February 27: Since The First U.S. Congress In 1789: Why, When & How The People’s Branch Convenes – Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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The People’s Branch

In the spring of 1789, several dozen representatives and senators from eleven states (North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution) traveled to New York for the first session of the First Congress. Most fundamentally, they were assembling because the United States had a constitutional republican form of government based upon the consent of the governed.

Other important political principles informed the Framers of the Constitution in creating the Congress. In Federalist #51, Madison noted that, “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.”  Therefore, the Framers were guided by additional political principles to shape the Congress and prevent unlimited government, however much it expressed popular will.

The Congress was split into two houses by a principal called bicameralism, with each house given some important unique powers such as the power to originate money bills given to the House of Representatives. This is also an expression of the separation of powers within a single branch of the government. Federalism was another significant principle that was especially important in the creation of the Senate, which was originally chosen by and represented the states. Finally, the Framers added checks and balances between the two houses of Congress and with the other branches of government. There was real genius to the interplay and balance of these constitutional principles that the Framers put into creating the republican legislative system.

All of these constitutional principles were remarkable and a measure of genius, but the real question is how well it would work practically in the real world. The Congress, after all, was a deliberative body that would be a reflection of human nature and have all the passions, divisions, and factions of a deliberative body. How well would it work initially and into the future when faced with changes and crises was anyone’s guess. Its success as the most representative branch of republican government would greatly contribute to the success of the experiment in republican governance and liberty.

The first session of the First Congress worked rather well, primarily because most of the members of Congress had experience in their state legislatures and the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation. It passed taxes necessary for revenue, regulated international trade, set up the departments of the executive branch and the national judiciary, and passed amendments that would become the Bill of Rights.

The sessions of the First Congress were hardly an idyllic republican dream of national unity and working in harmony for the public good, however. It was immediately rent by severe disagreements over national domestic and foreign policies. Sectional differences arose quickly and resulted in the rapid growth of political parties. Members of Congress questioned each other’s personal motives and principles even as they disagreed over legislation. Still, their arguments were deeply rooted in an honest disagreement over the exact words and meanings of the Constitution as their guide in all their work.

The character of the First Congress laid the foundation for two hundred years of making laws and governing the republic. The Congress has seen many changes from a golden age of rhetorical statesmanship to powerful Speakers and party leaders to powerful committees to compromise or gridlock. The Congress has also made its own rules—some of them controversial such as the filibuster—as distinct from its constitutional powers. There have been great moments of unity and division.

More broadly, Americans have seen significant changes to their society and the world. They have fought a Civil War and two World Wars, suffered through many recessions and one Great Depression, seen social upheavals that led to greater equality and democracy for all. But, through all the changes in Congress and the larger society, the Congress has remained a deliberative lawmaking body representing the people by their consent.

Even with the vast constitutional changes wrought by the Seventeenth Amendment that altered the founders’ vision of a Senate shaped by the federal principle representing the states to one of representing the people, the Congress has continued its main business of lawmaking in a constitutional republic.

The founders were not perfect: the Congress has often been at the center of national controversy and sometimes even the cause of it. Today, approval ratings and trust seem lower than ever.  At other times, it seems as if both houses are “millionaires’ clubs” that don’t really represent ordinary Americans or are beholden to special interests. Yet, the Congress is still about the people’s business and our most representative branch of government as the founders intended.

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books on the American founding including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America and Hamilton: An American Biography.

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