The Rhetoric of Record-Keeping I:
Documenting the First Federal Congress

New nations continue to emerge on our planet--80% of present-day national constitutions have been written since l965.

This continuing process touches all our lives, indirectly and directly, though it has gone largely unstudied by scholars who gather at the College Composition and Communication Conference (CCCC) or at annual meetings of the Modern Language Association (MLA). At the l992 CCCC, several of us with professional and personal interests in the emergence of particular nations--the US in the l790s, Poland in the l980s, and Latvia in the l980s, decided to change that. The result was that we organized a l993 CCCC panel on the rhetoric of nation-building. I initially presented the comments that follow, below, on that panel.

I use the phrase the rhetoric of nation-building to refer to the symbolic processes and products involved in starting a new country. They include a range of discursive practices and artifacts--the declarations, constitutions, debates, meetings, negotiations, news, gossip, dinner-table talk--that compose and communicate a new political system.

By examining national beginnings in rhetorical breadth and depth, we step beyond the flat, reductive suspicion that caricatures all government--the kind of suspicion represented in the Doublespeak award given by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), for example. Every year that award ridicules outrageous language by politicians or government bureaucrats.

That's wrong-headed, I think. A narrowly individualistic and linguistic interpretation of political discourse ignores the extra-linguistic, inter-active, and performative dimensions that structure what political speakers and writers do. Just as cultural diversity requires us to learn to read culture rhetorically, political diversity requires that we learn how to read politics and political institutions rhetorically. Discourse analysis can help.

The focus [of the panel] is the rhetoric of emerging democracy. Many of the newest nations are currently attempting political democracy, for which the oldest living example is the United States. My focus is discursive processes in the US when its experiment in democracy was just beginning. [Other panelists spoke on Poland and Latvia as they, beginning in l989, returned to their former, pre-soviet democracy.]

I will take up the United States experiment at a particular moment in 1789--after the former British colonies had declared and won independence as a federation of American states; after 13 state constitutions had been written and adopted; after a federal constitution had been written but not yet ratified by all the states. I am looking at a scene in the first session of the first constitutional Congress. The day is August 22, l789. Assembled in the Senate chamber of the temporary capitol, the old City Hall in New York city, are the first elected senators from 11 states that have so far joined the new union. The topic at issue is a proposed treaty between the United States, the state of North Carolina (not yet a member of the union), and neighboring southern Indian nations.

The question I address is why the Senate met in secret that day, and why it continued the practice of meeting secretly for six years. Why, therefore, in the first representative democracy based on the consent of the governed, did the first Senate decide against letting the public know about its deliberation? Why now, as cameras record continuously in the Senate chambers for broadcast on C-SPAN and as theCongressional Record is published daily, is an observer not permitted to carry pencil and notebook into the public galleries?

The answer I will develop is that public access to and a public record of governmental activity--even in democracy and especially in new democracy--is not easily accomplished. Deciding to allow public access to information about government is a conscious negotiation--a rhetorical act, in short--weighted by more considerations and conditions than you or I might think.

In this talk I will sketch some weights on that decision. I will highlight the rhetorical character of an essential condition that we might, but should not, take for granted in democracy, the creation of the public record. I will illustrate with a case of treaty negotiations.

In the US Senate on August 22, l789

Because treaty-negotiation was constitutionally a shared executive power of the president and the Senate, the Senate met that day in executive session. Consequently, the legislative record does not mention the session. The executive record provides the draft treaty that Washington brought with him to the Senate, but does not record the debate.

However, an unofficial record exists. A diary account renders the deliberation. The diary entry is based on notes jotted during the discussion by Pennsylvania senator William Maclay. The rather lengthy entry describes a struggle between the president and the Senate over the power to execute treaties, as well as protocol for communication beween the executive and the legislative branches. President Washington came with a draft treaty already written, which he read (inaudibly) to the senators present. He wanted the Senate's immediate assent to the draft. The senators, in contrast, wanted to deliberate the terms of the treaty, with the president listening and responding, before they advised him on it.

Both the official Senate journal and the unofficial diary are contemporary records, written during or shortly after the event. However, neither was published for fifty years or more (almost 100 years in the case of the diary). Why? Was not the new American republic eager to know, or suspicious about, what its first elected government was up to?

Four Reasons For Not Recording Debate:
Precedent, Politics, Literacies, and Technology

There were principally four reasons for the Senate decision not to provide the access: precedent, partisan politics, cultural values including literacy preferences, and material conditions such as the condition of communication technology.

As to precedent, despite its recent independence from England, the new republic still referred to English political tradition for guidance. Parliamentary deliberation was not recorded, a practice that began in order to protect legislative freedom during struggle with the monarchy in 1688. At the same time, recognizing that publication of its proceedings could advance its cause, the English Parliament authorized publication of issues addressed and votes taken, though not of the deliberations leading to voting. Conflict then arose with printers, the publishers of newspapers containing Parliamentary news, whose success depended on a constant supply of information. Conflicts led to a variety of rules to govern the conduct of members of Parliament.

"They were forbidden to discuss any statement made on the floor except with another member of the same legislative body; to provide anyone with notes on, or copies of, anything spoken on the floor; and even to read their speeches, because the written words could fall into the hands of outsiders" (DePauw, 1988, xii).

Although these rules had been liberalized in England by the time of the founding of the United States, the new American Congress generally repeated the older, conservative English pattern. This may explain why we have so few diaries such as Maclay's from the first Senate, and so few notes such as James Madison's from the first House of Representatives.

