Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Frederick Muhlenberg, the first Speaker of the House

The U.S. House of Representatives convened for the first time on April 1, 1789, in New York City. Many believe the date is appropriate in that it is April Fool's Day. Members elected Frederick Muhlenberg as Speaker of the House. He had a command presence and a good reputation, having served in both the Continental Congress as well as the Pennsylvania state legislature.

He would prove to be a man of integrity, whose vote to save the Jay Treaty ended his political career -- and caused him to be stabbed by his brother-in-law.

Frederick Augustus Conrad Muhlenberg was born in Trappe, Pennsylvania, on January 1, 1750.

His father was a minister. His father, Heinrich Melchior M├╝hlenberg, was born in Einbeck, Germany, on September 6, 1711. He came to America as a Lutheran missionary, and established the Lutheran church here. He sent his sons to his alma mater, the University of Halle, Germany. One son became a botanist, one became a general in the Continental Army, and then there was Frederick, who became a minister.

Frederick Muhlenberg married Catherine Schaeffer on October 15, 1771. Her father, David Schaeffer, was a wealthy Philadelphia sugar refiner. The young Muhlenbergs had seven children.

"From 1780 to 1783, he was Speaker of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. When Montgomery County was established in 1784, Muhlenberg was appointed the first Recorder of Deeds and Register of Wills, in addition to serving as a justice of the peace. In 1787, Muhlenberg presided at the state convention to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Elected as a representative to the first U.S. Congress in 1789, Muhlenberg was chosen to be the first Speaker of the House. While Speaker, he also became the first signer of the Bill of Rights. Muhlenberg was elected to the next three congresses, serving again as Speaker during the Third Congress," according to the curators of his museum.

The U.S. House of Representatives official history explained why his contemporaries elected him Speaker: “First, he had practical experience as the presiding officer of the Pennsylvania legislature. Second, the selection of Muhlenberg was something of a political compromise that powerfully symbolized sectional balance for the new republic: President George Washington of Virginia, was a southerner; Vice President John Adams of Massachusetts, was a New Englander; and Speaker Muhlenberg was from the Mid-Atlantic. Third, Muhlenberg’s physical bearing also conveyed dignity and authority. Columbian Magazine observed that his 'rubicund complexion and oval face, hair full powdered, tamboured satin vest of ample dimensions, dark blue coat with gilt buttons, and a sonorous voice, all corresponding in appearance and sound with his magnificent name'.”

Appearance matters. Voice matters. But integrity matters most.

He lost his seat in Congress when he cast the deciding vote in favor of by casting the deciding vote which ratified the Jay Treaty, normalizing relations with England and truly opening the West. President Washington sent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay to London to negotiate a comprehensive treaty that would normalize relations between the Crown and its former colonies. The British still held forts in the Northwest Territories and Canadians were baking Indians who were hostile to white settlement. Congress meanwhile instituted a trade blocked. At war, again, with France, the British were willing to negotiate.

Washington and Vice President Adams were pleased with the treaty, which received a two-thirds majority of support in the Senate. But many people opposed the deal, Southerners particularly. They had wanted compensation from the British for lost slaves.They also supported France.

Thomas Jefferson led the opposition. Congressman James Madison said that because the treaty affected commerce and legislative powers, it required House approval to implement it. I suppose one could argue with the Father of the Constitution over its original meaning, but that is a fool's errand.

The Speaker of the House traditionally casts only deciding votes. This was Speaker Muhlenberg's duty and he voted for the treaty.He was 46.

"Muhlenberg’s vote ended his rising political career because the treaty was unpopular with many Americans, so much so that Muhlenberg was actually stabbed by his own brother-in-law over his vote. He survived the attack but was not nominated to the next congress. In 1799, he was appointed Receiver General of the Pennsylvania Land Office and moved to Lancaster, then the state capital, and lived there until his death in 1801," according to his museum's history.

Doing the right thing made him exceptional. Doing the right thing while a member of Congress made him extraordinary.

Catch up on all the American Vignettes.


  1. "He lost his seat in Congress when he cast
    ***the deciding vote in favor of by casting****** (recommend deletion as confusing)
    the deciding vote which ratified the Jay Treaty..."

    "...British still held forts in the Northwest Territories and Canadians were baking Indians..." (baking would get the Indians hot under their headdresses)

    " Congress meanwhile instituted a trade blocked." Blocked?

    Methinks thou needest a strengthier cup of the Java Bean.

  2. And what does a baked Indian taste like? Anything like a baked Alaskan? Yep, definitely a coffee shortage. (Or too much top-down time.) :)