Book Review by Mark G. Spencer

Calling the House to Order

A bill of rights was the No. 1 priority of the first Congress. But no one thought they were producing sacred writ.  ‘We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,” James Madison said of the harrowing task facing the First Congress assembled at Federal Hall, its temporary home in New York City. While historians write much about the ideological origins of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the drafting of the Constitution (1787), the First Federal Congress (1789-91) gets short shrift. That is unfortunate. While the Revolution launched America’s political experiment and the Constitution provided a theory and a mode of government, the First Congress defined how American government would work in practice. Many of the questions it faced, Fergus M. Bordewich notes, were vast in scope: “Was the president to have independent power? Or was he to be a figurehead, an agent of Congress? Where did the power of government lie? Was the Senate an executive body or a legislative one? How were the powers of the two branches to be reconciled?” Nobody knew. Mr. Bordewich guides us through the answers in “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.” Center stage in this story are Congress’s 95 members. They included Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, the “American Demosthenes;” Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, “one of the House of Representatives’ most respected members;” Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, “a hardheaded businessman and no sentimentalist;” and Virginia’s Madison, about whom Mr. Bordewich writes, “no man contributed more to the achievements of the First Congress.” Others also played prominent roles in the creation of a practical government: President George Washington; Vice President John Adams; various cabinet ministers, particularly Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; and miscellaneous lesser figures such as Alexander McGillivray, “the remarkable” Creek chief who was “the son of a Scottish trader and a mixed French-Indian mother.” An unlikely hero, of sorts, was the “rigid, thick-skinned, and socially maladroit” Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who kept a diary of the Congress’s daily proceedings. For many debates, his cranky voice is the only record. What was their agenda? For Madison, anti-Federalist-inspired amendments to the Constitution—amendments that would define or limit the powers of a central government—were paramount. Rarely referred to at the time as a “bill of rights, the first 10 amendments were all formulated by the First Congress. But “virtually no members of Congress imagined that they had just passed a set of measures that would become . . . part of the sacred canon of American democracy.” (Mr. Bordewich remarks that even “the final order of the amendments was completely arbitrary”). And, for most members, other issues loomed larger. A “practical, impatient, and tired” bunch, many “had regarded the whole [amendments] debate as at best a distraction from things that mattered: the national revenue, the protection of codfish and molasses, the establishment of courts, defining (or enlarging) presidential power, and agreeing on a permanent capital.” Much of that agenda was accomplished by 1791. A National Bank (assuming the state and national debts and providing “cement to our union,” as Hamilton put it) was created. So was a court system, including the Supreme Court, with John Jay as chief justice. Laws were passed to regulate, among other things, trade, naturalization, and copyright and patents. Not all was smooth sailing. Some hotly debated questions now appear trifling. How to address Washington as president? John Adams lobbied for “Majesty” or “His High Mightiness,” scoffing that the lesser title “President” was only appropriate for the heads of “Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.” Adams failed. The president would be addressed simply as “President of the United States.” Elements of monarchy were disregarded, and a new style was accepted. No question “agitated Congress more,” Mr. Bordewich writes, than “where to plant the country’s capital.” Some 30 sites had backers. Sectionalism flourished in a “frenzy of backroom bartering.” Benjamin Rush, a Pennsylvanian medical doctor and abolitionist, wrote to Adams saying that, if a proposed site on the Potomac River were to triumph, “Negro Slaves will be your Servants by day—musquitoes your centinels by night, and bilious fevers your companions every Summer & fall—and pleurisies, every Spring.” The Potomac location won, but not before discord between North and South was evident to all. On the surface, “The First Congress” looks to be somewhat old-fashioned. Its approach is political and institutional history; its focus is America’s elite Founding Fathers; and the words “extraordinary,” “men,” and “invented” in its subtitle do not conjure images of the kind of innovative historiography that in recent decades has enriched our understanding of previously understudied aspects of early American history. Yet Mr. Bordewich’s account is well worth reading and brings to life the First Congress and its members. Gracefully written, his narrative weaves in much about the members’ day-to-day lives. One learns interesting details about where they resided; with whom they dined; what they ate, and drank; their states of health, and many illnesses; diversions; reading habits and so on. This account isn’t perfect. Some might think that President Washington is cast in terms that are too ambiguous, and that the writings of European thinkers such as David Hume, John Locke, and especially Montesquieu—none of whom merit entries in the index—might have been put to more use. But Mr. Bordewich provides a balanced assessment of the many achievements of the First Congress, while not overlooking its shortcomings, notably on the matter of slavery. In 1790, three Quaker-inspired petitions favoring emancipation—and endorsed by an aged Benjamin Franklin—were introduced. Some members, like Madison, kept “a low profile” and quietly hoped the issue would go away. Others, like James Jackson of Georgia, exploded. If the Quakers loved blacks so much, he shouted in a diatribe to fellow members in Congress, “let them go to Africa. There they may marry and be given in marriage, and have a motley race of their own.” After all, said Aedanus Burke of South Carolina, slaves in the South lived “at ease and in great plenty.” For Mr. Bordewich, the failure of these petitions was the “most consequential failure of the First Congress.” “Even members who loathed slavery,” he writes, “feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without its splintering. They may have been right.” The seeds of the Civil War had been planted. What strikes Mr. Bordewich as most noteworthy is that the First Congress “continued to function despite so many personal, local, and ideological rivalries and conflicts.” In the First Congress, he argues, an “American tradition of bare-knuckle compromise had been born.” Some may think that an overstatement—after all, an attitude of compromise had been evident at least since debates on the Declaration and Constitution. Yet an underlying pragmatic wisdom of the first Congress should be highlighted: “All its members shared a common fear of failure and a determination to make government work,” Mr. Bordewich writes, “even it if meant compromising on matters of deep principle.” There, one suspects, the author sees as a historical model worthy of emulation by the Congresses of today. Mr. Spencer is a professor of history at Brock University.

First appeared in the Wall Street Journal