tv George Washington and the First Congress CSPAN July 9, 2016 8:30am-9:49am EDT
announcer: next on american history tv, author fergus bordewich talks about how a group of extraordinary men forget of the government. he creates passages from the book and looked at the leading men who developed the u.s. congress and the presidency in the early days of the republic from 1789 until 1791. george washington's mount vernon home posted this one hour and 20 minute event. megan: hello. my name is megan dunn. i am the chief of staff here at mount vernon. you are about to have a fantastic event. first, i want to thank them for continuing to provide for the monthly talk, which is very popular throughout the year. i would also like to recognize a very special guest in the audience.
we have our george washington leadership fellows here with us. you are 16 students here who are spending five weeks on the stage in a leadership program inspired by george washington's life and egacy. they are here through the generosity of david m rubenstein, who made a wonderful guest and helped us conceive of the idea to have this group of people here. i would like you all to stand so we can all recognize you. [applause] megan: this is our second class of fellows. they have just arrived this week and have very busy schedules, but they are wonderful to speak ith. if you get a moment, i think you would enjoy it. i am honored to introduce onight speaker, fergus
bordewich, and he holds degrees from columbia university. he is a frequent speaker and is also worked as a journalist, which allows him to travel the globe, writing on politics, economics, history, and ore. his articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including "the new york times," "the wall street journal," and "the smithsonian he is the author of several and books, including "washington," "bound for canaan, the underground railroad and the battle for the soul of america," and "henry clay and stephen douglas and the compromise that preserved the union, which won the los angeles times the price n history. he is currently working on a new book focusing on the role of congress during the civil war, and tonight, is going to join us to speak about his first book, the first congress, how james madison, george washington, and
a group of extraordinary men invented big government. please join me in welcoming fergus bordewich. [applause] ergus: hi, everyone. i assume you can hear me clearly in the back? not too loud, i hope. thank you all for being here. i'm going to allow as much time as i can for questions afterward, because i know this is going to be both a well-informed and provocative group of people. not every group i speak to is. [laughter] occasionally, i find myself saying, there were two houses of congress. [laughter] fortunately, i am not worried about that tonight. and, naturally, i want to thank mount vernon for having me here and for providing such a wonderful venue for this alk.
this new book of mine, "the first congress," was inspired by an earlier book which was already mentioned about the creation of washington, d.c. why are we here and not on the susquehanna river in pennsylvania, or in for the nation's seat of government, the south bronx? am a native new yorker. chauvinistic, but -- at any rate, i were a book about the politics in the creation of the seat of government in the nation's capital in the 1790's, and it occurred, that political decision occurred, as one of the acts of the first congress, first federal congress, and it became readily apparent to me that that congress, which was prodigiously productive, and i think there was no question that
it ranks among the three-hour four most effective reductive congresses in american history if not the most productive. and in writing this book, this is a narrative history. this is a narrative history, and i know there are people, actually a lot of people, who think there is no more boring narrative than congressional ebate. however, i do not think that is true at all, and in writing this book, i tried to imagine myself as kind of a fly on the wall, a spectator in the gallery of the ouse of representatives. it could not be the gallery of the senate, because there was no gallery in the senate. he senate was a closed body, and at the time, it had no guests or visitors, and it made no record of its actions, so there is a wonderfully tart and sarcastic diary done by one of my favorite and difficult to like members of the congress from pennsylvania, and if you still want to know more about the first congress after you have read my book or even after
this, i recommend his diary in print. so i try to imagine myself as a fly on the wall. watching the debate unfold in front of me without knowing the outcome, because, of course, when members met in march and april of 1789, nobody knew the outcome, and, trust me that nobody was confident it was going to succeed. plan concept, which had ailed. plan b was this, a federal congress, and there was no plan , so i tried to write as if in eal time, and i tried to capture the often very dramatic political give-and-take, the verbal combat, which was often on a marvelous level considering
who these men were, and are often grudgingly struggling to compromise. a better look. ell, ok. let me explain these first two images printed this is new york in 1789, and we are standing approximately in front of federal hall, looking towards the east river of new york, and the city even then, although the buildings are four or five stories high, some of the bustle of 200 years, so federal hall, even though the image of it that i'm going to show you in a minute looks very austere and
classical, it is here. and this is another image of new york, and it may be somebody in this audience -- that $1 probably not, who knows that this house is standing at the manhattan end of the holland tunnel. it is not there anymore. this was the house that vice president john adams rented for the two sessions that the first congress met in new york, and hy am i showing it to you? to convey some sense of how rural and you call was in 789. the city ended about where new york city hall is today. if you went beyond city hall, you were going out of town. nd this stood, this building stood approximately 1.5 miles
maybe two miles from new york city, and when members of the first congress needed a break, and that was often, because it was very exhausting, and these fellows were working six and seven days a week, they went for a walk or a horseback ride in he countryside, and that countryside is where greenwich village was at there somewhere, so that is the new york that we are in, and this is federal hall, where just about all of the action is taking place. wall street, a coffeehouse. what i showed you first is ehind us, and we are now looking in the direction of the hudson river. ok. so the first congress. despite its significance, the
congress has generally been treated as something like an asterix, as if the government that the constitution outlined, and that that is what it was, an outline, not full grown like springing from before head of eus, which it did not. -- from the forehead of zeus, which it didn't. it took two years of highly created and sometimes two-fisted down and dirty politics to accomplish the job, and that job was creating the institutions of government, of creating what patrick henry, who i am going to refer to once or twice later on, referred to as "the crazy machine of government. what we like that is what these men are doing and federal hall here. when the first congress gathered in new york in march and april 1789, two months -- it took them more than a month to get a quorum. everybody who showed up on time,
