Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress

By Ellis, Richard E. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress


Ellis, Richard E., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Inventing Congress: Origins and Establishment of the First Federal Congress. Edited by KENNETH R. BOWLING and DONALD R. KENNON. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press for the United States Capitol Historical Society, 1999. x, 310 pp. $44.95.

THE essays contained in this volume originated in two conferences held in 1994 and 1995, under the sponsorship of the United States Capitol Historical Society, that focused on the first federal Congress, 17891791. The first section deals with the origins of the first Congress. The lead essay by Carl J. Richard is entitled "The Classical Roots of the U.S. Congress: Mixed Government Theory" and examines the founders' understanding of the classical Greek and Roman republics. It is particularly useful because it deals with an influence the significance of which has largely been ignored by most scholars in recent years. Next, Alison G. Olson tries to explain why America ended up choosing a congressional form of government rather than a parliamentary one. Then, Donald S. Lutz reviews the institutional inheritance from the colonial and early state governments, while R. B. Bernstein examines the legacies of the Continental and Confederation Congresses of 1774-1789. The picture of the founding fathers that emerges from these essays is that while they took ideas seriously, they were above all else pragmatic politicians driven by experience and practical exigencies. Among other things, it makes one wonder why until recently so many scholars uncritically bought into the so-called "Republican synthesis," which viewed the founding generation as essentially ideologues.

The second part of the book deals with the actual establishment and operation of the First Federal Congress. In a second essay R. B. Bernstein examines some of the first federal elections to Congress. In one essay, Charlene Bangs Bickford, describing how the first Congress organized itself, makes clear both the precariousness of the new government at its beginning and that much opposition to it continued to exist, and in another essay, perhaps the most outstanding one in the collection, she provides an authoritative account of the publication of the debates in the House of Representatives and the machinations and problems that it involved.

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