Congress Hall, part 1

Congress Hall

(Photo credit: Congress Hall, Independence NHP, courtesy Mark Stephenson, Flickr Creative Commons)

Generally speaking, there are two types of visitor who make their way to Congress Hall, in Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park. There are those who have just finished their tour of Independence Hall next door and are looking for something else to do while in historic Independence Square. And there are those who couldn’t get tickets for the Independence Hall tour (which are free but must be obtained in advance) and are looking for anything they can go in and see without a ticket while they’re in the square.

This tends to make Congress Hall feel like something of an afterthought in the minds of most visitors. Folks who join the line for the tour of the building seem to be just a little less excited than those waiting to get into Independence Hall. Some of those who couldn’t get into the big attraction are sullenly “settling” for a Congress Hall tour. If it’s hot, some will be looking for an air-conditioned space to take a break from the summer heat. If it looks like it’s going to rain … well, you get the idea. This is a shame, because the site is actually well worth visiting. It might not always seem that way to visitors because it stands (figuratively) in the shadow of “the most historic building in America.” But some pretty important stuff went down within these walls. If Congress Hall stood at any other location in the United States, it would probably be the main attraction. Only in Philly does it have to play second fiddle.

The building was, yes, once the actual home of the United States Congress. It was in fact that body’s second home, as it had spent the first year and a half of its existence under the newly adopted Constitution in Federal Hall in New York. But in 1790, at the end of the second session of the First Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate packed up, along with the rest of the federal government, and moved to Philly. As for Congress’s first home, that didn’t last much longer. The good people of New York saw fit to tear down that historic structure in 1812, so that makes Congress Hall the oldest building still standing that once held the legislative branches of the U.S. government.

For the whole decade of the 1790s Congress Hall was at the heart of the federal government while it sat in Philadelphia. All three branches of government, as set up under the Constitution, were in close proximity to each other. A block north, at the corner of 6th and Market St., was the President’s House, where Presidents George Washington and John Adams conducted their business as the nation’s chief executives. At the other end of the State House Yard (which later became known as Independence Hall), the Supreme Court of the United States sat as the ultimate law-making body in the land. Congress Hall itself became, in effect, the nation’s debating chamber. This was where significant events in history happened. Occasionally they still do: In December 2008 President-elect Obama used the building for a meeting with the National Governors Association.

Visitors enter the building through an innocuous side door, but they come straight into a large, high-ceilinged room that looks like what it is: a legislative chamber. This was where the House of Representatives sat. Mahogany tables and black-leather chairs are arranged in a wide arc, facing a raised platform on which stands the desk that would have been used by the Speaker of the House. In front of the Speaker’s platform on floor level are desks for the Clerk of the House and the Sergeant at Arms. The place is set up to look the way it did in 1800, at the end of Philly’s time as capital. The same is true of the Senate chamber upstairs—literally, the “upper house.” 

The building was completed only about a year before Congress moved in. It was originally supposed to function as the new courthouse for the County of Philadelphia. But when Philly had the chance to get the national capital back from New York, the city fathers bent over backwards to make the city as attractive as possible to the federal government. The larger courtroom space downstairs was quickly made ready for the House of Representatives, while the second floor was prepared for the Senate and for committee rooms. The city even paid to extend the building by 50 feet to the south to accommodate the increased size of Congress, after the 1790 Census revealed there were a million more people living in the United States than previously thought. More people meant more representatives. In the 10 years the capital was in Philadelphia the House of Representatives grew from 65 to 105 members.

Tour groups are allowed to sit on the reproduction chairs in the House of Representatives when they come in to be shown around. With the exception of the speaker’s chair, all the original furnishings downstairs are long gone. Still, that’s a plus for weary visitors in one sense. If the seats were real no-one would be allowed to sit on them. (Some of the Senate seats upstairs are believed to be original, so the whole chamber is roped off.) Anyway, downstairs visitors get to sit at the same spot where some of the most important figures of early American history sat, and that’s pretty cool.

Between the House of Representatives and the Senate, 367 men served in Congress while it sat in Philadelphia. More than half of these men had served in the Revolutionary War. Ten had signed the Declaration of Independence, including Richard Henry Lee and Robert Morris. Nineteen had signed the Constitution. Four future presidents sat here, including James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and William Henry Harrison. Vice president John Adams served upstairs as “president of the Senate,” as did Thomas Jefferson when he took over that job. Aaron Burr served here, as did John Marshall.

If you put large numbers of Big Important People together under one roof, likely as not they’re going to do Big Important Things. And so it proved. Consider that Philadelphia was the U.S. capital for 10 of the country’s first 12 years under the Constitution. That Constitution put in place a theoretical framework for an entirely new system of government—a Republic that covered a third of a continent—but gave precious little detail about how that framework should actually be put into practice. Congress Hall was the test lab where most of that putting-theory-into-practice actually happened. It was where the founders really started to figure it all out.

I’m going to save that for a follow-up post on Congress Hall, coming soon.

Sources:

Congress Hall: Capitol of the United States, 1790-1800 (1990). National Park Service Handbook, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia.

Congress Hall. Historic Structures Report. National Park Service.

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