Title: The First Congress
Author: Fergus M. Bordewich
When the members of the First Congress met in New York, the new nation was still fragile, riven by sectional differences, hobbled by competing currencies, crushed by debt, and stitched together only tentatively by the new Constitution. The Constitution provided a set of principles by offered few instructions about how the government should operate, leaving it to Congress and the president to create the machinery of government. As James Madison put it, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” Had Congress failed in its work, the United States as we know it might not exist.
Along with Madison, powerful men such as Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, Elbridge Gerry, and Robert Morris often clashed, sometimes savagely, but ultimately they forged a consensus that gave strength and credibility to the new government. Fergus M. 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. Bordewich immerses us in the dramatic debates over the Gill of Rights, the creation of the president’s cabinet the adoption of a new capitalist financial system, and the acrimonious argument over the new capital, among many other issues.
Not all went well. Washington was astonished when Congress chose to debate rather than instantly endorse some of his proposals. John Adams antagonized friends and foes alike, leaving the vice presidency permanently diminished. Madison, the acknowledged leader of the House of Representatives clashed with Hamilton over their competing visions of government. Quakers initiated the first lobbying campaign in American history, challenging Congress over the greatest issue that it failed to resolve: slavery.
Some of the issues the First Congress faced still challenge us: literal versus liberal interpretations of the Constitution, conflict between the states’ rights and federal power, protection of individual rights, and many more. How Congress and the president achieved as much as they did is a story that could not be more timely in our era of hyperpartisanship and governmental gridlock.