Fergus M. Bordewich

Brookings’ Philip Wallach Reviews The First Congress
May 28th, 2016

The following review of The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government was published by The Brookings Institution’s Philip Wallach on May 16, 2016.

Founding Workhorses: Review of ‘The First Congress’

By Philip A. Wallach
Editor’s note: This post is a review of Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
In his 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, lately of even greater renown, Ron Chernow writes, “If Washington is the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” Hamilton (everyone now knows) got a lot farther by working a lot harder—and one of the many great accomplishments of Chernow’s book was to show us what that meant, in terms of mundane, toiling administrative work.
The achievement of Fergus Bordewich’s new book, The First Congress, is to show us that, Hamilton’s lately much-sung labors notwithstanding, the work of creating an effective federal government in America was shouldered as much by legislators—including some workhorses whose contributions in the first Congress are often forgotten.
To be sure, much of Bordewich’s story is spent with familiar characters who themselves possessed legendary work ethics: James Madison, the constitutional architect who as a member of the House became Congress’s informal leader; President George Washington, the towering figure whose willingness to treat Congress as “the paramount branch of government” was indispensable; and Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Knox, each of whom played formative roles as the first heads of the original federal executive departments. But each of those departments had to be created by Congress. Washington could not be sworn in until members of Congress assembled to count electors’ ballots. And while Madison took the lead, his lesser known colleagues would be the ones to concretize his sometimes-theoretical constitutional vision and ensure it survived first contact with reality.
The need to do so quickly was pressing. “Confidence in government was abysmally low…contempt for politicians was rife, … [and] many political men held an equally low opinion of the voting public.” There was anything but widespread confidence that the United States were destined for survival, let alone greatness. At the same time, expectations were very high: if the new nation, until then hobbled by its feeble government under the Articles of Confederation, was to find its legs, this was the time.
Congress began its work in the temporary capital of New York City, then a fast-growing and chaotic shipping hub of 30,000, and its first days were hardly auspicious. When shots were fired on March 4, 1789, to signify the beginning of the new government, there was nowhere near the majority quorum needed to do business in either house. Bordewich vividly paints the predicament that most members then faced, making journeys through an almost unimaginably harsh and untamed landscape; to make the journey from Boston to New York required “a six-day journey by sleigh tumbling from one rock to another riding over the Ice for miles down a river & pushed in a wherry across another.” What little there was of the holdover government had the humblest of trappings: John Jay “ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox…presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”
Finally the House achieved a quorum of twenty-nine members on April 1 and the Senate followed on April 5, and both chambers got down to the work of considering the legislation that would give the new government its shape. Proceedings in these Federalist-dominated chambers were far less structured and rule-bound than our familiar image of a legislature, which is perhaps unsurprising considering the relative smallness of these bodies (by the end of the first Congress, 65 Representatives and 26 Senators, none of whom had professional staffs).
But if they started haltingly, they managed to work their way through a remarkable number of issues, both prosaic and explosive. In spite of a complex interplay of competing interests, especially the manufacturing-heavy north and agricultural, slavery-dependent south, they worked through a tariff that would provide the federal government’s main source of revenue, a Coasting Act to register ships in coastal waters, and a Collection Act that established the system of customs collectors and port officials who would enforce the tariffs. After a difficult debate about presidential removal authority, they created the first three executive departments (Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and War).
