The Birth of a Nation's Representative Tradition
The crux of the disputes that led to the American Revolution was over representation. The colonies had no elected representatives in Parliament, and the colonists believed that it was a breach of their rights as Englishmen to have laws passed that applied to them without their participation. “No taxation without representation” was the cry, and the right to freely elect representatives the demand.
The formation of a representative body to act for the colonies was job one when the need arose to organize resistence to British measures. The First Continental Congress met briefly in 1774, and the delegates organized an economic boycott of Britain in protest and petitioned the King for redress of grievances. These actions failed to change British policy. The Second Continental Congress, its successor, was gaveled into session on May 10, 1775, less than a month after the battles at Lexington and Concord started the war. Its members included such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and its long-time president, John Hancock. It determined policy, raised funds, ran the war, declared independence, and guided the new nation to liberty and fulfillment of its own destiny. In 1781, the Articles of Confederation were enacted, and the Continental Congress assumed its third aspect as the Convention Congress.
In 1787, issue of elected representation was so fundamental to the Constitutional Convention that the United States Constitution dealt with it in Article One. That Article established the legislative branch of the United States government, which it continued to call Congress, and described the powers of the House of Representatives and the Senate. It also set forth the manner of election and qualifications of members of each house. In addition, it outlined legislative procedure and enumerated the powers vested in the legislative branch. In September 1788, just three months after the U.S. Constitution was ratified, the Continental Congress, as its last major work, ordered the organization of the new government, including the Senate and House of Representatives. Within a few months, the states held elections to choose the 26 senators and 65 representatives. On March 2, 1789, upon adjournment of its final session, the Continental Congress passed into history.
Now the United States Congress took over the nation’s legislative responsibilities. The First United States Congress officially convened on March 4, 1789, though it was not until April 1 that the House of Representatives held a session with its first quorum. Its initial order of business was the election of a Speaker, selecting Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg, a Representative from Pennsylvania. The next order of business was the election of the Clerk, and that post went to Virginian John Beckley. The Senate achieved its first quorum five days later. The First Congress served until March 3, 1791, during the first two years of George Washington's presidency, initially at Federal Hall in New York City and later at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Considering the centrality of the question of representation, the right to serve as a representative had to be properly documented. Members of the Continental Congress received credentials certifying that they had been duly elected to Congress and had the right to serve, and sometimes they were given written instructions as well. The 1774-80 credentials were most often in the form of resolutions passed by state assemblies and the resolutions are attested, usually by the clerk of the state council/assembly, to be true copies extracted from the journal proceedings or minutes of the assemblies. These copies were presented by the member to the Clerk of Congress, Charles Thomson, who entered their text in journals. Those resolutions that survive now repose in The Continental Congress Papers in the National Archives.
Starting with the Confederation Congress in 1781 and lasting until the demise of the Continental Congress, some form of the true copy arrangement was retained in certain states (such as Maryland, where credentials to Congress are found signed by officials of its legislature). However, examination of the original documents in the National Archives indicates that other states now proceeded differently. They had original credentials prepared with their state seals and sent these documents to their governor’s office for execution. In some places, they might be signed either by the state governor or a clerk in the governor’s absence (South Carolina is an example of this). In still other states, they appear to have been signed principally if not solely by the governors themselves (Pennsylvania and Massachusetts had this practice. Some of their credentials in the National Archives were signed by Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock in their capacity as governors). Upon taking their seats, these credentials, however prepared and signed, were presented by members of Congress to Thomson. They are also in the National Archives. Did any of the delegates hold onto their original credentials rather than leave them with Thomson??The National Archives has no knowledge of any other holdings of such documents, and indeed very few delegates seem to have done so, as we can discover just three. Interestingly, the documents handed over to Thomson often take the form of appointments to a state position, but are actually credentials to Congress, as their presentation to Thomson and subsequent retention in the National Archives papers proves.
In March 1789, the members of the First Congress presented their credentials to the Clerks of the House and Senate, respectively. Those for the Senate were retained for record purposes and survive in its archives. However, in the House, Beckley did not feel that the papers themselves had significance and destroyed the House credentials after receipt and entry. The earliest credentials on file for House members date from 1805, a full 16 years after the First Congress convened.
On November 20, 1788, the Massachusetts legislature approved a bill specifying the manner for electing its allotment of eight Representatives to the U.S. Congress. This legislation was forwarded to Governor John Hancock, and he approved it. The election soon followed and eight men were selected to represent the Commonwealth in the first House of Representatives. Until 1820, what is now the State of Maine belonged to Massachusetts and was called the District of Maine. It was allotted one of the eight representatives. George Thacher won the election in that district and became one of the first Representatives. In January 1789, he received his credential signed by Governor Hancock, who thus continued his past pratice of signing such credentials, carried over from the Confederation Congress years.
Document Signed, Boston, January 6, 1789, reciting that the district election returns had been examined “respecting the choice of a representative to represent the people thereof in the Congress of the United States,” and continuing “I hereby certify the said Hon. George Thacher, Esq. to be a representative of this Commonwealth to represent the people thereof in the Congress of the United States.”?Thacher would have presented this very document to Beckley in March, when the first Congress under the U.S. Constitution met. However, he apparently asked for the original back to retain as a keepsake, rather than leaving it with Beckley, as it escaped the destructive fate of the others. A noted historian of the First Federal Congress Project states to us that his organization has never, until now, seen or heard of any surviving credential for the House from the First Congress (or indeed the first numbers of Congresses) in any institution or collection, and assumed there were none. Nor did our search of records back to 1968 turn up any. This, then, is apparently the sole surviving credential for the first House of Representatives.
The Raab Collection would like to express its gratitude to the National Archives’ Continental Congress Papers, and the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University, for their invaluable assistance in research, expert direction to primary resources, and generous willingness to share their experience and information.