Fergus M. Bordewich

Archive for the ‘The First Congress’ Category

We’re Hostages of a Misunderstood Second Amendment
Friday, July 1st, 2016

Yet another set of bodies has been laid to rest, this time in Orlando, Florida, slaughtered by yet another gun-wielding maniac. The National Rifle Association issued its usual irresponsible platitudes. Many Republicans – and some Democrats — in thrall to the gun lobby continue to refuse to take action against the nation’s plague of gun violence. It’s a show we’ve seen before, like a summer rerun that was depressing the first time we saw it, and only gets worse with age.
 
Remarkably, neither side in the debate over gun control has paid much attention to what the members of the First Congress, who created the Second Amendment, were really thinking. In the course of researching my new book “The First Congress: How James How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government”, I was astonished to discover how perfunctory the debate was over the Second Amendment. Indeed, it was the least discussed of all the amendments that formed the Bill of Rights. This might seem strange, given that the First Congress was very contentious on most of the issues that came before it. But the members knew exactly what the amendment meant: a national militia organization under the aegis of the federal government that would serve as the nation’s first line of defense. It certainly did not mean a free-for-all of unorganized citizens armed to the teeth in a Hobbesian world of fear.
 
In 1789, James Madison did propose an absolute individual right to bear arms. But Congress decisively altered his proposal, making it clear that the amendment applied specifically to an officially sanctioned force. The first version of the amendment stated: “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The Senate further underscored the legislators’ intention by deleting the elastic phrase “composed of the body of the people,” thus making it even clearer that this did not mean a force composed of everybody and anybody.
 
That’s not all. Members of Congress were well aware that Secretary of War Henry Knox – a former Boston bookseller who served as Washington’s chief of artillery during the Revolution –was writing a comprehensive plan that laid out just how the national militia would be organized. Americans were fiercely opposed to the establishment of a standing army: what that evoked was bullying Redcoats billeted in your home, eating your food, and insulting your wife and daughter. But the nation had to defend itself somehow against the British to the north, Spanish to the south, and powerful Indian nations along its frontiers. Knox proposed that able-bodied white men be organized into several “grand corps” that would include males from eighteen to forty-five, with a reserve corps of men up to the age of sixty. Controversy centered not on the abstract “right to bear arms” but on fears that too many men might be called away from their work for militia duty, and that young draftees would “acquire a habit of Idelness.” Although the Militia Acts, passed in 1792 by the Second Congress, did not fully bring Knox’s plan to fruition, they laid the foundation for today’s state-based National Guard system.
 
The gun lobby is fond of citing the language of the Second Amendment as if it existed in a historical vacuum, twisting it to justify a supposed right of anyone – including potential terrorists who are not allowed to board airplanes – to buy and publicly brandish any kind of murderous battlefield weapon. The Second Amendment’s “originalists” wouldn’t be cheering them on. More likely, they’d be sitting in with Democrats on the floor of the House of Representatives, in hope of bringing the insanity of rampant gun violence to an end.
 

Political Rhetoric Over SCOTUS Nominee Is Historically Unhinged
Tuesday, 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
Saturday, 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.
 

Fergus and George ready to cross the Delaware
Saturday, 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
Thursday, 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
Monday, 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
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.
 

NYT Covers The First Congress: City History, and Vantages, Often Overlooked
Tuesday, 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.