225 years worth of records
“Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.”
So the saying goes, attributed — wrongly — to Otto von Bismarck1 but surely resonating with 21st century Americans.
American approval of and confidence in our lawmakers — the Congress of the United States — is at record lows these days.2
But it was not always so.
At least we can hope that public confidence was at least a little higher back then, back when things all started, 225 years ago today.
April 1, 1789, was opening day for the first full session of the United States House of Representatives, the lower house of the U.S. Congress, meeting in New York City.3 Oh, it wasn’t the first day it had been scheduled to meet. No, that would have been March 4th. Some representatives from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina were there. “But a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”4
They tried again on March 5th. More representatives attended, from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. “But a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”5
They tried again on the 6th. And 7th. And 9th. 10th. 11th. 12th. 13th. On the 14th, three more Virginians arrived. “But a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”6
The representatives continued to straggle in through March. One from Virginia on the 17th, another on the 18th. A New Jerseyan and a Marylander on the 23rd. Another Virginian on the 25th. “But a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”7
On the 30th, another Virginian and another Marylander arrived. “But a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”8 On the 31st, “…a quorum of the whole number not being present, the House adjourned until to-morrow morning eleven o’clock.”9
Finally, on the first of April, Representatives James Schureman from New Jersey and Thomas Scott from Pennsylvania arrived, took their seats, and “a quorum, consisting of a major of the whole number,” was finally present.10
And so began 225 years of Congressional lawmaking and — for us as genealogists — 225 years of records.
And there is no better avenue to begin investigating those records than the Library of Congress’ marvelous site, part of its American Memory project, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.”
The entry page to the Century of Lawmaking site explains:
Beginning with the Continental Congress in 1774, America’s national legislative bodies have kept records of their proceedings. The records of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress make up a rich documentary history of the construction of the nation and the development of the federal government and its role in the national life. These documents record American history in the words of those who built our government.
Books on the law formed a major part of the holdings of the Library of Congress from its beginning. In 1832, Congress established the Law Library of Congress as a separate department of the Library. It houses one of the most complete collections of U.S. Congressional documents in their original format. In order to make these records more easily accessible to students, scholars, and interested citizens, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation brings together online the records and acts of Congress from the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention through the 43rd Congress, including the first three volumes of the Congressional Record, 1873-75.
Major categories of records on the site are:
Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention:
• Journals of the Continental Congress
• Letters of Delegates to Congress
• Elliot’s Debates
• Farrand’s Records
Statutes and Documents
• Bills and Resolutions
• Statutes at Large
• American State Papers
• U.S. Serial Set
Journals of Congress
• House Journal
• Senate Journal
• Senate Executive Journal
• Maclay’s Journal
Debates of Congress
• Annals of Congress
• Register of Debates
• Congressional Globe
• Congressional Record
Beyond those major record sets, there are always special presentations. Right now, the site links to special presentations on:
The Making of the U.S. Constitution
Timeline: American History as Seen in Congressional Documents, 1774-1873
The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States
Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784 to 1894 (including maps_
The Louisiana Purchase: Legislative Timeline – 1802 to 1807
Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, 1861-1865
The Impeachment Trial of President Andrew Johnson, 1868
Presidential Elections and the Electoral College, 1877
It’s a terrific resource for anybody interested in genealogy, history and law. Go poke around in its collections. There’s something there for everyone.
- See Fred R. Shapiro, “On Language: Quote . . . Misquote,” The New York Times, 21 July 2008 (http://www.nytimes.com/ : accessed 31 Mar 2014). ↩
- See e.g. Lydia Saad and Andrew Dugan, “Congress’ Low Job Approval Persists,” Gallup Politics, posted 10 Mar 2014 (http://www.gallup.com/poll/ : accessed 31 Mar 2014). ↩
- Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, volume I (Washington, D.C. : Gales & Seaton, 1826), 6; digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html : accessed 31 Mar 2014). ↩
- Ibid., at 3. ↩
- Ibid., at 4. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., at 5. ↩
- Ibid., at 6. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