frank may have been difficult for postal officials, but they were successful in enforcing standards in other ways. Congressmen could receive or mail franked letters only from the seat of government and when Congress was scheduled to be in session (although they did not have to wait for the appearance of a quorum). White left New York City for Virginia before the close of the first session and had to ask House Clerk John Beckley to redirect his mail under Madison’s frank. Williamson reminded constituents that they would be charged for letters posted during an upcoming recess. Abigail Adams, who forgot this, sent a long letter to her sister under the Vice President’s frank before the second session convened and “had the mortification to receive it back again.” Gerry apologized for the expense this temporary suspension imposed on Samuel Hodgdon in Philadelphia for a letter Gerry was forwarding from a mutual friend in New York, while Johnson used avoidance of the expense as an excuse for waiting three months before replying to one correspondent. A letter to his son that Johnson had postmarked five days earlier was nevertheless franked one day before the scheduled convening of the second session, suggesting that the postmaster had discretion in such matters. 6

The convenience of the frank was partially offset by the inherent risks that came with a reliance on the public mail. Not the least of these, in the perception of some congressmen at least, was the threat of deliberate tampering by those “more curious than moral.” “I suspect foul play,” Joseph Whipple wrote to Langdon, in trying to explain the possible loss of a letter. Goodhue feared the same and routinely enclosed in letters to his brother Stephen letters to others “which I do not chuse should go otherwise.” There is a fainter echo of this suspicion in a letter to Anthony Wayne that Madison entrusted to a “casual conveyance” because “it is rendered ineligible by the delay & uncertainty” of the public mail. 7

During the last days of the Confederation Congress, New York’s postmaster customarily delivered members’ mail to their desks at City Hall (the future Federal Hall). The practice seems to have been continued into the First Congress, since an editorial writer signed “Look Out” urged the proprietors of the mail stages to arrive by 2:00 p.m. so that members could get their mail before adjourning at 3:00 p.m. (Days later one of the proprietors defended the guild, insisting that the mail had only been late once.) The frequency of scheduled mail pickup and delivery was also tailored to congressmen’s convenience. Until the first of May, mail left for and arrived from points south two afternoons per week and points north and east two evenings per week. Thereafter, mail left and arrived three times per week. The first session of Congress having adjourned a week before the post office moved from 8 Wall Street, virtually in the shadow of Federal Hall, members could not participate in the popular outcry raised against the remoteness of the new location at Broadway and Liberty Street, three blocks behind Federal Hall. 8

How Members Lived

The cultural, social, and physical milieu of New York City in 1789 and 1790 provides the necessary context for understanding the letters congressmen sent forth from that time and place. The city occupied only the extreme southern tip of Manhattan Island from the Battery northward barely one-third of the way to Greenwich Village and east along the East River only as far as the present site of Manhattan Bridge (although city streets were platted up to the site of the Williamsburg Bridge). Readers will find some familiarity with comments describing the seat of government as polluted, odoriferous, crime ridden, and gridlocked. 1

As many as half of the members of the First Congress found shelter in eight of the city’s boarding houses; most of the remaining members took up residence among a dozen other boarding houses. Here they competed for space with the swelling number of pension-, patent-, and office-seekers drawn to the seat of government. Congressmen paid a fixed rate of four to five dollars per week for room and board, with extra charges for liquor, firewood, and candles. Leases were generally signed on the first of February, and moving day was the first of May. Members like Izard, who had brought their families and had the money to house them, rented entire homes. Others may have been persuaded by the rare advertisement offering “a genteel house, within five minutes walk of the Federal Building, fit for three or four gentlemen of Congress.” A few members, such as Wynkoop and the Muhlenbergs, stayed with family already residing in New York. Griffin and his wife rented a house on the outskirts of the city. Only two members settled outside the city proper: R. H. Lee lived in Greenwich Village, and Vice President John Adams took possession of Richmond Hill, even farther up the Greenwich Road in the present-day Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District just north of the Holland Tunnel. 2

A member’s official day started when the chambers went into session around eleven in the morning, unless he was serving on a committee, which generally met at nine. Sessions adjourned between three and four in the afternoon. Several congressmen are known to have written from their desks on the floor of the chamber, suggesting the occasional tedium of business from which letter writing offered an opportune escape. The lax enforcement of quorum requirements during routine business permitted more literal escapes to meet with other members, lobbyists, or visiting constituents in the lobbies and porticoes of Federal Hall. State delegation caucuses met off the premises, usually at a member’s lodging or at any of the city’s many taverns. The Pennsylvanians, for example, whose frequent caucusing is well documented by Daniel Hiester and William Maclay, agreed early in the second session to meet every Monday evening at Simons’s Tavern, next door to Federal Hall. 3

