Friday, June 16, 2017

Guest Review: The First Congress

Summary: This “fascinating” (Chicago Tribune), “lively” (The New York Times) history tells how the First Congress and the Washington administration created one of the most productive and far-reaching governments in American history—“gracefully written…and well worth reading” (The Wall Street Journal).

The First Congress may have been the most important in American history because it established how our government would work. The Constitution was a broad set of principles that left undefined the machinery of government. Fortunately, far-sighted, brilliant, and determined men such as Washington, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson (and others less well known today) labored to create a functioning government.

In The First Congress, award-winning author Fergus Bordewich brings to life the achievements of the First Congress: it debated and passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which we know as the Bill of Rights; admitted North Carolina and Rhode Island to the union when they belatedly ratified the Constitution, then admitted two new states, Kentucky and Vermont, establishing the procedure for admitting new states on equal terms with the original thirteen; chose the site of the national capital, a new city to be built on the Potomac; created a national bank to handle the infant republic’s finances; created the first cabinet positions and the federal court system; and many other achievements. But it avoided the subject of slavery, which was too contentious to resolve.

The First Congress takes us back to the days when the future of our country was by no means assured and makes “an intricate story clear and fascinating” (The Washington Post) -- Simon and Schuster.

I'm sure you're not surprised to see that this review for THE FIRST CONGRESS: HOW JAMES MADISON, GEORGE WASHINGTON, AND A GROUP OF EXTRAORDINARY MEN INVENTED THE GOVERNMENT by Fergus M. Bordewich isn't one of mine. This book of American history is definitely more up Booking Pap Pap's alley. Here are his thoughts:

In THE FIRST CONGRESS: HOW JAMES MADISON, GEORGE WASHINGTON, AND A GROUP OF EXTRAORDINARY MEN INVENTED THE GOVERNMENT, author Fergus M. Bordewich takes the reader through the process that created the current U.S. government. The First Federal Congress sat from March, 1789 through March, 1791 to form a workable government based on the recently approved Constitution. The first two sessions of the Congress met in New York and the third met in Philadelphia. Among the items debated and ultimately decided upon included ratification of the first ten amendments now called The Bill of Rights; formation of a Judiciary; structure of the Executive branch, including payment of the officers; creation of a National Bank; establishment of a national regiment to fight Indians; and a permanent location for the National Capital. They even debated the title for the presidency.

Bordewich describes the political environment at the time the First Congress began deliberations. He portrays a government that was barely functioning as formed under the Articles of Confederation, a country saddled with a poor economy and large debts, a population pessimistic about the future and a group of states that did not agree on the issues of state rights versus national interests. At this point only eleven states had ratified the Constitution.

After culling through masses of information, Bordewich utilizes interesting detail to bring the story to life. For example, Washington had a personal financial interest in locating the capital in the Potomac area. Congress did not consider the first ten amendments important and very little time was spent on debating them before approval. Hamilton and Madison became enemies after disagreements on the National Bank. Jefferson did not want to be Secretary of State and was quite happy living in France. Travel to and from the sessions was quite perilous and many members were injured or became ill. Stories about the interaction between congressional members were sometimes quite amusing.

All of us were taught that George Washington, John Adams Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton played important roles in the formation of the government. Author Bordewich makes the argument that Hamilton was the most important and John Adams was the least helpful because his performance as Vice-President set the precedent for the do-nothing office it is today.

What we learn from reading THE FIRST CONGRESS is that 65 representatives and 26 Senators also played a significant role. I’m not sure these men were extraordinary as the author claims or brilliant, but in spite of big egos, constant arguing, regional bias and some anti-constitution positions, these men through compromise and horse-trading, accomplished an awful lot. They managed to establish a government that struck a good balance between state rights and national interests and set up a national government structure with checks and balances among the three branches. Maybe our current politicians could learn from the First Congress what can be accomplished with compromise and putting national interests ahead of personal gains.

The one major issue that they failed to address fully was slavery which they feared would splinter the nation. Their premonition proved accurate as this issue did divide the country some 70 years later.

If you enjoy American history then you should read THE FIRST CONGRESS.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his terrific review.

1 comment:

bermudaonion said...

Since I'm not much for history, I'll probably skip this. I do think my mom would enjoy it though.