The Supreme Court has, on occasion, given the decisions of the First Congress great weight in interpreting the Establishment Clause. The Framers of the First Amendment sat in the First Congress, so it seems plausible to look to their decisions as indications of what the Amendment meant to people at the time. The Court has not strictly held to this approach–when it comes to the Establishment Clause, it doesn’t strictly hold to any approach–but it’s there in the cases.
A new book by author Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster), discusses the history. The publisher’s description follows.
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).