Tuesday, February 16, 2016

first precedents

We take so much for granted. The Constitution was crafted, then ratified; Washington was elected president and the new government took over. True, but in fact those developments were surrounded with uncertainty and the successful outcome far from assured at the time. Historian Fergus Bordewich, who recently wrote a fine history of the development of the District of Columbia as the nation's capital, now has a gripping story of The First Congress (Simon & Schuster).

Bordewich tells of the debates and factions of the new legislature, especially as they wrestled with financing the government and dealing with heavy war debts. He praises the parliamentary acumen of James Madison, the financial expertise of Alexander Hamilton, and the deferential aloofness of George Washington. He shows how the new congress began to fracture over federal power and slavery, yet also how lawmakers compromised in order to get necessary business done.  His most compelling story is the long-running dispute over where to seat the capital and the eventually tradeoff of a site on the Potomac in exchange for assumption of all state war debt.

As he summarizes:
Like every Congress since, the First Congress was characterized by the collision of opposing interests, ideological dogmatism, preening egos, personal and sectional distrust, self-dealing, and the dragging inertia of time-serving mediocrity. But all its members shared a common fear of failure and a determination to make government work even if it meant compromising on matters of deep principle.
I wish the current batch of lawmakers felt the same.

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