Some Americans excuse current problems of ineffectual governance by claiming that the population is too diverse, the country too complicated and modern life too varied to permit efficient government.
Those who think this way should read Fergus M. Bordewich’s new book, “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.” It tells the story of men meeting extraordinary challenges in an unprecedented setting: the United States of 1789-91, when the Constitution was untested and only marginally popular.
With considerable difficulty, this new guideline for government had been drafted and ratified for a diverse population living in a complicated country with intensely regional identities. The concept of nationhood for most Americans existed mostly in imagination, and it was most fragile.
Most in 1789 viewed government as a necessary evil. They bowed to the reality that some form of overarching authority was essential for social tranquility and legal order, but the potential reach of that authority troubled them. After all, they had just recently fought a long war against crown and Parliament to preserve local control of their affairs.
Fearful of merely replacing one set of obnoxious masters in London with another of the homegrown variety, Americans did not trust government. Some acted as if they would not even abide it. How much support they would give a new government became the central question in setting up viable administrative, representative and judicial agencies under the Constitution.
While curbing power by dividing it, the Constitution at most provided a foundation and frame for a structure unfinished in many particulars. The people who produced this document are called the framers precisely because they were both talented architects and artisan carpenters who left both the devil of political contention and the details of taming sectional suspicions to the new government.
As a result, the challenge handed to the first Congress was so vast and so fraught with the likelihood of misadventure that scores of controversies in the two years following ratification were opportunities to fail.
The first Congress had plenty of chances to stumble. Instead, the first Congress faced its daunting agenda with resourcefulness, even while engaging in ferocious arguments, coping with clashing egos and taming an inclination for incessant debate.
Bordewich tells this story through vivid portraits of celebrated founders such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as less famous but no less key figures such as the acerbic diarist William Maclay and the caustic Southerner James Jackson.
He provides clear and often compelling analyses of the problems that required varying doses of compromise and persuasion, and he paints scenes in New York and Philadelphia with colorful illustrations that are enviable examples of the historian’s art. The result is a brisk narrative that places the mundane measures necessary to create a working government in the context of the country’s immediate financial crisis and other, sometimes unexpected disputes.
Bordewich shows that not everyone had his finest hour in trying to resolve these issues, but he clearly has a point in concluding that the remarkable productivity of the first Congress was crucial to the country’s immediate health and future vigor.
Impressive research resonantly informs Bordewich’s interpretation of events, and he does not hesitate when appropriate to step aside and let the people moving those events have their say. His use of quotations is abundant but not digressive, the attribute of a fine narrative technique. Only occasionally does he tint the past with the preoccupations of the present, most obviously in often reminding the reader of the presence of slavery at the republic’s founding.
Because slavery was indeed shameful, it’s understandable that an author would do this, but it’s also worth remembering that the moral failings of the past become moral certainties only in retrospect. Most Americans in 1789 lived in a society marred by slavery’s ubiquity, and those who actively opposed it are prophets to be honored because they formed an unpopular minority dismissed at the time as an irresponsible fringe.
Meanwhile, virtually everyone, including as many Southerners as Northerners, judged slavery a blight on the land, but they were perplexed about how to end it. It was decades later that Daniel Webster marveled over the troubling shift in Southern opinion to pro-slavery advocacy as a stunning example of how economic necessity and repellent rationalizations could transform a vice into a virtue.
Readers will enjoy this book for making an intricate story clear and fascinating. It also serves a useful purpose in reminding us that as long as there have been people on American soil, the notion that they are ungovernable has always been with us. Certainly the British during the American Revolution thought so, and they finally threw up their hands in exasperation as much as they threw down their arms in defeat, saying good riddance to fractious colonists who refused to conform to the imperial program, let alone consent to its financial requirements.
As fractious colonists became suspicious citizens, the smart money in the late 18th century laid odds that the American experiment in republican government would be faltering and thus temporary. The oddsmakers were very nearly right. Bordewich skillfully shows how and why, at the end of the beginning, they were wrong.
“The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government” by Fergus M. Bordewich (396 pages; Simon & Schuster; $30)