Praise for The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government


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The First Congress:
A conversation with Fergus Bordewich

Q: What inspired you to write about the First Congress?

FB: Several years ago, while working on a book about the founding of Washington, DC, I realized that the intense political struggle over where the capital would be placed was just one of many momentous battles that took place during the First Congress. Despite its significance, the First Congress has largely been treated as a sort of asterisk after the Constitutional Convention, as if the government that the Constitution outlined had sprung full grown from that document. In fact, the creation of the U.S. government took two years of heroic struggle by some of the most remarkable political men in American history.

The watershed importance of the First Congress has been ignored, I think, because in the twentieth century we became accustomed to seeing the president as the key power figure in government. Books about presidents, even the second-rate ones, far outnumber those about Congress. But at the founding, Congress was the leading branch of government. It was there, not in the president's mansion, that the real decisions were made, plans for the country proposed, and fundamental conflicts hashed out. George Washington looked to Congress for leadership, not the other way around.

Q: You claim that the First Congress was the most productive in our nation's history—why was the work they did so momentous?

FB: It is mindboggling how much the First Congress accomplished. Bear in mind that when they met, the U.S. barely had a government of any kind. Under the Articles of Confederation, government was run by a skeleton crew, a handful of public employees who lacked the power to raise revenue, pay debts, try cases, or even to defend the country from the Indians, much less against a foreign power. The Constitution was really just a notional plan for a government that did not yet exist: many Americans—including members of Congress—feared that it could not actually be made to work. In the course of two incredibly productive years, the First Congress created the executive departments, the federal judiciary system, the first revenue streams for the national government, winnowed down proposed amendments to the Constitution from around two hundred to twelve, adopted a watershed program for paying the country's debts that essentially embraced the principles of capitalism as the underpinning of government policy, founded the first National Bank, and established the national capital on the Potomac River. Their greatest failure was their inability to decisively deal with the problem of slavery. Confronted by the first lobbying campaign in American history, waged by antislavery Quakers, Congress essentially swept slavery under the rug for future generations to cope with. Even then, too many members felt the country would splinter if an attempt was made to interfere with slavery.

Q: Heading into an election year, the U.S. is once again divided by bipartisanship—what lessons could our next Congress in 2016 learn from how the First Congress operated?

FB: First of all, no one should imagine that the First Congress was free of conflict, that the Founders just had a kind of collective group hug and solved all the country's problems by means of consensus and mutual good fellowship. The First Congress was as contentious as any in American history. To watch them up close, as I do in The First Congress, is rather like seeing the Founders getting down and dirty in the mosh pit of hardball politics.

Members of Congress were painfully aware, however, that they held the fate of the newborn country in their hands. Although they differed deeply on many issues—on slavery, centralized government, regional interests, and taxation—they wanted the government to succeed. They also believed in politics. Americans were immensely proud of their government. There were few purists or ideologues in the First Congress. They knew that compromise was inevitable to make the government work. Losers in legislative battles never disparaged the government itself, or tried to prevent it from functioning, no matter how much they disagreed with outcomes. If there is a single lesson to be drawn from the First Congress, it is that politicians who treat the government and their own profession with contempt are not only undermining democracy, they are also betraying the spirit and intent of the Founders.

Q: What were some of the most influential decisions made by the First Congress?

FB: Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a brilliant and comprehensive plan for paying off the war debt of both the federal and state governments. By adopting it, Congress bound the states closer to the national government, won the support of lenders for the government, and established the principles of capitalism as the foundation of national policy. This was accomplished by the first great backroom deal in American history, by which Southerners hostile to Hamilton's financial policy grudgingly traded him their votes in return for Northern agreement to establish the capital in the slave-holding South, giving the South political leverage that it would exercise up to the Civil War. The First Congress also approved the first amendments to the Constitution. The battle over amendments was intense, with most Federalists opposing any amendments at all, and Antifederalists—many of whom had opposed the Constitution—demanding amendments that would have gutted the Constitution itself. Thanks mainly to the brilliant work of James Madison, some two hundred proposed amendments were winnowed down to those we today call the Bill of Rights. Ironically, neither side was happy with the result. Madison described the amendments as "harmless," while the disgruntled Antifederalists labeled them "worthless."

Passage of the Judiciary Act created the entire federal court system, and brought into being the Supreme Court. Prior to this, there were no national courts at all. State courts were highly politicized, often corrupt and incompetent, and were notorious for favoring their own residents over those of other states. Americans who today take fair and impartial justice for granted can thank the First Congress. Before the First Congress, the enfeebled government could do no more to raise revenues than to beg the autonomous state governments to provide money to pay its bills, debts, and soldiers' pay. The system was a miserable failure. The First Congress created a revenue stream for the first time, by enacting tariffs on imported goods. Direct taxes on the public were considered, but quickly dismissed as politically unpalatable. Even then, Americans were phobic about personal taxation.

