Just ahead of Presidents Day 2016, Simon & Schuster will publish The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich (Feb 9, 2016; $30). Bordewich is a prize-winning author and historian whose previous book America's Great Debate (2012) won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History. Now, he tells the story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789-1791.
Many of the issues the First Congress faced still challenge us today (among them, literal versus liberal interpretations of the Constitution, conflict between states' rights and federal power, and protection of individual rights). How Congress and the president worked together to achieve as much as they did is a story that could not be more timely in our era of hyperpartisanship and governmental gridlock.
With vivid detail, Bordewich brings to life the groundbreaking early debates over presidential power, the Bill of Rights, the embrace of capitalism as the foundation of national finance, the creation of the federal court system, and the siting of the capital on the Potomac River. He draws on letters and diaries of the first congressmen, contemporary newspapers, and other primary sources to provide intimate portraits of the founders and their uncertain world.
In March 1789, the first representatives of the new Federal Congress arrived at Federal Hall in New York City with little idea of how the nation's government would actually work. Just getting to New York via unmapped roads and through winter storms was no small feat for these newly elected officials. It would be April before either house had enough members to conduct votes. Shipwrecks, illnesses, injuries, and business matters delayed many en route. While waiting for their numbers to fill in, the prominent Massachusetts Representative Fisher Ames wrote to a friend, "This is a very mortifying situation. We lose spirit, credit, everything. The public will forget the government before it is born."
Once the First Congress was finally gathered in the newly renovated Federal Hall, their path forward appeared no less treacherous. The country was deeply in debt, there was no defined judiciary branch, the role of the president and the power of the executive branch were undecided, over fifty types of currency were in circulation, North Carolina and Rhode Island had yet to ratify the Constitution, and the location of the capital remained a divisive issue. Many congressmen had little faith that Americans would be responsible voters, and the American people didn't know if they could trust the fledgling government - nor did Europeans, to whom the United States owed heavy war debts.
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, and other powerful men took on these pressing issues. They clashed, sometimes vociferously, but ultimately they forged a consensus that gave strength and credibility to the new government. Bordewich brings alive the passions and conflicts of these extraordinary men, who, with President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, breathed life into the Constitution. They established the ideals, laws, and institutions that remain cornerstones of our government today. "The output of the First Congress was prodigious," writes Bordewich, "as it transmuted the Constitution from a paper charter and a set of hopeful aspirations into the machinery of a functioning government."
Bordewich argues that this first Congress was the most important in America's history because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed - as many at the time feared it would - it's possible that the United States as we know it would not exist today.
Among the numerous and momentous achievements of the First Congress:
In THE FIRST CONGRESS, Bordewich offers insightful, multidimensional looks at the politics and personalities of the men who "invented the government." Among them:
Madison was the leading force behind many of the achievements of the First Congress. He was the protégé of George Washington and had convinced Washington to act as chair of the Constitutional Convention. When Washington's election as President followed, Madison wrote his inaugural address. He played an indispensable role in the ratification of the Constitution, explaining to the public how a central government would, in fact, increase personal liberties and how largely independent state republics would do the opposite. "Although Madison spoke in a whispery, often-difficult-to-hear voice, and without rhetorical flourish, he consistently impressed those who worked with him with his 'most ingenious mind,' and his mastery of parliamentary strategy," Bordewich writes. "No man contributed more to the First Congress than James Madison. He guided the debate almost single-handedly."
The reluctant but obvious nominee for President was aware that his every action would define the office for years to come. Bordewich quotes a letter of Washington's: "I walk on untrodden ground…there is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." Washington's modesty was calculated, but not insincere. Bordewich writes, "He was by no means sure that he possessed the skill to do what was expected of him - not just to fill, but to create, an office that had never before existed." To the surprise of legislators who were worried about executive power, Washington weighed in on few Congressional decisions. In the contentious and drawn-out debate over the President's title, "some members of congress believed that he would refuse any species of grand title, even if it was offered - or forced on him. But he remained silent." VP John Adams preferred the aristocratic "his highness," or "his excellency," while South Carolina Representative Thomas Tudor Tucker retorted, "Does the dignity of a nation consist in the exaltation of one man, and the humiliation of the rest?" In some matters, however, Washington exerted his influence: one of the longest and fiercest battles of the First Congress was over where the permanent seat of the government would be. New York, various sites in Pennsylvania, Baltimore, and somewhere along the Potomac River were the major contenders. Washington favored a spot on the Potomac - what we now call Washington, D.C. - that could cause the value of his nearby property to increase if the capital were moved there. But throughout his presidency, Washington remained a vital symbol of revolutionary triumph and the future of the free nation. "His personal behavior - aloof but visible, soldierly yet humble - was beyond reproach," Bordewich writes. "The Gazette of the United States proclaimed that Washington had become virtually divine."
Though a divisive character, Hamilton's contributions to the structure of national finances helped to save the government from falling apart before it began. Once Washington appointed Hamilton to Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton worked tirelessly to devise a financial plan that would attend to the country's enormous war debts and bolster its revenues - which were especially necessary to establish a defense system. At first, it seemed impossible that the legislative branch would approve the measures, but as the debate ground on, national debt continued to climb.
"One of the most fortuitous encounters in American history," as Bordewich calls it, "occurred when Jefferson ran into Hamilton in the street outside the president's house. As they paced back and forth in front of Washington's door, Hamilton, looking haggard and disheveled and 'dejected beyond description,' according to Jefferson, pleaded that the integrity of the Union hinged on assumption. If it failed to pass, he intended to resign…The Virginian replied, why not sit down with Madison for a 'friendly discussion'?" The next night, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison struck a deal that essentially traded the South's approval of Hamilton's treasury plan for the capital's location between the slave states of Maryland and Virginia on the Potomac - where southerners knew they would exert greater influence over the federal government.
Without Hamilton's unmatched abilities, the Congress would have been lost. "Representative Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, who supported Hamilton's plan, confessed, 'Finance is of a nature so complicated that to comprehend it requires more real physical skill and mathematical knowledge than I am possessed of. We have been so accustomed to system, and have lived so long at loose, that we are scared out of our wits at the sight of a long financiering report.'"
A Boston bookseller and wartime friend of Washington's, Secretary of War Knox was "the most enlightened crafter of Indian policy the United States produced before the twentieth century, believed that Indians must be fairly compensated for lands already seized by whites, and that all future cessions of native land be negotiated peacefully and legally, and properly paid for." Despite his best intentions, however, war followed, setting a precedent for the coming years of expansion in the West. Knox also wrestled with the problem of national defense at a time when much of the public and many in congress opposed a standing army, associating the institution with bullying Redcoats.
Washington named Jefferson Secretary of State as soon as the position was approved by Congress. He was more or less coerced into the position, preferring to return to his elegant life in Revolutionary Paris, where he was the U.S. minister to France. Not everyone took kindly to his laissez-faire attitude. Bordewich writes, "Federalists would be shocked by his enthusiasm for the increasingly bloody revolution that was unfolding across the ocean. 'I like a little rebellion now and then,' he had jauntily informed Madison, who somewhat more cautiously shared his pro-French sentiments. 'It is like a storm in the atmosphere.'"