including james madison, was in a blind panic that not enough people would show up to make a congress, and there are letters to others. and they expressed a fear that they had failed before they even had gotten started. so the challenges facing the country are terrific. the country is a very shaky collection of 11 sovereign states. north carolina, rhode island, governed by anti-federalists, those who do not like it, have ot yet joined the union. and then more than 200 amendments, or even a new constitutional convention. the government has no reliable source of revenue. there are more than 50 different currencies in circulation. there is no permanency of overnment. government had been nomadic in the 1780's, and some are suspicious of northerners, southerners, and westerners of easterners, and new englanders
of just about everyone, and there are very well-founded fears -- speaking of the west here, of course come we are not talking about montana and idaho nd south dakota. we are about west of the appellations. we are talking about what soon becomes kentucky and tennessee and ohio and indiana and illinois. that is about as far west as anyone can imagine at this point. there are fears that the west will break off into another country or maybe several countries. quakers and others, slavery, while southerners threaten secession, and they did so in the course of the first congress, threatened secession if congress bears to tamper with slavery, and as i said, and i will repeat it probably a few more times, even members of congress did not know if the government would survive its birth.
as james madison said several times, we are in a wilderness without a single footstep for guidance. yes come the first congress achieved prodigious output. t established the federal, court system, the first revenue streams for the national government, the first and amendments approved to the constitution, adopted a program for paying the countries debts, and they embraced the kids both of capitalism as the -- principles of capitalism underpinning of financial as the policy. it founded the first national day and the first national capital on the banks of the potomac. it enacted the first patent and copyright laws, and i could go on. the members of the first congress, it regards itself as demagogue. they never expected anyone else to expect them to be that either. a great majority of them were rofessional politicians.
most of them were, gasp, lawyers. [laughter] this was not a congress of amateurs. nobody, nobody threw down his plow, jumped on his meal, and wrote to new york and legislated for a while and then went back to the farm to finish plowing. nobody. nobody took off his obblers. leather apron to legislate. hese men are professional. they were overwhelmingly pragmatic. there were no ideological zealots. one or two a little bit crazy, and a few others were famously a bit lazy, and a number of others, it seems, from time to time had to be pulled out of the
averns and brothels of the eastside, and some of those names do not occur very often in the record, but among these men -- we will come back to him in a minute. you know who that is. james madison. james madison stands out as the leading figure, particularly in the first crucial session of congress. there were three sessions, two in new york, the third in philadelphia. he served as floor leader in the house. there were, i should remind you -- there was no structure as we know the congress has today. there were no majority/minority leaders, whips, and no structure of seniority at all. madison was recognized by almost everyone as the foremost interpreter to the constitution, to which he contributed arguably more than anyone else. he was a brilliant
parliamentarian, and i will tell you a story about that at its time. a truly stunning maneuver that borders on sleight of hand that buffaloed the rest of the house and was fundamental to bringing the capital here opposed to being elsewhere where congress already voted to put it. a brilliant parliamentarian, and with the complete confidence of the single most charismatic man in the united states, george washington. so let's go back. this is george in a very presidential sort of pose, and this is a conjectural rendering of washington arriving for his inauguration. i'm going to take the liberty of reading a short bit from the book here. i hate to slash my own words, ut i am.
i'm just going to read an excerpt, and when i again, this is mount vernon. this is george washington here at mount vernon. "washington consider the sluggishness in getting the government up and running to be an embarrassment. he was determined not to add to it. as this delay must be very irksome to the attending members, i am resolved no interruption shall proceed from me that can will be avoided. he assured james madison by mail. madison is in new york. the house of representatives was still debating cod fish and molasses. when on april 22, congress learned that george washington had reached the jersey shore. washington vernon accompanied by his aide, david humphries, his
secretary, tobias, his enslaved servant, believe me, and charles thompson. a man who might have headed an executive department but did not. they crossed the potomac at georgetown, headed north through baltimore, across the rolling hills that some promoters of washington hoped it might become the site of the nations permanent capital. he had hoped to travel in has quiet and peaceful a manner as possible to conserve his energy, but that was not to be. he entire route was with warm with cheering, shouting, well-wishers, throwing flowers at him, holding up their babies and demanding speeches. towns that had cannons fired them. veterans marched alongside them for miles. women wept. they claimed a new era and behold the rising empire, so he slipped the crowd when he could. he agreed when pressed to deliver speeches in baltimore, wilmington, and philadelphia,
where 20,000 people, half the ity's population thronged the the d streets, long live father of his people, and fit for an emperor, a wreath was placed on his head. more crowds awaited him on the jersey bank, the delaware river, where he famously crossed during the war. the calvary and infantry scorted him between ranks of girls crowned with garlands, who strewed flowers before his feet, saying 02 glory. they proclaimed washington had ecome virtually divine, or and nd upon a scale of eminence that have a never before assigned to a mortal. expectations were high. finally, on april 23, at elizabeth, new jersey, he was met by a committee of both houses, jon jay, and his
uniformed revolutionary war colleague. dressed in this a blue suit that recalled his wartime uniform and seated him. washington was rode across the river in a 47 foot barge manned by 13 pilots dressed in white garments as flag festooned ships fired across the harbor. as if inspired by the jubilation, porpoises leaped around the barge." an eyewitness account. a boatload of men and women trilled "god save the king. nd then he passed around and then he passed around in turn north, to the booming of artillery.