With the leadership of “the prodigiously hardworking Senator Oliver Ellsworth” of Connecticut, they gave birth to a powerful federal judiciary, structured along entirely novel lines, and later provided work for that system by establishing the first federal crimes and passing a copyright act. The Senate staked out its power of “advice and consent” over appointments and treaties (including one with the Creek nation) as a substantive one by refusing to simply ratify Washington’s choices without debate, even when he came to the Senate chamber in person to press his case. Bordewich also nicely covers their rancorous debates over the future of slavery instigated by Quaker abolitionist petitioners, which ultimately failed to budge the status quo, in large part because of fears that the new constitutional union could still easily fall to pieces over the issue.
Bordewich’s telling of the debates around what we think of as the Bill of Rights is especially illuminating. He makes it clear that Federalist legislators thought of them not as a legislative priority, but rather as an “amendment problem” pressed by the small Anti-Federalist minority to be expediently managed and minimized. When Madison first broached the subject of amendments in June of 1789, he was rebuffed. As Representative John Vining (Federalist – Del.) put it, “The people are waiting with anxiety for the operation of the Government. Have they passed a revenue law? Is not the daily revenue escaping us? Let us not perplex ourselves by introducing one weighty and important question after another, till some decisions are made.” Eventually, in September 1789, 39 amendments did receive meaningful, if rather brisk, debate. As important as passing the 10 that were ratified (plus the wandering 27thAmendment) was the rejection of others that would have imperiled a strong and independent federal government, including endowing voters with a right to give legislators binding instructions and a limitation of federal powers to those “expressly” provided by the Constitution. Bordewich brings these debates to life with fascinating and sympathetic portraits of men who mostly found themselves on the losing side of these early congressional debates, including Anti-Federalist Representatives Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, James Jackson of Georgia, and Aedanus Burke of South Carolina.
Perhaps the narrative center of the book is the maneuvering that surrounded two debates that became entangled: where the nation’s capital should be permanently situated and whether the federal government should follow Alexander Hamilton’s plan to assume state debts (which Madison opposed). What is passing into the current collective memory as a behind-closed-doors bargain between Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson, Bordewich ably illuminates as the culmination of a series of intricate congressional offers, counter-offers, and betrayals, in which the young country’s different regions felt each other out and embraced the need for horse-trading as a way forward. Philadelphians beat out advocates of a capital on the Susquehanna or in Baltimore for the government’s immediate future, and southerners were enticed to consent to assumption of state debts with the promise of a permanent capital on the Potomac. As Bordewich puts it, “An American tradition of bare-knuckle compromise had been born.”
The third session of the First Congress, which convened in the new temporary capital of Philadelphia in December 1790, took up “a small mountain of legislation” it only partially worked through before permanently recessing in March 1791. It passed laws to adopt Hamilton’s plan for a national bank (again over Madison’s opposition), set up the structure for payment of executive branch officials, recruit a new regiment to fight Indians on the northwest border, reduce the public debt, and collect duties on tea, among others. As Bordewich puts it in summation, “From a piece of paper, the members of the First Congress had made a government.”
That is an achievement worth dwelling on more often than we do, and one with some obvious lessons for the present moment. Our first Congress was filled with members who perceived their own principles and their constituents’ interests to be sharply at odds with those of their colleagues, but they “shared a common fear of failure and a determination to make government work even if it meant compromising on matters of deep principle.” Today, the stakes are no doubt somewhat lower—we have a vast federal government that keeps on going, for better or for worse, whether our representatives in Congress compromise or not. But Congress is the first branch for a reason, and the prospects for our government’s legitimacy are poor if our legislators are mired in a pattern of reactive sniping rather than constructively compromising on the dominant questions of the day. Let us hope that current legislators will be inspired by Bordewich’s chronicle of their forbears, who made Congress the essential institution to forging a strong nation.
Philip Wallach is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He writes on a wide variety of domestic policy topics, including climate change, regulatory reform, the debt ceiling, and marijuana legalization.
Originally published at www.brookings.edu.

