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The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791. The First Congress was the most important in US history, says prizewinning author and historian Fergus Bordewich, because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed—as many at the time feared it would—it’s possible that the Uni The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791. The First Congress was the most important in US history, says prizewinning author and historian Fergus Bordewich, because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed—as many at the time feared it would—it’s possible that the United States as we know it would not exist today. The Constitution was a broad set of principles. It was left to the members of the First Congress and President George Washington to create the machinery that would make the government work. Fortunately, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others less well known today, rose to the occasion. During two years of often fierce political struggle, they passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution; they resolved bitter regional rivalries to choose the site of the new national capital; they set in place the procedure for admitting new states to the union; and much more. But the First Congress also confronted some issues that remain to this day: the conflict between states’ rights and the powers of national government; the proper balance between legislative and executive power; the respective roles of the federal and state judiciaries; and funding the central government. Other issues, such as slavery, would fester for decades before being resolved. The First Congress tells the dramatic story of the two remarkable years when Washington, Madison, and their dedicated colleagues struggled to successfully create our government, an achievement that has lasted to the present day.


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The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791. The First Congress was the most important in US history, says prizewinning author and historian Fergus Bordewich, because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed—as many at the time feared it would—it’s possible that the Uni The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791. The First Congress was the most important in US history, says prizewinning author and historian Fergus Bordewich, because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed—as many at the time feared it would—it’s possible that the United States as we know it would not exist today. The Constitution was a broad set of principles. It was left to the members of the First Congress and President George Washington to create the machinery that would make the government work. Fortunately, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others less well known today, rose to the occasion. During two years of often fierce political struggle, they passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution; they resolved bitter regional rivalries to choose the site of the new national capital; they set in place the procedure for admitting new states to the union; and much more. But the First Congress also confronted some issues that remain to this day: the conflict between states’ rights and the powers of national government; the proper balance between legislative and executive power; the respective roles of the federal and state judiciaries; and funding the central government. Other issues, such as slavery, would fester for decades before being resolved. The First Congress tells the dramatic story of the two remarkable years when Washington, Madison, and their dedicated colleagues struggled to successfully create our government, an achievement that has lasted to the present day.

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alkire

    Good book. The topic is interesting. While I’ve read about many of the issues facing the first Congress, there was material here about more obscure issues and Congressmen here. Thus, I still learned something new, which always makes a book reasonably worthwhile all things being equal. The book is readable and organized well without bogging down in details. In short, this book would serve as a good introduction to the first government of the United States even if there are more in-depth more nuan Good book. The topic is interesting. While I’ve read about many of the issues facing the first Congress, there was material here about more obscure issues and Congressmen here. Thus, I still learned something new, which always makes a book reasonably worthwhile all things being equal. The book is readable and organized well without bogging down in details. In short, this book would serve as a good introduction to the first government of the United States even if there are more in-depth more nuanced books about each of the issues discussed within. Well worth your reading time if you like history about the United States’ first government.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Faith

    In spite of my having grown up in New Jersey surrounded by "Washington slept here" sites, my school seemed to devote more time to making me memorize the names of the English kings than they did to American history. So I feel like there are great gaps in my education. I was spurred on to revisit the history of my country by my recent visit to the Broadway musical "Hamilton". This book was a very readable and entertaining history of the two year session of the first Congress, during which Washingt In spite of my having grown up in New Jersey surrounded by "Washington slept here" sites, my school seemed to devote more time to making me memorize the names of the English kings than they did to American history. So I feel like there are great gaps in my education. I was spurred on to revisit the history of my country by my recent visit to the Broadway musical "Hamilton". This book was a very readable and entertaining history of the two year session of the first Congress, during which Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and others passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution and worked out the basic mechanics of the United States government. The participants argued many crucial issues that continued (and still continue) to be a problem for many years like the interpretation of the Constitution, states' rights and slavery. Major problems addressed included what to do about the war debt and where to place the national capital. It was fascinating to read how these issues were resolved. There were well-researched descriptions of NYC and Philadelphia. The book relied a lot on the work of the First Federal Congress Project. Much of the information came from letters written by the participants in the First Congress. Sometimes I felt like there were too many quotes strung together in lieu of analysis. However, there were nifty details like what Washington wore at his inauguration and how his hands shook as he delivered his speech, which was written by Madison. Vice President Adams (described as "rigid, thin-skinned, and socially maladroit), earned the disdain of many in Congress and didn't trust the public and was too fond of the British system of titles and pomp and circumstance. He set a precedent for "vice-presidential inconsequence". There was an amazing amount of small details that the author managed to ferret out. Like the fact that after the first session of Congress adjourned, one of the congressmen had his trunk and all his personal papers stolen during his trip home. There are no footnotes. All notes are at the back of the book, which made them difficult for me to access in my digital edition of the book. The notes and bibliography comprise the last 25% of the book. I can't attest to the book's accuracy, but it was really dishy and enjoyable and I learned a lot in a decidedly un-painful manner. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    The author utilized the First Federal Congress Project to write this book. The Project has cataloged nearly all the diaries, letters and newspaper accounts relating to the proceedings of the Congress of 1789-1791. As we discovered with Bordewich’s book, the project is a gold mine for historians. The key actions of the Congress were the ratification of the Constitution and the creation and passage of the Bill of Rights. They also decided on how the government should function, cabinet positions et The author utilized the First Federal Congress Project to write this book. The Project has cataloged nearly all the diaries, letters and newspaper accounts relating to the proceedings of the Congress of 1789-1791. As we discovered with Bordewich’s book, the project is a gold mine for historians. The key actions of the Congress were the ratification of the Constitution and the creation and passage of the Bill of Rights. They also decided on how the government should function, cabinet positions etc. This book is well written and meticulously researched. Bordewich has the ability to place the reader right into the scene. I felt as if I was suffering the hot cramped meeting rooms right alongside Madison, Adams and Washington debating each Amendment and the Bill of Rights. I found the section about how they determined the amount of power the president should have most interesting. They said they trusted George Washington but what about some president in the future who wants to become a dictator. It became clear to me that the issues that the men wrestled with in 1790 still have resonance today. The book is easily readable and I found it most enlightening. I have read other books by Bordewich and find him great at writing descriptive details. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is thirteen hours. Sean Runnels does an excellent job narrating the book. Runnels has won five Earphone Awards and has narrated a number of Audie Award winning audiobooks. He is also an actor.

  4. 4 out of 5

    David Eppenstein

    "The First Congress" now there's a title designed to propel a book off the shelf and into the hands of an eager reader right? Okay, well maybe not but to miss reading this book would be a mistake if you value the history of this nation. In the Spring of 1789 a few dozen men, white men, mostly wealthy educated men, were sent to NYC by the voters of their communities and their state legislatures. When they arrived they had something called the Constitution of the United States in their hands. This "The First Congress" now there's a title designed to propel a book off the shelf and into the hands of an eager reader right? Okay, well maybe not but to miss reading this book would be a mistake if you value the history of this nation. In the Spring of 1789 a few dozen men, white men, mostly wealthy educated men, were sent to NYC by the voters of their communities and their state legislatures. When they arrived they had something called the Constitution of the United States in their hands. This constitution was like a vague pencil sketch of a machine that these men were now required to build. This book is an excellently detailed record of the efforts of these men from Spring of 1789 until 1791 to construct the machine of government that we know as our Federal government. Much to its credit this is not a particularly long book, 313 pages of text, as one might expect for a subject like this. The brevity, however, adds to its richness as the issues, politics, personalities, schemes, maneuvers, are all fully revealed without unnecessary distraction or verbiage. Personally, the book has answered a couple of questions I have always had as a result of my reading of American history. I wondered why a man like John Adams who worked like a dog on behalf of this country was not more highly regarded by his peers. And how did a man like James Madison, co-author of the "The Federalist Papers" and Father of the U.S. Constitution, become an acolyte of Thomas Jefferson who ran for president with the avowed purpose of undoing everything George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton had built? After reading this book I have a much better understanding of these two Founders and what lead to their fates and places in history. We live in extraordinary times. Our country seems divided and the division irreconcilable. Reading about our history and especially books like this one makes it possible to keep current events in perspective. Our Founders and so many others in our past faced greater hardships and perceived disasters and managed to right the ship and go forward. If we have a national tragedy it is that our history, that history in general, is so neglected by our schools and by our citizenry. If you are distressed by what is happening in our country presently then start reading more about our history. Find out how we came to be a nation. Learn why we have a constitution and how and why it was created. The more you read books like this one the better an American you will be and the more you will appreciate the efforts of those who went before us and how much we owe them and how much work there is to do. Our country is a great unfinished symphony and we all have our instruments to play.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Grumpus