multitudes of men, women, and children packed as thick as years of corn before the harvest. thick as ears of corn before the harvest. the panorama, washington later wrote, sensations as painful considering the reverse of this scene, which may be the case after all of my labors to do good, as they are pleasing. in other words, he was pretty uptight. it was washington's first trip back to new york after the war. if any new yorkers held him personally responsible for losing their city to be british, the battle of long island, it was clearly forgiven. he was filled with trepidation and all of the sacrifices, the years of war and political struggle, the great experiment on which the nation was about to mbark. it might yet collapsed in fiasco and come to nothing.
an assembly of war veterans met him at the wars. -- wharf. at the top of the steps, carpeted in his honor, they declared a guard was ready to take his orders. at this, washington, turning to the crowd, and with a democratic inspiration declared he would accept the honor guard but, in truth, the affections of his fellow citizens was all the guard he wanted. he rejected the use of a carriage, preceded by a group of calvary and artillery and officers, the new york's mayor and clergymen and an amazing concourse of ordinary citizens went slowly through the streets, with silk banners, flowers and branches of evergreens. cherry street, near the present day brooklyn bridge, which had been rented for him. later, the skies burst in a torrential downfall, but no one seemed to care.
not that there were not dissenters. to at least some republicans, washington's entire journey seemed like a royal progress success and of hinted at the elevation of the new president in a sort of american king, a satirical and sacrilegious caricature that spread around new york labeled the entry, showing washington arriving in the guise of jesus in the american jerusalem of new york, sitting in billy lee's lap, and with humphreys wearing devil's horns and chanting "the glorious time has come to pass when david should conduct an ss." less nastily, but in its own way no less significant in its ambivalence about washington's intentions, and member of congress promoted that a prominent quaker, when told that washington was approaching his
house, replied, with quaker lead disdain for ceremony that he was perfectly indifferent to the general commotion at the door, and he declined to rise from the dinner table as the presidential rocession marched by." now, leaving you on that negative note there, and you will realize that i think washington's role in the course of the first congress is really quite fascinating. i'm going to give you just one short snapshot here. this actually describes the day of his inauguration shortly afterward. but it is a different note. as the inauguration approach, they filled into the city,
filling porterhouse is and private homes. everyone was desperate for a glimpse of washington. "i have seen him," a young woman breathlessly wrote home. i never saw a human tpwhag looked so great and noble as he does. i could fall down on my knees before him and bless them. a landlady was so overwrought that she experienced a virtually orgasmic collapse. her mind was so overcome by the expectations of seeing the president that it affected her whole frame in a very uncommon anner. it was so painful that though she promised herself much gratification, she wished it over. so people responded to george in different ways. [laughter] so washington's charisma and his wholehearted commitment to the republican experiment, and that is what it was, and experiment,
were powerful for the fragile government. but congress, you have to remember, was the most powerful branch of that government. it was there not in washington's mansion that the real decisions were made, the plans for the country were proposed, and fundamental conflict hashed out. washington was a republican in his bones. n his bones. despite the adulation. americans had no idea what a chief executive might be like except king george the third. it is not perhaps a startling that people responded in the ways that i was describing here, as they do not know what the president is. there has never been a president. ashington invented it. washington, of course, had no agenda of his own to advance. he had no program for his first hundred days, which is a millstone that has hung around the neck of every president
since fdr, generally by the media, pundits, and the opposition in order to be able to say, if the president has not accomplished what we expected him to do, fulfilled his promises in the first 100 days, he is a failure, and i do not think any president benefits from that. i think we should retire the phrase, and it certainly did not exist back in 1789. and when i said washington was a republican in his bones, he looked to congress for leadership, not the other way around. and his hands trembled at his inauguration, and that was for good reason, because he did everything he said or did would set a precedent for better or worse. well, i should quote you at least a phrase or two up of what washington was thinking. before he set out for new york,
he confided to a neighbor, near where we are right now, he said, from the moment when the necessity of accepting the office of chief executive had become apparent and, as it were, nevitable, -- i anticipated, in a heart filled with distress, the 10,000 embarrassments, complexities, and troubles to which i must yet again be exposed in the evening of a life already near consumed by public cares. one of the first challenges occurred in the very, very first weeks of congress. hinged on a seemingly innocuous question. just what was the chief executive to be called? it might not have been president, and this is where john adams steps in and basically ruins the vice presidency for all eternity.
