Absenteeism in Congress

Empty desksOn November 15, 1781, John Hanson, the President of Congress, wrote a letter to six state governors complaining that none of their delegates had shown up in Congress.  The most important powers vested in Congress by the Confederation,” wrote Hanson, “lie dormant at this time by reason of the impunctuality of the Delegates of six States in point of attendance . . . Permit me, Sir, . . . to hope that your Excellency's influence will be exerted to prevail upon your State to send forward and keep up a full Representation in future.”

Later presidents would ring the changes on Hanson’s theme, over and over, during the eight years of the Confederation’s life.  No matter where Congress sat, not enough delegates showed up.  In 1787, Congress failed to muster a quorum until two months into its term, and then had to shut down for six weeks in spring due to insufficient attendance.

Most embarrassing of all, in early 1784, Congress had difficulty assembling nine states to ratify the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War.  The Treaty arrived in Congress on November 22, 1783.  It was entirely uncontroversial, being very favorable to the United States. 

But, Article IX of the Articles of Confederation provided that “The United States, in Congress assembled, shall never . . . enter into any treaties or alliances . . . unless nine states assent to the same.”   Two delegates (the minimum to cast a valid vote) from each of nine states didn’t attend Congress until January 14, 1784.  The delay caused Congress to miss a six-month deadline for ratification, but Britain chose not to protest.

It isn’t obvious why nobody wanted to serve.  Americans have always been inveterate office seekers.  General Philip Schuyler, in 1784, complained of incessant “scramblers for the honors and the emoluments of the States”.  

Nor can there be any doubt that Americans cared about what Congress was doing.  Letters and debates of the time drip with passion.  New Yorkers became so exercised over the instructions to be given by Congress to John Jay, then negotiating a treaty with Spain (see The Treaty That Wasn't), that they threatened to secede from the Union.

Why, then, such poor attendance?  Part of the problem was the difficulty of travel.  The following table shows the percentage of delegates elected, by state, who showed up for at least one day:

New Hampshire 55%
Massachusetts 71%
Rhode Island 60%
Connecticut 54%
New York 85%
Pennsylvania 89%
New Jersey 86%
Maryland 77%
Delaware 67%
Virginia 90%
North Carolina 63%
South Carolina 83%
Georgia 50%


New Hampshire and Georgia, whose delegates had the furthest to travel, had among the lowest attendance rates.  The middle colonies, near the rotating capital, were higher.  The poor attendance for Connecticut appears to be due to that state’s practice of electing seven delegates every year in a popular election; seven delegates may have been too many.

Examining attendance by year of member election, dating back to the Continental Congress, we see how attendance tailed off over time:

 attendance

The earliest elections, in 1774 and 1775, were held amidst the fervor of revolution and the drive for independence.  Almost every person elected made it a point to attend.  This fervor could not be sustained.  The sharp drop in 1783 reflects either the coming of peace, which lessened the urgency of political participation, or the exodus from Philadelphia (see The Wandering Congress).  The nadir in participation was reached in 1784, when Congress rotated between Annapolis and Trenton.

Beyond poor roads and a rotating capital, however, lay a deeper problem.  Even members who attended often arrived late and left early.  The reasons why lay in one fateful sentence of Article V of the Articles of Confederation: “Each state shall maintain its own delegates in (Congress)”.  Members received no federal salary.  Their salary, and any associated travel or expense allowance, was at the discretion of their home state.  States had other priorities.

Again and again, in letters home, delegates complain about the expense of living in the capital (wherever it was), and beseech their legislatures for support.  David Howell (RI) from Annapolis:  “I was in great want of money having spent all I had received of the State & run largely in debt . . . I assure you that a great deal of money will carry you but a little ways here.”  William Houstoun (GA) from New York:  “I was seduced to remain in Congress, thinking there could not be a doubt but that I should at least have my Expenses Remitted to me . . . I have never received any thing from the state except a bill for a hundred & odd pounds before I left Savannah.”

The Constitution of the United States (COTUS) of 1787 paid members of Congress a federal salary backed by federal taxes, and did not have attendance problems.  The problems of the Confederation, in the end, all came down to money.

Sources: Letters of Delegates to Congress, Volumes 18, 21, 24, Dates of Service in Volume 26; Edmund Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress, 1941.  Statistics compiled by the author.

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