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Congress meets in NYC in 1789

Federal Hall in New York City
Federal Hall in New York City

Two-hundred and twenty-five years ago, on March 4, 1789, the first session of the U.S. Congress was held at Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street in New York City, as the United States Constitution went into effect.

Only nine senators and 13 representatives of the 22 senators and 59 representatives called to represent the 11 states that had ratified the Constitution were present to start negotiations on amendments to the document.

Defects in the Articles of Confederation had become apparent in 1786, such as the inability of Congress to levy taxes and the lack of central authority over foreign and domestic commerce. This led Congress to endorse a plan to draft a new constitution for the new nation.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787, the new U.S. Constitution, which created a strong federal government with an elaborate system of checks and balances, was signed by 38 of 41 delegates to the convention.

Article VII stipulated that the document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 states. The Constitution was sent to the state legislatures and, beginning on December 7, five states -- Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut -- ratified it in quick succession.

But some other states, especially Massachusetts, opposed the document because it failed to reserve powers not delegated by the Constitution to the states, and it lacked legal protection for basic political rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, and the press, and the right to bear arms.

A compromise was reached in February 1788, when Massachusetts and other states agreed to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would be adopted immediately. The Constitution was narrowly ratified in Massachusetts, followed by Maryland and South Carolina.

New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the document, on June 21, 1788, making it binding. Thus, government under the U.S. Constitution was scheduled to start on March 4, 1789, during the first administration of President George Washington.

United States House of Representatives elections in New York were also held on March 3 and 4, 1789, to elect six U.S. Representatives to represent the State of New York in the United States Congress.

In the 16 months that Congress met in New York, it was perhaps the most important session in American history. It had to pass all the laws needed to implement the new system, solve the political questions left by the Constitutional Convention, establish the rules and procedures of the House and Senate, and determine the roles of the Speaker of the House and President of the Senate.

The first law passed set oaths of office not only for Congress but for state legislators, federal executive officers, and state and federal judges. Other early legislation raised revenues by setting duties on imported goods.

It also established the Departments of State, War, and Treasury, created a federal judiciary; set compensation for government officials, and provided for lighthouses. And it authorized expenses for negotiating with Indian tribes, and reenacted the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The first Congress adjourned in Philadelphia on September 29, 1789.

One of the last laws Congress passed in New York created Washington, D.C., as a federal district and the new national capital. Since that city would be built from scratch, the legislators had to find somewhere else to meet in the meantime.

Alexander Hamilton favored that they remain in New York, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson successfully persuaded Congress to move the capital to Congress Hall in Philadelphia.

The greatest achievement of the first Congress came on September 25, 1789, after several months of debate, when it adopted the Bill of Rights -- 12 amendments to the Constitution -- and sent them to the states for ratification. This led to the ratification of the Constitution by the last of the original 13 colonies, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

The original Federal Hall in New York City, which was at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets, no longer stands. In its place is the old Custom House, now called Federal Hall National Memorial. It is free and open to the public.

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