[laughter] the first congress spent weeks, weeks debating what to call the chief executive. adams, who repeatedly with a kind of nixonian charisma, excerpted himself in the senate debate, essentially aggravating veryone. and diminishing the office of vice president nearly with his every utterance. i do not hate john adams, but these were not his best years. adams considered his most benign highness or at least his highness as the barest acceptable forms of address. he preferred his high mightiness, and he dismissed president as fit for nothing more than the leader of fire companies or a club.
others proposed the name washington should itself become the title, like caesar or augustus in ancient rome, to be bestowed on future presidents. fortunately, george washington would have none of it. he rejected all these grandiose titles. although he was obviously a patrician, a slave owner, a military man accustomed to command and obedience, he was a republican, and he regarded congress as the core of the nation's government. but underpinning his republicanism was an unreachable quality of self-restraint, modesty, and respect for the dignity of his fellow men, including those he disagreed with.
as far as he was concerned, the humble title of president was just fine. thank you, george. we are all grateful for that. we have certainly had some presidents, more than a few, i daresay, who we would have had a difficult time addressing as his high mightiness. depending on where you are on the spectrum, pick your choices. [laughter] mr. bordewich: so, the first congress did not accomplish anything with a group hug. they did not sing a 1789 version -- kumbaya.t they did it through pragmatic and sometimes shameless deal mating of the sort ritually disparaged by ideologues and idealist alike. the suspension of personal principles in order to get things done. the french ambassador, who was a very acute observer of the first congress, observed that he
entreats the cabals, the underhanded and insidious dealings of the factions and turbulent spirits are even much more frequent in this republican -- in this republic than in the most absolute monarchy. the turbulence he is describing is the republican government at work. i want to give you one good example, a serious example. there are so many, so many, but i'm going to talk about the battle over amendments. if we are going to do that, let's find madison again. there are some surprising aspects to this. today, we think of the bill of rights as one of the most majestic components of the constitutional system, rightly so. many of the men who created the constitution did not want
amendments at all. the amendments as we know them were the product of a political sausage machine. state ratifying conventions called for more than 200 amendments, many of which demanded the rebalancing of power to favor the state government. in other words, to push the system back in the direction of the failed confederation, or one might say if one really wanted to go out on a limb forward in the direction of the confederacy of 1861. i am not saying that as loosely as you might imagine. state ratifying conventions called for a list of amendments. many of them were overlapping. they tended to focus also on limiting the jurisdiction of federal courts, banning federal taxes of any kind, the creation of commissions that could override unpopular supreme court decisions, restraints on the power of congress to oversee federal elections, and many other drastic changes that would
have gutted the constitution. we can think james madison that they did not succeed. most federalists, and madison comes into the first congress as a leading federalists, a leading , and he do verges from that in the course of the first congress. as far as the amendments were concerned, he was carrying a nationalists banner. most federalists strongly opposed any amendments. some of them were appeased by eved by madison for not counting any. madison would today undoubtably be rather unkindly smeared as a consummate flip flopper. he had opposed amendments very vigorously, objected to amendments of any kind until running as a candidate for congress in what was
anti-federalist district of virginia against james monroe, by the way. he suddenly claimed to have been a supporter of amendments for quite a while, and now in congress he declared that actually he pretty much opposed them. he certainly opposed any that were of a doubtful nature, very precise term. [laughter] so, in short, he was against them before he was for them before he was against them again, but seriously, he was behaving like the clever, not to say brilliant, somewhat inconsistent, patriotic politician that he was by putting aside often stated principles for what he considered the greater national interest, which at this point was appeasing strident antifederalists who demand a bit more than he intended to give them. having promised amendments, james madison had to deliver.
he was nothing if not a compulsive worker. he compressed the 200 amendments into 19 committees into which madison participated, with all those then he reduced 217, and then eventually 12. he threw away everything he considered trivial, which was quite a bit, not in asserting what others considered trivial. he rewrote others and simply ignored ones that he felt would undercut the powers of the presidency or damage the national revenue stream and a few other things. the real struggle wasn't so much over the content of the amendments or whether there would be any. federalists complained that tampering with the constitution so new, so fragile would obstruct the will of government -- wheels of government and throw everything into confusion, or even would in effect repeal the constitution
as it existed. why? there was much debate over this point, which may sound odd or obscure except madison was to weave amendments for alterations into the text of the constitution. only later did he concede that they could be tacked on at the end. that was not quite an afterthought but very nearly. i think i want to say also, parenthetically here, that nobody, not one member of the first congress, considered the constitution as a sacred, divine document. these terms do not occur in the first congress. the constitution is brand-new. it was just ratified 15 minutes ago, figuratively speaking. the constitution, itself, is built of compromises that left a lot of people unsatisfied, and there are quite a few holes in it, which the first congress
struggled to fill. madison's defense of the constitution's integrity was totally pragmatic. he said, at one point, is it not the glory of the american people that they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for customs, or for names to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation and the lessons of their own experiences? this is a superb expression of pragmatic politics. i think, to put it a different way, there were no originalists at the origin. [laughter] mr. bordewich: james madison certainly was not one. along with some other
southerners, william smith of south carolina, who is here somewhere. william smith, a strong federalists, nationalists worried that i amendments might -- worried that some of the amendments might eventually lead to federal interference with slavery. the outspoken anti-federalist of massachusetts, who bestowed to posterity the term "gerrymandering," complained that all amendments should be considered, not the ones that madison had cherry picked. the numbering of the amendments was completely arbitrary and they changed many times before the final arrangement that we know now. originally, the first to two amendments focused on the size of congressional districts and on congressional pay raises. guess why those two were not ratified?