    This was another freebie, a First Reads win. As one interested in this time period in US history, I've read much about the players and the Revolutionary War itself, but found little about how our government actually came into being. Nobody was sure what to do, there was no template. Everything was a great debate and progress was slow--just like my progress in reading about it. It's dense (and sometimes dry) reading, but well researched and filled with quotes from the political players. This book i This was another freebie, a First Reads win. As one interested in this time period in US history, I've read much about the players and the Revolutionary War itself, but found little about how our government actually came into being. Nobody was sure what to do, there was no template. Everything was a great debate and progress was slow--just like my progress in reading about it. It's dense (and sometimes dry) reading, but well researched and filled with quotes from the political players. This book is not an overview, this is the encyclopedia of how the American government came to be. Recommended for those like me, who wanted to know how it all came to be.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Thomas West III

    Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable. While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier. Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich. With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life. Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable. While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier. Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich. With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life. Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation. While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention. He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania. These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government. Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book. Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation's financial infrastructure. Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate. As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital. Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties. It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency. There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress. Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture. The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans. While the question of slavery was punted to future generations--a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation--Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress. While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves, Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all. All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style. Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision. In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America. Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events. Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress. Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good. I only hope that that's not just wishful thinking. My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book. And, finally, here's to my 200th post on this blog. Let's hope for 200 more!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Steven Peterson

    The First Congress under the Constitution was crucial to the success of the new republic. The document had been ratified by the states--but the reality was yet to come. Could a functioning government be created? Could the ills of the Articles of Confederation (the precursor of the Constitutional government) be addressed? Some issues were easily settled. The first President would be George Washington. But what then? This book does a wonderful job of laying out the work of the first Congress. It was The First Congress under the Constitution was crucial to the success of the new republic. The document had been ratified by the states--but the reality was yet to come. Could a functioning government be created? Could the ills of the Articles of Confederation (the precursor of the Constitutional government) be addressed? Some issues were easily settled. The first President would be George Washington. But what then? This book does a wonderful job of laying out the work of the first Congress. It was extraordinarily successful. James Madiison, in his leadership position in the House of Representatives, was a key figure--although many others played important roles as well. Take two issues as examples. How would a federal judiciary be structured? The Constitution was extremely vague on the subject. Congress had to create the rules and structure of the court system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 was the result. This work does a nice job of showing how this act came about--with a great deal of discussion. Then, the Bill of Rights. A number of states ratified the Constitution but were so suspicious that they insisted on a Bill of Rights. Madison did a fine job of coming up with candidate amendments--but many of his ideas were not acted upon. Still, at the end of the day, we ended up with the ten amendments--the Bill of Rights. Much political horse trading and political infighting was involved. In the end, a terrific book on the contributions of the first Congress.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Richard Subber

    Alec D. Rogers very capably reviews The First Congress at AllThingsLiberty.com. Fergus Bordewich offers a detailed look at how the leaders of the former American colonies started buckling down to making a government after the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. It was a tough job. We’re still hard at work on it in 2019. Some excerpts from Rogers’ review of The First Congress: “By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government. And whi Alec D. Rogers very capably reviews The First Congress at AllThingsLiberty.com. Fergus Bordewich offers a detailed look at how the leaders of the former American colonies started buckling down to making a government after the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. It was a tough job. We’re still hard at work on it in 2019. Some excerpts from Rogers’ review of The First Congress: “By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government. And while the concept of a two house legislature was not as alien as the Constitution’s article II President, there were many procedural questions that would need to be settled as the machinery began to operate. Like President George Washington, its members were aware that virtually everything they did would set a precedent for the new government. They also knew that the eyes of the world were upon their republican experiment… “Bordewich takes us through the battles that consumed the first Congress. A new tax system was imperative yet controversial for its implications for federal-state relations as well as its distributions of burdens on different sectors of the economy and regions. The creation of the federal judiciary similarly aroused concerns about an overbearing, costly federal government. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a national bank and the structure of the debt consumed considerable time and raised profound questions regarding federalism and separation of powers. Even the title by which the President would be addressed turned into a deep philosophical question about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and the nature of the executive in a republic.” Rogers also notes: “In 1871, John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams would observe that: ‘We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.’” I’ll add that readers today should keep in mind that Charles Adams, grandson of the venerable John Adams, forgot to mention that the Founding Fathers never called themselves “founding fathers,” and they mostly weren’t buddies, and mostly they were affluent white guys (mostly lawyers) who were inclined to dabble in politics or who seriously sought political power. Human nature doesn’t change in the short space of 240 years or so. Read more of my book reviews and poems here: www.richardsubber.com

  9. 5 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    The first Congress was the great unheralded "founding" of the American republic. It provided us with our first judiciary system, our earliest federal departments, from War to State to Treasury, our first revenue system, assumed and funded the state debts, passed the bill of rights, established a national bank, and, in its surprisingly most contentious decision, set the seat of government on the Potomac. Representative James Madison was at the center of much of this, arguing for the presidential The first Congress was the great unheralded "founding" of the American republic. It provided us with our first judiciary system, our earliest federal departments, from War to State to Treasury, our first revenue system, assumed and funded the state debts, passed the bill of rights, established a national bank, and, in its surprisingly most contentious decision, set the seat of government on the Potomac. Representative James Madison was at the center of much of this, arguing for the presidential prerogative to remove cabinet officers while founding the Foreign Affairs department, which became the more general State Department after Congress became concerned that the Confederation Congress's longtime secretary, Charles Thomson, and his ally Senator Robert Morris were trying to build a separate "Home Department" as their own fiefdom (VIce President John Adams cast his first tie-breaking vote in the Senate to keep the removal prerogative for the President, which he knew he would likely inherit). Madison exhorted his fellow congressmen to pass tariffs quickly to garner revenue for the bankrupt nation, and, unsuccessfully, argued for them to pass special lower tonnage taxes for nations with which the US had a treaty (namely, France). He wrote and passed the Bill of Rights, though most in Congress thought this was of little moment next to issues like the placement of the seat of government, since the amendments limited powers the federal government didn't have anyway. The placement of what became Washington D.C. was the focus of much of the First Congress, though many understood it had few policy consequences beyond which section would keep the "customs of taverns" wherever it would locate. In the end, the chance meeting of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson on Bowling Green, which led to a later dinner meeting with Madison afterwards, birthed the first significant backroom deal in congressional history. The deal traded the assumption of state debts the North wanted for locating the seat along the Potomac, which the South wanted. President George Washington himself was to decide the exact location, yet he selected it further South than even the act allowed, in order to encompass some of his property in Alexandria, Virginia, and Congress, reluctantly and with some embarrassment, had to pass another act ratifying this choice. This book shows that the first Congress was full of the same pettiness, vote-trading and ideology that characterized later Congresses, and that, as also with later Congresses, picayune issues of local gain occupied much of the debates, while bills of eternal interest passed with relatively little discussion. Such is the way of the world, and this book shows it well, warts, triumphs and all.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Craig Bowers

