Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government” as Want to Read:
The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

4.20  ·  Rating details ·  429 ratings  ·  84 reviews
The little known story of perhaps the most productive Congress in US history, the First Federal Congress of 17891791.

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 failedas many at the time feared it wouldits possible that the United
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published February 9th 2016 by Simon Schuster (first published July 14th 2015)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The First Congress, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The First Congress

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 4.20  · 
Rating details
 ·  429 ratings  ·  84 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government
Oct 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed, netgalley
In spite of my having grown up in New Jersey surrounded by "Washington slept here" sites, my school seemed to devote more time to making me memorize the names of the English kings than they did to American history. So I feel like there are great gaps in my education. I was spurred on to revisit the history of my country by my recent visit to the Broadway musical "Hamilton". This book was a very readable and entertaining history of the two year session of the first Congress, during which ...more
The author utilized the First Federal Congress Project to write this book. The Project has cataloged nearly all the diaries, letters and newspaper accounts relating to the proceedings of the Congress of 1789-1791. As we discovered with Bordewichs book, the project is a gold mine for historians. The key actions of the Congress were the ratification of the Constitution and the creation and passage of the Bill of Rights. They also decided on how the government should function, cabinet positions ...more
David Eppenstein
"The First Congress" now there's a title designed to propel a book off the shelf and into the hands of an eager reader right? Okay, well maybe not but to miss reading this book would be a mistake if you value the history of this nation. In the Spring of 1789 a few dozen men, white men, mostly wealthy educated men, were sent to NYC by the voters of their communities and their state legislatures. When they arrived they had something called the Constitution of the United States in their hands. This ...more
This was another freebie, a First Reads win.

As one interested in this time period in US history, I've read much about the players and the Revolutionary War itself, but found little about how our government actually came into being. Nobody was sure what to do, there was no template. Everything was a great debate and progress was slow--just like my progress in reading about it.

It's dense (and sometimes dry) reading, but well researched and filled with quotes from the political players. This book
Thomas West III
Nov 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Some popular historians have a knack for writing works that are both erudite and eminently enjoyable. While the latter is certainly not a criterion that should be emphasized too much, it certainly does make reading their works easier. Such is certainly the case with The First Congress, by Fergus M. Bordewich. With wit, erudition, and just plain good writing, Bordewich brings this pivotal period in American governmental history to life.

Bordewich paints these characters with a marvelously detailed
Steven Peterson
Mar 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The First Congress under the Constitution was crucial to the success of the new republic. The document had been ratified by the states--but the reality was yet to come. Could a functioning government be created? Could the ills of the Articles of Confederation (the precursor of the Constitutional government) be addressed?

Some issues were easily settled. The first President would be George Washington. But what then?

This book does a wonderful job of laying out the work of the first Congress. It was
Richard Subber
Jan 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Alec D. Rogers very capably reviews The First Congress at Fergus Bordewich offers a detailed look at how the leaders of the former American colonies started buckling down to making a government after the Constitution was ratified in June 1788. It was a tough job. Were still hard at work on it in 2019.

Some excerpts from Rogers review of The First Congress:
By necessity, of course, the new Congress had to deal with virtually every fundamental question of government. And while
Frank Stein
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The first Congress was the great unheralded "founding" of the American republic. It provided us with our first judiciary system, our earliest federal departments, from War to State to Treasury, our first revenue system, assumed and funded the state debts, passed the bill of rights, established a national bank, and, in its surprisingly most contentious decision, set the seat of government on the Potomac.

Representative James Madison was at the center of much of this, arguing for the presidential
Craig Bowers
May 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
When I grabbed this book, I figured it would be my historical study book for the summer. The book that I personally give myself to learn more about our history, whether entertaining or not. I was wrong, "The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government" had me entrenched in knowledge through laughing, tears, and shock. It confirmed for me that our Founding Fathers were not as simple as most of those in society see them as ...more
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
****As per all of my reviews, I like to preface by saying that I listened to this book in audiobook format. This does indeed slightly skew my rating. I have found that audiobooks, give me a better "relationship" with the characters if done well, but also kills the book for me if narrated poorly. Also due to the nature of listening to the text, names and places may be spelled incorrectly here as I often do not have the physical volume in front of me.
Also, I have written this review in a "rolling
Interesting insight into the how the United States government started creating itself with the first Congress. There were many issues they dealt with, where the capitol should be, how appointing people, or approving presidential appointments was going to work, how to create a system that taxes the people/states fairly, how to pay back veterans of the Revolutionary/Civil War defeating Britain.

