Postmortem: The First Congress

I had a long dry spell — over nine months — where I didn’t read a single book from start to finish. I was still reading, of course: I started some books without finishing them, I read a lot of stuff online, I read 27 volumes of manga (Claymore — pretty good), and I read some books of the Bible (which I don’t consider “books” in the normal sense). Still, I’m glad I finally broke that bookless streak.

The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich, gives a great insight into how the U.S. government really formed. In school, you learn about the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution … and then early U.S. history, like the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis & Clark, and the War of 1812. That’s all fine, but it does skip a very important step, something I’d rarely thought about before: How did we get from a piece of paper (the Constitution) to an actual, functioning government?

Picture it: The year is 1789. The Constitution’s just been ratified, replacing the weak-sauce Articles of Confederation. The United States are finally united, at least in theory — all eleven of them (North Carolina and Rhode Island haven’t accepted the Constitution or statehood yet). The first president, the universally beloved George Washington, arrives in New York City (the nation’s temporary capital). Congress arrives too — the House of Representatives has 65 congressmen, and the Senate has 22 (although it takes a while for all of them to show up).

You’ve got a quorum, you’ve got public support and goodwill, you’ve got this fabulous piece of paper. What you don’t have is any federal government whatsoever, apart from yourselves. Your country is militarily weak, massively in debt, full of internal divisions, and not generally expected to survive. You have few resources, no federal laws, no precedents, and no judicial branch whatsoever at the federal level. You need to build an entire government from scratch, following a structure that’s never been tried before. And you need to do it right now.

And … go!

It’s crazy, isn’t it? But The First Congress takes you to the center of the craziness and makes you feel like you’re really there. The author gives lots of quotes from everyone involved, letting you hear what happened in their own words. He shows the issues from all sides. What’s more, he offers all sorts of details on how life was back then, from food to newspapers to public sanitation.

Major lessons from this book:

  • The first Congress and the current Congress have a lot in common. Partisan gridlock, pettiness, and scandal are nothing new. We worry about gerrymandering (and rightly so), but the first Congress included the original gerrymander-er, Elbridge Gerry himself. The bickering and infighting over where to place the nation’s permanent capital went on for a staggering length of time. For me, this insight inspires hope rather than cynicism, because it means we’ve conquered these obstacles before and we can do it again.
  • The Founding Fathers were just human beings. They were great humans who did great things, but they were all deeply flawed as well, in a variety of different ways. You often see some quote attributed to Jefferson or Madison, as if that alone makes it true — but Jefferson and Madison were both wrong (and naive) about all sorts of things.
  • Moreover, the Founders disagreed and argued constantly among themselves. That isn’t a criticism, just a reminder that the oft-cited “what the Founders intended” was often not any single thing. This whole states’-rights-versus-federal-power debate has raged from the very beginning. What does the Constitution really mean? Simply put, nobody knows, and nobody knew back then, either. (Of course, that’s not to say that all interpretations are equally valid.) In many ways, we actually have better insight into the Constitution today, because we have the benefit of learning from past mistakes.
  • Alexander Hamilton is severely underrated, the musical notwithstanding. As a kid, I wondered why he was on the $10 bill when he wasn’t even a president. It turns out that, in addition to living an utterly fascinating life, Hamilton was a crazy-smart economics geek at a time when “economics” was kind of a new thing. He built the U.S. financial system virtually from scratch, using debt in brilliant (and mostly ethical) ways to build up American credit at a time when a huge number of Americans regarded debt as inherently evil. And it worked.
  • John Adams, by contrast, comes across as rather overrated — at least in this author’s narrative. His fragile ego, frequent outbursts, opposition to free speech, admiration for glamorous foreign leaders, and general grandiosity, all remind me a little of a certain other U.S. president. (Relax — I said a little.)
  • Nothing is simple, especially in history. If someone tells you otherwise, tread carefully.

That’s all for today. Have an outstanding weekend!

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