Book review: The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Upon ratification of the Constitution, many Americans likely breathed a sigh of relief or, in some cases, despair. The tumult that had accompanied ratification could finally subside. The great question of whether the Confederation would yield to a new form of national government had been answered in the affirmative. But the business of building a new nation had not ended. In fact it had not even begun when the Constitutional Convention convened for the last time in 1787.
At noon on March 4, 1789, cannons boomed to signify the end of the Confederation as the Congress of the newly ratified Constitution first met. But with only eight senators and twenty-one House members neither chamber could muster the quorums necessary to formally conduct business. They could not even count the electoral ballots, and therefore no executive branch could begin to operate. The Supreme Court would have to await creation as well. The new nation would simply have no government at all until April 1, when enough House members finally answered the roll. This inauspicious beginning marks the start Fergus M. Bordewich’s The First Congress, a full length narrative history of the beginnings of the legislative body that would ultimately replace British parliamentary rule in America thirteen years after independence had been declared.
Some members, such as James Madison and Roger Sherman, were seasoned veterans of the national political scene. But many others who would leave their mark were newcomers, such as Georgia’s James Jackson or Massachusetts’s Fisher Ames, who had defeated the venerable Samuel Adams to take a seat in the new House of Representatives. Although he would be mostly frustrated in his short stint in the Senate, the irascible Pennsylvanian William Maclay would gain immortality as the only Senator to keep a detailed diary which is a primary source of much of what we know of that body’s earliest activities.
By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government. And while the concept of a two house legislature was not as alien as the Constitution’s article II President, there were many procedural questions that would need to be settled as the machinery began to operate. Like President George Washington, its members were aware that virtually everything they did would set a precedent for the new government. They also knew that the eyes of the world were upon their republican experiment. For that perspective Bordewich follows the dispatches of the French minister, the Comte de Moustier, a sympathetic yet old-world observer as he reports back to his ill-fated monarch on their progress.
Much of the action in Bordewich’s telling takes place in the House, of which we have far greater knowledge thanks to its open galleries. Viewing the House in action was popular entertainment, much like going to the movies for New Yorkers. Onlookers were admonished by the New York Daily Gazette to crack their nuts beforehand so as to not disrupt the proceedings below. In contrast the Senate did not condescend to open its doors to the public’s gaze until 1795.
Bordewich takes us through the battles that consumed the first Congress. A new tax system was imperative yet controversial for its implications for federal-state relations as well as its distributions of burdens on different sectors of the economy and regions. The creation of the federal judiciary similarly aroused concerns about an overbearing, costly federal government. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a national bank and the structure of the debt consumed considerable time and raised profound questions regarding federalism and separation of powers. Even the title by which the President would be addressed turned into a deep philosophical question about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and the nature of the executive in a republic.
No less important to contemporaries was the final and permanent location of the federal government. The prestige and influence that would accompany this decision was seen as an important plum. New York invested heavily in creating an opulent infrastructure for the federal government hoping it would not want to leave. Philadelphia and other cities made their bids, as did locations that were currently less populated but argued that their locations made them most suitable. The famous deal that would ultimately bring the nation’s capital to banks of the Potomac River in exchange for support of Hamilton’s financial system was only one of many brokered by the supporters different locales.
Perhaps of greatest fight was over amending the Constitution. Ratification had revealed a strong desire for substantial changes to the document that emerged from Independence Hall in 1787. In several states amendment was made a condition for ratification. Fearing that major overhauls to the document he had worked so hard to craft would result in a weakened federal government, James Madison adroitly got out front, taking it upon himself to lead the amending process. Conversely, many who had sought amendments wound up disgruntled as they understood that their best opportunity to reverse the flow of power and send it back to the states had largely disappeared in what became a debate over civil liberties instead.
The question of slavery was omnipresent. From early efforts by Quakers to present their anti-slavery petitions, to taxation, it flowed through the First Congress’s course at every turn. As members sought to evade it and refocus on other issues, we can see that the wrestling with slavery’s implications did not begin in the 1830s of 1840s, but was in fact present from the nation’s beginning. The decision to postpone the divisive issues attached to it would have grave implications for future generations.
In his recounting of Congress’s handling of these issues, Bordewich presents the key players and their chief arguments. Madison, Hamilton and Washington all loom large. But his focus is mainly on the Congress’s debates rather than the substance of the legislation itself. As a result, readers looking for details on these early laws themselves as opposed to their enactment might be disappointed. But they will enjoy a rich account of the early Republic’s politics and political figures. Still left undone for the next Congress, miraculously, were the establishment of the post office, the mint, and the regulation of the militia among other pressing issues.
The least satisfying storyline is perhaps that of Vice President John Adams. Bordewich is largely content to accept Maclay’s largely unflattering account of his ill-fated presiding over the Senate. While that’s understandable given the lack of available sources on the early Senate’s operations, Maclay’s highly jaundiced eye should perhaps be considered before we’re overly harsh on Adams. I am personally unwilling to pin the “diminished status” that the Vice President holds today on Adams’s unsuitability for the role as Bordewich does. But unlike Washington whose presidency still greatly shapes the office it is fair to say that Adams’s tenure left little mark on the modern VP.
Bordewich, who has written histories of Congress in the 1850s and of the creation of Washington, DC, handles his subject with apparent comfort. His work ably encompasses the deep scholarship of the twenty volumes published by the First Federal Congress project based at George Washington University and numerous other primary and secondary sources without lapsing into academic jargon. He makes full use of opportunities for biography that are provided by such an accomplished group. The cities of first New York and then Philadelphia come to life with his rich details in The First Congress.
In 1871, John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams would observe that:
We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.
Bordewich’s story of the First Congress serves as an important palliative to this dilemma, reminding us that the legislative horse trading often decried today is not a perversion of our Constitutional system but rather the embodiment of it.
 For a detailed account of the sometimes bitter struggle to ratify the Constitution see Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1789 (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2010).
 Fergus M. Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), Kindle edition.
 Bordewich, The First Congress, Kindle location 3957.
 For more on this latter question, see Kathleen Bartaloni-Tauzon, For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Question of 1789 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).
 Bordewich, The First Congress, Kindle location 345.
 Similarly, his counterpart in the House, Frederick Muhlenberg, failed to establish anything resembling the powerful modern Speaker, opting instead for the British Parliament’s model of a non-partisan functionary. Bordewich, The First Congress, Kindle location 615.
 Bordewich, The First Congress, Kindle location 55.