What Today’s Congress Can Learn From the First CongressRoundup
The deepening standoff between Congress and the president over the replacement of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February, threatens to damage yet another key part of what Patrick Henry once called the “crazy machine” of government. Some might imagine that the nation’s founders would be appalled if they saw government so paralyzed. In fact, it might seem to them more like deja vu.
Even in its earliest years, Congress faced seemingly intractable problems that might have crippled our new government before it got underway. But unlike the majority of our present Congress, the members of the First Congress were determined to make government work—they were afraid of the consequences if it didn’t.
Today’s Congress might find a way out of the weeds by taking a few lessons from the First Congress, which met first in New York and later in Philadelphia, from 1789 to 1791 in an atmosphere hardly less conflicted than the present-day, and was charged with the daunting task of turning the parchment plan of the Constitution into a working government. Many Americans—including members of Congress—feared that it couldn’t be done.
The nascent United States was still less a reality than an idea. As James Madison, who dominated much of the First Congress debate, put it: “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us.” The country was a shaky collection of sovereign states. The government had no reliable source of revenue. More than 50 different currencies were in circulation. There was no permanent capital. The British threatened the nation’s security from the north, and bellicose Indians did so from the west. Southerners were suspicious of northerners, westerners of easterners, New Englanders of everyone else. Quakers and others were demanding an end to slavery, while southerners threatened secession if government dared to tamper with their “peculiar institution.”
Astonishingly enough, however, the First Congress produced the most successful record of accomplishment by any single Congress in American history. It established the executive departments, the first revenue streams for the national government, approved the first amendments to the Constitution, adopted a program for paying the country’s debts, embraced the principles of capitalism as the underpinning of government financial policy, founded the first National Bank, established the national capital on the Potomac River, and enacted the first patent and copyright laws. Not least, it also established the Federal Court System and the Supreme Court, with John Jay as its first Chief Justice. They didn’t accomplish all this with a group hug; they did it through shameless deal-making, the kind of flip-flopping that is ritually decried by modern pundits, and the suspension of personal principles in order to get things done. ...
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