    When I grabbed this book, I figured it would be my historical study book for the summer. The book that I personally give myself to learn more about our history, whether entertaining or not. I was wrong, "The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government" had me entrenched in knowledge through laughing, tears, and shock. It confirmed for me that our Founding Fathers were not as simple as most of those in society see them as (especia When I grabbed this book, I figured it would be my historical study book for the summer. The book that I personally give myself to learn more about our history, whether entertaining or not. I was wrong, "The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government" had me entrenched in knowledge through laughing, tears, and shock. It confirmed for me that our Founding Fathers were not as simple as most of those in society see them as (especially when they try to use them to convince us to follow a current political belief), and that all of them had both positive and negative attributes. I respect them even more than I did before for the work that they did--creating our nation was much more difficult than I saw it before--but I now know that our nation has always had problems. And I do not mean this on a national level, I mean it on a personal one. When people today complain of politicians acting for themselves, I think of how this is what some did over 200 years ago in the street so New York while debating issues such as slavery. When concerns such as the environment or corporations arise in conversations with my friends, I want to grab this book and find examples of how it was done by some that had been praised in our culture. At the same time it is not all negative, I realize that there are those that fought ardently for the good and often succeeded. And those that gave up their own life dreams to work for the creation of this nation that we now have. I recommend this book to those that want to know the true history of America. It is a fun and casual read. There are times where the author does expect some information to be remembered that I could not--such as the names of many of congresses members--but it is not required to appreciate. Please, enjoy and share. If those in high school would read this our nation would read books such as this for a generation, our nation would truly be intelligent within a few years.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    ****As per all of my reviews, I like to preface by saying that I listened to this book in audiobook format. This does indeed slightly skew my rating. I have found that audiobooks, give me a better "relationship" with the characters if done well, but also kills the book for me if narrated poorly. Also due to the nature of listening to the text, names and places may be spelled incorrectly here as I often do not have the physical volume in front of me. Also, I have written this review in a "rolling ****As per all of my reviews, I like to preface by saying that I listened to this book in audiobook format. This does indeed slightly skew my rating. I have found that audiobooks, give me a better "relationship" with the characters if done well, but also kills the book for me if narrated poorly. Also due to the nature of listening to the text, names and places may be spelled incorrectly here as I often do not have the physical volume in front of me. Also, I have written this review in a "rolling updates" style. In that I basically chronicle my reading as I progress. This may make for a jarring and spoilery review so be warned.***** So in this, hmm how should I put it.., 'intense' political climate that we live in, I think it's a very good idea to take this moment and sort of give in to some self-reflection. We often lose ourselves in the current battle in the political arena, dig our heels in to our preferred parties and duke it out in a slugfest to the death. I have mentioned this before but I really believe that there's a real danger to political parties. I'll touch on this later, but I wanted to give my thoughts on First Congress and why reading such a book and not necessarily this specific one, is a really beneficial idea that gives us all the opportunity to get some insight and reflection into just why things are put into place as they are. The Great Experiment I think we all need to keep this in mind… The United States is biggest experiment the world has known. At it's formation is wasn't sure (and didn't look likely) that was going to work smoothly or as planned. What I love about the book is that it starts you off with a very light coat of back story, but sort of delves right to the meat and potatoes. It starts roughly around 1777 and basically sticks to the first 10 or so years that spanned the creation of the Articles of Confederation, ratification, the idea of Slavery as part of the constiution, etc.. Admittedly I think the book, especially the audio recording, loses you a bit with the fluery of names being tossed about. But that being said, it is managable, as many here are well known 'actors' in our political drama. The book does a good job in providing explanations, but it sometimes assumes knowledge that the reader may not have or, glosses over some facts. But this is few and far between, most idea's are laid out rather well, such as the idea of Madison's views vs Hamiltons, the budget and monetary hellhole that we started off with. I was hoping that we'd get a weightier sense of drama and implications by the battles we hear described. Unfortunately this isn't really trumped up. The book tackles some of the biggest challenges such as the problem with even broaching the subject of slavery before all the states were 'onboard'… But at the end we don't really get a nice 'bow on it' type writing. And because this is actual historical non-fiction, I know its' very very hard to do such a thing without adding fake, gossipy, emotions that weren't based in fact. I suppose it would be nice though to have these challenges and problems that the early US faced, more clear cut. The chapters and themes of the chapters aren't really clearly defined and I found that they bled into each other a lot. It would have been great to have say, Part I Chapters 1-4 on the challenge of trying to gather the states to agree to radify rather than stick with the A.o.C etc.. The book while it does hold interest it does sometimes drift a bit and often atleast for me, I find my mind wandering. What's neat is that sometimes the author delves into the actual quality of life, and style of living of the colonies. I actually would have loved to hear a bit more of this… But sometimes it seems to get a bit too deep in the weeds of political back and forth that granted…is a very hard topic to keep interesting 100% of the time. I enjoyed this, I was hoping it would have laid out the struggle a bit more in layman's terms, but I think Bordewich does a standup job. The book also does a swell job in relating the view points and sort of split down the middle in terms of the federalist and anti-federalist ideals. Also I liked that he did indeed give us some background into just *why* the A.o.E would have led to far more disjointed and not unified nation. Getting back to the more current philosophical nature… Giving ourselves a deeper look back into our history, I think is pretty vital. Just claiming that "This president is stupid" and not having any inkling as to why things are in place, doesn't work as a defense. There's not a lot of good to be had to rail about a current adminstration or law or anything if you can't place the context of which it came from. And trust me I am no historian… but before I lash out and air my dismay I try to look back and think about the path of how we got here. The book First Congress does an absolutely fantastic job in showing us two sides to the arguments. I couldn't detect any real bias that would be surely put in if this were presented as a news documentary or piece. Both sides have their point of view. Even for topics like how to tackle the staggering about of debt, were laid out on an even keel. Coming away from the book, I think it succeeded in many places, I would have liked to see more written for a fundamental knowledge base. Perhaps more analogies, more detailed looks at characters and their stances etc. and again I can probably chalk a lot of this up to it being audio and listened to while I am multitasking. I enjoyed it, I think I'd like to see MucClough do something like this. It's a time in history that may be a bit overlooked honestly. The struggle to pull the country up from it's bootstraps isn't really a battle that is well known. But I like the idea that there was basically a big "Well...what do we do now?" moment at the end of 1776... Even at the end of the First Congress, we see that a ton of issues had to get tossed to the "next generation" since there just was not enough time to hear all the needed issues. The idea that our government, and way of life really, was formed with the idea of keeping power limited and making sure that the power remained with the people is just so brilliant. While looking back now, from 2019, It's hard to say that this idea has the same weight that it did then. I don't think if you ask the average person, how much power do they have in the political grand scheme of things, you would get an answer that would be what the Founders would have wanted to hear. Even our beloved Congress, and it's famous bi-cameral houses which now seem to be a gaggle of bitter, entrenched groups that relate more to general party idea's instead of who they represent... The book while whatever it doesn't expound upon provides are good jumping off point to do research into whatever is skipped over in the book

  12. 4 out of 5

    Relstuart

    Interesting insight into the how the United States government started creating itself with the first Congress. There were many issues they dealt with, where the capitol should be, how appointing people, or approving presidential appointments was going to work, how to create a system that taxes the people/states fairly, how to pay back veterans of the Revolutionary/Civil War defeating Britain. A lot of good information with a lot of little stories that make the history interesting. They author di Interesting insight into the how the United States government started creating itself with the first Congress. There were many issues they dealt with, where the capitol should be, how appointing people, or approving presidential appointments was going to work, how to create a system that taxes the people/states fairly, how to pay back veterans of the Revolutionary/Civil War defeating Britain. A lot of good information with a lot of little stories that make the history interesting. They author did quote from other more modern authors for some of his material and represented as true a few things that are controversial with some historians without noting there is some controversy about the side he decided was right. So, not a perfect book but still a good read.

