Today’s post comes from Dan Ruprecht, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.
When Congress opened its doors under the new Constitution for the first time on March 4, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City there were only eight senators present out of 22 expected. The senators from the host state of New York were not among them. The day before, the New York state legislature had adjourned without electing any senators.
In February and March, the New York State Senate, controlled by the Federalists, and the State Assembly, controlled by the Anti-Federalists, fought bitterly over their preferred candidates for the U.S. Senate. Since both parties expected to win a majority in each house in New York’s upcoming elections in April, they were content to allow its Senate seats to remain vacant.
Therefore, as the First Congress met in New York City, New York itself was not represented in the Senate. The state legislature remained in a deadlock for five months. It was not until July 16, 1789, that Federalists Rufus King and Philip J. Schuyler were chosen as New York’s senators.
Ten days later, on July 26, 1789, they arrived at Federal Hall to present their credentials—arriving late to their state’s own party. Rufus King’s credentials, shown here, are signed by New York Governor George Clinton and serve as evidence of his election by the state legislature.
The issue of senatorial deadlocks did not end with the First Congress. They are a consequence of the method of selection agreed upon by the Founders. Article I, Section 3, of the Constitution states, “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years.”
Since most state legislatures are bicameral, deadlocks frequently arose when the two houses were controlled by different political parties and could not agree on a candidate. Instead of compromising in these instances, state legislatures would simply not elect any senator for months, or even years.
Between 1891 and 1905 alone, 45 deadlocks occurred in 20 different states—in 14 of those cases no Senate election was held for an entire legislative session. For instance, the state of Delaware had elected only one senator to the 56th Congress (1899–1901), and no senators at all for the entire 57th Congress (1901–1903).
By the late 19-century, senatorial deadlocks had become relatively common. It was one of several factors that contributed to a surge of support for a constitutional amendment to allow citizens to directly elect senators.
In this 1897 petition suggesting a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators, the Utah State Legislature and Governor included a list of reasons why the amendment was necessary.
The first stated problem: deadlocks.
The issue of deadlocks, along with frequent allegations of corrupt senatorial elections and a push for more democratic participation in government, eventually led to the ratification of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913.
This amendment abolished the system of senatorial election by state legislatures and replaced it with direct popular election by citizens. One hundred and twenty-four years after the first deadlock in New York, a new method for selecting senators ensured an end to empty seats in the Senate.