Washington Monthly Review: Next to a Miracle
May 23rd, 2016

The following review of The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government was published in the Washington Monthly March/April/May 2016 edition.

Next to a Miracle


The first session of the U.S. Congress was as bitter and riven by divisions—over ideology, taxes, federal versus state power, the role of “big money,” flexible versus strict interpretation of the Constitution—as the 114th Congress. The difference is, we can be proud of the first.

By Allen Guelzo
We have never lacked for a wealth of books explaining the federal Constitution, or laying out the dramatic motion-by-motion forging of the document in the 1789 Philadelphia Convention. David O. Stewart’s The Summer of 1787 (2007), Rick Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the Constitution(2009), and Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010) are only the most recent entrants in a prosperously crowded field. What came after the Constitutional Convention, though, drops sadly out of historical view, even though the First Congress, which was the most important creation of the Constitution, was understood on all hands to be the real arena in which the Constitution would be judged a failure or a success.
This is a little like devoting most of one’s attention to building a ship without inquiring whether it ever afterward actually floated. The story of the First Congress, as a Congress, has usually been shouldered aside in favor of biographies of the individual players or the internal struggles of George Washington’s administration. In fact, were it not for the work of George Washington University’s Kenneth Bowling’s books on Politics in the First Congress, 1789-1791 (1990), Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress (1999), andNeither Separate nor Equal: Congress in the 1790s (2000), we might not have anything to guide us at all through a Congress that Washington described as “next to a Miracle.”
Fergus Bordewich’s The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government gives us, finally, a popular and finely paced account of the Congress that could have easily unmade the new American republic in the course of a few months. A good deal of the betting money, especially among the handful of European diplomats who represented the United States’s minuscule number of allies in the world, was on failure. The French minister, Élie de Moustier, was certain that the new Congress would fare no better than the Confederation Congress it succeeded, and when at last it would be clear, after two tries, that Americans were incapable of governing themselves, France could step in to offer what Moustier glibly called “guidance” to the American yokels.
Instead, the First Congress surprised even its own members by the marvelous scope of its accomplishments. Sitting in three sessions (from April of 1789 to March 3, 1791) in two different capitals (New York for the first two sessions, Philadelphia for the third), the First Congress managed to adopt the first ten amendments, create a fully developed federal judiciary, pass revenue legislation that would give the national government its first reliable income, set up a national bank and adopt a sophisticated fiscal policy, bring a presidential cabinet into being, give life to the separation of powers described in the Constitution, debate slavery, ratify the first Indian treaties, identify the location of a new national capital, and (hardly among the least of its deeds) pass the first American copyright legislation. “In no nation, by no Legislature,” wrote John Trumbull, “was ever so much done in so short a period for the establishment of Government, order, public Credit and general tranquility.”
Not that any of this came easily. The new Congress was to assemble for its first session on March 4, 1789—only to prove shy of a quorum in both houses. Only eight senators (from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Georgia) were in attendance, and so they “adjourned from day to day,” waiting for more of their colleagues to show up. When no other senators appeared after a week, the “same members” resolved to send “a circular letter … to the absent members, requesting their immediate attendance.” Even more humiliating, when no one responded, they were forced to send a second letter, on March 18. The stragglers finally began to appear on March 19, beginning with William Paterson of New Jersey, and finally, on April 6, a quorum was declared—all of twelve senators.
The members of the new House of Representatives were just as difficult to summon. Only thirteen were on hand on March 4; James Madison, who had played so outsized a role in the Constitutional Convention, was kept away from New York by the miserable weather until March 14. George Washington was even further behind schedule. Not until the electoral votes had actually been counted on April 7 and Washington declared the president did the Father of His Country bestir himself to join the new government.
The entire business might have collapsed on itself if Washington had delivered the inaugural address he had prepared for his swearing-in. The handwritten draft ran to seventy-three pages, and, even worse, lobbed one attack after another on “the Adversaries to this Constitution,” on “the rotten” Articles of Confederation, and on his “personal enemies if I am so unfortunate as to have deserved such a return from any one of my countrymen.” A horrified James Madison had prevailed on Washington to trim this jeremiad down to 1,400 words, couched in a much blander tone. Even so, Washington took the constitutionally prescribed oath on the balcony of New York’s Federal Hall on April 30, “agitated and embarrassed more than ever he was by the leveled cannon or pointed musket.” He was all too conscious of what every other member of Congress was surely agonizing over—that every step, every glance would “hereafter be drawn into precedent,” and one mistake now would mean a heritage of political misery thereafter.
On the other hand, the First Congress had Madison, representing one of Virginia’s ten districts in the House of Representatives, who was a host in himself. Madison, said the Massachusetts political wunderkind Fisher Ames, was “a man of sense, reading, address, and integrity” who “speaks low” and “decently, as to manner, and no more. His language is very pure, perspicuous, and to the point.” It was Madison who, on April 7, introduced the first bills to establish a national revenue, through tariffs and tonnage fees, and to create a workable system for tax collections and a registration process for American merchant ships. It was also Madison’s task to redeem the pledge he had made during the Virginia ratification struggle to introduce a series of amendments to the new Constitution that would reassure the political unbelievers in the republic that the new federal government would not turn into a dictatorial monstrosity. And it was Madison, along with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who brokered the deal that established the Potomac River as the site for the new capital.
