Back to the Future
On this date in 1789, the new Congress under the new U.S. Constitution met for the first time. This is a rather sad anniversary to recount—sad because this was the point at which the history of our legislative government might’ve played out in different ways, many of them worse but maybe a few better than what we have now. It’s also sad because New York City had been selected as capital of the new republic—an honor deserved and yet retained for all of twenty-four months.
That America’s first session of Congress failed to achieve a quorum seems just what you’d expect. It took weeks for the House’s 65 members to get their tail feathers into town. George Washington was almost two months into his election and awaiting inauguration. That Congress finally made the quorum on April 1 is all too rich. On April Fool’s Day, it elected its first Speaker, Representative Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, today affectionately known as The Gerrymander State.
It’s obviously unfair to poke fun at this Congress given what it accomplished in 1789. During the summer, Virginia Representative James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights amendments plus twenty-nine others. In September, Congress passed the Judiciary Act, which established the federal court system. Over two years, our first Congress in Lower Manhattan created federal agencies like the State Department and Department of Treasury, passed patent and copyright laws, defined federal crimes, and created the First Bank of the United States.
But the legacy of divisiveness that gave birth to the Constitution was not going away. During the first two sessions, the parties called themselves Anti-Administration and Pro-Administration. Guess which one evolved into The Party of No?
Mr. states’ rights, Thomas Jefferson, and the Virginia delegation were antsy to get the new nation’s capital moved closer to their tobacco plantations. President Washington was also behind a move to his home turf. The banks of the Potomac seemed the answer. Northerners might’ve argued: Why move to swampland with malaria when you have cholera in your own backyard? They also might’ve argued that We the People were already greatly represented here: New York’s streets were so crowded at Washington’s inauguration that the newly elected president had to walk home.
As we know from the songs that won’t leave our heads, it all rested on the shoulders of Alexander Hamilton. He was the consummate federalist but also a consummate deal-maker. Thanks to a chance meeting with Jefferson on a New York sidewalk, the men hashed out a quid pro quo: make the slave owners happy in return for the federal assumption of state Revolutionary War debts, which was crucial for the young nation’s solvency. The entire New York delegation along with many other northerners voted against the capital’s relocation. It came within three votes in both the House and Senate.
The election of Donald Trump has cast half the nation as unwitting forensic investigators of American history. And by looking so deeply—staring straight into the sun like our commander-in-chief on eclipse day—we are coming to a collective realization that stare decisis in regard to our mythic past has not served us so well.
Hamilton became a meme of our times almost exactly when Trump declared his escalator candidacy in 2015. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is a celebration of Hamilton’s relatively short but very “American” life. The author of 51 Federalist Papers set the nation on a capitalistic course to tremendous growth. But to really learn from the past, we should be mining the living daylights out of the Hamilton meme, trying on all kinds of writers’-room templates to understand how we got the system we’re stuck with.
I’d like to see a story with Hamilton as the Founders’ Marty McFly. Right before his fateful duel, he encounters the early-nineteenth-century version of Doc, who stumbles upon time travel via some reasonably plausible backstory. But there’s a Dickensian twist. Doc mistakenly sends Hamilton 214 years into the future, where he witnesses what the Founders’ actions have wrought on Capitol Hill. Like Scrooge, Hamilton must look away from the future of his own making.
Fortunately, there’s reverse: When Doc brings Hamilton back, the traveler is shaken by the sorry state of a federal government he had envisioned. Now he asks Doc to send him into the past, back to that day when the nation’s capital was still in New York. Back to the day he encountered Jefferson on the sidewalk. Because it all comes down to this: Do you agree to give away something that benefits your adversary in exchange for something that benefits both your adversary and yourself? Do you do this and make it the bargaining template for the Federalist Party as it evolved into the Whig Party and then the Republican Party of Lincoln and the Democratic Party of today? Do you make it so that one party will always be the adult in the room willing to grant concessions and the other the wild child who risks everything for petty material gains only for some?
The history of Congress is one of trial and error—some blunders get fixed, some become a quagmire, and others escape notice. Congress continued to convene on March 4 even when the arrangement created problems with extended lame duck sessions for both Congress and the president, who was inaugurated on March 4. It wasn’t until 1933 that the 20th Amendment set January 3 as the starting day of a new Congress and January 20 as inauguration day.
It is accepted wisdom that building a capital city from scratch was the right thing to do in 1791, but I’d like to see a cost-benefit analysis of our nation’s first big strip mall. Did its construction strengthen the union, or did it symbolize victory for a tyrannical faction that would continue to recklessly game the Constitution for generations to come? Hamilton died four years after the dream city was completed in 1800. He missed the part where his sidewalk transaction is replicated so frequently in spirit that it comes to stand for what we call government. §