5/29/08 - the upper house

In today's encore excerpt - why we call the Senate the upper house and the House of Representatives the lower house, a designation made at the start of the first Congress, March 4, 1789:

"So, there was fear and expectation, excitement and hope as the elected members of Congress filed into Federal Hall, a building at the corner of Wall and Nassau, streets which served as New York's City Hall. Major Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, [later to gain fame as the architect of the city plan for Washington, DC], a young French architect and engineer who had fought in the revolution as a volunteer, had been hired to convert the building into a handsome and appropriate site for the nation's new government. ... Rather strikingly, the building marked the beginning of the country's commitment to the uniquely Federal style of architecture.

"As congressmen entered the building they found a three-story central vestibule with a marble floor and a splendidly decorated skylight under a small cupola. The House chamber was located off this vestibule. ... Senators found their chamber on the second floor via two stairways, one of which was reserved for congressmen, and was almost immediately referred to as the upper house. 'It is very true,' wrote Peter Muhlenberg to Benjamin Rush, 'that the appellation of Lower House will perfectly apply at present to the House of Representatives, but in this case, the upper and lower House derive their different rank from the whim and pleasure of the Architect.'

"... Some sixty-five representatives were expected on that first day but only thirteen showed up. ... And many of the arriving members found New York 'a dirty city,' with pigs roaming loose to eat garbage thrown in the streets. The stench, especially for those from country areas, was 'so apparent', wrote Representative Elias Boudinot of New Jersey to his wife, 'as to effect our smelling Faculties greatly.'

"... Not until April 1, 1789, with the arrival of Thomas Scott from western Pennsylvania, did the House finally have a quorum of thirty. It was April Fool's Day, noted Boudinot."


Robert V. Remini


The House: The History of the House of Representatives


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2006 Robert V. Remini


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