Congressmen’s letters indicate an eagerness to vary the rhythm of their days through several recreational outlets. Daylong or weekend excursions outside the city included hiking the New Jersey Palisades, exploring the old fortifications at West Point, ferrying to Flatbush, Long Island, and fishing at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Inside the city, members enjoyed afternoon or evening promenades along Broadway and the Bowling Green or explored the tea gardens and bath houses. Some may have ventured to either of the two “red light” districts located at the extreme margins of town: Topsail Town in the southernmost Dock Ward and the other in the easternmost Out Ward, where the Bowery was born. 4

New York’s John Street Theater was the single most popular public amusement in the city—with the exception of the House gallery itself. 5 In 1789 the theater’s resident Old American Company boasted a repertoire of seventy-four comedies, farces, comic operas, tragedies, and pantomimes by William Shakespeare, Joseph Addison, Richard Sheridan, and others. It was a type of entertainment that many congressmen were prevented from enjoying at home until after the widespread repeal of anti-theater laws beginning in Philadelphia in 1789. One New York paper accused the rival city of misplaced zeal for tempting congressmen by legalizing its theaters, since “few members of Congress have countenanced the Theater in this city, which is no small evidence of their steadiness and wisdom.” The writer was speaking of members of the departing Confederation Congress, but it is not known how many members of the First Congress deviated from that sober practice. The season offered performances three nights a week from April to December. 6

Members took stock of each other and the administration not only over daily dinner at their lodgings or taverns but also at the numerous dancing balls, presidential dinners, and weekly presidential levees around which the nascent Republican Court revolved. “It is as gay as any Court in Christendom,” thought visiting Baltimorean Otho Holland Williams. 7 By the second session, the Court’s reception circuit included Monday nights at Abigail Adams’s, Tuesdays at Lady Temple’s (the wife of the British consul), Wednesdays at Lucy Knox’s, and Thursdays at Sarah Jay’s; the week culminated in Martha Washington’s famous Friday evening levees. Some members felt themselves slaves to the ceremonial parade of receptions, social calls, and obligatory return visits; their letters express a sense of frustration, fatigue, and even scandal at the expense of time and money. But historians of the period are increasingly adept at assessing the influence peddled and brokered at these quasi-political venues. 8


1 LDC 1:v.

2 JCC 23:829.

3 Minutes of the Georgia Executive Council, 18 May 1789, State Records, G-Ar; Grout to Isaiah Thomas, 29 Dec. 1789, Thomas Papers, MWA.

4 Arthur Campbell to Archibald Stuart, [July] 1789, Draper Collection, WHi; Fitzsimons to Tench Coxe, 25 April 1789, Coxe Papers, PHi.

5 James Sullivan to Gerry, 27 Sept. 1789, Gerry Papers, MHi; Tucker to St. George Tucker, 28 Dec. 1787, LDC 24:600; DHFFE 1:613.

6 Hopkinson to Jefferson, 20 April 1785, PTJ 8:99; DHFFC 10:xi. For more on press access to House debates during the First Federal Congress, see DHFFC 10:xi–xl, and Charlene B. Bickford, “Throwing Open the Doors: The First Federal Congress and the Eighteenth Century Media,” in Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon, eds., Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress (Athens, Ohio, 1999), pp. 166–90.

7 GUS, 14 Oct. 1789;Richard R. John, Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), pp. 32–33; Peter Silvester to Peter Van Schaack, 9 June 1789, Van Schaack Collection, NNC. For background on the subject of newspapers for members, see DHFFC 8:676–80.

8 Nicholas to Brown, 12 Nov. 1789, Kentucky State Historical Society Register 41(1943): 3–4; Daniel George to Thatcher, 5 June 1789, Thatcher Papers, MSaE; Daniel Davis to Thatcher, 9 Oct. 1788, Thatcher Family Papers, MHi; William Lithgow, Jr., to Thatcher, 12 Feb. 1789, Thatcher Papers, MSaE; Thatcher to Robert Southgate, 1 July 1789, Scarborough Manuscripts, MeHi; Daniel Cody to Thatcher, 16 May 1789, Chamberlain Collection, MB.

9 Wingate to Mary Wingate Wiggins, 27 Feb. 1790, Wingate Papers, MH; Wadsworth to Catherine Wadsworth, 20 June 1789, Wadsworth Papers, CtHi.

