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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Acts of Congress 1789’ and ‘A Gift for President Washington’
Question of the Day
This handsome historical book, the perfect Christmas present for any armchair patriot, ought to be required reading for every public official in Washington. The volume is a facsimile of Acts Passed at a First Congress of the United States of America 1789. Published that year, its colophon declares that the book is “prefixed” with “a correct Copy of the Constitution of the United States.” This 2013 edition replicates a unique copy of that first printing, the one presented to the new president, George Washington, who wrote marginal notes and kept it close at hand for the 10 remaining years of his life, throughout his presidency and retirement in Mount Vernon.
It should be required reading because it proves that politicians with radically different opinions could once make common cause for the common good; that rigid adherence to one position or another does not prove one’s political manhood. I’m not being chauvinistic here. Legislators were all men in those days. Indeed, this document is a reminder of how different the world of the Founding Fathers was from our own.
It specifies that senators were to be chosen by state legislatures, not elected; that Indians would pay no taxes, nor could they vote; that “free persons” got to vote, pay taxes and that “all other persons” counted as three-fifths of a person each. Anyone care to restore the good old days?
In case someone misses the larger point: The First Congress got a lot done. It might be the most “do-something” Congress in history. Thank you, gentlemen. (And please don’t let the 113th Congress‘ performance make you roll over in your graves.)
Let us remember that the Founders had already forged a monumental failure in the loose-knit republic they crafted under the Articles of Confederation. Their vaunted new republic, roughly conceived in 1776 by merchant aristocrats and drunken tradesmen, had been a flop. So that mob’s successors had to start over again. Well, in 1789, they got it right, or mostly right. If it wasn’t a perfect union, it worked for the time being. Besides, in a crucial provision, the aforesaid Constitution was declared subject to modification as time marched on.
Lest contemporary congressmen think the business of government was all high-minded principles, be advised that the Founders wrassled with some issues that make duller reading than the Federal Register. Witness “An Act for laying a Duty on Goods, Wares and Merchandizes imported into the United States,” namely the tariffs on scores of products from salt and malt to window glass and beaver hats. The Founders set a tariff of 18 cents a gallon on good Madeira wine, but as little as eight cents on plonk. Black tea imported in American ships was taxed at eight cents a pound; teas brought by foreign vessels, as much as 46 cents. All these pesky details required deliberation and compromise. (Congress, take note.)
Other new laws were fundamentals: Separate acts established the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War and Treasury. Another provided “for the establishment and support of Light-Houses, Beacons, Buoys and Public Piers.” An act set the salary of the Treasury Secretary at $3,500 and that of the Secretary of War at $500 less. Ponder that. The president earned $25,000 a year, the vice president $5,000 — pretty pricey for what an incumbent later valued as a bucket of warm spit. Members of Congress got six dollars a day and six dollars for every 20 miles they traveled from home — until 1795, when they would get a one-dollar raise.
The book’s final two pages are given over to 12 provisional addenda that were referred to the several states. Ten of these amendments were ratified, to become the Bill of Rights, and most of them (including “Article the Fourth”) were written with such clarity and concision that one wonders how they could ever be misconstrued. Leave that to us moderns.
These uncommonly tall pages make for good browsing — in part to winkle out the workings of pre-Federalist minds, and to enjoy the quirky beauty of handset type with the antique ligatures and characters. The “long s” in particular makes for some winsome words, e.g., “fhips or veffels” and “juftices of the fupreme court.”
Expensive in today’s dollars, the book replicates George Washington’s marginal notes marking passages related to the presidency and smudges that might be his fingerprints. There are ghost impressions, and the original marbled endpapers, along with the president’s bookplate and autograph, and gold tooling on the faux cover. In short, this is a splendid example of a modern counterfeit, though sad to say the publishers surrendered to the pinchpenny economics of today’s book biz: They printed this proudly American volume in China.
It comes in a smart box with a companion paperback featuring an essay by the popular historian and veteran polymath Thomas B. Allen, my erstwhile colleague. Here he sketches the history of Mount Vernon as a historic house, owned and managed since the 1850s by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. He also traces the Odyssean travels of Washington’s own copy of the Acts from his plantation in 1799 to Christie’s auction house in 2012, where the ladies dropped $9.8 million to fetch it “home.”
Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press in Bethesda, writes on American history and culture.
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