A lot of good information with a lot of little stories that make the history interesting. They author
Feb 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2017-book-shelf
I love reading about the start of our country and this rates right up there with Miracle In Philadelphia as one of my favorites.
Didn't know some of the people who were important contributors. And was surprised that there was so little attention paid to the Bill of Rights.
Ok, it all surprises me that they could accomplish what they did.
This is a great story and Fergus did a good job telling it. Read it.
Peter Goodman
Aug 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction

The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a group of extraordinary men invented the government, by Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon and Schuster, 2016). When the first Congress convened in 1789, there was no government. The Senate and House of Representatives had no rules; no one knew how to address the first President, George Washington; there were no departments; there was no revenue; and on and on. There was a Constitution, barely ratified (North Carolina and Rhode Island held
John Daly
Jan 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Book 4 of 40 for 2016

The Constitutional Convention created the framework for the government but the making of the Constitution into a working government was done my the First Congress. Which is the subject of Fergus Bordewich excellent new book.

The First Congress created the Executive Departments, the judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. In addition it laid the foundation for how Congress functions to this day.

We see the beginnings of compromise driving legislation in determining the new location
Nov 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
What a pivotal two years in American history! We take for granted what the 1st Congress achieved, or we assume that the legislation and traditions that they created had all been developed by the Constitutional Convention. Not so!

What I remember learning in high school was that early skeptics of the Constitution agreed to support it in exchange for a bill of rights to be adopted during the first session of Congress. From reading this book, I learned that I had been misinformed or grossly misled.

Apr 12, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As someone predisposed to liking just about any book on the Federalist period, I was not disappointed in this book. Bordewich does a very good job in bringing alive a topic that could be very dry and is surprisingly hard to find documentation about.

When the First Congress under the Constitution met in New York City in 1789, it did not get off to a fast start. It took a few weeks for enough people to show up to have a quorum. No one was quite sure when George Washington would show up to be sworn
Casey Wheeler
I received a Kindle copy of this book courtesy of Net Galley and the publisher with the understanding that I would write a review and post it to Net Galley, Goodreads, Amazon, my blog, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus pages. This is the first book by Gergus M. Bordewich that I have read.

This was an engaging and fascinating read. The author addresses all of the key decisions that took place during the first congress that laid the groundwork for how our legislative, executive and
Jan 22, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a brisk, readable history of the government in the first two years under the Constitution, as people, intentionally or otherwise, set lots of precedent for future centuries. Perhaps the key takeaway is how little people were aware of what would carry major historical importance and what would be a passing blip. One senator has a personal grudge against would-be appointee, and suddenly senators are allowed in perpetuity to unilaterally veto any appointments involving their home states. ...more
Lanny Carlson
May 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Much has been written about the creation of the Constitution,
but it was only a piece of paper until the first Congress met
and brought the nation to life.
This book describes in detail the struggles of that First Congress
as they dealt with such issues as the creation of the Supreme Court,
establishing a permanent location for the set of government,
dealing with the states' debts and establishing a sound economy,
creating cabinet positions, struggling with the relationships between the branches of
Jan 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I've always wanted someone to write a book explaining how the day to day establishment of the U.S. government took place. The Constitution provided the framework---but how then was it implemented? Courts had to be created. Judges put in place. The government had to have a system of gathering revenue in order to function. How was that organized? The Senate and House of Representatives had to start the process of making and codifying laws. The President had to set the government in motion, knowing ...more
Matthew Hines
Jul 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The moment I saw this book for sale on Amazon I knew I had to have it. As an history major and major student of our early government, I had always wondered about the precious days and weeks between when the Confederation Congress ceased to exist to when the new Congress reached a quorum and started to form a new government. What happened in the ensuing days and weeks? This book explains.

The new constitution was then just a document of hopes and aspirations. What the men of the first U.S.
David Montgomery
Apr 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
On April 7, 2019, President Donald Trump effectively fired Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In the aftermath, plenty of people debated whether the president should have fired Nielsen but no one questioned whether he COULD. That silence, it turns out, is among the great many things America owes to the First Congress meeting from 1789 to 1791.