The First Congress also approved the first four cabinet positions and defined their responsibilities, founded the first National Bank, enacted the first patent and copyright laws, and founded the U.S. Coast Guard. The list just goes on and on.

Q: When the First Congress met in 1789, what were some of the biggest challenges facing the nation?

FB: The U.S. was just a shaky collection of eleven sovereign states—North Carolina and Rhode Island hadn't even joined the union. The nation was less a reality than it was just an idea, a sketch. Strident opponents of the Constitution were demanding rafts of amendments, or even a new Constitutional Convention. The government had no reliable source of revenue. European lenders shunned the U.S. as a bad risk. There was no permanent seat of government. Settlers were pouring west across the Appalachian Mountains, giving rise to widespread fears that the West would break off into another country, or maybe several. The British threatened the nation's security from the north, and bellicose Indians did so from the west. Southerners were suspicious of northerners, westerners of easterners, New Englanders of everyone else. More than fifty different currencies were in circulation. Quakers and others were demanding an end to slavery, while southerners threatened secession if the government dared to tamper with their "peculiar institution." The odds against the government's survival were daunting indeed.

Q: Can you elaborate on the importance of New York City to the story—how and why was New York chosen as the location for the First Congress to meet?

FB: During the early years of the Articles of Confederation, Congress was essentially itinerant, moving among different locations in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, where it finally came to rest in 1785, mostly from exhaustion. So New York more or less inherited the capital from its predecessor. Most members of the First Congress loved New York's amenities, its theaters and book stores, its shops filled with all the latest European imports, its fashionable women, and vibrant social life. But remember that New York was then, by our standards, hardly more than a small town, with a population of about 30,000. The country's largest city was Philadelphia, which had 40,000 inhabitants, who wanted the capital for their own town and fought tooth and nail to get it. When the First Congress debated the permanent location of the national capital, New York was of course a contender, but it was edged out during the ferocious backroom politicking that led to the compromise over Hamilton's financial plan. New Yorkers were furious. They had spent a fortune to rehabilitate Federal Hall, and were in the process of erecting a mansion to house the president, near the foot of Broadway. My favorite proposed location for the new "federal city," however, was the tip of what we now call the South Bronx. It would have been a spectacular setting, with panoramic views of Long Island Sound, and the East River.

Q: Who were the key players in the First Congress? Are there any men whose achievements have been overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries?

FB: The First Congress was filled with remarkable men—although it also had its share of hacks and mediocrities. James Madison stands out as the leading figure, especially during the first, crucial session. He was recognized by all as the most expert interpreter of the Constitution—which he in large part wrote—he was a brilliant parliamentarian, and he had the complete confidence of George Washington, a political trifecta that he played to great advantage. The synergy between Washington and Madison was absolutely essential to shaping a functioning relationship between the two branches of government.

Alexander Hamilton, although not a member of Congress—he was Treasury Secretary—was intimately involved in Congress's deliberations over his transformative financial plan. And he was also one of the pivotal figures in the great compromise, by which his allies traded their votes for a southern capital in return for enough southern votes to pass his financial plan.

John Adams, who presided over the Senate initially expected that the vice president would play a forceful role in deliberations, but managed to offend so many senators that he was speedily marginalized, and succeeded in diminishing the vice presidency down to the present day.

Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut has been unjustly forgotten. One of the most experienced members of Congress, he authored the watershed judiciary bill that established the Supreme Court and the federal court system, an amazing accomplishment.

Senator Robert Morris of Pennsylvania was a large man in every sense, including girth, appetite, ambition, and power. As the superintendent of finance at the end of the Revolutionary War, he essentially saved the country singlehandedly by pledging his own immense wealth as a guarantee against its debts. During the First Congress, he lobbied ardently to place the federal capital in Philadelphia, although he failed. His machinations are fascinating to study.

I also have to cite Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, from whose name we get the term "gerrymandering," which derived from his later actions as governor of Massachusetts. He was the single most active Antifederalist in the First Congress, and fought tooth and nail against almost every proposal that would strengthen the central government. He lost every time, but he graciously accepted defeat, making clear that he felt that the survival of the government was every member's responsibility, no matter how much he differed on specific issues.

Q: You write that George Washington was surprised Congress chose to debate some of his proposals, rather than instantly endorse his plans. Can you elaborate on the extent of the executive branch's power at the time? And how did the First Congress impact the balance of powers in federal government?

