Monday, March 28, 2016

Book review: The First Congress

Book review: The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
By Fergus M. Bordewich, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016

Alec D. Rogers very capably reviews this new book at Fergus Bordewich offers a detailed look at how the leaders of the former American colonies started buckling down to making a government after the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. It was a tough job. We’re still hard at work on it in 2016.

Some excerpts from Rogers:
“By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government.  And while the concept of a two house legislature was not as alien as the Constitution’s article II President, there were many procedural questions that would need to be settled as the machinery began to operate.  Like President George Washington, its members were aware that virtually everything they did would set a precedent for the new government. They also knew that the eyes of the world were upon their republican experiment…

“Bordewich takes us through the battles that consumed the first Congress.  A new tax system was imperative yet controversial for its implications for federal-state relations as well as its distributions of burdens on different sectors of the economy and regions.  The creation of the federal judiciary similarly aroused concerns about an overbearing, costly federal government.  Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s plans for a national bank and the structure of the debt consumed considerable time and raised profound questions regarding federalism and separation of powers.  Even the title by which the President would be addressed turned into a deep philosophical question about the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government and the nature of the executive in a republic.”

Rogers also notes:
In 1871, John Adams’s grandson Charles Francis Adams would observe that:
‘We are beginning to forget that the patriots of former days were men like ourselves, acting and acted upon like the present race, and we are almost irresistibly led to ascribe to them in our imaginations certain gigantic proportions and superhuman qualities, without reflecting that this at once robs their character of consistency and their virtues of all merit.’”

I’ll add that readers today should keep in mind that Charles Adams, grandson of the venerable John Adams, forgot to mention that the Founding Fathers never called themselves “founding fathers,” and they mostly weren’t buddies, and mostly they were affluent white guys (mostly lawyers) who were inclined to dabble in politics or who seriously sought political power.

Human nature doesn’t change in the short space of 240 years or so.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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