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Congress Returns To Its Roots

The last time Congress met in New York City it rejected royal titles, established the federal judiciary, approved the Bill of Rights and infused the new government with the breath of life.

Members of the Senate and House of Representatives also learned they enjoyed wrangling but could, when pressed, craft a compromise.

Returning this week for the first time in 202 years, Congress convenes at Federal Hall in Manhattan just five days before the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The special meeting Friday represents a show of support for the city and a demonstration of resolve in the war against terrorism.

When Congress last convened in New York, the city was home to some 29,000 people, clustered in 4,200 houses on the southern tip of Manhattan Island.

As Congress met in New York's Federal Hall to witness the inauguration of George Washington as the first president, the new government was struggling to define itself.

The old Confederation Congress had ceased to exist on March 3, 1789. The Congress established by the Constitution came into being the next day. But the House and Senate struggled in frustration for more than a month to gain the quorum needed to do business.

Members slowly straggled in. On April 7, the Congress got to work.

The Senate appointed its first committees, the most important of them charged to "bring in a bill for organizing the Judiciary of the United States."

As it moved from committees to the floor of the Senate and House, the bill tested the ability of both chambers to conduct serious business. And when President Washington signed the Judiciary Act into law on Sept. 24, it was with a sense that the system was working.

By the end of its time in New York, Congress had dealt with appropriations, pensions for Revolutionary War veterans, military matters, tariffs on imported goods and the necessary appropriations. And it created the State, War and Treasury departments.

Most importantly for the future, it debated and enacted a Bill of Rights, amending the Constitution to protect such basic liberties as freedom of speech, religion and the press.

While Congress was grateful for the hospitality New York offered, some members complained of "filthy streets," "polluted air" and "the stench."

"While I am shut up here in this pigsty, smelling the perfumes from wharves and the rakings of gutters, I long for the air and company of Springfield," Rep. Fisher Ames said in a letter home to Massachusetts.

Although congressional sessions were secret, Congress had a witness in Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who kept a detailed journal that surpassed any official record.

Maclay was tall, over 6 feet 3 inches, and described by his contemporaries as a man of integrity, insight and tenaciously held opinions. He was an outspoken democrat and a strongly determined anti-royalist. He also wanted the new government to function efficiently.

"This a fine day and all the world are run a-gadding," Maclay remarked on Saturday, May 23, scarcely six weeks after the session had begun. "I am much distressed with the delays of Congress, the reputation of our administration will be ruined."

Maclay was even more distressed by the airs being assumed by some members of the Senate, especially its presiding officer, Vice President John Adams, whose "supreme delight seems to be in etiquette."

The business of majestic titles absorbed much time in the first days of the session. Adams fussed about how the president should be received, how he should act, how he should be addressed.

Maclay worried that some members were out to betray the revolution, establish a new monarchy in America and "form niches for themselves in the temple of royalty."

At one point, a committee pondered calling Washington "His Highness, the President of the United States of America and the Protector of the Rights of the Same."

In the end it was decided that the simple "Mr. President" would suffice.

As the summer wore on, Maclay began to despair of making progress, noting that many members were lawyers and "wrangling is their business."

"I wish we were out of this base, bad place," he said.

By the next summer, Congress was calculating a permanent departure from New York, deciding to move to Philadelphia for a decade while a new capital city was built on the banks of the Potomac River.

The final session in New York City was held on Aug. 12, 1790. A resolution was passed thanking New Yorkers for the "elegant and convenient accommodations" Congress had enjoyed.