  13. 5 out of 5

    William

    I love reading about the start of our country and this rates right up there with Miracle In Philadelphia as one of my favorites. Didn't know some of the people who were important contributors. And was surprised that there was so little attention paid to the Bill of Rights. Ok, it all surprises me that they could accomplish what they did. This is a great story and Fergus did a good job telling it. Read it. I love reading about the start of our country and this rates right up there with Miracle In Philadelphia as one of my favorites. Didn't know some of the people who were important contributors. And was surprised that there was so little attention paid to the Bill of Rights. Ok, it all surprises me that they could accomplish what they did. This is a great story and Fergus did a good job telling it. Read it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Peter Goodman

    “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a group of extraordinary men invented the government,” by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon and Schuster, 2016). When the first Congress convened in 1789, there was no government. The Senate and House of Representatives had no rules; no one knew how to address the first President, George Washington; there were no departments; there was no revenue; and on and on. There was a Constitution, barely ratified (North Carolina and Rhode Island held “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a group of extraordinary men invented the government,” by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon and Schuster, 2016). When the first Congress convened in 1789, there was no government. The Senate and House of Representatives had no rules; no one knew how to address the first President, George Washington; there were no departments; there was no revenue; and on and on. There was a Constitution, barely ratified (North Carolina and Rhode Island held out for months). It took weeks just to get a quorum. There were no amendments to the Constitution, and there was a lot of argument about whether there even should be. There was no permanent seat of government. The sectional rivalries were just getting under way, the southern slaveholders, the New England merchants and farmers. Was there going to be a strong central government, or were the states going to dominate as they had previously? So the first Congressmen had to make everything up. And they did, arguing all the way. The prime mover was James Madison, who knew the Constitution better than anyone else. He wrote Washington’s letters to Congress, and he wrote Congress’ answers to those letters. Slowly the Congress fought out everything: how can the government get revenue? Should there be tariffs and customs taxes? What is the role of the vice president? Should the federal government assume the debts run up by the states as they tried to finance the war? The battles were incessant and wearisome. Sometimes the shouting got so heated they had to close the windows to the Senate chamber. Most of the representative hated New York: noisy, noisome, crowded, unruly, filthy. Andrew Hamilton was the only one who had any understanding of economics. The first huge compromise, worked out by Madison and Hamilton at a dinner at Jefferson’s: The government would assume the states’ debts and the seat of government would be on the Potomac River (G. Washington bought up a lot of land in the area before the decision was made. Insider trading was normal.) Fascinating book. Popular history, well done. Very well-written: clear, concise, evocative. http://www.fergusbordewich.com/

  15. 4 out of 5

    John Daly

    Book 4 of 40 for 2016 The Constitutional Convention created the framework for the government but the making of the Constitution into a working government was done my the First Congress. Which is the subject of Fergus Bordewich excellent new book. The First Congress created the Executive Departments, the judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. In addition it laid the foundation for how Congress functions to this day. We see the beginnings of compromise driving legislation in determining the new location Book 4 of 40 for 2016 The Constitutional Convention created the framework for the government but the making of the Constitution into a working government was done my the First Congress. Which is the subject of Fergus Bordewich excellent new book. The First Congress created the Executive Departments, the judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. In addition it laid the foundation for how Congress functions to this day. We see the beginnings of compromise driving legislation in determining the new location of the capital. We see the creation of the Treasure Department by Hamilton along with his laying the foundation for our financial systems. We see Madison in the first session of the First Congress acting as a majority leader in the House working and pushing legislation through but as time passes we see the Congressman begin to push back and begin to factionalism take its place in the House. We see John Adams as President of the Senate totally miserable and a Senate that meets behind closed doors and does not keep a record of its proceedings. Bordewich depends upon members letters and dairies to piece together the debates of the upper chamber. We also see Washington develop his role as Chief Executive and how to work with Congress. We see Washington over the course of this First Congress switch allegiances from Madison to Hamilton as debates over the finances of the nation would be handled. In light of the current struggles of the 114th Congress Bordewich provides a great and concise history of how Congress started and how its early days still impact how the Congress works today. I highly recommend it.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Casey Wheeler

    I received a Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would write a review and post it to Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, my blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. This is the first book by Gergus M. Bordewich that I have read. This was an engaging and fascinating read. The author addresses all of the key decisions that took place during the first congress that laid the groundwork for how our legislative, executive and judici I received a Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would write a review and post it to Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, my blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. This is the first book by Gergus M. Bordewich that I have read. This was an engaging and fascinating read. The author addresses all of the key decisions that took place during the first congress that laid the groundwork for how our legislative, executive and judicial branches interact today. Among these are what are the roles of the President and Congress, the first amendments to the Constitution that eventually become the Bill of Rights, when does the President address Congress and in what manner, the evolution of the rules of procedure for both the House and the Senate, the Senate's authority to confirm cabinet appointments and the President's to fire cabinet officers, the role of cabinet officers and the Vice President and who establishes the budget among many other issues. In addition to these, Bordewich also weaves in the decision making process in establishing Washington, D.C. as the future permanent home of the Capitol and the establishment of the National Bank. The author does a nice job at the end of the book in relating what happened to all of the key characters that were involved in the process. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the establishment of our government or in the history of our country.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    As someone predisposed to liking just about any book on the Federalist period, I was not disappointed in this book. Bordewich does a very good job in bringing alive a topic that could be very dry and is surprisingly hard to find documentation about. When the First Congress under the Constitution met in New York City in 1789, it did not get off to a fast start. It took a few weeks for enough people to show up to have a quorum. No one was quite sure when George Washington would show up to be sworn As someone predisposed to liking just about any book on the Federalist period, I was not disappointed in this book. Bordewich does a very good job in bringing alive a topic that could be very dry and is surprisingly hard to find documentation about. When the First Congress under the Constitution met in New York City in 1789, it did not get off to a fast start. It took a few weeks for enough people to show up to have a quorum. No one was quite sure when George Washington would show up to be sworn in as President (John Adams was already on the job as Vice President). Nobody really knew what to do. Thankfully, James Madison was in the House of Representatives at the time. He was the man with an idea of what to do and got things going. (He was not the first Speaker of the House, that was Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania and he really didn't do much.) The First Congress had a lot of things to do, such as, come up with a Bill of Rights, set up the Judiciary, figure out what to call the President (this was a big deal), pick a site for the capital, and figure out how to finance the new government. The last task proved to be the most contentious and it ended up giving us political parties. My favorite anecdote in the book was President Washington walking over to the Senate, arriving unannounced, and demanding to know who didn't approve of one of his appointees. It was a Georgia senator who had blocked that nomination. Presidents do that anymore, but it would be fun to seem them try it again.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Russ