Partisan politics among the first Senators were a factor, too. Federalists, or strong central government advocates, distrusted democracy and did not want to encourage popular influence on government. In contrast, republicans, or weak central government advocates, favored informing a politically active citizenry. Both sides, however, preferred to communicate directly with the public through partisan newspapers and newsletters, rather than permitting open access.

Cultural values, especially concerning literacy, also mattered. A recent study of evidence that Thomas Jefferson intended the Declaration of Independence to be read aloud draws attention to contemporary oratorical culture that relished oral performance. Appreciation for oral ability was premised on belief in a natural language, a language of feeling capable of inducing affective consent to ideas. Speech, not print, was living text.

"What natural religion was to revealed religion, speech was to print. With its immediacy, tones, gestures, and the countenance of a visible speaker, speech, the new oratory implied, presented truth better than the flat printed word, which derived from speech and had to be spoken and brought to life by a reader" (Fliegelman, 54).

This may well have been the culture in which the Senate constituted itself as the deliberative partner to a legislative House of Representatives. With a membership of only 22 senators, face-to-face deliberation likely was the preferred way of doing business.

The diarist Maclay, for example, certainly seems surprised by the poor speaking performance George Washington made in arguing for the treaty on August 22. Maclay also describes the internal drama underlying his own artless but affecting speech that persuaded the senators to reject Washington's demand for an immediate vote on the draft treaty and to insist, rather, on deliberating the treaty terms while the president listened.

Print versions of what was said were not perceived to be as trustworthy as spoken versions. Even after the Senate accommodated observers with a public gallery in its chambers in l795, it still disallowed published proceedings.

Practical considerations probably also entered into Senate resistance to printed proceedings. Relatively few Americans at the time could read, and no single language predominated in the mixed populations of the new states. (In southeastern states affected by the treaty, Cherokee and other indigenous languages mingled with English and African and Caribbean speech.)

Moreover, lack of transportation meant delays of days or weeks before printed documents could reach other states from the capital in New York.

These reasons--precedent, politics, literacies and pragmatic acknowledgment of conditions--can generally answer the question of why early US Congressional deliberation was not accessible. They are the textbook answers, so to speak. However, there is also another, less noticed reason--the material condition of communication technology at the time. I want, next, to bring that reason into view.

Two technologies were needed if a public record were to be made available--a reliable method of transcribing oral speech and an efficient copier. They did not exist at the time. For accurately transcribing speech, a method of rapid writing, or "shorthand," must be able to capture words at speaking rate. Shorthands began with the Greeks and Romans. We have speeches by Cicero, for example, because his slave Tiro developed a symbolic system whereby alphabetic letters stood for whole words, and trained a relay system of recorders (other slaves) to capture verbatim hours-long public debates. The Tironian alphabetic shorthand, a contracted kind of longhand, persisted with modifications for legal and legislative recording through medieval times. Reformation-era desires to preserve public preaching for home reading and discussion later led to the proliferation of idiosyncratic notational systems used by individuals, for purposes including profit, to record speech in church, courtroom, government chambers, and theaters. (One theory of variants in plays by Shakespeare, for example, is that members of the audience used shorthands to capture dialogue before selling their transcriptions to printers, who then published and sold multiple versions of the plays.)

The American Congress was besieged from the start by self-taught stenographers petitioning for the right to record and sell the proceedings. Unlike the Senate, the House of Representatives permitted the practice from the beginning. However, due to the uncontrollable error in the resulting publications, the House many times regretted the decision. They periodically revoked access to House sessions by stenographers, even as they simultaneously amended the Constitution to preserve the freedom of the press.

It was mainly due to the inaccuracy of contemporary shorthands and to the time required to correct errors that (then) Vice-President Thomas Jefferson opposed publication of Congressional proceedings. Jefferson presents an interesting example of the ambivalence with which serious democrats viewed the potentiality of a Congressional public record in l789. As a statesman, a practical scientist, and a shorthand writer himself, Jefferson worked hard to develop both encryption devices to protect secrecy in state documents and copying machines to assure that government records could be preserved and distributed.

Copying technology was recognized by Jefferson as a necessary material condition for the practice of democracy, because it extends and preserves political discourse. In Jeffersonian democracy, direct participation by citizens who deliberate questions of governance is key. Deliberation is both the highest use of human reason and the engine of democratic government. If a community is to remember its political debates and to develop them in dialogue, copies of original documents are necessary.

In 1789, the only copier was the human hand. The scribal process of copying had to be mechanized, Jefferson realized, if government were to be accountable to the governed. That is why he assisted so diligently the invention of efficient copiers such as the portable press developed by James Watt and the polygraph machine designed by Isaac Hawkins.

When a public record of Congressional activity was finally authorized, technological development significantly motivated the decision. The telegraph, invented in l844, carried instant Congressional reporting (errors and all) wherever the wires went. Pressed by this new condition, the Congress finally faced the need for an accurate print record of its activity. Thus, in l848, after fifty years of democratic governance but not until the adoption by professional stenographers of phonetic (instead of alphabetic) shorthand and the beginning of telegraphy, did the Congress finally authorize the recording, publication, and distribution of its deliberations.

Yet, even now, a completely transparent political process makes democratic institutions nervous. Television cameras now broadcast whatever happens in the houses of Congress while anachronistic house rules disallow writing by visitors (who might misquote) in the gallery. And, by tradition, the official Congressional Record is edited, not printed verbatim.


Democracy is inherently messy. A new political democracy is a rhetorical primal scene. Its anxieties are peculiarly exposed in its record-keeping practices. Far from doubletalk,the public record of government discloses an evolving historical relationship grounded in ambivalence between a democratic society and its political institutions.

This commentary adapts C. Smith, l994a