In a thoroughly readable history, Bordewich narrates the events great and small of the first two years of the U.S. Constitution, everything
Steve Smits
Mar 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
When one considers the lack of productivity of todays Congress, stalemated by ideological divisions that thwart even the most modest compromise on policy matters, the accomplishments of the first Congress seem utterly superlative. That Congress convened with no precedent to guide it and went forth with only the barest outline of structure contained in the newly ratified Constitution. The other branches of government existed only faintly; there was no executive government apart from a president ...more
Ken Gould
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I've been working my way through presidential biographies for awhile and now took a detour through this one (which wasn't really a detour, just a filling-in of the actual debates and clash of ideals, personalities, and interests that made up the First Congress.) I've read Chernow's Hamilton as well as Flexnor's 4-volume Washington, Brant's Madison, McCullough's Adams and both Malone's and Peterson's Jefferson (which is partly to brag about how far I've come and also just a way of saying I'm into ...more
Aug 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an excellent coda to a read of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. At the time of the first Congress, the only aspect of the government which was formed was the Congress itself and the way in which the members went about using the "Necessary and Proper" clause and the arguments they had over what precisely the powers of the Executive should be and how they should interact with Congress is fascinating. The level of executive power that we take for granted today could have evolved ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
This volume recounts the actions of the First Congress seated after the Constitution was ratified and how they came to breathe life into that document by beginning the process of actually governing under its aegis and providing specifics around its general principles. Everyone was keenly aware that the actions they took would set a precedent for all future generations as well as that the government itself was feeble until it could prove itself worthy of the people's respect. One can see from the ...more
May 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I am no strong on American history, so I probably learned more than most from reading this book. For example, I knew George Washington had slaves, but I've never heard of the Pennsylvania law where any black slave residing in Pennsylvania for 6 months is deemed to be free. When the first Congress moved temporarily to Philadelphia, President Washington was unsure if this law would apply to him, so as a precaution, he rotated his slaves out of the state so that none (he brought four with him) ...more
Joseph Adelizzi, Jr.
Jun 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I appreciate Bordewichs dexterity with setting time and place, adeptly bringing those long-passed years to life. His well-researched work, as did that first Congress, spends a significant amount of time on the new nations choice of a capital city, recounting the deals and almost deals, compromises and orchestrations, which resulted, much to this Pennsylvanians chagrin, on the Potomac location.

Ive struggled with what to make of all the wheeling-and-dealing agenda politicking. On one hand, it
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's good to be reminded how much the founding fathers were just making sh*t up at they went along, because they had no fricking clue how their new, independent country was going to work, especially because it was just as hard to get a consensus then as it is now. So many of the precedents and institutions that seem set in stone now were so hotly debated then, and the author does a good job of reminding readers of that fact. The major players are all given time (even in a fairly short book), and ...more
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I never liked history in school (late 60s to early 70s) and so stopped studying it as soon as I could, in college. Now, coming back to the subject in various areas in my 60s, I have found that there are so many wonderful reads that bring the issues and characters to life. This is one. I found out at the end that the author drew on the resources of the 50-year First Congress Project at Georgetown, which has been collecting letters, photos, newspaper articles, and anything associated with the ...more
« previous 1 3 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
GovTrack Reads: Same as it ever was? 1 14 Aug 05, 2017 08:01AM  
GovTrack Reads: Let's Get Started 1 12 Jun 16, 2017 09:34AM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777
  • The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
  • The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President
  • The Gilded Man (Sir Henry Merrivale, #13)
  • The Devil's Heart
  • Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery
  • Star Trek 9
  • All Good Things...
  • The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation
  • Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America
  • Strike Zone (Star Trek: The Next Generation, #5)
  • Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind
  • The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation
  • Keystone
  • Relics
  • 1848: Year of Revolution
  • Triumphs of Experience - The Men of the Harvard Grant Study
  • Star Trek: The Classic Episodes, Volume 2
See similar books…
FERGUS M. BORDEWICH is the author of five non-fiction books: Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008); Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005); My Mothers Ghost, a memoir (Doubleday, 2001); Killing the White Mans Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century ...more

News & Interviews

"Stay calm and read on" might be our collective slogan for the coming months. Since we all might need some help with that, we asked Goodreads m...
102 likes · 97 comments
“...Far from the near sanctification of military service common in today´s United States, the Americans of 1790 regarded a standing army virtually by definition as the coercive arm of oppressive government, owing loyalty not to the public but to kings and dictators.--” 3 likes
More quotes…