[laughter] mr. bordewich: in other words, the original third amendment became the first and so on and so on, so you were here today from figures home a anywhere on the political spectrum that they put the first amendment first for a reason. well, they didn't. it was the third. it doesn't ring quite so well, but there it is. [laughter] civil rights and gun rights that are so large for americans today received remarkably little attention from anyone. as far as gun rights are concerned, today's second amendment, really the fourth amendment to them, nobody spoke of it in terms of gun rights. that term does not occur. it does not occur in the first congress, and nobody was thinking of it that way. the nra did not exist. ok, to make my point a little more comprehensively, what is going on at the same time here?
another debate in first congress. a major debate comparable to the debate over alexander hamilton's marvelous, brilliant financial plan. this is a debate over militia, over the creation of a militia, and they are not talking about six guys down the block in the tavern with submachine guns. they weren't. even though we may sort of wish it, it is not so. the debate focused on the following, henry knox, secretary of war, was charged with figuring out a plan for the nation's defense. there was no standing army. americans did not want a standing army. a standing army meant redcoats in muddy boot stomping around your house, eating your food, messing with your daughter or your wife, and generally bullying you.
that is what a standing army was. the americans would not tolerate it, even though it was a fragile country that need to defense. -- needed defense. what were they going to do? this was going to be the national militia. if you go back and read henry knox's militia plan, you will find it. it is highly detailed, nationally structured, and it accounts for all men between 16-60, very complex plan. that was going to be the nation's army. so, when the second amendment is referring to an organized militia, it is referring to what henry knox is talking about in his plan, and i suggest take a look at it. this is happening at the same time. that is why it did not need to be debated. the militia plan is being debated. it's not a debate over who will belong to it. everybody will belong to it. again, it's not six guys down the block with submachine guns.
ok, how about civil rights? theodore sedgwick of massachusetts, who in most respects is a very forward-looking liberal minded man, brushes off the right of public assembly, asserting that it was beneath the dignity of congress to insert such minutia into the constitution. others objected to the suggested prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. samuel livermore from new hampshire said, "because it may be thought cruel, will we therefore never hang anybody?" he went on to say, "villains often deserve whipping and having their ears cut off." fortunately, he did not win that argument. [laughter] mr. bordewich: anyway, madison
's strategy succeeded brilliantly. neither side was happy with the result. james burke, firebreathing south carolinians complaining that the amendments were little more than -- to please the palate, while an anti-federalist essays -- essayist declared that madison had rendered -- piddling by comparison. this is how the first amendments were created. this is what people thought of them at the time, which was not very much. meanwhile, president washington monitored debates long-distance from his mansion on cherry street. madison visited him almost daily to report what was going on at federal hall. washington very rarely ventured to federal hall, and when he
did it was precedent-setting. let's go back and -- there he is in full presidential dignity. in the interest of time, i am going to compress a story that i had to tell you here. i have said several times, washington is crafting the presidency. this is congress finding its own way through its wilderness. just how much power did the presidency have? not clear. madison very much wanted a strong presidency, and he clearly urged washington to use power. he was much more afraid of a congressional tyranny, particularly on the part of the senate, than he was anything resembling a presidential monarchy.
washington, as we all know, there certainly were monarchical sentiments in both branches. and certainly shared by john adams, who was accused -- the accusations are not a point. -- are not off point. he believed the presidency would soon become hereditary. john adams is the vice president, and everybody knows he will become the next president. john adams is the only one of the founders with sons. who do you think he was thinking of? [laughter] at any rate, so, i am going to talk to for just a moment about these precedents, but i also want to say here that it has often been said, quite wrongly i think, that washington
really was not much more than a figurehead at this point, that he was driven by james madison at the beginning of the first congress then later on by hamilton. i see no evidence to that at all. i think washington was a much more acute political man and acute political thinker and a subtle, nuanced political thinker than he is sometimes given credit for. he is able, remarkably, to listen to everyone. you hear him again and again when he is writing, whether it is letters or cited by others in the course of the first congress, he is listening to everyone's advice. he knows exactly who to ask, takes it in, thinks about it, and the last thing he is is a man with authoritarian instincts, and then he decides.
