Mythbusting: Who Were the First Congressmen?

Because I was recently reminded of the popular idea amongst those favouring Congressional term limits and the ideal citizen legislator that the original intent was for yeoman farmers to serve a single term and return to his land, I decided to do a little bit of research.

Looking at the members of the House of Representatives in the First Congress (1789-91), I compiled information about how many terms they served, what their occupations were outside of politics, and what political offices they held prior and subsequent to their service in the House. The results were quite surprising.

The House of Representatives of the First Congress of the United States was comprised of 66 members. There were 65 seats, but one member, Theodorick Bland of Virginia, died in office and was replaced by William Giles. In calculating the average number of terms, I have used Giles. The average number of terms served in the House was 2.72.

However, of the 66, only two (George Gale of MD and Giles of VA) held no previous political office, though Gale was a member of his state’s convention to ratify the US Constitution. Of the rest, 48 had previously served in their state’s legislature and 29 had served in the Continental Congress. Only 13 ended their public service with their stint in the House of Representatives and only three of these were single term Congressmen. Seventeen served in the US Senate, including 4 of the 18 who only served one term in the House. Balancing out the 18 single-termers are 18 who served four or more terms.

Twelve held executive branch appointments after leaving Congress, including Thomas Tucker who served as Treasurer of the United States for 27 years,  John Steele, who was Comptroller of the US Treasury and Elias Boudinot who became director of the US Mint.

Others were elected to executive office in their home states, including seven governors and two lieutenant governors. Thirteen served as judges after leaving Congress, six on the supreme courts of their states and four as federal judges.

So how many were farmers? Of the 11 with agricultural interests, eight owned plantations. Only three could be referred to as lesser farmers. Of those three, only one, William Floyd of NY, was just a farmer. George Mathews of GA was also a merchant and Joshua Seney of MD was also a lawyer.

A lawyer? Surely there weren’t lawyers in Congress back in this golden era! Well, only 29 of them in the first House of Representatives. That’s 44% of the membership. Yes, almost half. The next closest occupation represented amongst the Representatives are the thirteen with mercantile interests. Five were clergymen and five were teachers (this includes William Baldwin of GA, who had been both).

There seems to be little evidence from the First Congress that members were expected to be yeoman farmers who spent a few weeks in Washington during a single two-year term and then went back to the land. For the most part they were lawyers and rich merchants who spent a significant part of their lives engaged in the business of government.

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2 Responses to “Mythbusting: Who Were the First Congressmen?”

  1. Michael Says:

    I think term limits are overrated. If you think someone’s been in too long, vote for the other candidate. In South Dakota they have legislative term limits, and it results in a truncated institutional memory and the same mistakes being made over again about every 12 years, the amount of time that one individual could serve two terms each as representative and senator before having to leave, along with his/her memories, insights, and experiences.

  2. Michael Says:

    Correction – the cycle would be 16 years, as one person could serve four two-year terms in each house before being booted out, and there’s no limit on non-consecutive terms, but I still stand by my general comment/observation.


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