The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government

Congressional History By Kevin R. Kosar May 30, 2024

Fergus M. Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, 396 pp. $30). Buy a copy.

The men who drafted the U.S. Constitution rightly earn our eternal praise. A little over 237 years ago, they met in Philadelphia, where they pondered, debated and haggled for four months. James Madison, George Washington, and the rest of the Founders scrapped the Articles of Confederation, and replaced it with a new governing document. 

The Constitution of the United States they enacted is a remarkable document. But parchment was not enough to meld together the disparate states and peoples. A government had to be stood up to make good on the Constitution’s promises to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

This great challenge fell to the first U.S. Congress, convened between March 4, 1789, and March 4, 1791, and whose achievements were incredible. It’s a story told with color and verve by Fergus Bordewich, the author of other much-lauded tomes on early America.

Bordewich writes: “In its three sessions … it would create the Departments of State, War, and Treasury, the Supreme Court, the federal court system, and the first federal criminal code.”

He further adds: “Congress would debate and pass … the Bill of Rights. It would enact a bold agenda of duties and tariffs to create a revenue stream for the federal government and adopt a far-reaching financial plan that rooted the nation’s economic system in capitalist principles. The first national bank of the United States would be launched, the first census begun, and the patent and copyright systems established.” 

None of this was easy. Just getting Congress convened was difficult, in a time when there was no proper capital. The young legislators (most were in their thirties and forties) had to trek to New York City, which could take weeks. They came by carriage, sleigh, horse and foot, and found lodging in taverns and private homes.

The first day, they assembled in Federal Hall near Manhattan’s southern tip, with the House meeting on the first floor and the Senate upstairs. To their embarrassment, there were too few to constitute a quorum. The votes for president and vice president could not be counted, and nothing could be done. Virginia’s Theodorick Bland was among the late arrivers, having been “shipwrecked & landwrecked, mired, fatigued with walking &c. &c.” [Note: “&c” is an archaic rendering of “et cetera.”] Neither chamber mustered a quorum until early April.

The concise language of the Constitution may seem straightforward enough, but actuating proved difficult. What was the Speaker of the House supposed to do? Should the vice president actively participate in Senate debates? Senators were chosen by their respective state legislators, but did this imply they were to consult with their home state’s assemblies before voting? Did the national charter’s “necessary and proper” clause permit establishing a bank to regulate the value of currency, as Alexander Hamilton contended? The nascent Congress squabbled, often heatedly, over these subjects and many others (including proposed taxes on cod and molasses). 

The permanent location of the nation’s capital was a long and especially inflammatory dispute. Nearly every state’s legislators made a play to secure the seat of government. Each imagined that having the capital would bring economic developments and strengthen their state’s influence over federal policy. This feud was settled through wheeling and dealing, deceit and grubby transactional politics. 

Initially, they cut a deal to make Philadelphia the capital temporarily, which is where the first Congress held its second session; it would be situated permanently in Maryland on the Potomac River, somewhere between Williamsport (a little south of Pennsylvania) and Georgetown. George Washington and his Virginian friends subsequently hard-bargained Congress to amend the statute. The new federal district would be further south and would encompass land in Virginia, 200 acres of which was owned by Washington. Northerners were outraged, but voted for it because the South threatened to vote against Hamilton’s bank bill. 

The reader of The First Congress cannot help but come away with a realistic perspective of Madison, Washington and the Founders. They were, as the book’s title notes, “extraordinary” in the strict sense—most were more educated and successful than the average American. But they were not gods on Olympus. They were riven by parochialism, self-interest and petty personal animosities. They had basic philosophical differences over the authority of the federal government and the nature of the union. 

What made them extraordinary is how they got beyond these fundamental differences and got things done. “I have launched my barque on the federal ocean,” said Delaware’s John Vining. “And should she arrive at her destined port with her invaluable cargo safe and unhurt, I shall not regret… she may have lost some of her rigging. Which may be considered a cheap purchase for the safety of the whole.” They took hard votes and cut deals because that is what governing demands. Had they not, America would not be the world’s longest-living and most stable republic and pre-eminent country.

Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He worked for more than a decade as a nonpartisan researcher at the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service. Kevin also hosts the Understanding Congress podcast and is co-editor of the book, Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform. This review first appeared in the Weekly Standard.


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