the decision he makes our -- are decisions taken congruently with others. this is part of his greatness, setting a pattern for the presidency. not all presidents have been like that, but i think we were extraordinarily lucky that he was the man who was not only available, but the unarguable only candidate for the presidency. ok, what other precedents did he set? appointments. it is not a sexy issue, i grant you, but the president has the authority to appoint the first cadre of federal officers. these were primarily customs officials. the revenue stream having been -- not yet been established, the
government had no income. duties and tariffs were enacted. washington appoints a man named mr. fishborn, quite capable, well recommended, the senate turns him down. why? nobody tells washington. washington goes to the senate and says, "excuse me, fellas, mr. fishborn is my appointee." it turns out that one of george's senators has a pretty trivial grudge against mr. fish born and decides to basically nail him to the wall. sorry, mr. fishborn. washington is furious at this, but the precedent it sets is courtesy in presidential appointments.
so, up to the present day, a senator has the right to bar the appointment of a federal appointee in his own state. washington was very unhappy, and apparently, he smoldered in a way that was quite terrifying when he was angry. however he bowed to congress , because he believed in , republican government. in another instance, having to do with the first treaty signed by the united states, there had been treaties under the federal government, these were southern indians, the creek indians who , then lived mainly in the state of georgia, and by the way, one of the most colorful, wonderful episodes of the first congress was the delegation of creek indians, who eventually come to
new york in full regalia to sign the treaty. it is a wonderful, wonderful moment. but, at any rate, before the arrival of the creek, upper -- another version of this treaty goes to the senate. and again washington is furious. we are not talking about semis and trucks on the street on wall street outside. we are talking about metal wagon wheels on cobblestones, which are noisy if you have ever heard them. the noise is so great that the senators can't actually hear much of the treaty. washington doesn't care, because the senate's job is to just advise, thank you very much, two are three words, and i will -- and no consent to it.
and now consent to it. instead, a senator from pennsylvania, rises and says no, i think we should think about it. it is our job, so no, we will not consent to it right now. washington regards this as a personal affront, stocks out, and says something to the effect , "i will never go back to that damn place again." [laughter] mr. bordewich: and presidents do not go to the senate to advocate for their treaties anymore. we are coming to the end here. i know i promised you a really great story about james madison and his arguable sleight-of-hand that resulted in the capital being here on the potomac, and i am going to an try to compress it into just a couple of sentences. there were 32 different proposed locations for the united states to be the seat of government
ranging from new york to norfolk, virginia. congress voted twice to put the capital in pennsylvania, somewhere on the susquehanna river. the pennsylvanians divided, -- divided. robert morris, a very influential senator and one of the wealthiest men in america, who essentially bought speculative property anywhere there was the possibility of putting the capital, including here. [laughter] mr. bordewich: this is a story i tell in my earlier book about the creation of washington. morris decided, who needs a capital on the susquehanna? it is going to be here, where i live in philadelphia. he divided the pennsylvania delegation, and congress voted to put the capital in germantown , pennsylvania. that is just outside of philadelphia, pennsylvania.
james madison, who with washington where the two leading advocates of the potomac capital, was by no means anybody's leading choice. madison said he had a small suggestion to make. we know the capital is going to be in germantown, but i think we need to ensure that it is properly policed. that it has law and order. so i would like to amend this act to ensure that the constables of philadelphia will be in charge. it sounds pretty trivial. the house votes to do that. nobody noticing that by amending it on the very last day of the session, after the senate has already adjourned, the bill has essentially been killed. it comes back in 1790.
many of you, i hope, already know about the famous backroom deal in thomas jefferson's dining room in new york in 1790 where the first great horse , trade in united states history takes place. james madison very unhappily musters a small group of potomac valley members to vote for hamilton's extremely radical, controversial treasury plan. in return, alexander hamilton, a very strong antislavery man and advocate of a northern capital, surrenders that and agrees to provide enough northern, mostly new york and new england votes, to bring the capital to the potomac. that is why we are here. because two of the most illustrious founders, hamilton and madison with jefferson more or less presiding at the dinner table, agreed to yield on
matters of deeply held principle , in order to come to the decision that they felt would benefit the country as a whole. ok, so in the course of these two years, congress got its footing. washington created the presidency, more or less as we know it. members of congress differed on all kinds of issues, on slavery, government, regional interests, taxation, but why did they succeed? they were all determined to make the government work. they knew failure meant catastrophe. they believed in politics as a tool for national survival. i want to underscore this, after all, the right to be political is what they fought the revolutionary war for. they fought to put politics into government, not to take it out of government.
