What would George Washington say to the feckless President Trump?
One of the more disturbing trends in political discourse in recent years has been the canonization of the Founding Fathers. In right wing circles, these men have been made flawless, as near to earthly perfection as Scripture would allow. Their gatherings were a virtual celestial court as they guided the disparate colonies into a cohesive country. In this sort of mythmaking, the Constitution has become less a fiercely negotiated document and more some divine screed, the Bill of Rights the tablets Moses left behind. Any evolution of thought or interpretation of the text that is not conservative becomes heresy because the divine is not up for analysis.
The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government by Fergus M. Bordewich is an affront to this kind of revisionism. The many flaws of the members of that body are fully displayed. In its pages, we are reminded that the founders filled their chamber pots and put their pantaloons on one leg at a time just like the citizens they sought to govern. Not only were they men of fragile egos and regional allegiances, only some of whom had fought in the American Revolution, but they were creating the federal government. There were no revenue streams to pay down the massive wartime debt. No means of mass communication existed to offer the names of elected officials to the entire country. No cabinet positions or federal judgeships waited for appointments. When George Washington made his way to New York—the disputed seat of federal power—not all of the electoral votes had been counted. His victory was assumed, as was the vice presidency of John Adams, but their roles and powers within the government had yet to be established.
The creation of the government was a messy affair. Many of the representatives and senators didn’t make it to Manhattan to begin work on the first of March due to inclement weather. Those who were there showed up at Federal Hall daily, hoping to find new arrivals to form a quorum. Once enough officials were present, debates began over the size and scope of the central government between the Federalists, advocates for a strong federal government, and the Antifederalists, who believed that the federal government should have a more limited role, binding the country together but subservient to the states. Between these two divergent ways of thinking, plans had to be created to levy taxes and tariffs, create the federal judiciary, form a central bank and ratify amendments to the Constitution. The first congressmen battled, debated and deadlocked, yet the historical consensus states that they all understood the importance of their endeavor. If they did not learn to compromise, the nascent nation would crumble.
The first Congress convened from March 4, 1789 to March 4, 1791. Bordewich spends the bulk of the first third of the book on the inactions and pains of getting all the interested parties to New York. Once Washington arrives and swears his oath on Inauguration Day, the debates begin in Congress and the narrative moves quickly. While the subtitle of the book talks about a group of extraordinary men, Bordewich spends a great deal of time humanizing famous names like Washington, Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. At just over 300 pages of text before notes and bibliography, the events surrounding the creation of the federal government are being presented from a bird’s eye, but it is an engaging read, driven by the historical personalities like an old John Jakes novel. It is a good place to begin learning, perhaps in conjunction with some Howard Zinn.
It is easy to draw parallels to the present. Before the first Congress convened, opinion of government had cratered. The body that had governed since the revolution was seen as ineffectual, and states vied to augment their power. Less-populous states fought for equal footing with the more populated. The divide between northern states and southern states was at a point where it looked like it might break the country. The Federalists with their advocation for a strong central government may seem like Democrats and the Anitfederalists like states’ rights Republicans, but there is a stark difference. The parties of the 18th century were creating a government and learned to work together for a common goal. They “believed in politics as a tool for national survival” and wanted to “ensure the triumph of the institutions they had created, and of which they were justly proud.” How loud would the soft-spoken James Madison scream if he could see what has happened to his Congress after 230 years? What would George Washington say to the feckless President Trump?