However, as Bordewich candidly illustrates, Madison was not a magician. The amendments he had promised to introduce—and which we sanctify today as the Bill of Rights—were not greeted with enthusiasm, much less unanimity, in the First Congress. Madison wanted nineteen amendments inserted into the body of the Constitution at various relevant places; Roger Sherman objected that this would mutilate the Constitution he had signed in Philadelphia, and proposed to attach them at the end. Madison wanted swift action; the House voted to send the amendments to a committee, which whittled them down to seventeen and sent them to the Senate, which cut them down to twelve. Even then, two of the twelve amendments fell short of ratification; one of them, dealing with pay raises for members of Congress, would finally be ratified as the 27th Amendment to the Constitution only in 1992.
More influential in Bordewich’s telling even than Madison is Alexander Hamilton, for it was Hamilton, installed in the first cabinet office created by the new Congress, who devised the two great reports on public finance and a national bank that determined “what kind of nation the United States was going to be, one in which capitalism would be embraced as a driving engine of federal policy.” Hamilton was the rare soul in the new republic who had more than an elementary grasp of European finance, and it took every ounce of persuasion he could muster to convince Congress that “debt could … be translated into political power.”
Certainly, there was no shortage of debt for the first Congress to contemplate. Bordewich estimates that the face value of the combined state and national borrowing since the Revolution amounted to $74 million, with interest in arrears, and multiplying. To keep this wolf from the door, Hamilton could count on a revenue from federal tariffs and excise taxes of a little over $4.4 million per annum. Undaunted, Hamilton not only outlined the process for monetizing the national debt, but even suggested adding to that responsibility the burden of the state debts—a proposal that aroused the fierce opposition of a number of states, not because they enjoyed bankruptcy but because they dreaded that this assumption of state debt would establish for once and all the economic supremacy of the federal government over the states.
Oddly, a far more urgent role in resisting Hamilton’s proposals emerged from slavery. Hamilton is one of the few people in Bordewich’s cast of early republican solons who washes himself clean of the taint of black slavery in the new republic; and much of the opposition to Hamilton’s funding plans comes from the representatives of the slaveholding states, who saw in any form of federal supremacy a future threat to slaveholding. “A debt-compelling government is no remedy to men who have lands and negroes, and debts and luxury,” Fisher Ames shrewdly observed, “but neither trade nor credit, nor cash, nor the habits of industry, or of submission to a rigid execution of law.”
The Constitutional Convention had twice wrestled with the incompatibility of slavery and American liberty during its deliberations, until, prompted by southern threats of withdrawal and northern assurances that slavery was an institution on the economic way out, the Convention concluded to say nothing. But, in what Bordewich describes as the first congressional lobbying campaign, antislavery activists—chiefly Philadelphia and New York Quakers and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society—forced antislavery petitions onto the floor of the House, and generated a fury that should have made clear that slaveholders had no intention of letting slavery disappear quietly.
Bordewich, in his 2009 book, Washington: The Making of the American Capital, revealed how much the determination of Madison and Jefferson to plant the new capital on the Potomac was driven by the fear and resentment of southern members of Congress that Philadelphia was a nest of abolitionist vipers who would entice their domestics to run away. He returns to that theme here, describing it as “the beast in the garden,” making the debate over the location of a capital not only the most convoluted of all the First Congress’s debates but the moment when “the fissure between south and north … finally cracked open.” From the First Congress, a bright line reaches toward Fort Sumter.
No one should underestimate the difficulty of the task Bordewich has undertaken here. Like the Constitutional Convention, the First Congress moved crabwise on issues, visiting and then revisiting them in no particular order. Bordewich strikes an unusual and successful balance between treating the First Congress chronologically and explaining it thematically. He does not hesitate to admire Hamilton, Madison, and Washington; neither does he hesitate to scoff at John Adams, Washington’s self-important vice president, as the man who “established a lasting template for vice-presidential inconsequence.” And anyone, as Bordewich says, who imagined that the First Congress would behave like a “solemn conclave of classical philosophers rather than politicians” would soon be disabused by the roaring tirades of Georgia’s James Jackson, by the pointless truculence of Elbridge Gerry, or by George Washington’s coldly furious determination, when the Senate refused to endorse his negotiations with the Creeks, that “he would be damned if ever he went there again.” (And he never did—nor has any president since.)
As distant as they appear to us in their knee breeches and cocked hats, the members of the First Congress fell to the same horse trading, pork barreling, foot dragging, committee referring, and interest peddling as the members of the 114th Congress are reviled for indulging in today. Yet, as Bordewich adds, “despite their competing interests and personalities, they would perform a feat of collaborative creativity that has rarely been rivaled.” And, Bordewich cannily observes, the issues they wrestled with in 1790 still have resonance today: “sectional rivalry, literal versus flexible interpretations of the Constitution, conflict between federal power and states’ rights, tensions among the three branches of government, the protection of individual rights, the challenge of achieving compromise across wide ideological chasms, suspicion of ‘big money’ and financial manipulators, hostility to taxation, the nature of a military establishment, and widespread suspicion of strong government.”
You might think 1790 was only yesterday.
Allen Guelzo is Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, where he serves as director of the Civil War Era Studies Program.
Originally published at: www.washingtonmonthly.com.