FB: Congress was universally considered the leading branch of government, as it was until the end of the nineteenth century. President Washington recognized that, and he consistently deferred to Congress to initiate legislation. The president had no plan of his own, no defined agenda, to advance. However, he conferred regularly with Madison, whose goals tended to coincide with those of the president, especially at the beginning of the First Congress. Washington had no personal staff apart from a couple of secretaries to handle his correspondence, and the executive departments, too, were in their infancy. In all these respects, government was quite different from today, when executive power has grown exponentially so that most Americans tend to consider it the central branch of government. Both Washington and Madison might well be appalled to see the so-called "imperial presidency" of modern times. Just as Congress was inventing itself as it went along, so Washington was doing the same with the presidency. With Congress, there was at least a precedent to build on—the wartime Continental Congress, followed by the Confederation Congress. But the presidency was something entirely new. (The "president" of the Confederation Congress, was not an executive, but more like a presiding secretary.) What could the president do? How should he behave? How should he be addressed? Washington was always groping for the right answer, and on the whole he was astute in his choices. On a couple of occasions he overreached, and was flummoxed, but he recovered.

Q: How and why was Washington, DC ultimately chosen as the nation's capital?

FB: The issue threatened to tear the government apart before it had fairly gotten underway. When the First Congress opened, some thirty-two different sites had been proposed for the seat of government, ranging from Kingston, New York to Norfolk, Virginia. The most serious contenders included several sites in Pennsylvania, New York, Baltimore, or some place as yet to be defined on the Potomac River. The issue was one of most contentious ones to face the First Congress, eliciting the most partisan kind of chauvinism among members from almost every part of the country. It was widely assumed that hosting the capital would lead to greater political power, wealth, and control of government jobs, quite apart from the prestige involved. For example, so hostile were southern members of Congress to placing the capital in Quaker-populated Philadelphia that they threatened to secede if that came to pass. Congress actually voted twice to place the capital on the Susquehanna River, in Pennsylvania, about one hundred miles west of Philadelphia, but James Madison undid this seeming fait accompli by means of a rather slick parliamentary ploy. Months of backroom horse trading ensued. Once Congress had settled on the Potomac River Valley, selection of the capital's precise site was handed over to President Washington, who surprised many by picking a place on the Potomac that would enhance the value of his nearby properties in Virginia.

Q: Your research for this book utilizes many primary sources—where did you find them, and did any one source prove most informative?

FB: I benefitted immensely from the resources of the First Federal Congress Project, which exists under the auspices of George Washington University, in Washington, DC. Since the 1950s, this exhaustive project has been collecting every known piece of writing pertaining to the First Congress. Its published volumes and archives provided an abundance of letters, newspaper articles, official debate records, and original written material of every imaginable type. Apart from this cornucopia, I found the published diary of Senator William Maclay, of Pennsylvania, a wonderful resource. Senate sessions were at that time barred to the public, and the senators themselves were instructed not to keep records of what took place in their chamber. Maclay disregarded this order, and posterity must forever thank him for his defiance. Maclay's diary is the best record we have of the personalities and debates as they unfolded. However, Maclay must be used cautiously: he was caustic, irascible, and highly opinionated. But he was a lively writer, and often very revealing of both himself and his peers, and he's a lot of fun to read.

Q: The First Congress laid the groundwork for financing the American government—why was this so necessary at the time?

FB: The United States was essentially an international dead-beat that didn't pay its debts. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had borrowed huge amounts of money from Dutch and French bankers and other sources. The individual states had borrowed many millions more. The U.S. was so far behind in its payments that no one would lend it any more. Moreover, the U.S. had no source of revenue to repay its loans. The situation was dire. One of the first actions of the First Congress was to create a revenue stream by imposing tariffs on imports. Alexander Hamilton then proposed to apply what were then radically new principles to the nation's debts. First he proposed consolidating the debts of the various states and the federal government into one lump. States that had already paid their debts resisted, but Hamilton argued that combining the debt would strengthen the new government, and he prevailed. Once the government began paying off the debt, European lenders once again opened their coffers for new, desperately needed loans. Hamilton, in essence, was using debt as a tool to leverage yet more borrowing, when it was needed. He was applying basic principles of capitalism to the organization of governmental finance. Hardly any members of Congress understood anything about economics at that time, and there was much opposition to his plans from those whose values were still rooted in a closed agrarian world. But he prevailed, and in so doing he laid the foundation for the financial principles upon which the U.S. relies today.

In the third session of the First Congress, Hamilton also won the support for the first National Bank. This innovation would be an invaluable asset to the country, providing a repository for government funds, creating a trustworthy paper currency, servicing the national debt, managing foreign exchange, and creating a pool of investment capital that would foster economic growth. Opposition to the bank was intense, coming from members of Congress who feared bankers and who were wedding to the idea of a rural America composed mainly of yeoman farmers. Although the bank was later terminated by a more hostile Congress, along with the rest of Hamilton's comprehensive plan it helped to lay out the financial foundation for modern America.