We have never lacked for a wealth of books explaining the federal Constitution, or laying out the dramatic motion-by-motion forging of the document in the 1789 Philadelphia Convention. David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787 (2007), Rick Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution (2009), and Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010) are only the most recent entrants in a prosperously crowded field. What came after the Constitutional Convention, though, drops sadly out of historical view, even though the First Congress, which was the most important creation of the Constitution, was understood on all hands to be the real arena in which the Constitution would be judged a failure or a success.

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

by Fergus M. Bordewich
Simon & Schuster, 416 pp.

This is a little like devoting most of one’s attention to building a ship without inquiring whether it ever afterward actually floated. The story of the First Congress, as a Congress, has usually been shouldered aside in favor of biographies of the individual players or the internal struggles of George Washington’s administration. In fact, were it not for the work of George Washington University’s Kenneth Bowling’s books on Politics in the First Congress, 1789-1791 (1990), Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress (1999), and Neither Separate nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s (2000), we might not have anything to guide us at all through a Congress that Washington described as “next to a Miracle.”

Fergus Bordewich’s The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government gives us, finally, a popular and finely paced account of the Congress that could have easily unmade the new American republic in the course of a few months. A good deal of the betting money, especially among the handful of European diplomats who represented the United States’s minuscule number of allies in the world, was on failure. The French minister, Élie de Moustier, was certain that the new Congress would fare no better than the Confederation Congress it succeeded, and when at last it would be clear, after two tries, that Americans were incapable of governing themselves, France could step in to offer what Moustier glibly called “guidance” to the American yokels.

Instead, the First Congress surprised even its own members by the marvelous scope of its accomplishments. Sitting in three sessions (from April of 1789 to March 3, 1791) in two different capitals (New York for the first two sessions, Philadelphia for the third), the First Congress managed to adopt the first ten amendments, create a fully developed federal judiciary, pass revenue legislation that would give the national government its first reliable income, set up a national bank and adopt a sophisticated fiscal policy, bring a presidential cabinet into being, give life to the separation of powers described in the Constitution, debate slavery, ratify the first Indian treaties, identify the location of a new national capital, and (hardly among the least of its deeds) pass the first American copyright legislation. “In no nation, by no Legislature,” wrote John Trumbull, “was ever so much done in so short a period for the establishment of Government, order, public Credit and general tranquility.”

Not that any of this came easily. The new Congress was to assemble for its first session on March 4, 1789—only to prove shy of a quorum in both houses. Only eight senators (from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) were in attendance, and so they “adjourned from day to day,” waiting for more of their colleagues to show up. When no other senators appeared after a week, the “same members” resolved to send “a circular letter … to the absent members, requesting their immediate attendance.” Even more humiliating, when no one responded, they were forced to send a second letter, on March 18. The stragglers finally began to appear on March 19, beginning with William Paterson of New Jersey, and finally, on April 6, a quorum was declared—all of twelve senators.

The members of the new House of Representatives were just as difficult to summon. Only thirteen were on hand on March 4; James Madison, who had played so outsized a role in the Constitutional Convention, was kept away from New York by the miserable weather until March 14. George Washington was even further behind schedule. Not until the electoral votes had actually been counted on April 7 and Washington declared the president did the Father of His Country bestir himself to join the new government.

The entire business might have collapsed on itself if Washington had delivered the inaugural address he had prepared for his swearing-in. The handwritten draft ran to seventy-three pages, and, even worse, lobbed one attack after another on “the Adversaries to this Constitution,” on “the rotten” Articles of Confederation, and on his “personal enemies if I am so unfortunate as to have deserved such a return from any one of my countrymen.” A horrified James Madison had prevailed on Washington to trim this jeremiad down to 1,400 words, couched in a much blander tone. Even so, Washington took the constitutionally prescribed oath on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall on April 30, “agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” He was all too conscious of what every other member of Congress was surely agonizing over—that every step, every glance would “hereafter be drawn into precedent,” and one mistake now would mean a heritage of political misery thereafter.

On the other hand, the First Congress had Madison, representing one of Virginia’s ten districts in the House of Representatives, who was a host in himself. Madison, said the Massachusetts political wunderkind Fisher Ames, was “a man of sense, reading, address, and integrity” who “speaks low” and “decently, as to manner, and no more. His language is very pure, perspicuous, and to the point.” It was Madison who, on April 7, introduced the first bills to establish a national revenue, through tariffs and tonnage fees, and to create a workable system for tax collections and a registration process for American merchant ships. It was also Madison’s task to redeem the pledge he had made during the Virginia ratification struggle to introduce a series of amendments to the new Constitution that would reassure the political unbelievers in the republic that the new federal government would not turn into a dictatorial monstrosity. And it was Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who brokered the deal that established the Potomac River as the site for the new capital.

