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The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is elected by the incoming members of the House at the start of each new Congress. House rules stipulate that this election is presided by the Clerk of the House. Once a Speaker is elected, the Clerk then swears in the new Speaker, and the Speaker then swears in the other members of the House.

The first Speaker of the House was Frederick Muhlenberg. Considering that at that time the rules of the House had not yet been adopted and no Clerk yet selected, who presided over the meeting that eventually elected Muhlenberg? Who swore him in as the first Speaker?

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    Did a quick check, and it looks like the Congressional Record before 1891 is not online.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2023 at 19:10
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    I thought perhaps the 1st Clerk of Congress was in this one instance elected first, but that doesn't appear to be the case. My next SWAG would be Charles Thompson, the outgoing secretary of the Continental Congress. It does appear he was involved in performing some duties for the new Congress, but I can't find anything really supporting or gainsaying the idea.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 5, 2023 at 19:40

2 Answers 2

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They held quorumless meetings for a couple weeks while waiting for enough Representatives to get there, adjourning from day to day. Once they had a quorum, they held a ballot. The details of the ballot are unspecified, so they probably used the method that they were used to for town meetings and similar gatherings: They looked around at each other, then someone said, "How about Benny conducts the vote?" Everyone shrugged and said 'Sure.' And there they were.

The Congressional Record says:

The House met according to adjournment.

Two other members, to wit: James Schureman, from New Jersey, and Thomas Scott, from Pennsylvania, appeared and took their seats.

And a quorum, consisting of a majority of the whole number, being present,

Resolved, That this House will proceed to the choice of a Speaker by ballot.

The House accordingly proceeded to ballot for a Speaker, and upon examining the ballots, a majority of the votes of the whole House was found in favor of Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, one of the Representatives for the State of Pennsylvania.

Whereupon, the said Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg was conducted to the chair, from whence he made his acknowledgments to the House for so distinguished an honor.

The House then proceeded in the same manner to the appointment of a Clerk, and upon examining the ballots, a majority, of the votes of the whole House was found in favor of Mr. John Beckley.

Note that even though they were not formally organized, someone was taking notes, allowing motions (such as the one to elect the Speaker) and recognizing the newly-arrived Representatives. (Probably Benny and some other guy as secretary.)

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    Nice find. Just to be clear, "Benny" is the name of a hypothetical person, not an actual name you found. Correct?
    – DrSheldon
    Jan 5, 2023 at 22:30
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    @DrSheldon Yah.
    – Mark Olson
    Jan 5, 2023 at 22:38
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    I was hoping it was Benny Franklin :)
    – Barmar
    Jan 6, 2023 at 15:21
  • Many British readers of a certain age will have had Benny Hawkins from Crossroads in mind as speaker, which is quite an image. But I was wondering if your Benny was some well known character or nickname from US popular culture. So thanks for clearing it up!
    – Dan
    Jan 8, 2023 at 5:18
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As an extra technicality, Muhlenberg was not sworn in until a week later. Although the Constitution requires a Congressional oath (Article VI), it left it up to Congress to determine the precise form. This was done by resolution on Monday, April 6, 1789. The oath was then administered on Wednesday, April 8, to the Speaker and other members, by "the Chief Justice of the State of New York". This was Richard Morris, the successor in that office of John Jay; Morris would also administer Jay's oath on becoming the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

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