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Why March 4 used to be important in the United States

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Federal Hall, The Seat of Congress.  Peter Lacour, artist ; A. Doolittle, engraver //

This year my March 4 was a rather uneventful day.  That may have been the case for most of you, but this wasn’t always so for American government.  Until the ratification of the 20th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States in 1933, each congress began on March 4 of the year following the year in which elections were held.  This was also the date for the beginning of a presidential term.  The Confederation Congress chose this date; although as with much of the legislation passed by that body the process was contentious due to conflicts between the states.

On September 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress received the text of the proposed constitution from the federal convention and immediately forwarded it to the states for consideration.  During the next nine months the proposed constitution would be debated by conventions in the states until June 1788, when the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the document.  At that point the constitution was ratified, although it was not yet operative; the Confederation Congress would be responsible for determining when that would occur. On July 2 the Congress was notified of New Hampshire’s action; it then empaneled a committee to “…report an act to Congress for putting the said constitution into operation in pursuance of the resolutions of the late federal Convention.”

On July 14  Congress took up the report of the committee.  The committee suggested that the first Wednesday of December be chosen for the date that the states, which had ratified the constitution, would select presidential electors; Delegate Pierpont Edwards of Connecticut introduced a motion to change the report to provide that electors would be selected over a number of days in December, depending upon the state.  Edwards’ motion failed, but the committee’s report was not immediately adopted.

On July 28 the Confederation Congress again addressed the unresolved matter and approved the following language:

That the first Wednesday in January next be the day for appointing electors in the several States which have or shall before the said day have ratified the said constitution; that the first Wednesday in feby (note:  February) next be the day for the electors to assemble in their respective states and vote for a president and that the first Wednesday in march next be the time and  [left blank in the text]  the place for commencing proceedings under the constitution.

(Journal of the Continental Congress, volume 34, page 359.)

An amendment was proposed to designate Philadelphia as the place where the government would meet, this proposal was not approved and the motion was not adopted.

The issue of the location of where the government would meet remained unresolved through August 1788.   Suggested locations included: New York City; Baltimore; Wilmington, Delaware; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Philadelphia. Although the date for the selection of the electors, the date on which they would vote and the date for the commencement of operations of the new government were generally agreed to, the location of that new government remained in dispute.  The desire to place the seat of government in a location near the geographic center of the country worked against selecting New York; however, the recognition that New York would not be designated the permanent capital was a factor in its favor.  Also since the Confederation Congress already met in New York there would be no need to immediately relocate the offices and archives of the government.

The location of the government was finally resolved in September by a resolution of Delegate Dyre Kearney of Delaware which specified only that the government would assemble

…the first Wednesday in March next be the time and the present seat of Congress the place for commencing proceedings under the said constitution.

(Journal of the Continental Congress, volume 34, page 523.)

The resolution was unanimously adopted.

The Congress continued to meet into the fall and conducted business in reviewing reports about contracts and foreign affairs, but by the end of 1788 its meetings were so sparsely attended that no business could be conducted.  The body adjourned sine die on March 4, 1789.  As a result of the Compromise of 1790 (Hamilton‘s ” The Room Where it Happens“), Philadelphia would serve as the interim capital until 1800 when the seat of government was relocated to the District of Columbia near the falls of the Potomac river.




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