Fergus M. Bordewich

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King Donald The First: What Would Washington And Madison Think?
Thursday, July 28th, 2016

The extraordinary rise of Donald Trump is forcing Americans, whether they like it or not, to consider just what they want a president to be. Mr. Trump certainly isn’t what the nation’s Founders had in mind. George Washington and James Madison aren’t here to offer their opinion on the New York developer and showman. But they can tell us something about the kind of person they thought should lead the republic.
 
In 1789, the First Congress spent weeks debating what to call the nation’s new chief executive. Vice President John Adams considered “His Most Benign Highness” or at least “His Highness” as the barest acceptable forms of address, although he preferred “His High Mightiness,” and dismissed “President” as fit for nothing more than the leader of “fire companies or a cricket club.” Others proposed that the name “Washington” should itself become a title, like “Caesar” or “Augustus” in ancient Rome, to be bestowed on future presidents.
 
Fortunately, George Washington, would have none of it. He rejected all grandiose titles as offensive to the leveling American spirit. Although he was a patrician slave owner, and a military man accustomed to command, he was republican to his bones, and regarded Congress, not himself, as the leading organ of government. Underpinning his republicanism was unbreachable self-restraint, modesty, and respect for the dignity of his fellow political men, including those he disagreed with. As far as he was concerned, the humble title of “President” was just fine.
 
Washington would doubtless be shocked at the openly authoritarian – he would have said “monarchical” – tendencies of the presidential candidate of today’s Republican Party. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to Mr. Trump, but had he been alive in 1789, he would probably have called Washington a wuss and a loser. He almost lost his army at Valley Forge, and he lost more battles than he won, didn’t he? It’s easy to imagine that Mr. Trump would have enthusiastically embraced the most pompous title possible.
 
Increasingly, it appears that millions of Americans, whether they admit it to themselves or not, no longer want a president at all. They seem to want a leader, who although he may wear a business suit and speak the lingo of a construction site, wields power uninhibited by the niceties of our democratic process or constitutional restraint. In other words, they want a king.
 
The political soil was tilled for demagogy long before Mr. Trump appeared on the scene. It was cultivated by decades of feral right-wing attacks on the federal government, by the metastasizing culture of celebrity, by media obsessed with horserace campaign coverage and incessant polling, and – perhaps more than anything else – by countless ill-educated citizens lacking real understanding of how government actually works. Cynicism thrives in a vacuum of knowledge. It’s a good bet that few Americans today fully understand what it takes to pass legislation, the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, or the need for compromise even on matters of principle in order to make progress. These are facts that any schoolchild could explain until courses in social studies and government began to disappear from schools in the 1960s.
 
Many Americans seem to think that presidents have the power to wave a magic scepter in order to enact and enforce the promises they make during their campaigns. This applies to many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters too, who share Mr. Trump’s delusional notion of presidential power, as if merely declaring a “revolution” were the same thing as actually governing in the face of a Congress that might be opposed to his will.
 
In today’s America, if presidents haven’t done what we want in their first hundred days, we’re all too ready to dismiss them as failures – as if such a breathtakingly short span of time were a valid measure for political accomplishment. This failure seems proof not of the difficulty of governing in a democracy, or of the complexity of the issues involved, but of the president’s own hypocrisy, corruption, incompetence, or moral “betrayal” of the voters. Citizens of Weimar Germany—the republic formed after World War I and the predecessor of Hitler’s Third Reich—would recognize this facile contempt for the messiness of constitutional government, and the desire for a forceful new figure to step in and clean it up.
 
Democracy is clumsy by nature. Anyone who thinks differently doesn’t understand the government that Washington, Madison, and their 18th century compatriots and his allies bequeathed to us. They deliberately created an obstacle course for legislation that made it difficult for either a demagogic president or a tyrannical faction of Congress to exert too much power on their own. It is precisely this diffusion of power that Mr. Trump would like to undo with his disdain for both political and constitutional restraints, whether applied to the capricious abrogation of trade treaties, the abolition of gun-free zones in schools, or the torture of captured foes.
 
If we truly want our government to work, we seek principled but pragmatic leaders not zealots, ideologues, or demagogues with imperial delusions, who will further undermine public trust in government. The founders knew that demagogy, in particular, was a recipe for disaster. In this year of Donald Trump, we ought to take their fears seriously.
 
Madison was more worried about legislative than executive tyranny at a time when the presidency was frail and untried. But we would do well to remember his cautionary words as the November election approaches: “What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Mr. Trump, it hardly needs to be said, is no angel.
 
Originally published at The Huffington Post.
 

Brookings’ Philip Wallach Reviews The First Congress
Saturday, 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
Monday, 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.
 

The Wall Street Journal Reviews The First Congress
Sunday, 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.