    What a pivotal two years in American history! We take for granted what the 1st Congress achieved, or we assume that the legislation and traditions that they created had all been developed by the Constitutional Convention. Not so! What I remember learning in high school was that early skeptics of the Constitution agreed to support it in exchange for a bill of rights to be adopted during the first session of Congress. From reading this book, I learned that I had been misinformed or grossly misled. T What a pivotal two years in American history! We take for granted what the 1st Congress achieved, or we assume that the legislation and traditions that they created had all been developed by the Constitutional Convention. Not so! What I remember learning in high school was that early skeptics of the Constitution agreed to support it in exchange for a bill of rights to be adopted during the first session of Congress. From reading this book, I learned that I had been misinformed or grossly misled. There was nothing automatic about the adoption of the bill of rights or which rights would be enumerated in the amendments. There was no set plan for which amendments, which had been proposed by the state legislatures, would be considered by Congress. There was no guarantee that Congress, dominated by a hefty Federalist majority in both houses, would support ANY amendments to the Constitution, which they feared would diminish the power of the new central government. But James Madison came to the House of Representatives with a plan. He was not the speaker of the house, but in those early days of Congress, the speaker was simply a presiding officer without the powerful agenda-setting role we think of today. Madison was, in effect, George Washington's floor leader in the House of Representatives (and the central "character" of this book). Madison picked about twenty of the better of the hundreds of amendments that had been proposed. He got Washington to support the concept of amendments in his inaugural speech and in an open letter. I would have liked a better sense of why Madison was so adamant about this, especially since he was a strong Federalist at this point in his career. But I think it was because he had made personal assurances to anti-Federalists at the tail-end of the Constitutional Convention and during the arduous state-by-state ratification process that the first session of Congress would necessary amendments. He and Washington felt that allowing amendments, even amendments which they privately felt were unnecessary, were important to national unity and acceptance of the new constitutional framework. But one of the many interesting things about this history book is that the amendments, which we now call the Bill of Rights, were not the focus of the legislators in the 1st Congress. Debate over the amendments was sandwiched between what most of the men there felt were bigger issues. They were trying establish procedures for advice and consent for presidential appointments and come up with a revenue collection scheme--both of which were vitally important to the basic operations of the new government. Consequently, there wasn't a great deal of debate on the record about the Bill of Rights. I had always assumed that a great deal of thought and debate had gone into each amendment separately, but I got the impression from this book that the proposed amendments were basically whittled down from twenty to those that fewer legislators objected to. They had to do some wordsmithing for the establishment clause of the first amendment, but apart from that they pretty much approved the ten amendments in an almost slapdash manner. These weren't written on stone tablets brought down from Sinai. Just another legislative workday in Federal Hall, apparently. I found it very clarifying to learn that the "advice and consent" role for the Senate in the Constitution had no agreed upon meaning. In the early days, Washington decided who he wanted to fill positions. He'd ask the senators from the nominee's state what they thought. They'd advise him--done deal. No vote on the Senate floor. Similar concept for the ratification of treaties. When Washington negotiated a treaty with the Creek Indians to stick to their side of a territorial border with Georgia, he sent over some written questions to the Senate to get their input. Then Washington thought he'd show up in the Senate chamber and they would consent to the treaty by acclamation. But some of the senators balked at this approach and wanted more time to think and debate. More formal methods were put into practice. Other major debates during the first two years included determining the honorary title and method of formally addressing the president (a debate which damaged the reputation of John Adams, president of the Senate, who advocated for monarchical-style titles), establishment of a federal court system, assumption of the state debts by the national government, the selection of a permanent location for the national capital, and the establishment of a national bank. All of these were knock-down, drag-out debates. The subjects of debt assumption, capital site selection, and the national bank gradually became intertwined behind the scenes in backroom deals as legislators traded support, sometimes against their own principles, if it meant they could get something else adopted which they valued more, especially during the second and third sessions during the second year of the 1st Congress. Regarding debt assumption, only thing we learned in high school was that Hamilton's proposal to assume the state debts helped solidify central power. That was true, but it only skimmed the surface. This book explained the actual debate and mechanism through which the state debts were assumed. I found this book to be quite fascinating because it examined the actual debates of the time rather than glossing over them or assigning some glib contemporary interpretation to historical events. Even though I have read biographies of Washington, Adams, and Madison, this book helped bring those men back to life for me and where they were each positioned politically in the early 1790s. I also learned about politicians like Senator William Maclay, who kept the only surviving notes about the Senate's affairs in a diary. (The Senate's deliberations back then were closed to the public.) Even though I love George Washington, there was a tad too much written about him in this book. It is supposed to be about Congress. The author examined Washington's first living quarters in New York, his social calendar, his saddle sores, his tours of states when Congress wasn't in session, etc. Still, overall I'd say I loved this book because it covered such an enormously important yet underexamined institution and time period. The topics and chronology were easy to follow and the enjoyable stories and humorous quotes kept subject matter very entertaining and engaging.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lanny Carlson

    Much has been written about the creation of the Constitution, but it was only a piece of paper until the first Congress met and brought the nation to life. This book describes in detail the struggles of that First Congress as they dealt with such issues as the creation of the Supreme Court, establishing a permanent location for the set of government, dealing with the states' debts and establishing a sound economy, creating cabinet positions, struggling with the relationships between the branches of g Much has been written about the creation of the Constitution, but it was only a piece of paper until the first Congress met and brought the nation to life. This book describes in detail the struggles of that First Congress as they dealt with such issues as the creation of the Supreme Court, establishing a permanent location for the set of government, dealing with the states' debts and establishing a sound economy, creating cabinet positions, struggling with the relationships between the branches of government - and struggling with but not solving the issue of slavery which even then threatened to destroy the fragile Union. The Congress also created what was to become the Bill of Rights, and even at this early date we see the debates between strict constructionists and those who already saw the Constitution as a living, evolving document. For those interested in 2nd Amendment issues, it is clear that the main concern was to avoid creation of a standing army. A well regulated militia was seen as a necessity, but the amendment was itself amended so as not to include all the people but those trained in the militia. But the issue continues to be debated, in part because of what the author calls the "creative ambiguity" of the framers. Sometimes we tend to see the adoption of the Constitution as the end of the story, but without the First Congress, the Constitution would have remained a lifeless document. This book shows how much we owe to these founders.

  20. 4 out of 5

    John

    I've always wanted someone to write a book explaining how the day to day establishment of the U.S. government took place. The Constitution provided the framework---but how then was it implemented? Courts had to be created. Judges put in place. The government had to have a system of gathering revenue in order to function. How was that organized? The Senate and House of Representatives had to start the process of making and codifying laws. The President had to set the government in motion, knowing I've always wanted someone to write a book explaining how the day to day establishment of the U.S. government took place. The Constitution provided the framework---but how then was it implemented? Courts had to be created. Judges put in place. The government had to have a system of gathering revenue in order to function. How was that organized? The Senate and House of Representatives had to start the process of making and codifying laws. The President had to set the government in motion, knowing that every move he made would be setting precedent for all who followed. The Cabinet had to be created and offices staffed, diplomats nominated and put in place around the globe. What would be taxed and in what percentages? A new site for the capital city would have to be agreed upon, surveyed and built. All of the Armed Service branches had to be created. This book, by Fergus M. Bordewich, does a fine job of telling that story. In the process the reader discovers that not much has changed in American government. Congress had its manipulators, its grand-standers, its demagogues, and thankfully its high minded doers. It is an excellent read.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Hines

