“America begins in New York,” Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University professor and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, likes to say. Now comes the journalist and author Fergus M. Bordewich to engagingly revive the forgotten story of the nearly 18 months that New York was the nation’s first capital in “The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government” (Simon & Schuster, $30).
As the author instructively recalls, that first Congress fleshed out the bare bones of the recently ratified Constitution in two sessions that were probably the most productive in its history — a claim vindicated through prodigious research by the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University.
Congressmen, representing only 11 states, convened at Peter Charles L’Enfant’s renovated Federal Hall downtown. These learned men loftily managed to compromise on most issues (though closing their eyes to others, like the slave market practically across the street) while enduring the clatter of horse-drawn traffic outside their windows and the noise of insatiable spectators cracking nuts in the public gallery of the House of Representatives.
The itinerant Congress had settled in New York from sheer exhaustion, Mr. Bordewich writes, but lobbying to move again began immediately. The prolific Senator William Maclay, who favored his native Philadelphia, took one look at the new canary-colored presidential coach, festooned with Cupids, and feared that George Washington had been corrupted by “the Pompous People of New York.”
Where to settle permanently was decided by another accommodation: The South would get the capital if Congress agreed to assume the states’ war debts. New York felt betrayed. Arriving at the interim seat of government in Philadelphia, some congressmen and their camp followers lamented the move. Abigail Adams took one look at Martha Washington’s unfinished mansion and declared, “When all is done, it will not be Broadway.”
Can a composer and lyricist be appropriately described as unsung? “Strayhorn: An Illustrated Life” (Agate Bolden, $35), edited by A. Alyce Claerbaut and David Schlesinger, redeems the musical claim of Billy Strayhorn, the musician who composed “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lush Life” and scores of other jazz hits and whose successful collaborations with Duke Ellington (after he moved into Ellington’s home in the Sugar Hill area of Harlem) have been echoed by dozens of recording artists since.
This lush paean to the composer explores the challenges he faced of being both black and gay, and his commitment, as Ellington described it, to his own four freedoms: “Freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself; and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor.”
Celebrate the serenity of a reduction in the number of sightseeing helicopter flights by gorging on the luscious eye candy in “New York From Above” (9 Square Editions, $99.95), sold through One World Observatory and its website. Evan Joseph, an architecture photographer, hovers over Manhattan to capture rare bird’s-eye visions of the skyline and rarefied views from luxury apartments.
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