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The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government Paperback – February 21, 2017
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"The First Congress faced its daunting agenda with resourcefulness. . . . [Bordewich] provides clear and often compelling analyses of the problems that required varying doses of compromise and persuasion. . . . Readers will enjoy this book for making an intricate story clear and fascinating." -- David S. Heidler, The Washington Post
“Fergus Bordewich paints a compelling portrait of the first, critical steps of the American republic, a perilous time when Congress – a body that has proved naturally contentious and short-sighted – had to be wise, and it was. The First Congress deftly blends many voices and stories into an elegant and gripping tale of a triumph of self-government.” -- David O. Stewart, author of Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America and The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution
“Bordewich’s account is well worth reading and brings to life the First Congress and its members. Gracefully written. . . . Bordewich provides a balanced assessment of the many achievements of the First Congress, while not overlooking its shortcomings.” -- Mark G. Spencer, The Wall Street Journal
“The story of how these flawed but brilliant men managed to put the theory of the Constitution into actual practice and create a functioning government is the subject of Fergus M. Bordewich's fascinating The First Congress." -- Tom Moran, The Chicago Tribune
"With his highly informative The First Congress, historian Fergus M. Bordewich joins the ranks of familiar authors like Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, Fred Kaplan and others, whose biographies and studies of early American history have captivated so many. . . . Bordewich combines fascinating biography with a detailed account of the three sessions of Congress that ran from 1789-1791 and established the institutions and protocols that we follow today." -- Tony Lewis, The Providence Journal
“Entertaining. . . . The colorful machinations of our first Congress receive a delightful account that will keep even educated readers turning the pages.”, Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Bordewich brings back to life the ‘practical, impatient, and tired politicians’ who transformed the parchment of the US Constitution into the flesh and blood of a national government. . . . Anyone curious about the origins of today’s much-maligned national legislature will marvel at this hair-raising story of stunning political creativity.” -- Richard A. Baker, US Senate Historian Emeritus and co-author of The American Senate: An Insider’s History
“Fergus Bordewich reminds us, with solid research and sprightly prose, that once upon a time Congress worked and leaders of the new nation understood that true patriotism requires that legislators actually get things done and keep the Government open for business. This book should be required reading for every member of Congress.” -- Paul Finkelman , Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism
“[A] highly readable and sweeping account of the First Federal Congress.” -- Kenneth R. Bowling, co-editor, First Federal Congress Project; Adjunct Professor of History, George Washington University; and author of Peter Charles L'Enfant
About the Author
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Fergus M. Bordewich covers it all with insight and the slightest bit of cynicism. The story is made rich by its focus on the players, many of whom only get passing mention in other books about this period. They are often quite colorful—cerebral Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman, fiery James Jackson, Robert Morris, Elbridge Gerry, Fisher Ames, Elias Boudinot, Aedanus Burke, and dour William Maclay, who kept a journal. The stars of the story are, of course, George Washington, whose very presence made the startup government possible; James Madison, who wrote much of the legislation and guided it through Congress; Alexander Hamilton who, as Secretary of Treasure, wrote the funding and assumption bills that made provision for the debt. He also wrote the bank bill and the legal opinion that trumped Madison’s and Jefferson’s opposing legal opinions and swayed Washington to sign the bill into law.
The operative word for the success of the First Congress is compromise. Without a willingness to compromise, very little would have been accomplished. The great motivator behind a willingness to compromise—and given only passing mention by the author—was fear, fear that the anti-Federalists would hold a second Constitutional convention to dispense with the new Constitution and restore something akin to the Articles of Confederation and this return all power back to the states, and the fear of secession, not just of the slave-holding South, but of New England too. Tensions were rife during the first six months of the new government, and only eased up when George Washington signed the Bill of Rights act, which then went to the states for approval. Thomas Jefferson’s role during this time was slight, except for hosting the dinner for Hamilton and Madison that led to comprise: Madison backing away from blockage of the assumption bill, and Hamilton convincing congressmen from the Northeast to back down and let the residence bill pass, which moved the capital to Philadelphia for a ten-year period, and then to its permanent home on the slopes of the Potomac. Bottom line: there was nothing inevitable about the survival and success of the new government. It was never a foregone conclusion. It came about by men hailing from all parts of the country, each with his own agenda, willing to overlook their pride and prejudices and create a workable government. The result of their spirit of compromise was the successful launching of a government that continues to this day.
Writing a detailed account of such an active and crucial period in our nation’s history is a monumental task, and I salute the author for having done it. However, it’s not the last word on this subject. I also very much appreciate “The Presidency of George Washington” by historian Forrest McDonald (McDonald wrote a great deal about this time but his name is not among those listed in the bibliography); the monumental “The Age of Federalism” by Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrck. Another name missing from the bibliography is Joanne B. Freeman and her wonderful book “Affairs of Honor” which likewise delves into the personalities of this time. That said, I enjoyed Bordewich’s polished and informative narrative and recommend his book highly. Five stars.
This well researched book covers the dynamic period when the system outlined by the Constitution was put into practice and how the infant nation dealt with its urgent problems. Problems like the nation’s financial system, dealing with threats from hostile indian tribes and Barbary Pirates, writing and passing the Bill of Rights, and settling the location of the national capitol. These issues were not easily resolved.
Underlying everything were issues of North vs. South, agrarian vs manufacturing economies, aristocratic vs. egalitarian societies, states rights vs. Federal control, and slave labor vs. paid labor. In reality, these polarizing issues are all strongly correlated and were one dichotomous system which pivoted about whether or not slavery is allowed. However, the slavery issue was often not mentioned. It was the 900 pound gorilla that had to ignored; because most politicians recognized that attempts to abolish slavery would destroy the infant nation, just as it did almost seven decades later. They were convinced that all thirteen states were needed for the country to succeed.
Fergus Bordewich provides insight into the nature of the key players, often by using quotations their exact wording and spellings, a touch I enjoyed. But, he doesn’t differentiate these quotations by marking them with quotation marks or footnotes. At times it is difficult to tell if the words are Bordewich’s or a historical character’s. Sometimes this compounds the book’s greatest weakness. The author occasionally writes torturously constructed sentences. When he mixes eighteenth century American language into one of those twisted sentences; it can take three or four readings to understand what is being said and by whom. But that is a small price to pay for a fresh look at this important period in our history.
In this book you will see many of the nation’s leaders in new light. How James Madison used his masterful understanding of the constitution to mold many congressional decision his way. Discover why Thomas Jefferson didn’t want to be Washington’s Secretary of State and why he disliked Benjamin Franklin. You will learn what John Adams, our first Vice President, thought of that office. There are unexpected revelations of George Washington’s ethics revealed by his choice in designating the location for the District of Columbia.
For anyone who wants better insight into the foundations of our democracy or just a look at what the America was like for the Founding Founders, this book is made for you. Oh, you will also find that the way politics is done in America hasn’t changed much in 224 years, except traveling to the capitol is much easier for today’s politicians.