10 For a discussion of Beckley’s recordkeeping habits, see DHFFC 3:vii–xv.

11 For more on the Pennsylvania delegation’s letters, see Kenneth R. Bowling, “The Biddle Sale of Rush Papers and Other Letters from Pennsylvania Members of the First Federal Congress to Their Constituents,” Manuscripts 24(Summer 1972):172–81.

12 Ames to George R. Minot, 23 June 1789, Ames 1:54–56.

13 For a fuller treatment, see Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., ed., Circular Letters of Congressmen to Their Constituents, 1789–1829, 3 vols. (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1978), 1:xv–xlix.

14 For more on this aspect of congressional history, see William C. diGiacomantonio, “A Congressional Wife at Home: The Case of Sarah Thatcher, 1787–1792,” in Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon, eds., Neither Separate nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s (Athens, Ohio, 2000), pp. 155–80.

15 George to Sarah Thatcher, 18, 22 Feb. 1789, Thatcher Family Papers, MHi.

16 Benjamin to Stephen Goodhue, 8 April 1789, Goodhue Family Papers, MSaE.

17 JCC 3:342; Madison’s “Notes on Debates,” PJM 5:371–72.

18 JCC 23:863, 24:157. In anticipation of “numerous letters and packets” being addressed to him “in consequence of his late command, and on matters foreign to his private concerns,” George Washington was granted franking privileges for life in April 1784 ( JCC 26:314).

19 DHFFC 13:965. For Bedlow’s petition, see DHFFC 8:239–40.

20 JCC 3:342.

21 Emery to Thatcher, 23 April 1789, Thatcher Papers, MHi; Sarah to John Jay, 13 May 1790, Jay Papers, NNC.

22 John Brown to Harry Innes, 28 Sept. 1789, Harry Innes Papers, DLC; White to Madison, 9 Aug. 1789, Madison Papers, DLC; Williamson to John G. Blount, 3 Aug. 1790, Blount Papers, Nc-Ar; Abigail Adams to Mary Cranch, 5 Jan. 1790, Abigail Adams Letters, MWA; Gerry to Hodgdon, 13 Jan. 1790, Mitten Autograph Collection, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis; Johnson to (unknown), 8 Jan. 1790, and Johnson toRobert Charles Johnson, 3 Jan. 1790, both in Johnson Papers, CtHi.

23 Philip to Catherine Schuyler, 24 Feb. 1791, Ford Autograph Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul; Whipple to Langdon, 12 Aug. 1789, Sturgis Family Papers, MH; Benjamin to Stephen Goodhue, 20 Aug. 1789, Goodhue Family Papers, MSaE; Madison to Wayne, 31 July 1789, Wayne Manuscripts, PHi.

24 “Look Out,” NYDA, 3 June 1789; [Philadelphia] Federal Gazette, 12 Jan. 1789; New York, pp. 84–85.

25 The most thorough description of members’ daily lives in New York is Kenneth R. Bowling’s “New York City, Capital of the United States, 1785–1790,” in Stephen Schecter and Wendell Tripp, eds., World of the Founders: New York Communities in the Federal Period (Albany, N.Y., 1990), pp. 1–23.

26 Frank Monaghan and Marvin Lowenthal, This Was New York: The Nation’s Capital in 1789 (Garden City, N.Y., 1943), p. 18; Ebenezer Hazard to John Langdon, 27 Dec. 1788, Langdon Papers, NhPoA; NYDA, 26 Mar. 1789; Stephen L. Schechter, ed., The Reluctant Pillar: New York and the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (Troy, N.Y., 1985), p. 217.

27 DHFFC 9:207.

28 Monaghan and Lowenthal, This Was New York, pp. 37, 127.

29 For a fuller treatment of the members’ (and visitors’) experiences of Federal Hall, see DHFFC 12:xi–xviii, and “Preparing Federal Hall” DHFFC 15:26–31. For the official record of Congress’s use of New York’s renovated City Hall, see DHFFC 8:685–91.

30 Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution (New York, 1987), pp. 592, 597–98; [Massachusetts] Salem Mercury, 17 March 1789; NYDA, 10 July 1789; New York, pp. 171–72.

31 Williams to Philip Thomas, 7 June 1789, Williams Papers, MdHi.

32 Fine analyses of this important historiographic theme are Catherine Allgor’s Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville, Va., 2000) and, for the period of the First Federal Congress and earlier, various unpublished papers presented by Fredrika J. Teute and David S. Shields, including “The Confederation Court,” presented at the North American Society for Court Studies Conference, Boston, September 2000, and “The Republican Court and the Historiography of a Women’s Domain in the Public Sphere,” presented at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic annual meeting, Boston, July 1994.