Reading History: “The First Congress” (Fergus M. Bordewich)

Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable.  While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier.  Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich.  With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed brush, showing us the ins and outs of these men (and they were exclusively men) who sought to forge a government out of the tumult and failure of the Articles of Confederation.  While he focuses, with good reason, on Washington and Madison, whom he sees as crucial to the forging of the early American government, there are many others who gain some attention.  He draws particular attention to William Maclay and Robert Morris, the two senators from Pennsylvania.  These two men could not have been more different, yet Bordewich allows us to understand their idiosyncrasies and the values that motivated them to undertake the mammoth effort to craft a unified government.

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams also both make substantial appearances in the book.  Hamilton is painted (justifiably) as a brilliant mind and an integral part of the formation of the infant nation’s financial infrastructure.  Unfortunately, Adams does not emerge in a very flattering light, and Bordewich seems to (at times, anyway) go out of his way to highlight his inadequacy as the president of the Senate.

As Bordewich points out, two of the fundamental decisions facing the First Congress were the formation of the national bank and the decision on where to establish the national capital.  Of course, neither of these were easily decided, and both necessitated a great deal of negotiation among the various parties.  It is rather startling to think that the U.S. capital might have ended up somewhere in Pennsylvania (there was, for a time, a sizable that wanted it located on the banks of the Susquehanna), and while the national bank did not last (it was eventually demolished by Andrew Jackson), without it the United States government would probably have foundered on the banks of insolvency.

There are some particularly eyeopening revelations in this book, including the fact the Bill of Rights, that most vaunted and celebrated part of the Constitution, was actually not high in the list of priorities for this first Congress.  Indeed, as Bordewich argues, it was only through the resourcefulness and skill of Madison that we gained the amendments that remain so fundamental to our way(s) of thinking of ourselves as a nation and as a culture.

The two greatest casualties of the First Congress, Bordewich suggests (though he does not go into a great deal of detail) were the fates of African Americans and Native Americans.  While the question of slavery was punted to future generations–a decision that would have grave consequences for the future of the nation–Native Americans were also rather thrown under the bus in these early days by the members of Congress.  While this particular aspect does not get as much attention in this book as it probably deserves,  Bordewich does deserve praise for bringing it into focus at all.

All of this is delivered in a lively and engaging style.  Bordewich, like so many of our great popular historians, writes with clarity and precision.  In particular, his command of verbs lends a vivacity and immediacy to the proceedings, so that we as readers feel as if we are there in those early days, dealing with the harsh winter conditions or the blistering summers, the devastating (and often deadly) outbreaks of influenza, and the myriad other inconveniences that comprised daily life in late 18th Century America.  Fortunately, Bordewich leavens this with his own sharp analysis and piercing interpretation of historical events.

Overall, Bordewich paints a compelling and eminently readable portrait of the First Congress.  Furthermore, his chronicle gives hope that, even in these incredibly divided and partisan times, there is still hope that Congress can somehow overcome its own worse nature, work through the bickering, and finally manage to accomplish something(s) for the greater, common good.  I only hope that that’s not just wishful thinking.

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this wonderful book.

And, finally, here’s to my 200th post on this blog.  Let’s hope for 200 more!

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