Gales & Seaton – The Debates and Proceedings in the First Congress

THE DEBATES AND PROCEEDINGS IN THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES WITH APPENDIX (Otherwise known as “The Annals of Congress” – Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and all the laws of a Public Nature with a Copious Index, in two volumes, for the Period from March 1, 1789 to March 3, 1791 (published by Gales and Seaton, 1834).

Background: Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution provides that “each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings and from time to time publish the same.” Both the Senate and House have kept a “Journal” since 1789, but the term “journal” is not defined by law and thus the official Congressional Journals merely contain sparse legislative minutes, votes, procedural matters, and Presidential messages.

As a result, in the early years of the federal government there was no official transcript or contemporaneous summary of Congressional debates. This was consistent with the colonial (and English) practice.  It thus fell to unofficial commercial newspaper reporters (who were initially only allowed access to the House) to memorialize Congressional debates as they saw fit. The Senate opened its doors to the public in 1795.

Accordingly, for the first 41 congresses there was no official government publication that recorded congressional debates. Nevertheless, newspaper and commercial publishers would record Congressional proceedings to the extent they thought doing so was newsworthy. Newspaper reports were limited by available column space and were subject to the political leanings of editors, limitations on the ability of reporters to hear from the galleries, and limits on individual note-taking/shorthand skills. Early commercial publications that covered Congress included Thomas Lloyd’s Congressional Register, Francis Childs’s New York Daily Advertiser, and John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States. 

In 1834, Joseph Gales and William Seaton began collecting and commercially republishing these early summaries and newspaper reports. The first edition of his work, THE DEBATES AND PROCEEDINGS IN THE CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES WITH APPENDIX, was the first effort to publish the entire set of debates and records for the first Congress. In addition to collecting the previously published newspaper reports, Gales also contacted Representatives and Senators and requested their notes and speeches. Organized by session in 42 volumes, and taking 22 years to compile and publish, the “Annals of Congress” are recognized as the best source for coverage of Congress from 1789 to 1824. In 1849, Congress began appropriating funds to help defray costs.

In 1873, the 43 Congress decided that it would be more efficient for the Government Printing Office (GPO) to officially publish Congressional debates rather than relying on private publishers. Since 1873, the Congressional Record has been published daily on newspaper print. At the end of the Congressional session, a permanent hardbound edition of the Congressional Record is published.

Quick note about Thomas Lloyd and his Congressional Register:

James Madison and his colleagues were quick to condemn Lloyd and the other reporters for misrepresenting their remarks, and even considered expelling them from the House. “You will see at once the strongest evidences of mutilation & perversion, and of the illiteracy of the Editor,” Madison wrote to Jefferson enclosing the first number of the Congressional Register (9 May). Although justified to a certain extent, such criticism also revealed the vanity of politicians unaccustomed to seeing their oral effusions reduced to print. While insisting that the accuracy of Lloyd’s debates could not be relied on, Madison conceded that “the ideas of the speakers, may for the most part be collected from them” (Madison to Everett, 7 Jan. [1832]).

Madison at the First Session of the First Federal Congress, National Archives

Modern scholarship has revealed that Madison’s complaints were well founded:

Lloyd, a severe alcoholic, had been readily bribed by Federalists to exclude Anti-Federalist speeches from his earlier reports of the Pennsylvania ratifying convention….  James Madison stated that the Register exhibited “the strongest evidences of mutilation and perversion” and warned that it was “not to be relied on.” Elbridge Gerry noted that sometimes the Register attributed to members views exactly opposite of those they had advanced. Modern-era scholarship has revealed that what Lloyd published bore only the slightest resemblance even to his own notes. Marion Tinling, the most careful scholar of Lloyd’s work, concludes that Lloyd subjected many speeches to a “good deal of embellishment” and that it is impossible to know “how much of any speech was actually drawn from memory and how much was invention.

Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities


Additional reading:

Reporters of Debate and the Congressional Record (

Publication of the Congressional Record (

An Overview of the Congressional Record and Its Predecessor Publications (Richard J. McKinney)

Madison at the First Session of the First Congress (National Archives)

Click on the links below to read digitized and searchable copies online:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Annals of Congress (Library of Congress)

Annals of Congress volumes 1-42 (Hatitrust)


Click here to view or purchase using the following link to 

Sold by Glenn Books, ABAA, ILAB for $450: Covers are scuffed. Front board of the first volume is almost detached, others are intact but weakened. Original red and black spine labels. These volumes chronicle the 1st Congress of the fledgling United States of America. Includes debates on the Constitution and Amendments which would become the Bill of Rights. Others sections on trade and navigation, compensation of members, and much more.

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