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Farewell to New York

August 12, 1790

Image of Federal Hall

When Congress convened a special ceremonial session at Federal Hall in New York City on September 6, 2002, to honor the victims and heroes of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, participants were reminded that 212 years had passed since Congress last met in that city.

New York had hosted the Congress that operated under the Articles of Confederation from 1785 to 1789. When the new federal government was launched with the 1788 ratification of the U.S. Constitution, New York City continued as the nation's temporary capital. Hoping to convince the new Congress to make their city the permanent seat of government, local business interests contributed funding for a major expansion of the city hall.

When Congress convened for the first time on March 4, 1789, the old building had been converted into a splendid capitol, optimistically renamed Federal Hall. The Senate Chamber occupied a richly carpeted 40-by-30-foot-long room on the building's second floor. The chamber's most striking features were its high arched ceiling, tall windows curtained in crimson damask, fireplace mantels in handsomely polished marble, and a presiding officer's chair elevated three feet from the floor and placed under a crimson canopy. Noticeably absent from the lavishly ornate chamber was a spectators' gallery—a sign that Senate deliberations were to be closed to the public.

The precedent-setting first and second sessions of the First Congress proved highly productive. The second session, which concluded on August 12, 1790, enacted legislation that put the nation on a firm financial foundation, authorized the first census of population, established a government for the western territories south of the Ohio River, and—in the Residence Act of 1790—provided a location for the first permanent seat of government. Under that plan, the government would abandon New York in favor of Philadelphia, which would serve as the temporary capital city for 10 years. In 1800 the government would again move, this time to its permanent location in Washington, D.C.

As its final action on August 12, the Senate adopted a resolution thanking New York for its generous hospitality. Soon after Congress departed, Federal Hall again became the local city hall, until it was demolished in 1812. In 1842 the Federal Hall in which the 2002 ceremonial session took place was erected on part of the original site and is now designated a National Memorial.