Political Rhetoric Over SCOTUS Nominee Is Historically Unhinged
May 3rd, 2016

Republican rhetoric over the appointment of a new justice to the Supreme Court to replace Antonin Scalia is not only transparently partisan, it’s historically baseless.
In rejecting President Obama’s efforts to name a candidate, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has repeatedly said, “Let the American people decide.” Meanwhile, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas bizarrely declared, “You gotta go back to Jim Madison, when the Founding Fathers sat around. It used to be 67, and now it’s down to 60,” to defeat a presumed filibuster.
The Republican Party has long proclaimed its devotion to founding principles and celebrated “originalism” as the only authentic way to interpret the Constitution. However, McConnell’s and Roberts’ assertions epitomize exactly the kind of historical “revisionism” that Republicans usually decry, not to mention a travesty of both the Founders’ intent and the Constitution’s explicit meaning.
The Constitution stipulates that the president, not “the people,” name new justices, and that the Senate approves them. The Founders never intended Supreme Court appointments to be a political popularity contest. Nor, Sen. Roberts should know, did James Madison advocate that a filibuster be applied to Supreme Court nominees, or any other nominees, for that matter. Filibusters did not even exist in Madison’s day.
The members of the First Congress who essentially created our national government, were not “originalists.” None of them thought the Constitution was untouchable and unalterable. If its text was so sacred, as Congressman Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts put it, what was the point of permitting amendments at all? Rather, the Founders saw the Constitution as a flexible instrument that could be adapted to future needs as the country grew. As Madison, who saw the new government as a bold experiment, put it, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.”
A Supreme Court and a federal judiciary system were called for by the Constitution. But they were actually created by the First Federal Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791, first in New York and then in Philadelphia. Although debate over the powers of the federal judiciary was sometimes intense, members of the First Congress never contemplated the kind of political trench warfare that often surrounds Supreme Court appointments today. Indeed, they hoped and expected that the court would rise above politics.
The members of the First Congress certainly never imagined that politicians would use the court as a pawn in an ideologically-driven attempt to deny a president’s constitutionally prescribed right to nominate his choice for the court. Much of the debate in the First Congress concerning the federal judiciary, as well as other issues, emphasized the need to strengthen the power of the new presidency, not weaken it.
Significantly, the sharpest debate over the creation of the federal judiciary focused essentially on what we now call states’ rights. Southerners in particular worried that a strong judiciary might someday tamper with slavery. Senator Pierce Butler of South Carolina, for one, charged that the judiciary bill would be able to “destroy, to cut up at the root the state judiciaries, to annihilate their whose system of jurisprudence and finally swallow up every distinguishing mark of a distinct government.” But the bill passed overwhelmingly.
The Supreme Court’s beginnings were modest. Its first meeting took place on February 2, 1790, in New York City. Symbolically, the moment was pregnant with promise for the republic—this birth of a new national institution whose future power, admittedly, still existed only in the mind’s eye of a few farsighted Americans. Bewigged and swathed in their robes of office, Chief Justice John Jay and his three associate justices sat before a throng of spectators and waited for something to happen, but nothing did. They had no cases to consider. After a week of inactivity, they adjourned and went home.
It would take time for the Supreme Court and the rest of the federal court system to grow into the third great pillar of American government. Its full impact would not be felt for generations to come. But combined with the rights that were being codified in the first amendments to the Constitution, it would one day become a great and dynamic engine that would carry justice into every community and transform American society to its roots.
Madison and his Federalist allies believed that a strong executive was imperative, and they feared the consequences if the Senate someday attempted to encroach on presidential power. They knew that one of the most crucial aspects of that strength was the power of appointment. During earlier debate over the establishment of the executive departments, Madison had argued that once Congress created an office and the president filled it, “the legislative power ceases.” Of course, the Senate has the right to reject a nominee. But Madison believed that a president dependent on the Senate to control his appointments would soon be left helpless. Unfortunately, this seems to be precisely what today’s Senate Republicans intend.

