e-book Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict Since 1789

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At the beginning, the early leaders — Madison in particular — worked heroically to put some power into the presidency. It lacked power. Congress, the legislature, was the dominant body of government even well into the 20th century, with the exceptions of Jackson and Lincoln. A president essentially executed laws that were crafted in Congress. No president until Franklin Roosevelt came into office with an agenda for his first days.

The presidency has grown into the predominant branch of government. How would the members of the first Congress feel about that? They would be very worried that the presidency has as much power as it does today. They would have reason to fear tyranny. We have to act on the world stage. What does Congress have to do? Congress is crippling itself with its raw and venomous partisanship. You have one party in particular that for the last 35 years or so has attacked governing, attacked Congress itself.

The Founders put impeachment into the Constitution for a reason. They foresaw that officials, including possibly a president — not to mention appointees — could become corrupt.

Congress at War: The Politics of Conflict Since 1789

They knew human beings were flawed. If anything, they might think it remarkable that there have been so few impeachments in American history! I think they would see Trump as very much the kind of figure who threatened American government. They would see the kind of concerns that have been raised, raised, though not yet proven. The possible collaboration of his campaign with a hostile foreign government, they would see as something that could possibly rise to the level of impeachment.

Trump is also characterized by massive conflict of interest, which may or may not itself rise to an impeachable offense. They had a great deal of conflict of interest, including on the part of George Washington, placing the capital across from his estate at Mount Vernon and dramatically raising his property prices. The first Cabinet had only four executive departments at the time. He was one of the very few political men in the United States who understood finance and economics.

This was an agricultural country primarily, not a business country. So Hamilton crafted this extraordinary financial plan, which laid out the principles of capitalism as the foundations of the United States Treasury. That was one of the most significant achievements of Congress, which debated, debated, debated his plan, and enacted it finally. It was one of the most hotly contested issues of the first Congress. Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was late on the scene, because he had been appointed while he was still in Paris. He really wanted to back to Paris and not become Secretary of State.

It was a much smaller office in the 18th century than it is today. The United States barely had relations with any countries. It was a trivial nation, a third world country essentially.

Congress At War - The Politics Of Conflict Since 1789 paperback

Jefferson did not swing as much weight in the Cabinet at that time as Secretaries of State would in later periods. The Secretary of War, Henry Knox, essentially acted as an administrator.

The wars at the time were wars against Indian tribes. It was a very limited office. The creation of the executive departments was one of the great successes of the first Congress. Congress created them, not Washington himself. The presidency had very little power, so expanding that was a collaborative process between Congress and Washington.


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Did the Founders foresee our size today? Few had aspirations for an empire. I think many would have appreciated the growth of the executive department as commensurate with the growth of American power and responsibilities of government. The country has gone through very long periods without any amendments being passed. There was also a year gap between and The Reconstruction amendments [the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments abolishing slavery and granting former slaves citizenship and the right to vote] did not reflect the national consensus whatsoever.

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Once those 11 states come back, those amendments became dead letters for a century. Ironically, when Prohibition passed there was a consensus in the country. It was a mistake, obviously, and had to be undone. There were no formally organized parties in the beginning.

But there were Federalists, those who believed in the Constitution and the government that the Constitution made possible. They dominated the first Congress, with huge majorities in both houses. The Anti-Federalists hated the Constitution, they thought it was a disaster right from the beginning and opposed it. They opposed a strong and vigorous central government, the antecedents to some extent for the Tea Party and Freedom Caucus.

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Anti-Federalists demanded hundreds of amendments to the Constitution that would weaken the central government, weaken the presidency, restore more power to the states. A great debate in the first Congress was whether or not there would be any amendments. Madison took more than and winnowed them down to 12, of which 10 of them passed.

Some of the amendments that today loom large were barely debated, like the Second Amendment.

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There was almost no discussion of the Second Amendment in the Congress when it passed. When we think of the Bill of Rights, we think mostly of the First Amendment — freedom of speech, press, religion, and all that. Many members at the time thought these were trivial, that Congress had no business even considering such things. Almost nobody in Congress felt that the passage of the Bill of Rights was a big deal. While Congress has formally declared war only five times in U.