The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Paperback)

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government By Fergus M. Bordewich Cover Image

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Paperback)


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This “fascinating” (Chicago Tribune), “lively” (The New York Times) history tells how the First Congress and the Washington administration created one of the most productive and far-reaching governments in American history—“gracefully written…and well worth reading” (The Wall Street Journal).

The First Congress may have been the most important in American history because it established how our government would work. The Constitution was a broad set of principles that left undefined the machinery of government. Fortunately, far-sighted, brilliant, and determined men such as Washington, Madison, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson (and others less well known today) labored to create a functioning government.

In The First Congress, award-winning author Fergus Bordewich brings to life the achievements of the First Congress: it debated and passed the first ten amendments to the Constitution, which we know as the Bill of Rights; admitted North Carolina and Rhode Island to the union when they belatedly ratified the Constitution, then admitted two new states, Kentucky and Vermont, establishing the procedure for admitting new states on equal terms with the original thirteen; chose the site of the national capital, a new city to be built on the Potomac; created a national bank to handle the infant republic’s finances; created the first cabinet positions and the federal court system; and many other achievements. But it avoided the subject of slavery, which was too contentious to resolve.

The First Congress takes us back to the days when the future of our country was by no means assured and makes “an intricate story clear and fascinating” (The Washington Post).
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

Product Details ISBN: 9781451692112
ISBN-10: 1451692110
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: February 21st, 2017
Pages: 416
Language: English
“Fergus M. Bordewich has transformed the recent multivolume collection of sources on the First Federal Congress into a lively narrative. . . . The First Congress is a perfect example of what a very good 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. . . . 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

“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

“Entertaining. . . . The colorful machinations of our first Congress receive a delightful account that will keep even educated readers turning the pages.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“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.”
— Library Journal

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

"Bordewich’s telling of the debates around what we think of as the Bill of Rights is especially illuminating. . . . Bordewich brings these debates to life with fascinating and sympathetic portraits."
— Philip A. Wallach, The Brookings Institution