they fought bitterly sometimes, and they understood the need to compromise. even on matters of principle. they were professional, experienced politicians. i think, those of us in the 21st century america who thing that what is wrong with government is politics, are betraying the intent of the founders. they fought the revolution to give is politics. -- to give us politics. politics is messy. it is very unsatisfying at times. it is full of compromises that people making them don't like to make. idealist and ideologues don't like it. but today, women and men who are pragmatic and know what government is, and know how to make it work with people are the kinds of people that the -- whom
the founders foresaw. i will say one last thing. then, i will get to questions. even the staunchest antifederalists, the staunchest enemies of the constitution, eventually resigned themselves before the end of the first congress. they resigned themselves to outcomes that they fearfully resisted. patrick henry, the leading antifederalists, the godfather, so to speak, of anti-federalism, said the following, "although the form of government to which my countrymen determined to place themselves had my enmity it is natural to care that the , crazy machine as long as we ace -- out of sight for a port to reset. i think it is a principle worth remembering that in government we are always out of sight of
port." thanks. [applause] mr. bordewich: i am happy to take questions, and please wait until you get a microphone so not only i, but everyone else , can hear you. >> when did the word compromise become the great sin? mr. bordewich: well, pretty recently. [laughter] mr. bordewich: pretty recently. we have people in government today, who think that government is the problem. i think you have probably heard that phrase somewhere. i think those tend to be people who have not read their history, who have not read their history and really listened very closely to the founders. james madison, who many people today like to think of as one of
the fathers of states rights, in the first congress he said what we need here is the fostering hand of government. anyway, i'm getting a little off the point, but we have people in congress today who for the first time in american history actually regard the institutions and the machinery of government as the enemy and the problem. we have never had that before. that is new in america. the caliber of individuals and government i do not think his lower than we had in the first congress or any other congress. i think the types of people you get, you don't get a madison every time and so on, but i think the caliber of people and their basic capacities are not different. i think we do not know how to deal with people who have lost faith in the structure and the government that the founders gave us.
>> in the first congress, did they think of the two chambers as equal, or was it an upper and lower chamber? mr. bordewich: yes, well, they argued a lot about that. that issue was in the air at the first congress. the senate clearly thought it was somewhat superior. members of the house certainly did not think so. i would say that, on balance, that the house was regarded as the paramount body, but it is worth remembering that the term really came into use because in federal hall in new york the senate chamber was upstairs. it was the upper, upstairs chamber, and rather famously,
there was an extremely loud member of the house downstairs, a fellow named james jackson of georgia, who was so low that the senators upstairs now and again you could hear them saying, shut the window. it is jackson again. [laughter] >> jefferson and madison gave up a lot when they allowed hamilton to have this national thank -- bank which they thought would , favor merchants and so on, but they got the capital near here, but who do you think got the better deal? [laughter] mr. bordewich: yeah, i don't think i'm able to answer that question simply.
i think it was not a good thing for the country that the capital was established among the slave states. because, as you well know in the beginning, a slice of virginia was part of the federal district. that was one of the aims articulated, it was trying to secure slavery. there was well articulated here that a northern capital would tilt the country's guys in the direction of emancipation, so i think that is a big thing. i think that is a big thing. to the advocates of the southern capital, getting it, snagging it, was an important thing. on the other side of things the , potomac valley members as well as george washington had what i'm sure many of you have heard of, potomac fever, which was to say this obsession with developing the potomac is the
great national highway into the interior of the continent. this is what the year he can now eventually became. canal eventually became. the potomac, you will notice, never became that. they felt that getting the capital would help make that a reality. it didn't. it did not. so on balance i would have to say that the hamiltonian's got the better deal, because it is still the underpinnings of our governmental financial system. >> i may be revealing a lack of an education on the subject, but when you were talking about the amendment process, i had always believed that the biggest argument some people raised against the bill of rights was the constitution limits the federal government's power, which it does, and they felt
that the bill of rights was unnecessary because the government would not have the power to muck around with freedom of speech or right to bear arms. am i misinformed? mr. bordewich: that is absolutely one of the whole tangle of debates taking place simultaneously. i think that has become increasingly emphasized in our time, in modern times, looking back at what mattered during that debate. it was part and parcel of many, many arguments that were made between states rightists and nationalists. >> the second question i have is. again, i do not have an extensive education on it. however as i understand it, , prior to the revolutionary war, there was no restriction. you did not have to go get a background check to buy a gun.
i don't think there was any expectation by congress that they had the power to impose such regulations, but when you are describing it, you made it sound as if your argument was contrary to the supreme court's opinion that it did not, that it was a personal right not restricted only to a militia. mr. bordewich: well, you are quite right that individuals did not have to buy by permit. totally correct. no one even thought of the question, that's true. 99.5%, nobody thought about it. i did find some interesting traces and letters, but that is getting a little too deep in the weeds, i think, for this particular conversation. there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that they were thinking strictly of an organized national militia, and not
individuals, not individuals. >> the idea that they would not be looking at restricting those rights. mr. bordewich: it was not necessary to restrict it at the time. it was just never thought of. the debate on the amendment, per se, rarely covers a couple of -- barely covers a couple of pages because it wasn't necessary. i had expected to write a great deal about a debate on the second amendment, and i was astonished at how little conversation there was about it. nobody considered it either particularly liberal or particularly restrictive. it was ancillary to the military command. we interpret things differently.