What Today’s Congress Can Learn From the First Congress
April 16th, 2016

‘Public faith in our democratic institutions is more important than any single issue’
The deepening standoff between Congress and the president over the replacement of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, threatens to damage yet another key part of what Patrick Henry once called the “crazy machine” of government. Some might imagine that the nation’s founders would be appalled if they saw government so paralyzed. In fact, it might seem to them more like deja vu.
Even in its earliest years, Congress faced seemingly intractable problems that might have crippled our new government before it got underway. But unlike the majority of our present Congress, the members of the First Congress were determined to make government work—they were afraid of the consequences if it didn’t.
Today’s Congress might find a way out of the weeds by taking a few lessons from the First Congress, which met first in New York and later in Philadelphia, from 1789 to 1791 in an atmosphere hardly less conflicted than the present-day, and was charged with the daunting task of turning the parchment plan of the Constitution into a working government. Many Americans—including members of Congress—feared that it couldn’t be done.
The nascent United States was still less a reality than an idea. As James Madison, who dominated much of the First Congress debate, put it: “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” The country was a shaky collection of sovereign states. The government had no reliable source of revenue. More than 50 different currencies were in circulation. There was no permanent capital. The British threatened the nation’s security from the north, and bellicose Indians did so from the west. Southerners were suspicious of northerners, westerners of easterners, New Englanders of everyone else. Quakers and others were demanding an end to slavery, while southerners threatened secession if government dared to tamper with their “peculiar institution.”
Astonishingly enough, however, the First Congress produced the most successful record of accomplishment by any single Congress in American history. It established the executive departments, the first revenue streams for the national government, approved the first amendments to the Constitution, adopted a program for paying the country’s debts, embraced the principles of capitalism as the underpinning of government financial policy, founded the first National Bank, established the national capital on the Potomac River, and enacted the first patent and copyright laws. Not least, it also established the Federal Court System and the Supreme Court, with John Jay as its first Chief Justice. They didn’t accomplish all this with a group hug; they did it through shameless deal-making, the kind of flip-flopping that is ritually decried by modern pundits, and the suspension of personal principles in order to get things done.
Present-day Americans might well wonder if today’s congressmen would have been up to the tasks faced by the First Congress. But we miss the point if we think that they were made of a different caliber, or that the problems that they faced were so different in kind. The members of the First Congress were not demigods. “We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves,” as Charles Francis Adams put it, in 1871. Along with Madison and other exceptional men such as Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, their ranks were filled mostly with men of average ability. What they had in common was that the great majority of them were professional politicians, mostly lawyers. Few were amateurs, and almost none were ideological zealots. They were men experienced in government, they understood the need for compromise, even on matters of deeply held principle, and they had the experience to do it. Although they differed deeply on many issues—on slavery, centralized government, regional interests, taxation—they wanted the government to succeed. They also believed in politics as a tool for national survival. After all, the right to be political was what they had fought the Revolutionary War for: It was the engine that made republican government work.
So what lessons might members of Congress draw from their predecessors in order to break today’s gridlock? Public faith in our democratic institutions is more important than any single issue. Attacks on the government in order to advance a partisan agenda undermine American values and betray both the spirit and the intent of the founders. In tough times it takes experienced professional politicians to shape the compromises that will always be necessary to keep the country together and move it forward. And that doesn’t just mean compromise on the small stuff: It sometimes means sacrificing deeply-held principles in hope of prevailing another day.
That there is politics involved in Supreme Court appointments is nothing new. But if ever there has been a moment when legislators are called upon to rise above the ideological fashions of the moment in order to preserve public respect for the court, and indeed for government itself, it is now. To attempt to sabotage the president’s clear constitutional power to appoint new members to the court would indeed make the founders cry.
This piece was originally authored by Fergus M. Bordewich for Time.com and published on April 7, 2016.

Review of Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause
March 10th, 2016

I recently reviewed Manisha Sinha’s revelatory history of American abolitionism in her new book “The Slave’s Cause” for The Wall Street Journal. Beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of scholars recovered many aspects of abolitionism from oblivion, but until now none has attempted the kind of sweeping account that Ms. Sinha, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has achieved. Below are some excerpts from my review titled, “The Righteous of Our Nation.” It can be read in full at WSJ.com.

“Lucidly written, compellingly argued and based on exhaustive scholarship, “The Slave’s Cause” captures the myriad aspects of this diverse and far-ranging movement and will deservedly take its place alongside the equally magisterial works of Ira Berlin on slavery and Eric Foner on the Reconstruction Era. Ms. Sinha seems to have read just about everything ever written on the subject of antislavery, including sermons, diaries, broadsides, speeches and legal arguments by the famous and the obscure alike. It is a measure of her command of the material that even as she leads us through the deepest thickets of antebellum polemics she is rarely dull.”
“The first voices to oppose slavery were often lonely ones, but they were not negligible. At the end of the 17th century, the influential Puritan preacher Cotton Mather forcefully rejected arguments for racial inferiority based on skin color. Soon afterward, Mather’s contemporary Samuel Sewall, who had served as a judge during the Salem witch trials, challenged the widely held belief that Africans had been condemned to everlasting slavery by the Bible. Organized antislavery activity began with the Quakers, who held that every human being possessed a godly inner light that made enslavement a sin against God himself.”


“Even at its peak on the eve of the Civil War, the abolitionist movement was never the monolith that pro-slavery Southerners thought it to be. It always comprised an array of rivalrous groups that diverged over such matters as the public participation of women, collaboration with mainstream political parties, financial compensation for slaveholders and the use of physical force. Ms. Sinha deftly elucidates these fissures, which became especially evident when Garrisonians, who rejected the Constitution as a pro-slavery document and shunned mainstream politics, squared off against Smith and his allies, who hoped that an abolition-influenced party might triumph at the polls and who sometimes allied themselves with the Whig Party, which included slave owners in its ranks.”


