Bordewich was born in New York City in 1947, and grew up in Yonkers, New York. While growing up, he often traveled to Indian reservations around the United States with his mother, LaVerne Madigan Bordewich, the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, then the only independent advocacy organization for Native Americans. This early experience helped to shape his lifelong preoccupation with American history, the settlement of the continent, and issues of race, and political power. He holds degrees from the City College of New York and Columbia University. In the late 1960s, he did voter registration for the NAACP in the still-segregated South; he also worked as a roustabout in Alaska's Arctic oil fields, a taxi driver in New York City, and a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter.
He is the author of seven non-fiction books: The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, 2016); America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union (Simon & Schuster, 2012); Washington: The Making of the American Capital (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008); Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2005); My Mother's Ghost, a memoir (Doubleday, 2001); Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century (Doubleday, 1996); and Cathay: A Journey in Search of Old China (Prentice Hall Press, 1991). He lives in San Francisco, CA with his wife, Jean Parvin Bordewich.
In The First Congress, Bordewich tells the astonishing story of the most productive Congress in American history. When the members of the First Congress met in New York, in 1789, the new nation was still fragile, riven by sectional differences, hobbled by competing currencies, crushed by debt, and stitched together only tentatively by the new Constitution. The Constitution provided a set of principles but offered few instructions about how the government should operate, leaving it to Congress and the president to create the machinery of government. As James Madison put it, "We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us." Had Congress failed in its work, the United States as we know it might not exist. Along with Madison, powerful men such as Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, Elbridge Gerry, and Robert Morris often clashed, sometimes savagely, but ultimately they forged a consensus that gave strength and credibility to the new government. Bordewich brings alive the passions and conflicts of these extraordinary men, who, along with President George Washington and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, breathed life into the Constitution. Bordewich immerses us in the dramatic debates over the Bill of Rights, the creation of the president's cabinet, the adoption of a new capitalist financial system, and the acrimonious argument over the new capital, among many other issues. Some of the issues the First Congress faced still challenge us: literal versus liberal interpretations of the Constitution, conflict between states rights and federal power, protection of individual rights, and more. How Congress and the president achieved as much as they did is a story that could not be more timely in our era of hyperpartisanship and governmental gridlock.
Bordewich's last book, America's Great Debate, told the epic story of the nation's westward expansion, slavery and the Compromise of 1850, centering on the dramatic congressional debate of 1849-1850—the longest in American history—when a gallery of extraordinary men including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Stephen A. Douglas, Jefferson Davis, William H. Seward, and others, fought to shape, and in the case of some to undermine, the future course of the Union. In April 2013, America’s Great Debate was named the Best History Book of 2012 by the Los Angeles Times. Citing the book’s "page-turning detail," the Times’s citation read, in part: "Wise and witty in equal measure, the book dusts off the marble busts to find the humanity in the ambition of Henry Clay, the industry of Stephen A. Douglas, and the ardor of Jefferson Davis and John Calhoun. Bordewich’s vivid prose allows us to smell the cigar smoke, taste the whiskey, and feel the mud on the boots as statesmen, time servers and true believers jostle against the growing threat of disunion and war." In 2013, America's Great Debate was also highlighted at the National Festival of the Book, in Washington, D.C.
America’s Great Debate was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by the Washington Post. In his review, Post publisher Donald E. Graham called the book "original in concept, stylish in execution. [It] provides everything history readers want. Two things above all: a compelling story and a cast of characters who come convincingly to life."
Bound for Canaan was selected as one of the American Booksellers Association's "ten best nonfiction books" in 2005; as the Great Lakes Booksellers' Association's "best non-fiction book" of 2005; as one of the Austin Public Library's Best Non-Fiction books of 2005; and as one of the New York Public Library's "ten books to remember" in 2005.
Washington a history of the byzantine politics behind the founding of the nation's capital and slaves who built it, was named by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post as one of his "Best Books" of that year.
Bordewich is a frequent book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal and other popular and scholarly periodicals, mostly on subjects in 18th and 19th century American history. He has published an illustrated children's book, Peach Blossom Spring (Simon & Schuster, 1994), and wrote the script for a PBS documentary about Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Jefferson's University. He also edited an illustrated book of eyewitness accounts of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Children of the Dragon (Macmillan, 1990).
He has been an independent historian and writer since the early 1970s. In 2015, he served as chairman of the awards committee for the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, given by the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, at Yale University. He is a frequent public speaker at universities and other forums, as well as on radio and television. His articles have appeared in many magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Atlantic, Harper's, New York Magazine, GEO, Reader's Digest, and others. As a journalist, he traveled extensively in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, writing on politics, economic issues, culture, and history, on subjects ranging from the civil war in Burma, religious repression in China, Islamic fundamentalism, German reunification, the Irish economy, Kenya's population crisis, among many others. He also served for brief periods as an editor and writer for the Tehran Journal in Iran, in 1972-1973, a press officer for the United Nations, in 1980-1982, and an advisor to the New China News Agency in Beijing, in 1982-1983, when that agency was embarking on its effort to switch from a propaganda model to a western-style journalistic one.
Bordewich is represented by Adam Eaglin who may be contacted at: Elyse Cheney Literary Associates, 78 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011 Tel: (212) 277-8007
Bordewich has written seven non-fiction books, most recently The First Congress, How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government. He has also published an illustrated children's book and edited an illustrated book of eyewitness accounts of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. He is a frequent book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, and other popular and scholarly periodicals, and speaks often at universities and other forums, as well as on radio and television, most often on subjects related to 18th and 19th century American history. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, American Heritage, The Atlantic, Harper's, New York Magazine, GEO, and Reader's Digest, amongst others.