While the Constitution outlined the theory of our nation, the obstreperous first Congress converted it to reality. It was not a pretty picture, and popular historian Bordewich (America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union, 2012, etc.) delivers an entertaining description of how “it transmuted the Constitution from a paper charter and a set of hopeful aspirations into the machinery of a functioning government.”
Guns boomed, church bells rang, and crowds cheered in New York on March 4, 1789, as Congress opened, but nothing happened because only a handful of members had arrived. A quorum finally assembled in April. Everyone, including George Washington, deferred to Virginia representative James Madison. Although he was not a good public speaker and was completely uncharismatic, Madison knew everything there was to know about governing, and he used this expertise with great subtlety. Bordewich astutely reminds readers that this Congress had no parties, rules, or traditions. No one knew what the president’s job entailed, including the president himself. There were no executive departments, no supreme or federal courts, a dozen civil servants, and no source of income to pay salaries or the immense national debt. Bitter controversies occurred over slavery, revenue, choosing a permanent capitol, and a national bank but, oddly, not over the hallowed Bill of Rights. Madison considered Constitutional amendments unnecessary and knew that anti-federalists were pushing them to weaken it. Anxious to concentrate on important matters, he shepherded 12 that he considered most harmless through Congress. Bordewich also includes a list of the members of the First Federal Congress, divided between the Senate and the House of Representatives, from each state.
Far less edifying than the Constitutional Convention but equally crucial, the colorful machinations of our first Congress receive a delightful account that will keep even educated readers turning the pages.