“Abolitionists for the most part challenged rather than shored up the status quo,” Ms. Sinha writes. Thus they contributed to a variety of causes, not only women’s rights but also temperance, the campaign against capital punishment, and immigrants’ and workingmen’s rights. But the “enduring heritage of the abolition movement is even broader,” Ms. Sinha observes as she closes this watershed account of one of America’s most transformative movements. Its heritage of “unyielding commitment to human rights and a call to action,” she says, remain embedded in Americans’ stubborn desire to better society, even against long odds.”


Fergus and George ready to cross the Delaware
February 27th, 2016

Fergus and Washington

Fergus standing with His Excellency at Washington’s Crossing.

Thanks to the folks at Washington Crossing Historic Park in PA, Washington Crossing Park Assoc in NJ, Labyrinth Books of Princeton, Farley’s Bookshop of New Hope, and Frank and Patty Lyons of Yardley, PA’s Continental Tavern for hosting me and sharing these photos. The event was a great success and we had a fine dinner at the Continental Tavern.




Fergus and The First Congress

Fergus discussing The First Congress.

Fergus speaks at Washington's Crossing

Fergus speaking about The First Congress at Washington's Crossing.










Even Presidents Forget to Return Library Books
February 18th, 2016

Who knew that the first president was a library book scofflaw? My friend David Smith, formerly of the New York Public Library, just forwarded to me this fascinating story. The report is a couple of years old, but it’s new to me. It tells us something about the intellectual bent of a man who felt embarrassed by his lack of higher education. In my book The First Congress, I have also written in a light vein about the reading habits of the founders. While others were poring over such serious works as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Alexander Hamilton was reading the steamy-sounding Amours of Count Palviano and Eleanora.

Fine owed by George Washington for overdue library books now $300,000
Founder of a nation, trouncer of the English, God-fearing family man: all in all, George Washington has enjoyed a pretty decent reputation. Until now, that is.
The hero who crossed the Delaware river may not have been quite so squeaky clean when it came to borrowing library books.

Continue reading at The Guardian.

A President’s Day Story: The Inauguration of George Washington, America’s First President
February 15th, 2016

After the members of Congress had reassembled, Washington began to read the speech that Madison had drafted for him weeks earlier. “I was looking upon an organ of popular will just beginning to breathe the breath of life,” one onlooker recalled almost half a century later.
It was obvious that the president, whose mere presence awed nearly every American, was nearly paralyzed by anxiety. In contrast to Humphreys’s earlier, overloaded draft, the speech that Madison had shaped was lucid and reassuring. “The magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of the country called me,” Washington told the assembled members of Congress, “could not but overwhelm with despondence, one, who, inheriting inferior endowments from nature and unpractised in the duties of civil administration, ought to be peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
The weight of history lay on their collective shoulders, he reminded them. “The destiny of the Republican model of Government” was deeply, perhaps for all time, staked on “the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” That is, how they performed in these first sessions of Congress would affect not just themselves, and the voters who had elected them, but untold future generations.
Accentuating his willingness to defer to the legislative branch, he observed that while the Constitution had empowered the president to recommend whatever measures he deemed necessary and expedient, it would be “far more congenial with the feelings which actuate me to substitute, in place of a recommendation of particular measures, the tribute that is due to the talents, the rectitude, and the patriotism which adorn the characters selected to devise and adopt them” – the members of Congress. Here he was clearly acknowledging that he recognized Congress as the paramount branch of government.
The pressure on Washington was immense, and public expectations so high that he could never fully satisfy them, he knew. The president-to-be had received any number of importunate pleas from men such as John Armstrong Jr., a former member of the Continental Congress, who had begged him “to yield your services to the providential voice of God expressed in the voice of your country.” (Armstrong may have been one of the less convincing voices, however: at the end of the Revolutionary War, he had written the infamous Newburgh Address, which urged Washington to assume dictatorial powers.)
So many conflicting worries tore at Washington, both political and personal: the unrest on the frontier and the financial instability in the states, the resurgence of the Constitution’s opponents in Virginia, the planting schedules for his next season’s crops of wheat and rye, the challenge of managing the remote lands he owned in the West, the declining health of his eighty-year-old mother, who was dying of cancer at Fredericksburg. And now he was about to shoulder the unprecedented burdens of the presidency.
To his neighbor Samuel Vaughn he confessed, as he doubtless did to Madison, “The event which I have long dreaded, I am at last constrained to believe, is now likely to happen. From the moment, when the necessity had become more apparent, and as it were inevitable, I anticipated in a heart filled with distress, the ten thousand embarrassments, perplexities and troubles to which I must again be exposed in the evening of a life, already near consumed in public cares.”
The panorama, Washington later wrote, “filled my mind with sensations as painful (considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all my labors to do good) as any New Yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to the British in the they are pleasing.”
It was Washington’s first trip back to New York since the end of the war. If any New Yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to the British in the catastrophic battle of Long Island, they had clearly forgiven. He was filled with trepidation: all his sacrifices, the years of war and political struggle, the great experiment upon which the nation was about to embark – it might yet collapse into fiasco, and come to nothing. At fifty-seven the aging war hero, a giant by the standards of his time, with his great beak of a nose, broad shoulders, and massive thighs that seemed to have been crafted by the Almighty to fit the back of a horse, was a living demigod. During the war, he had exhibited superhuman stoicism through the years of brutal winters, hunger, battlefield defeat, and civilian disaffection.
This article draws upon Chapter 3: A New Era, in my new book, The First Congress.

