Happy 228th Anniversary: Government begins under our Constitution

NCC Staff

It was 228 years ago today that the federal government started to operate under the terms of the U.S. Constitution, as the Confederation Congress ceded power. However, there was a major problem with the first session of the new Congress: not enough members showed up.


The significance of March 4 predates the Constitution. The Confederation Congress, which operated under the Articles of Confederation (our first Constitution) picked March 4, 1789, as the day it handed off power to the new constitutional government.

So March 4th was the Constitution’s first official day in business. The first modern Congress convened in New York City at Federal Hall. It was about one month before George Washington was elected at the first president under the new Constitution.

Of its 81 members, only 22 showed up for the first session. James Madison did introduce the first draft Bill of Rights for consideration by its members. And House selected Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania as its Speaker.

But it would take another month for enough members to arrive in New York to start the 1st Congress and form a quorum to vote. By September 1798, Congress had agreed on a version of the Bill of Rights to present to the states for ratification. That happened two years later.

Congress moved its first day of business after that to December 1, in accordance with Article I, Section 4, of the Constitution, which says that “the Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.”

The 3rd Congress started meeting on December 1, but March 4 was reserved for a special role in every Congress. It was picked as the last day of its two-year session. (The Constitution didn’t mandate an ending date for a Congress.)

Logistically, the arrangement created problems. After a November election, defeated Congress members would still need to serve in session from December 1 to March 4 of the following year, in a very extended “lame duck” session.

The same lame-duck Congress also had responsibilities under the Constitution for conducting any business related to the election of the president and vice president, if needed.

Likewise, a newly elected president was inaugurated on March 4 as a new Congress was seated. The combination of a lame-duck president and Congress could have serious implications. For example, after Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, lame-duck President James Buchanan and a divided Congress saw seven southern states leave the Union until Lincoln took over on March 4, 1861.

Lame-duck House sessions also elected Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams as president in two races that were sent to the House in 1800 and 1824.

Another point of contention was the exact time on March 4 that a congressional session ended.

A spat in 1851 started by a senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, led to a Senate resolution marking 11:59 a.m. on March 4 as the end of a Congress and 12 p.m. as the start of a new Congress. (The House, as a habit, didn’t meet on March 4 at the time.)

Before then, some people considered the stroke of Midnight on March 3 as the end of Congress’s two-year term.

The Senate’s website describes a regular scene where the Senate doorkeeper would move the minute hand on the chamber’s official clock as members debated about time.

The drama over March 4 every year ended when the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933. Part of the amendment eliminated an extended lame-duck Congress. The new amendment set January 3 as the starting day of a new Congress and January 20 as inauguration day for the president. The previous congressional and presidential terms ended just before the new terms began.

But not to be forgotten are some other March 4 events, such as President Lincoln’s two inaugural addresses and President Franklin Roosevelt’s address in 1933. One infamous inaugural was on March 4, 1829, when President Andrew Jackson’s supporters stormed the White House and had to be lured away with the promise of free liquor.