Defending Who? Yes, Congress

I rise in defense of the often indefensible—the U.S. Congress. Well, sort of. Indirectly. And with a whole bunch of qualifiers. 

Here we go.

For all of the understandably negative press Congress receives, we have forgotten that it was Congress—or the version at the time, the Continental Congress—that was at the foundation of founding the American nation. No other entity played such a central and constant role in launching American independence and the American experiment in self-government. None matches Congress.

It’s possible that we’ve never even really known or realized the critical, singular role of Congress in the 1770s. It’s been beat and drummed into us the failure of congressional national government and the need for the Constitution-based government that followed. More than that, likely, we’ve also heard and read and seen and felt the history of American Presidents. Without even thinking, we tend to arrange American history in our minds according to presidents, presidencies, and the executive branch generally, a trend noted as early as the 1830s. I suspect wars have been the key cause of presidential centrality. 

When you think of leaders and leadership, you don’t think of Congress. You think of the White House, of the military, of any one individual that stands at the top of his or her organization, so much so that they become the symbol of those within it. Except for Congress.

But it was Congress where everything began. During the days, months, and years of the mid/late 1770s when the very notion of founding was still in turmoil, Congress was the place that incubated every major pronouncement. Congress was the place that debated and argued over the ideas that comprised every major pronouncement. Congress was the place that moved events from one key moment to the next, each a step closer to national independence. Congress was the place where self-government and national union converged. Congress, quite simply, was the place.

It’s easier, clearer, to look at the single individual in the White House. We often tell ourselves that we do know individual people who embody the best or at least the better. It’s harder, more muddled, to cope with the mess and muck of lots of people arguing, accusing, counter-accusing, and all the rest. It’s our reflex to believe that nothing really good comes from large groups of folks; that’s where you see boils and flab. Thus, we invest hope in the solo, the president and not in the collection, the Congress.

Then in the mid/late 1770s, as now, they yelled. They fussed. They disappointed. They held to some principles, set others aside, and circled back to reheat, retool, and refashion, over and over again. They thought about their localities, usually first, and then occasionally got around to thinking about bigger things. They showed up and they didn’t show up. It was then what it is now and always will be—rather smelly and scarcely noble—because they are us and we are them. It worked.

They stood at the bench and stirred the pot, working to start the national experiment. Remember, it was Congress.