The Wall Street Journal Reviews The First Congress
February 14th, 2016

The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Spencer reviews The First Congress in a piece titled “Calling the House to Order.”
Spencer writes, “Mr. Bordewich’s account is well worth reading and brings to life the First Congress and its members. Gracefully written, his narrative weaves in much about the members’ day-to-day lives. One learns interesting details about where they resided; with whom they dined; what they ate, and drank; their states of health, and many illnesses; diversions; reading habits and so on.”
An excerpt from the article is below and it’s available in full at The Wall Street Journal here. Learn more about my new book, The First Congress, here.

Calling the House to Order | By Mark Spencer
‘We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,” James Madison said of the harrowing task facing the First Congress assembled at Federal Hall, its temporary home in New York City. While historians write much about the ideological origins of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the drafting of the Constitution (1787), the First Federal Congress (1789-91) gets short shrift. That is unfortunate. While the Revolution launched America’s political experiment and the Constitution provided a theory and a mode of government, the First Congress defined how American government would work in practice. Many of the questions it faced, Fergus M. Bordewich notes, were vast in scope: “Was the president to have independent power? Or was he to be a figurehead, an agent of Congress? Where did the power of government lie? Was the Senate an executive body or a legislative one? How were the powers of the two branches to be reconciled?” Nobody knew. Mr. Bordewich guides us through the answers in “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government.”
Center stage in this story are Congress’s 95 members. They included Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, the “American Demosthenes;” Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, “one of the House of Representatives’ most respected members;” Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, “a hardheaded businessman and no sentimentalist;” and Virginia’s Madison, about whom Mr. Bordewich writes, “no man contributed more to the achievements of the First Congress.” Others also played prominent roles in the creation of a practical government: President George Washington; Vice President John Adams; various cabinet ministers, particularly Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; and miscellaneous lesser figures such as Alexander McGillivray, “the remarkable” Creek chief who was “the son of a Scottish trader and a mixed French-Indian mother.” An unlikely hero, of sorts, was the “rigid, thick-skinned, and socially maladroit” Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who kept a diary of the Congress’s daily proceedings. For many debates, his cranky voice is the only record.

Continue reading at The Wall Street Journal.

NYT Covers The First Congress: City History, and Vantages, Often Overlooked
February 9th, 2016

This past weekend, in a column about my new book “The First Congress,” New York Times writer Sam Roberts picked up on the fact that the First Congress is also a New York story. When Congress met there, in 1789-1790, nearly all Manhattan Island was still farmland. But the city’s sophistication seemed like a trap to many members, who worried that they might never be able to pry the national capital away. (Sam Roberts is also the author of “Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America” — well worth reading.)

Read the full article titled “City History, and Vantages, Often Overlooked” by Sam Roberts here. The First Congress will be out tomorrow as well and you can find it here.

“America begins in New York,” Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, likes to say. Now comes the journalist and author Fergus M. Bordewich to engagingly revive the forgotten story of the nearly 18 months that New York was the nation’s first capital in “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government” (Simon & Schuster, $30).

As the author instructively recalls, that first Congress fleshed out the bare bones of the recently ratified Constitution in two sessions that were probably the most productive in its history — a claim vindicated through prodigious research by the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University.

Congressmen, representing only 11 states, convened at Peter Charles L’Enfant’s renovated Federal Hall downtown. These learned men loftily managed to compromise on most issues (though closing their eyes to others, like the slave market practically across the street) while enduring the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside their windows and the noise of insatiable spectators cracking nuts in the public gallery of the House of Representatives.