“The rump end of the Continental Congress still wobbled along in New York City, where it had met since 1785, but it hadn’t achieved a quorum since October. Its secretary, Charles Thompson, buttonholed members on the street, when he could find them, and dragged them into his office so that he could claim in his records that they had technically, “assembled.”
The people had elected a President, but nobody was sure what the man was supposed to do. People from Pennsylvania considered people from New England to be their enemies, and the feelings were mutual. Southerners trusted no one except themselves. The states didn’t want to work together, not that this seemed especially likely given the “the yawning listlessness” and “over-refining spirit in relation to trifles” exhibited by Congress’s first members. Apart from a few clerks, the Federal government had no employees. And almost no money. There was no Supreme Court, and there no lower courts. There were more than fifty different currencies in use, plus plenty of counterfeit currencies. There no political parties, but there were Federalists, who believed in the potential of a powerful central government, and Anti-Federalists, who did not. The Anti-Federalists were ready to take apart the new U.S. Constitution and start over, this time favoring these States, not a unified nation.
And we’re only a dozen pages into the book, “First Congress” by historian Fergus M. Bordewich. As a modern reader, the dysfunction is almost beyond comprehension. Not only was nothing much done in preparation for operating a nation, there were almost no likelihood that the First Congress would accomplish anything in particular. And the only guy who could pull the whole country together—George Washington—expressed tremendous apprehension about becoming the President, or the King, or whatever the leadership role might be called. George had his doubts, but he really, really wanted the job and needed to be careful about seeming too anxious. (Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography “Hamilton” on which Broadway musical is based, also wrote a great bio book called “Washington: A Life” which is heavy on George’s constant internal conflicts. Bordowich does not as deeply here because he has other territory to cover.)
So it’s James Madison—whose story ought to follow “Hamilton” as a Broadway musical—who convinces George to man-up, and run the country. Hamilton is also in a leadership role, convincing Congress that the new country ought to set up a bank, assume the states’s debts, and establish a meaningful credit rating. But everything in those early days seems more like an informal startup company than the beginning of the richest nation on earth. “There was also John Jay who ran the Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs from his law office, and Henry Knox, who presided over the War Department from rented rooms at a Water Street tavern.”
Eventually, they got to work. Madison was the first congressman to propose a law so that the new country would have some revenue, and control its coastlines. And then, everybody argued, and protected their regional interests. And besides, nobody was clear on how these new rules could possibly be enforced.
With or without proper tariffs, Vice President John Adams “tirelessly repeated that Europeans would never take the United States seriously unless its chief executive was endowed with the trappings of sovereign grandeur…At minimum, he considered His Highness or His Most Benign Highness as the barest acceptable forms of address for its president. He…scathingly dismissed President as appropriate for ‘Fire Companies & of a Cricket Club.’ Any member of Congress willing to settle for less he considered a ‘driveling idiot.” Everything was new, nothing was settled, and everybody carried a strong opinion of how things must be done. Still, they were not without humor: Ben Franklin, who was always good for a laugh, called Vice President Adams “Your Superfluous Excellency,” while others looked at his widening girth and favored, “His Rotundity.” (I found Franklin’s comment on the web, not in the book).
Did the First Congress get anything done?
The surprising and overwhelming answer is “yes!” In surprising chapter by chapter, Bordowich leads us through one astonishing accomplishment after another. Congress establishes itself as a powerful legislative body. They manage to keep the government running at a time when it appears as though George Washington will not survive an illness. They worked out the Bill of Rights. They figured out where to place the new nation’s capital—a major political accomplishment because of the many competing interests. While busy complaining about how little they understood about finance, they did not stop Alexander Hamilton from establishing the U.S. as a viable financial operation—a capitalist one at that. They worked on a reasonable solution for slavery—but failed in the attempt. They—and Adams gets much of the blame for this—managed to make the Vice President an ineffective leadership role. They invented the President’s Cabinet and its various departments—and convinced a very reluctant Thomas Jefferson to leave his lovely Paris mansion and lovelier lifestyle to return home and establish the State Department. They learned to deal with lobbyists (Quakers were the first lobbyists).
“Men who had seen themselves primarily as citizens of their individual states had now mostly come to see themselves as the common citizens of a nation and embraced their new government as their own in a way they had never done before.”
“Public opinion now mattered. Newly emboldened newspapers brought the doings of government to the door of every citizen, including the illiterate , who gathered in urban taverns and frontier hamlets to avidly hear reports read to them by their literate neighbors.”