Acts Passed at a First Congress of the United States of America 1789

Andrews McMeel. 93 pp. $75

The First Congress of the United States, which met in New York between March 4, 1789, and March 3, 1791 , was the most consequential in the nation’s history. It proposed 12 constitutional amendments, 10 of which became the Bill of Rights; established much of the federal judiciary and the Departments of State, War and Treasury; enacted the republic’s first patent and copyright laws; and granted George Washington the authority to locate the federal capital along the Potomac.

Now comes a handsome leather-bound facsimile of Washington’s annotated copy of the laws passed during the first session of that important Congress. This edition, based on one printed in New York by Childs and Swaine, has an imitation sprinkled-calf cover with gold lettering and marbled end papers. Washington did little annotating, penciling “President” a few times in the margins, but the bills offer a fascinating glimpse of an infant and energetic republic getting on its feet.

The bills are models of brevity and clarity, far from today’s opaque and lengthy laws. To wit: The judiciary act is just longer than 13 pages. The Treasury was established in two pages. By comparison, it took 187 pages to contain the Homeland Security Act of 2002. In total, the work of this first session of the first Congress, which addressed matters of surpassing magnitude, fills just 93 pages. Two hundred years later, the first session of the 101st Congress required 837 pages to deliver its laws.

The 1789 volume is full of fascinating nuggets. For instance, Washington was paid $25,000 per anum while the vice president made $5,000. The chief justice of the United States made $4,000, associate justices $3,500. Members of Congress did not receive a salary — they were paid $6 per day during session plus travel expenses, with a strict requirment that they take the cheapest, most direct roads. No first class for this lot.

’Acts of Congress 1789: Includes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights’ by George Washington and Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (Andrews McMeel )

Not only did this Congress lay the foundations of a country, but it found time to give a certain Baron de Glaubeck the pay of a captain of the Army, ensured pensions to “invalids who were wounded and disabled during the late war,” and imposed duties on chocolate, Madeira wine, galoshes and lapsang souchong tea.

Long before sequestration, fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings, Congress functioned admirably, just as the framers imagined it would.

— Timothy R. Smith