as i said, there were no originalists at the origin, but we have now more than 200 years of looking at this document and president. we make of them what we will today, but i think we ignore what the men of the time were actually saying and doing at our intellectual peril. >> when the first congress adopted the bill of rights, they debated and voted against applying it to the states. i was wondering if you could explain what the rationale was? mr. bordewich: madison was a -- well, there were 10 amendments and we almost always mean the first couple. not all of them have the same heft as the first 10.
madison very strongly advocated for language that would have applied the amendments to the states. in other words, it would have added a great deal more national power to the federal government. he did not have the support for it. in the first congress, this isn't a simple break down of north versus south. the leading antifederalists is from massachusetts, and there are other new englanders who leaned that way. some of the staunchest federal ists were in the deep south, smith of south carolina, whom i mentioned earlier, but it was a bridge too far, essentially a
bridge too far. madison, to his credit, and it's one reason he was a great parliamentarian, madison could take a defeat and move on. he was defeated not infrequently. he cared a lot about it. however, he did let it go, because he knew he was not going to get it. >> part of the reason that some states wanted to maintain a state imposed religion and they felt the first amendment could prevent it. mr. bordewich: that is in the debate, but that is not a majority view. in fact, those were primarily new englanders. new england, at the time, was regarded as the most religious part of the country. the most orthodox and the
narrowest from that point of view. it has to do with the way the congregational church was established in new england communities and so on. there were many other anxieties. >> you talk about the debates that, of course, went on right after the constitution was established and the bill of rights was then established in this first congress. there are some people who are calling now for a constitutional convention. based on your scholarship, your insight into what to place over 200 years ago, do you have any insights or lessons learned that you would be willing to share with us on a 2016 constitutional convention? mr. bordewich: ok. in 25 words or less, yeah. [laughter]
mr. bordewich: i am not such an advocate. i see no reason whatsoever for a new constitutional convention. i think it has worked pretty damn well. i think the founders, including those who were ordinary men, became extraordinary through what they accomplished, this tremendous commitment, pragmatic commitment, i can't say that were too often, pragmatic commitment to problem-solving and to making compromises. it is easy to make compromises when nobody feels like he loses anything. it is very hard to make one's when somebody feels like they're going to lose something. everybody goes away feeling unhappy, and that's what a lot of compromises are. i think the ship, the wonderful metaphor they use constantly, the ship of state, the ship
having left port. i think the ship is still doing ailed pretty damn well for 200 years. i cannot see any logical reason to try and reinvent the wheel here, because the wheel was round. it rolls. [laughter] [applause] >> since the constitution is silent on the number of supreme court justices, how many supreme court justices existed for the first congress and how did they determine that? mr. bordewich: they flipped a coin basically. [laughter] the supreme court
never met during the first congress. well, technically they met, but they had nothing to do, so they went home. the supreme court at the beginning was by no means regarded as the third great pillar of the national government at the time. as i said, it did not really even exist. questions of constitutionality actually were decided in congress, and indeed through most of the 1790's, until the marshall court 10 years later. it was kind of hard to get people to serve also, because the members of the supreme court had to ride circuits, which was an appalling prospect of the time because there were no roads to speak of. it was a brutal ordeal. the most interesting debate over
the courts in the first congress really has to do with the establishment of the federal court system. federal courts that would fit in and whether or not residents of states could tolerate federal courts behaving superior to, reviewing state court decisions. that is a very hot debate. nobody is really thinking much about what the supreme court is going to do, because there is very little it is prescribed for -- that is prescribed for at -- for it at this point. one more. this lady in the back has had her hand up for quite a while. >> you got through your whole lecture without mentioning george mason, who has been
called the father of the bill of rights. so, would you like to do some honor to that gentleman? also, you do not mention the ninth and 10th amendments, so to some people that shows that the founding fathers meant to be originalists, because they did not want the federal government to become stronger than the powers specifically delegated to them. the rest are reserved to the states and to the people. thank you. mr. bordewich: quickly, why no george mason? he was not a member of the first congress. he also refused to sign the constitution. he was not in the game. i'm interested in the first congress and what the political men at the time did to create the government. rather than going back to philosophical influences, which are not to be diminished at all. you are quite right in mentioning mason in that context, but he is not there. he is not there.
as far as the 10th amendment, i would read that a little more carefully. there is a great deal of argument at the first congress over the wording of that amendment, absolutely true, but the word expressly is left out. that is to say, it was a victory for federalists and nationalists rather than state rightests, even though many people today don't want to read it that way, and clearly there are passions on the subjects in the united states. i felt i should have to be square with you and let you know where i stand on this rather than be mealymouthed. the 10th amendment is a federalist victory, not a state rightests victory. thank you, everybody. [applause]
>> on american history tv, on c-span3, this afternoon. >> memoirs you have to be wary of, because they are bound to be self-serving to a degree. also, most of these people did not want to disclose too much. in some cases, they might ask a try to mislead people. theistorians talk about techniques used by intelligence services to gather intelligence, dating back to the cold war, and how it has changed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. at 6:00, and examination. >> many thought it was really happening, a full happening. the dollar was a full-scale