Why the First U.S. Congress Worked and What We Can Learn From Them Today

For the last six years we’ve watched the Republican’s post-policy approach give us the epitome of a “do nothing Congress.” That is just one of the reasons why Allen Guelzo’s review of the book The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus Bordewich in the current issue of the Washington Monthly is both interesting and instructive.

With over 200 years of hindsight, it is easy enough to assume that this fledgling democracy created by the Constitutional Congress in 1788 would be a thriving success. But that wasn’t the assumption at the time. The first Congress was slow to get started and – as Bordewich points out – the French were waiting on the sidelines to take over in an assumption that these new kids on the block were doomed to fail. But the opposite happened.

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.”

The history of how all of that happened is fascinating to read. But beyond that, there is a message in all of it that is timely. Lest we are tempted to think that the arguments we’re having today are somehow unique:

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.”

The process wasn’t pretty and the arguments were fierce. But what that Congress had that is lacking today is individuals who were committed to a democratic process rather than the power games that are currently on display. It meant that – as Borderwich suggests – “despite their competing interests and personalities, they would perform a feat of collaborative creativity that has rarely been rivaled.”

We would all be well served by an expectation that our current representatives emulate the “next to a miracle” Congress.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.