Congressional Years, 1789-1807
After serving Georgia honorably in the Continental Congress, Abraham Baldwin was again chosen by the state to serve as one of its two members in the new United States Congress, further establishing his role as one of United States’ Founding Fathers. The House of Representatives was created by the recently adopted Constitution to which Baldwin was a signatory. Baldwin represented Georgia continually from 1789 until his death in 1807. He was a member of the House of Representatives from 1789-1799, and a member of the Senate from 1799 until 1807. He served under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.
Serving a New Nation
Abraham Baldwin took his seat in the new Congress filled with anxiety but great hope that the new American government would become a model for the world. He was keenly aware of the great expectations that the country placed in this Congress. The government was brand new. The Constitution was an outline. These newly elected representatives were tasked with making the outline work and were required to accomplish this task without the benefit of precedent.
The amount of legislation considered during this time was voluminous, and thorough discussion of these complex issues is beyond the scope of this work. For an in depth discussion of these matters and Abraham Baldwin’s participation in these early years of American government, see Merton Coulter’s work, Abraham Baldwin: Patriot, Educator, and Founding Father. Coulter focuses on Baldwin’s general approach to law making, his work with other famous Founding Fathers, and his position on two key issues: the Bill of Rights and the need for an informed citizenry.
During his time in Congress, Baldwin was not recognized as a great orator. He preferred to listen carefully. When he did speak, he spoke deliberately and thoughtfully. He was aware that the manner in which issues were addressed would be relied upon by others in the future. He believed that too many members spoke to serve their own ends. “He felt that there was a great deal of speaking for no purpose that he could discover except to satisfy the ego of the speaker.” (Merton Coulter, Abraham Baldwin: Patriot, Educator, and Founding Father, 1987, p. 120). He believed always in proper etiquette and decorum, both on the floor of the House or Senate chamber and in all of his associations.
Association with Major Leaders
During his time in Congress, Abraham Baldwin had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest characters in American history, among them, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Baldwin was present at George Washington’s inauguration. He greatly admired the new President. He referred to President Washington as “our great and good man.” Coulter, p. 126. In fact, when debate in the House became tedious, “he was sure that ‘the President, for whom he expressed the highest respect, could not be pleased with this mode of conducting that [business] before them.” (Coulter, p. 120).
He also appreciated James Madison’s view of the new government and worked closely with him in Congress. They voted almost identically on practically all legislation coming before the House.
Abraham Baldwin was a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson. One keen interest they both shared was the establishment of a congressional library. During the Jefferson presidency, Baldwin, at that time a Senator, served on a committee to appropriate funds for a Library of Congress. President Jefferson asked for his help to select books and maps for the library’s collection. It is suggested that Baldwin is second only to Jefferson in the amount of time spent to build the collection of the Library of Congress. (Coulter, p. 217).
Positions on Key Issues
During Abraham Baldwin’s long tenure in Congress, some of the most fundamental issues in American government were addressed. Among these issues was the creation of a Bill of Rights. One of the major fears of critics of the new constitution was that there were not enough safeguards to protect the citizenry and the states from an overreaching of power by the federal government. These fears were addressed by the first ten amendments to the constitutions which are known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments were mostly the work of James Madison. Abraham Baldwin was on the committee which considered the amendments. The committee approved the passage of all of the amendments. These amendments protected the states against interference by the national government.
Another critical issue facing the new government was how to inform citizens of what the Congress was doing. Baldwin believed that knowledge would lead to good citizenship and without such knowledge, the government was doomed to failure. Baldwin thought he had a duty to spread information to the public. At this time the major ways of spreading information were the newspapers and the mail. Baldwin understood that it was crucial that citizens knew what laws were passed so that they would be aware of their rights and responsibilities. Baldwin chaired a committee which authorized the Secretary of State to become the custodian of laws and to publish the laws in at least three newspapers.
Many areas of the country did not have access to newspapers at this time. The government had to find another way to communicate its laws. In an uncharacteristic lengthy speech, Baldwin spoke about the need to inform people in every state of the laws passed by Congress. “Those whose eyes are weak, or who sit in bad light, are most easily made to see specters and goblins, in their most hideous forms. The only cure against these mischiefs is to pour light into every corner of the country. Let all the measures of government be accompanied by a blaze of day and like the birds of the night these animals are dislodged.” (Coulter, p. 212). Baldwin suggested that federal laws should be sent to all county courthouses. In 1795, a law was passed providing for books of laws to be sent to each state’s governor for distribution to each county within the state.
Baldwin Serves as Senator
In 1798, Abraham Baldwin was elected to the United States Senate. By this time he had become a well- respected member of Congress. He was well known for his mastery of the rules and procedures and was elected by his colleagues to serve a term as Senate Pro Tempore. In this capacity, he presided over the Senate when the Vice President was unavailable.
Baldwin served in the Senate until he died in 1807. Baldwin remained an elected representative for so many years because he felt a keen sense of duty to the state of Georgia and he enjoyed the work that he was able to do as a legislator. “Duty is no longer a popular explanation of political behavior, but Baldwin clearly had a well-developed sense of Christian and civic duty, a sense which he followed even at considerable personal sacrifice.” (“Abraham Baldwin: A Georgia Yankee as Old Congress-man”, Patrick J. Furlong, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Spring 1972).
Abraham Baldwin died on March 4, 1807. He had attended a Senate session the previous day. His funeral was quite formal and attended by numerous government dignitaries. He is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. His gravestone reads simply: “Abraham Baldwin, Son of Michael and Lucy Baldwin of New Haven, Connecticut Died a Senator in Congress from Georgia, March 4, 1807.”
Abraham Baldwin never married or had children of his own. According to biographer Merton Coulter, “His amazing career spanning the turbulent founding years of the new republic left him no time to marry or raise a family; rather, he helped raise a nation.” Abraham Baldwin is a figure from Georgia’s past worthy of our study, respect and admiration.