However, as Bordewich candidly illustrates, Madison was not a magician. The amendments he had promised to introduce—and which we sanctify today as the Bill of Rights—were not greeted with enthusiasm, much less unanimity, in the First Congress. Madison wanted nineteen amendments inserted into the body of the Constitution at various relevant places; Roger Sherman objected that this would mutilate the Constitution he had signed in Philadelphia, and proposed to attach them at the end. Madison wanted swift action; the House voted to send the amendments to a committee, which whittled them down to seventeen and sent them to the Senate, which cut them down to twelve. Even then, two of the twelve amendments fell short of ratification; one of them, dealing with pay raises for members of Congress, would finally be ratified as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution only in 1992.

More influential in Bordewich’s telling even than Madison is Alexander Hamilton, for it was Hamilton, installed in the first cabinet office created by the new Congress, who devised the two great reports on public finance and a national bank that determined “what kind of nation the United States was going to be, one in which capitalism would be embraced as a driving engine of federal policy.” Hamilton was the rare soul in the new republic who had more than an elementary grasp of European finance, and it took every ounce of persuasion he could muster to convince Congress that “debt could … be translated into political power.”

Certainly, there was no shortage of debt for the first Congress to contemplate. Bordewich estimates that the face value of the combined state and national borrowing since the Revolution amounted to $74 million, with interest in arrears, and multiplying. To keep this wolf from the door, Hamilton could count on a revenue from federal tariffs and excise taxes of a little over $4.4 million per annum. Undaunted, Hamilton not only outlined the process for monetizing the national debt, but even suggested adding to that responsibility the burden of the state debts—a proposal that aroused the fierce opposition of a number of states, not because they enjoyed bankruptcy but because they dreaded that this assumption of state debt would establish for once and all the economic supremacy of the federal government over the states.

Oddly, a far more urgent role in resisting Hamilton’s proposals emerged from slavery. Hamilton is one of the few people in Bordewich’s cast of early republican solons who washes himself clean of the taint of black slavery in the new republic; and much of the opposition to Hamilton’s funding plans comes from the representatives of the slaveholding states, who saw in any form of federal supremacy a future threat to slaveholding. “A debt-compelling government is no remedy to men who have lands and negroes, and debts and luxury,” Fisher Ames shrewdly observed, “but neither trade nor credit, nor cash, nor the habits of industry, or of submission to a rigid execution of law.”

The Constitutional Convention had twice wrestled with the incompatibility of slavery and American liberty during its deliberations, until, prompted by southern threats of withdrawal and northern assurances that slavery was an institution on the economic way out, the Convention concluded to say nothing. But, in what Bordewich describes as the first congressional lobbying campaign, antislavery activists—chiefly Philadelphia and New York Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—forced antislavery petitions onto the floor of the House, and generated a fury that should have made clear that slaveholders had no intention of letting slavery disappear quietly.

Bordewich, in his 2009 book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, revealed how much the determination of Madison and Jefferson to plant the new capital on the Potomac was driven by the fear and resentment of southern members of Congress that Philadelphia was a nest of abolitionist vipers who would entice their domestics to run away. He returns to that theme here, describing it as “the beast in the garden,” making the debate over the location of a capital not only the most convoluted of all the First Congress’s debates but the moment when “the fissure between south and north … finally cracked open.” From the First Congress, a bright line reaches toward Fort Sumter.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of the task Bordewich has undertaken here. Like the Constitutional Convention, the First Congress moved crabwise on issues, visiting and then revisiting them in no particular order. Bordewich strikes an unusual and successful balance between treating the First Congress chronologically and explaining it thematically. He does not hesitate to admire Hamilton, Madison, and Washington; neither does he hesitate to scoff at John Adams, Washington’s self-important vice president, as the man who “established a lasting template for vice-presidential inconsequence.” And anyone, as Bordewich says, who imagined that the First Congress would behave like a “solemn conclave of classical philosophers rather than politicians” would soon be disabused by the roaring tirades of Georgia’s James Jackson, by the pointless truculence of Elbridge Gerry, or by George Washington’s coldly furious determination, when the Senate refused to endorse his negotiations with the Creeks, that “he would be damned if ever he went there again.” (And he never did—nor has any president since.)

As distant as they appear to us in their knee breeches and cocked hats, the members of the First Congress fell to the same horse trading, pork barreling, foot dragging, committee referring, and interest peddling as the members of the 114th Congress are reviled for indulging in today. Yet, as Bordewich adds, “despite their competing interests and personalities, they would perform a feat of collaborative creativity that has rarely been rivaled.” And, Bordewich cannily observes, the issues they wrestled with in 1790 still have resonance today: “sectional rivalry, literal versus flexible interpretations of the Constitution, conflict between federal power and states’ rights, tensions among the three branches of government, the protection of individual rights, the challenge of achieving compromise across wide ideological chasms, suspicion of ‘big money’ and financial manipulators, hostility to taxation, the nature of a military establishment, and widespread suspicion of strong government.”

You might think 1790 was only yesterday.

Allen C. Guelzo

Allen C. Guelzo, a senior research scholar at Princeton University, is a Civil War historian and three-time winner of the Lincoln Prize.