We often hear this election year that more Americans than ever are disillusioned with politics. The approval rate for Congress drops to record lows, while the founders of our country are held up as giants compared to our current leaders.
But historian Fergus Bordewich reminds us in The First Congress that six years after the American Revolution ended, our political system was in terrible shape. A central government under the Articles of Confederation was barely functioning. The new nation was burdened with high debts, economic woes and states that could not get long.
And when the first U.S. Congress under the new Constitution met in New York in 1789 and the first president, George Washington, took office, many citizens and leaders sounded as pessimistic as they do today. The prospects for creating a new government from scratch appeared dim.
Sen. William Maclay, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, wrote in his diary that when he arrived in the Senate he was “expecting every man to act the part of a God.” Instead he found “rough and tumble manners, glaring folly and the basest selfishness apparent in almost every public transaction.”
Yet somehow, the new Congress got the job done, turning a piece of parchment — the U.S. Constitution — into the machinery of government. Bordewich’s worthy contribution to popular history shows us how a combination of high-minded determination, vote-trading and back-room deals created “muscular and enduring institutions” that could adapt and thrive for more than 200 years.
Other historians, including David McCullough and Joseph Ellis, have chronicled the conventions that produced the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Bordewich unravels the messy legislative process that followed. In its first two years, Congress passed the Bill of Rights, created a federal judiciary, set up a system of tariffs and duties to raise revenue, launched the initial Census and chose the site for the nation’s capital.
The First Congress focuses on a rich cast of characters, led by the diminutive, frail James Madison, a chief architect of the Constitution. His colleagues were louder and more assertive, but Madison’s “whispery, patiently lecturing voice” often carried the day.
Bordewich uses diaries and letters from the principals to describe the first congressional debates. Every decision set a precedent, from how to address Washington (one Senate committee endorsed “his highness” but the House turned that down) to whether the president should have the power to fire his own appointees (yes, after much argument).
Success did not always come from principled deliberation. Congress barely debated the merits of the Bill of Rights, which many members saw as unnecessary. A protracted debate over where to locate the new capital was marked by “bile-filled sectional jealousies” and even personal interest — Washington and his friends had extensive land holdings in and near the chosen spot. That decision was reached after a complicated back-room deal, with trading of votes to get a funding and debt bill passed.
Bordewich’s achievement here is to demonstrate that representative government can be unappealing and inefficient and still produce good results. Some of the best strategists in the new government recognized that “the great machine was clumsy by design,” balancing states’ rights with the national interest, and creating federal branches that often checked each other.
The “most consequential failure” of the new Congress was over slavery, the author writes. The founders avoided dealing with that huge issue because even the opponents of slavery did not want to risk splintering the new government.
What the founders achieved should be admired but not sanctified, Bordewich concludes: “The process was sometimes brutal, and it certainly did not conform to the idealized version of the founding held by many Americans. But it worked.”
Frank Davies is a writer and editor in northern Virginia.
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