    The moment I saw this book for sale on Amazon I knew I had to have it. As an history major and major student of our early government, I had always wondered about the precious days and weeks between when the Confederation Congress ceased to exist to when the new Congress reached a quorum and started to form a new government. What happened in the ensuing days and weeks? This book explains. The new constitution was then just a document of hopes and aspirations. What the men of the first U.S. Congre The moment I saw this book for sale on Amazon I knew I had to have it. As an history major and major student of our early government, I had always wondered about the precious days and weeks between when the Confederation Congress ceased to exist to when the new Congress reached a quorum and started to form a new government. What happened in the ensuing days and weeks? This book explains. The new constitution was then just a document of hopes and aspirations. What the men of the first U.S. Congress did was put it to life. They built the basic infrastructure of government we still largely recognize: executive departments, a federal judiciary, marshals and US attorneys, etc. They gave they new government revenue and the ability to enforce its will on the people and gained their trust. They brought order to disorderly thirteen states. They built many precedents we take for granted and almost assume are in the constitution. For instance, while there was really no serious debate about it, some members of Congress made the point that practical executive power could be vested "in the president alone, in the heads of departments," etc. For instance, they might have chosen to not even have executive departments, but devolve day to day clerk like responsibilities on the president alone! Thankfully, they decided not to, and built the beginnings of a federal bureaucracy and the tradition of the President's Cabinet. They also established senatorial courtesy and how to practically "advise and consent" on treaties and presidential appointments. It dwelt a long time on Hamilton's Assumption Program, wherein he proposed that the federal government "assume" the debts of the states and help repay them. Hamilton knew that the only way for the US could gain respect was to begin repaying its debts, which no one up to that time had tried to quantify. What he proposed was radical - essentially calling for refinancing the debt so they could pay off clamoring creditors and using the revenues of the new government to help pay for a permanent national debt. To a nation and culture brought up on the evils of debt, it was a huge blow. Hamilton had to essentially educate members of Congress and the public on basic finance, and of how modern nations used debt to their advantage. By the end of Washington's presidency, his program was bearing fruit, for the government was gaining respect among creditors to the point that they were able to borrow the money to finance the Louisiana Purchase some thirteen years after Hamilton suggested his plan. What did surprise me was how little debate there was actually was on the ten amendments to the constitution - what we know as the Bill of Rights. Bordewich makes the point that the Founders might have looked on the rights as so evident there did not need to be much debate. But, it also did not have the same significance that it has to our jurisprudence today. I also wondered what might have changed in Madison from his being the fierce federalist in the inaugural session of Congress to the opponent of a strong central government in the second. Bordewich has his theories, with which I might agree. But perhaps the big story of the entire volume was when Congress passed its first major bill: a modest tariff on a variety of goods. The book explains the fierce interests which fought against their region's prime industry being attacked in one way or another in the bill, or of the worry among New England merchants that it wasn't steep enough. When Congress passed the bill, it marked a watershed moment: the new Congress had proved that it could compromise and work for the common good. It established a precedent for many more such collaborations. It is one of those books that every student of history should read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Marshall

    This is an excellent overview of the activities of the first congress, the precedents established, and the personalities involved in the early days of the American Republic. Few sessions of the US Congress have been as consequential. The Bill of Rights, the Federal Judiciary, the first Bank of the United States, and the permanent location of the US capital were all established during this period. What is at times amusing, is the lack of a sense of the consequences of their actions by the persons This is an excellent overview of the activities of the first congress, the precedents established, and the personalities involved in the early days of the American Republic. Few sessions of the US Congress have been as consequential. The Bill of Rights, the Federal Judiciary, the first Bank of the United States, and the permanent location of the US capital were all established during this period. What is at times amusing, is the lack of a sense of the consequences of their actions by the persons enacting this legislation. The Bill of Rights is seen almost as American scripture. However Madison, its prime mover viewed it as little more than a prudent political approach to defuse concerns raised by the anti federalists who opposed the creation of a federal government. Doubtless he would be surprised not only at the impact, but also that the then inconsequential Supreme Court would hand down numerous decisions based on what were for the most part uncontroversial pieces of legislation that congress regarded as obvious points of order. This was the age of reason and the franchise was restricted to prevent populism. Succeeding generations would not be so lucky. Members expressed annoyance at having to pass amendments that promised not to quarter troops or inflict excessive penalties, which they regarded as obvious points no reasonable government would engage in. If only. The debates did elicit some interesting statements. One lawmaker felt the first amendment did not prevent the states (as opposed to the federal government) from collecting 10% of the tax to support established state churches and probably would not have supported the bill. The second amendment was established to avoid the creation of large standing armies, which might be used to suppress the people when they disagreed with federal policies. Executive branch processes were also established. Washington was not quite sure what was meant by the advice and consent of the Senate for appointments. So he went over to the Senate and requested their consent for an appointment. The Senate was not sure what it was supposed to do at this point and it requested time to deliberate. Washington left and vowed never to do anything like that again, This precedent of submitting a list of names for appointments continues to the present day. Washington relied initially on the advice and support of his fellow Virginian Madison during the first session of Congress, but the second session of the first congress marked the ascendency of Alexander Hamilton, who brought both a unique and profound understanding of fiscal matters that would prove absent for much of the succeeding governments of the 19th Century. Hamilton’s measures and administration stabilized the fiscal policies of the new federal government. However his proposal for a central banking system would be the first wedge that would create the Federalist and Democratic Republican Parties. The author, Fergus Bordewich is generally insightful throughout the book except on one point, he frequently complains that John Adams had the opportunity during this period to turn the office of Vice President into a consequential office. Given the powers allocated and the uncertainty as to where this office lay in the general scheme of things this seems doubtful. Some did not view the Vice President as part of the executive branch as he presided over the Senate. I do not see how anyone could have made the Vice Presidency into a consequential position and would differ with Bordewich’s contention that it could be. This book is not the author’s first book on congress. He is also the author of an extremely well-written book on the 1850 congress. This book is a welcome addition to a distinguished body of work.

  23. 4 out of 5

    David Montgomery

    On April 7, 2019, President Donald Trump effectively fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In the aftermath, plenty of people debated whether the president should have fired Nielsen — but no one questioned whether he COULD. That silence, it turns out, is among the great many things America owes to the First Congress meeting from 1789 to 1791. In a thoroughly readable history, Bordewich narrates the events great and small of the first two years of the U.S. Constitution, everything f On April 7, 2019, President Donald Trump effectively fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In the aftermath, plenty of people debated whether the president should have fired Nielsen — but no one questioned whether he COULD. That silence, it turns out, is among the great many things America owes to the First Congress meeting from 1789 to 1791. In a thoroughly readable history, Bordewich narrates the events great and small of the first two years of the U.S. Constitution, everything from famous debates to the illnesses and carriage-wrecks that America's leading statesmen endured during their attempts to establish a new government. Personally, I found the lesser-known incidents described in the book's first half more fascinating than the better-known debates the Congress took up in its second and third sessions (the federal assumption of state debts, the battles over the site of the nation's capital, the creation of the Bank of the United States). The issue of presidential firing power is a key example — today, we take it for granted that political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president. But the members of the First Congress definitely did not. Many argued that it was the Senate, which confirmed appointees, that had the power to remove them. Others said that appointees could only be removed by impeachment, the only remedy specified in the constitution. It was only after a fierce debate during the creation of initial federal agencies that Congress settled on a president's power to remove people he appointed. Similarly, while many people know that the early Congress passed the constitutional amendments that became the Bill of Rights, and history buffs know that the First Congress actually passed 12 amendments, one of which was approved much later and one is still eligible for ratification, Bordewich lays out the entire tortuous history: the hundreds of proposed amendments Congress dealt with, many of which aimed at wholesale transformation of the Constitution; James Madison's proposed list of not 10 or 12 but more than 20 amendments, including a long preamble to the Constitution; the fight over whether amendments should inserted into the Constitution or tagged on to the end; and the committees and deals that ultimately shaped the amendments Americans know today. Bordewich also captures the flavor of key characters, from the unstoppable drive of Alexander Hamilton to the political dominance of James Madison, who at one point was both essentially at the helm of both the House of Representatives and the presidency as Washington's closest advisor, highlighted most amusingly in the time when Madison wrote Washington's address to Congress and then wrote the House's response back to Washington. Above all, the debates Bordewich chronicles remain relevant today, both in substance and in form. Many of the issues dividing Americans today were present at the very beginning. The First Congress could be sharply divided over key issues — but found a way to compromise on the biggest ones when push came to shove. Today's Americans can find both inspiration and warning in this grubby and complex history of the precedents set at the very beginning of the American Republic.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Steve Smits

