Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress

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Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress. Edited by Kenneth R. Bowling and Donald R. Kennon. (Athens, Ohio: Published by Ohio State University Press for the United States Capitol Historical Society, c. 1999. Pp. x, 305. $44.95, ISBN 0-8214-1271-X.)

Inventing Congress is a welcome compilation of papers on the political history of the First Federal Congress. This volume accomplishes two ends. First, it brings together scholarly work that focuses on the First Federal Congress as a political institution and as a source of precedent. Second, it illustrates the value of the ongoing Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (14 vols. to date; Baltimore, Md., 1972-) as a resource for scholars working in this period. The papers collected here are from two conferences held in 1994 and 1995 under the aegis of the United States Capitol Historical Society. The first focused on the antecedents to the First Federal Congress while the second conference examined its design. The contributors to this edited volume all assume that the rules and procedures built into a political institution matter for the successful continuance of that institution. Inventing Congress serves a second purpose: it showcases the value as a research tool of the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress. This may not have been the principal aim of the editors of this volume, but it could not be helped; almost all of the papers make extensive use of the Documentary History, and the papers only scratch the surface for ways in which that series can be used.

The papers in this volume are narrowly focused on the First Federal Congress and are concerned foremost with problems of transition in governance. Their contributions go well beyond detailing the historical record. Although it may seem to be a simple matter to move from one political system to another, contemporary experiences in African states, fledgling Latin American democracies, and Eastern bloc countries indicate otherwise. The papers in this volume treat many of the concepts that are crucial for understanding political transitions, such as cultural and political antecedents shaping ideas held by political elites; the design of prior political institutions; the issues that immediately occupied the attention of representatives; and the new ground to be broken by the institution. What is important about this volume is that it focuses on the design of the First Federal Congress. Given the fact that the members of that Congress were largely unfettered in how they chose to organize themselves, and given the subsequent importance of the choices they made, this volume provides valuable insight into the transition from one system of governance to another. …