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The First Congress

How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government

Fergus M. Bordewich


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (5/11/2016)
Paperback (2/21/2017)
MP3 CD (5/12/2016)
Compact Disc (5/12/2016)
MP3 CD (5/12/2016)
Compact Disc (5/12/2016)


The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 1789–1791.

The First Congress was the most important in US history, says prizewinning author and historian Fergus Bordewich, because it established how our government would actually function. Had it failed—as many at the time feared it would—it’s possible that the United States as we know it would not exist today.

The Constitution was a broad set of principles. It was left to the members of the First Congress and President George Washington to create the machinery that would make the government work. Fortunately, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and others less well known today, rose to the occasion. During two years of often fierce political struggle, they passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution; they resolved bitter regional rivalries to choose the site of the new national capital; they set in place the procedure for admitting new states to the union; and much more. But the First Congress also confronted some issues that remain to this day: the conflict between states’ rights and the powers of national government; the proper balance between legislative and executive power; the respective roles of the federal and state judiciaries; and funding the central government. Other issues, such as slavery, would fester for decades before being resolved.

The First Congress tells the dramatic story of the two remarkable years when Washington, Madison, and their dedicated colleagues struggled to successfully create our government, an achievement that has lasted to the present day.

Praise For The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government

“Fergus M. Bordewich has transformed the recent multivolumecollection of sources on the First Federal Congress into a livelynarrative. . . . The First Congress is a perfect example of what a verygood writer can do with these raw materials.”
— Carol Berkin

"The First Congress faced its daunting agenda with resourcefulness. . . . [Bordewich] provides clear and often compelling analyses of the problems that required varying doses of compromise and persuasion, and he paints scenes in New York and Philadelphia with colorful illustrations that are enviable examples of the historian’s art. . . . Readers will enjoy this book for making an intricate story clear and fascinating."
— David S. Heidler

“Fergus Bordewich paints a compelling portrait of the first, critical steps of the American republic, a perilous time when Congress – a body that has proved naturally contentious and short-sighted – had to be wise, and it was. The First Congress deftly blends many voices and stories into an elegant and gripping tale of a triumph of self-government.”
— David O. Stewart, author of Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America and The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

“Bordewich’s account is well worth reading and brings to life the First Congress and its members. Gracefully written. . . . Bordewich provides a balanced assessment of the many achievements of the First Congress, while not overlooking its shortcomings.”
— Mark G. Spencer

“Finally, a popular and finely paced account of the Congress that could have easily unmade the new American republic.”
— Allen Guelzo

“The story of how these flawed but brilliant men managed to put the theory of the Constitution into actual practice and create a functioning government is the subject of Fergus M. Bordewich's fascinating The First Congress."
— Tom Moran

"With his highly informative The First Congress, historian Fergus M. Bordewich joins the ranks of familiar authors like Joseph Ellis, David McCullough, Fred Kaplan and others, whose biographies and studies of early American history have captivated so many. . . . Bordewich combines fascinating biography with a detailed account of the three sessions of Congress that ran from 1789-1791 and established the institutions and protocols that we follow today."
— Tony Lewis

“Bordewich’s worthy contribution to popular history shows us how a combination of high-minded determination, vote-trading and back-room deals created ‘muscular and enduring institutions’ that could adapt and thrive for more than 200 years.”
— Frank Davies

“Entertaining. . . . The colorful machinations of our first Congress receive a delightful account that will keep even educated readers turning the pages.”

“Bordewich brings back to life the ‘practical, impatient, and tired politicians’ who transformed the parchment of the US Constitution into the flesh and blood of a national government. . . . Anyone curious about the origins of today’s much-maligned national legislature will marvel at this hair-raising story of stunning political creativity.”
— Richard A. Baker, US Senate Historian Emeritus and co-author of The American Senate: An Insider’s History

“Fergus Bordewich reminds us, with solid research and sprightly prose, that once upon a time Congress worked and leaders of the new nation understood that true patriotism requires that legislators actually get things done and keep the Government open for business. This book should be required reading for every member of Congress.”
— Paul Finkelman , Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism

“[A] highly readable and sweeping account of the First Federal Congress.”
— Kenneth R. Bowling, co-editor, First Federal Congress Project; Adjunct Professor of History, George Washington University; and author of Peter Charles L'Enfant

“Bordewich expertly conveys the excitement of how the first U.S. Congress(1789–91) created a government. . . . This engaging and accessible book sheds new light on themeaning of constitutionality.”

“Bordewich’s noteworthy exploration of the foundation for a working constitutional government provides an important perspective on American history.”

Simon & Schuster, 9781451691931, 416pp.

Publication Date: February 9, 2016

About the Author

Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of several books, among them America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history. His articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers. He lives in San Francisco. Visit him at