    When one considers the lack of productivity of today’s Congress, stalemated by ideological divisions that thwart even the most modest compromise on policy matters, the accomplishments of the first Congress seem utterly superlative. That Congress convened with no precedent to guide it and went forth with only the barest outline of structure contained in the newly ratified Constitution. The other branches of government existed only faintly; there was no executive government apart from a president When one considers the lack of productivity of today’s Congress, stalemated by ideological divisions that thwart even the most modest compromise on policy matters, the accomplishments of the first Congress seem utterly superlative. That Congress convened with no precedent to guide it and went forth with only the barest outline of structure contained in the newly ratified Constitution. The other branches of government existed only faintly; there was no executive government apart from a president and vice-president and no Supreme Court in place or inferior courts even in existence. The future of the nascent republic hinged on the ability of the body to invent the government. In this it largely succeeded. But, to conclude that the significance of its charge obviated the philosophical differences of its members would be erroneous. There were deeply contrasting and sharply contentious perspectives on the place and role of centralized government versus that of the states. The Federalists leaned heavily toward strong national authority that would bind together the often conflicting self-interests of the states and position the nation to grow in strength among nations of the world. The anti-Federalists were deeply suspicious of surrendering state sovereignty, fearing that a powerful national government would mirror the monarchical system the country had so recently shed. The challenges facing the Congress and the country were great. A principle concern was the complete lack of revenue to pay for national priorities. There was strong opposition to direct taxation and reliance on the states to remit funds to the national government had proved nearly worthless during the Revolution and the time of confederacy. The solution was found in enacting tariffs to be collected by the treasury, an approach that necessitated establishing the first bureaucracy of customs agents. The judicial system prescribed in the Constitution specified only the Supreme Court; the entire body of inferior courts would need to be put in place. There were sharp policy differences on the power of federal courts viz. state courts and state law that had to be resolved. Another matter generating controversy was the respective powers of the executive and Congress regarding appointments to cabinet positions. While the Constitution stipulated that the advice and consent of the Senate was required for appointment, it was silent on whose authority was needed to remove secretaries from office. Many felt that the Senate’s consent was needed for termination while others held that this would hamstring the executive in controlling his subordinates in the implementation of executive responsibilities. Congress had to address the matter of amendments to the just-ratified Constitution. During ratification states had proposed dozens of amendments that required attention by the new government. (In fact, when the Congress convened North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified.) Madison led the effort to deal with the amendments. Madison did not believe that amendments were really needed; his main aim was to avoid structural alterations to the body of the Constitution. The rights established by the amendments so cherished today and that have had such influenced on our polity to modern times were seen by many as sops to satisfy the grumbling and suspicion of reluctant states. Two very important areas needing legislative attention resulted in bitter clashes among representatives and foretold of sectional rivalries that would persist for decades. The nation had no fiscal policy and the Congress charged Washington’s brilliant secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, with proposing a plan. Hamilton believed that the nation would never prosper until the question of its credit was resolved. He understood that the financial and commercial strength of modern nations depended on access to credit markets; this indeed was the engine that powered the great nations of Europe. That imperative hinged on how the country would settle the enormous outstanding debts it owed as the consequence of the war. This debt was held by the states and repayment varied significantly from state to state. Hamilton proposed that the national government assume the debt of the states and that it essentially borrow more money to refinance this debt. To many members of the legislature this was a shocking proposal. Adding to the controversy was how to handle the bonds and promissory notes the Continental Congress had issued to soldiers. As there had been little to no progress in satisfying these obligations many holders had sold their notes to speculators at far under face value. The idea that the notes would be now redeemed at full value was seen as a slap at those who had sold them for pennies on the dollar. Some, including Madison, proposed that the payoff be pro-rated between the original owners and those who had purchased them. Hamilton held that this would undermine faith in the government’s credit worthiness and, notwithstanding, was impossible to administer. Hamilton also proposed establishing a national bank, a move supported by commercial interests in the north, but opposed by the south with its agrarian economy. The second great matter was the location of the national capital. The Constitution required only that this be done by the Congress. There was bitter rivalry between the states and regions on where this would be. Many from the northern states coveted the major commercial and financial benefit that the capital would create. Southerners worried that a northern capital would strengthen the anti-slavery movement that was gaining momentum. After much intrigue and shifting alliances the matter was resolved through compromise. The capital would be located somewhere on the Potomac River in exchange for enough southern votes to approve Hamilton’s financial plan. There are several themes that stand out from this fascinating look at the first Congress. Madison shines as a genius political strategist and masterful tactician. Surely without his adroitness in moving controversial matters forward the successes of the Congress would not have happened. Similarly, the brilliant far-reaching ideas of Hamilton provided the stimulus to the emerging economy that propelled it to rapid growth. There was, however, the emergence of two strains on national unity that would fester for decades resulting ultimately in the dissolution of the union. Whether or not slavery would be perpetuated was volcanically hot in the first Congress. The petitions by anti-slavery advocates, largely Quaker driven, caused an uproar among the members. It was clear from the earliest days that slavery would create a rift between the regions that would never close. The second unresolved contention – left that way by the ambiguity of wording in the Constitution – was the respective powers of the national government and the states. This, too, would persist and threaten the unity of the nation until finally settled by the political aftermath of the Civil War. We see in this history the emergence of political parties with Madison shifting toward an anti-Federalist, states’ rights perspective, aligning himself with Jefferson’s views. Madison’s close relationship with Washington was gradually diminished and replaced by Hamilton. Washington’s reputation, almost immune from criticism, did much to secure the national government from the forces that might have sundered it. The author reminds us that Washington held more strongly to Federalist positions as seen in his support for Hamilton’s assumption plan. This readable well-written account of the first Congress gives us views of the personalities of many of the figures of the time and provides insights into the evolution of the nation that resonate today.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ken Gould

    I've been working my way through presidential biographies for awhile and now took a detour through this one (which wasn't really a detour, just a filling-in of the actual debates and clash of ideals, personalities, and interests that made up the First Congress.) I've read Chernow's Hamilton as well as Flexnor's 4-volume Washington, Brant's Madison, McCullough's Adams and both Malone's and Peterson's Jefferson (which is partly to brag about how far I've come and also just a way of saying I'm into I've been working my way through presidential biographies for awhile and now took a detour through this one (which wasn't really a detour, just a filling-in of the actual debates and clash of ideals, personalities, and interests that made up the First Congress.) I've read Chernow's Hamilton as well as Flexnor's 4-volume Washington, Brant's Madison, McCullough's Adams and both Malone's and Peterson's Jefferson (which is partly to brag about how far I've come and also just a way of saying I'm into this stuff as are most of the reviewers on here.) So I've read the ideas behind assumption, a national bank, and the bargain over the capital from various perspectives. It was interesting, though, to read how it actually went down inside Federal Hall and later in Philadelphia. Take the capital in D.C. It's one thing to read about the dinner between Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison from each of their perspectives. It's quite another to read about what Maclay thought of as duplicitous deal-making behind the scenes that could have landed the capital anywhere from Trenton, New Jersey to the Sesquahanna to Germantown near Philadelphia. It's also interesting to learn how Madison masterfully kicked it back to the Senate but making a single, seemingly benign change (which required the Senate to revote on the bill) to which no one could argue must less realize what he was doing (I'm sure someone else realized it; there were a lot smart people in that room.) While Madison was there, Brant's Madison doesn't bring into full focus what was going on in the room upstairs or the thoughts from personal diaries of some of the other players. I particularly liked Maclay, who called others all sorts of names for making deals and then wondered why he felt so isolated and unliked. Classic. Sometimes he reminded me of an 18th century Bernie Sanders in his "purist" views and refusal to make deals with moneyed men, though Bernie at least has a devoted group of followers among "the people". Maclay evidently didn't even have that. Poor Maclay.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kenneth

