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Founding workhorses: Review of ‘The First Congress’

Philip A. Wallach

Editor’s note: This post is a review of Fergus Bordewich,
The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
(Simon & Schuster, 2016). 

In his 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, lately of even greater renown, Ron Chernow writes, “If Washington is the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” Hamilton (everyone now knows) got a lot farther by working a lot harder—and one of the many great accomplishments of Chernow’s book was to show us what that meant, in terms of mundane, toiling administrative work.

The achievement of Fergus Bordewich’s new book, The First Congress, is to show us that, Hamilton’s lately much-sung labors notwithstanding, the work of creating an effective federal government in America was shouldered as much by legislators—including some workhorses whose contributions in the first Congress are often forgotten.

To be sure, much of Bordewich’s story is spent with familiar characters who themselves possessed legendary work ethics: James Madison, the constitutional architect who as a member of the House became Congress’s informal leader; President George Washington, the towering figure whose willingness to treat Congress as “the paramount branch of government” was indispensable; and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Knox, each of whom played formative roles as the first heads of the original federal executive departments. But each of those departments had to be created by Congress. Washington could not be sworn in until members of Congress assembled to count electors’ ballots. And while Madison took the lead, his lesser known colleagues would be the ones to concretize his sometimes-theoretical constitutional vision and ensure it survived first contact with reality.

The need to do so quickly was pressing. “Confidence in government was abysmally low…contempt for politicians was rife, … [and] many political men held an equally low opinion of the voting public.” There was anything but widespread confidence that the United States were destined for survival, let alone greatness. At the same time, expectations were very high: if the new nation, until then hobbled by its feeble government under the Articles of Confederation, was to find its legs, this was the time.

Congress began its work in the temporary capital of New York City, then a fast-growing and chaotic shipping hub of 30,000, and its first days were hardly auspicious. When shots were fired on March 4, 1789, to signify the beginning of the new government, there was nowhere near the majority quorum needed to do business in either house. Bordewich vividly paints the predicament that most members then faced, making journeys through an almost unimaginably harsh and untamed landscape; to make the journey from Boston to New York required “a six-day journey by sleigh tumbling from one rock to another riding over the Ice for miles down a river & pushed in a wherry across another.” What little there was of the holdover government had the humblest of trappings: John Jay “ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox…presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”

Finally the House achieved a quorum of twenty-nine members on April 1 and the Senate followed on April 5, and both chambers got down to the work of considering the legislation that would give the new government its shape. Proceedings in these Federalist-dominated chambers were far less structured and rule-bound than our familiar image of a legislature, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the relative smallness of these bodies (by the end of the first Congress, 65 Representatives and 26 Senators, none of whom had professional staffs).

But if they started haltingly, they managed to work their way through a remarkable number of issues, both prosaic and explosive. In spite of a complex interplay of competing interests, especially the manufacturing-heavy north and agricultural, slavery-dependent south, they worked through a tariff that would provide the federal government’s main source of revenue, a Coasting Act to register ships in coastal waters, and a Collection Act that established the system of customs collectors and port officials who would enforce the tariffs. After a difficult debate about presidential removal authority, they created the first three executive departments (Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and War).

With the leadership of “the prodigiously hardworking Senator Oliver Ellsworth” of Connecticut, they gave birth to a powerful federal judiciary, structured along entirely novel lines, and later provided work for that system by establishing the first federal crimes and passing a copyright act. The Senate staked out its power of “advice and consent” over appointments and treaties (including one with the Creek nation) as a substantive one by refusing to simply ratify Washington’s choices without debate, even when he came to the Senate chamber in person to press his case. Bordewich also nicely covers their rancorous debates over the future of slavery instigated by Quaker abolitionist petitioners, which ultimately failed to budge the status quo, in large part because of fears that the new constitutional union could still easily fall to pieces over the issue.

Bordewich’s telling of the debates around what we think of as the Bill of Rights is especially illuminating. He makes it clear that Federalist legislators thought of them not as a legislative priority, but rather as an “amendment problem” pressed by the small Anti-Federalist minority to be expediently managed and minimized. When Madison first broached the subject of amendments in June of 1789, he was rebuffed. As Representative John Vining (Federalist – Del.) put it, “The people are waiting with anxiety for the operation of the Government. Have they passed a revenue law? Is not the daily revenue escaping us? Let us not perplex ourselves by introducing one weighty and important question after another, till some decisions are made.” Eventually, in September 1789, 39 amendments did receive meaningful, if rather brisk, debate. As important as passing the 10 that were ratified (plus the wandering 27th Amendment) was the rejection of others that would have imperiled a strong and independent federal government, including endowing voters with a right to give legislators binding instructions and a limitation of federal powers to those “expressly” provided by the Constitution. Bordewich brings these debates to life with fascinating and sympathetic portraits of men who mostly found themselves on the losing side of these early congressional debates, including Anti-Federalist Representatives Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, James Jackson of Georgia, and Aedanus Burke of South Carolina.

Perhaps the narrative center of the book is the maneuvering that surrounded two debates that became entangled: where the nation’s capital should be permanently situated and whether the federal government should follow Alexander Hamilton’s plan to assume state debts (which Madison opposed). What is passing into the current collective memory as a behind-closed-doors bargain between Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson, Bordewich ably illuminates as the culmination of a series of intricate congressional offers, counter-offers, and betrayals, in which the young country’s different regions felt each other out and embraced the need for horse-trading as a way forward. Philadelphians beat out advocates of a capital on the Susquehanna or in Baltimore for the government’s immediate future, and southerners were enticed to consent to assumption of state debts with the promise of a permanent capital on the Potomac. As Bordewich puts it, “An American tradition of bare-knuckle compromise had been born.”

The third session of the First Congress, which convened in the new temporary capital of Philadelphia in December 1790, took up “a small mountain of legislation” it only partially worked through before permanently recessing in March 1791. It passed laws to adopt Hamilton’s plan for a national bank (again over Madison’s opposition), set up the structure for payment of executive branch officials, recruit a new regiment to fight Indians on the northwest border, reduce the public debt, and collect duties on tea, among others. As Bordewich puts it in summation, “From a piece of paper, the members of the First Congress had made a government.”

That is an achievement worth dwelling on more often than we do, and one with some obvious lessons for the present moment. Our first Congress was filled with members who perceived their own principles and their constituents’ interests to be sharply at odds with those of their colleagues, but they “shared a common fear of failure and a determination to make government work even if it meant compromising on matters of deep principle.” Today, the stakes are no doubt somewhat lower—we have a vast federal government that keeps on going, for better or for worse, whether our representatives in Congress compromise or not. But Congress is the first branch for a reason, and the prospects for our government’s legitimacy are poor if our legislators are mired in a pattern of reactive sniping rather than constructively compromising on the dominant questions of the day. Let us hope that current legislators will be inspired by Bordewich’s chronicle of their forbears, who made Congress the essential institution to forging a strong nation.

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