    This is an excellent coda to a read of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. At the time of the first Congress, the only aspect of the government which was formed was the Congress itself and the way in which the members went about using the "Necessary and Proper" clause and the arguments they had over what precisely the powers of the Executive should be and how they should interact with Congress is fascinating. The level of executive power that we take for granted today could have evolved This is an excellent coda to a read of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. At the time of the first Congress, the only aspect of the government which was formed was the Congress itself and the way in which the members went about using the "Necessary and Proper" clause and the arguments they had over what precisely the powers of the Executive should be and how they should interact with Congress is fascinating. The level of executive power that we take for granted today could have evolved in any number of ways but the course it would follow was set by the First Congress. Another interesting aspect of this was the very early debate over slavery. I knew that slavery had been addressed both in the Northwest Ordinance and was a major source of conflict at the Constitutional Convention but it was also a major factor in the first Congress. Fully 10% of the members of the first Congress were men who had owned slaves at the start of the Revolution but freed them during its course as inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution. No less a person than Ben Franklin introduced legislation to ban slavery in the first Congress and it was hotly debated. To be sure, it was defeated in the end, and strangely it was the least powerful arm of the government, also established by the first Congress, The Supreme Court, which would force the issue in Dredd Scott. This is a great nuts and bolts history of how the government got started, about when Congress came down from the principles of the enlightenment and the realism of the materialists and got to work actually getting things done. It's a great story.

  27. 4 out of 5

    William

    I am no strong on American history, so I probably learned more than most from reading this book. For example, I knew George Washington had slaves, but I've never heard of the Pennsylvania law where any black slave residing in Pennsylvania for 6 months is deemed to be free. When the first Congress moved temporarily to Philadelphia, President Washington was unsure if this law would apply to him, so as a precaution, he rotated his slaves out of the state so that none (he brought four with him) woul I am no strong on American history, so I probably learned more than most from reading this book. For example, I knew George Washington had slaves, but I've never heard of the Pennsylvania law where any black slave residing in Pennsylvania for 6 months is deemed to be free. When the first Congress moved temporarily to Philadelphia, President Washington was unsure if this law would apply to him, so as a precaution, he rotated his slaves out of the state so that none (he brought four with him) would remain within the state for 6 months. Also, little James Madison. He wrote George Washington's inaugural address. He then wrote the Congressional response and thank you to the President. Then he wrote the President's acknowledgment to Congress for their appreciation. Madison was having a conversation with himself! Then there was Alexander Hamilton with his public debt justification and the National Bank proposal. And the fight over where the permanent seat of government should reside. And what amounted to hero-worship of the first President. The repugnant part of the first Congress was their dancing on eggshells around the topic of slavery, and the terrible defense of it when it was forced into discussion. Ultimately though, the first Congress accomplished way more with way less than probably any other ever. I really appreciated this book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    This volume recounts the actions of the First Congress seated after the Constitution was ratified and how they came to breathe life into that document by beginning the process of actually governing under its aegis and providing specifics around its general principles. Everyone was keenly aware that the actions they took would set a precedent for all future generations as well as that the government itself was feeble until it could prove itself worthy of the people's respect. One can see from the This volume recounts the actions of the First Congress seated after the Constitution was ratified and how they came to breathe life into that document by beginning the process of actually governing under its aegis and providing specifics around its general principles. Everyone was keenly aware that the actions they took would set a precedent for all future generations as well as that the government itself was feeble until it could prove itself worthy of the people's respect. One can see from the very beginning the outlines of pro- and anti-government philosophy, through the Federalist and anti-Federalists, that lives with us today. Also prominent is the horse trading and sectional rivalries that continue today and are best illustrated in the decisions of where to place the country's permanent capital. The impact of Alexander Hamilton, a pro-government man, is also shown through the contentious debates over financing the postwar debt and the establishment of a national bank. Also it is clear that slavery was the original sin that came up for debate in that very first Congress thanks to pressure from the anti-slavery Pennsylvania Quakers. One early suggestion that might have settled the question would have been to have the government purchase all the slaves and free them and financing it through public land sales in the Wests. Unfortunately that was not to be.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Adelizzi, Jr.

    I appreciate Bordewich’s dexterity with setting time and place, adeptly bringing those long-passed years to life. His well-researched work, as did that first Congress, spends a significant amount of time on the new nation’s choice of a capital city, recounting the deals and almost deals, compromises and orchestrations, which resulted, much to this Pennsylvanian’s chagrin, on the Potomac location. I’ve struggled with what to make of all the wheeling-and-dealing agenda politicking. On one hand, it I appreciate Bordewich’s dexterity with setting time and place, adeptly bringing those long-passed years to life. His well-researched work, as did that first Congress, spends a significant amount of time on the new nation’s choice of a capital city, recounting the deals and almost deals, compromises and orchestrations, which resulted, much to this Pennsylvanian’s chagrin, on the Potomac location. I’ve struggled with what to make of all the wheeling-and-dealing agenda politicking. On one hand, it tarnishes - or perhaps humanizes - our forefathers, brings them down from that pedestal I’ve learned to put them on, leading me to think the present aggravating situation may be endemic. On the other hand, the results of that first Congress, with all its animosity, faction building, and “caballing” (a term which seemed very popular back in the day, one which I feel comfortable pilfering here), did produce results of, well, historic proportion. I’d like to attribute that success to a willingness to compromise, but Bordewich intones the “compromise” may have been more of a resignation. The bottom line is things - great things - got done, and that’s cause for optimism. Apart from the work itself, and apart from its topic, Bordewich’s retelling had me thinking about the difficult decision a writer of historical non-fiction faces regarding how much emphasis to give each particular source document. Over-reliance on one particular source, say the journal of a French diplomat, could put perhaps an unwarranted slant on certain reconstructions, but Bordewich has done a thorough job, it seems, of cross-referencing multiple sources. Well done, thought-provoking, and much appreciated.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    It's good to be reminded how much the founding fathers were just making sh*t up at they went along, because they had no fricking clue how their new, independent country was going to work, especially because it was just as hard to get a consensus then as it is now. So many of the precedents and institutions that seem set in stone now were so hotly debated then, and the author does a good job of reminding readers of that fact. The major players are all given time (even in a fairly short book), and It's good to be reminded how much the founding fathers were just making sh*t up at they went along, because they had no fricking clue how their new, independent country was going to work, especially because it was just as hard to get a consensus then as it is now. So many of the precedents and institutions that seem set in stone now were so hotly debated then, and the author does a good job of reminding readers of that fact. The major players are all given time (even in a fairly short book), and while a good chunk of what what the author details about the various debates in the Senate come from William Maclay's diary, other sources allow for more balance. Speaking of balance, the author didn't quite get away with a totally unbiased account- I get the impression that he's a fan of James Madison, seriously dislikes John Adams, and that he reluctantly appreciates Alexander Hamilton's skills. All around, an enjoyable book, though definitely one that falls more on the side of pop history than scholarly work.

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