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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Madison and the War of 1812: 1808–1815

Quiz

Always use specific historical examples to support your arguments.

Study Questions

1.

How effective was the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation? Why were the Articles replaced by the Constitution? How was the federal government different under the Constitution?

Afraid of strong centralized government after the Revolutionary War, the drafters of the Articles of Confederation made certain that the federal government would never be able to strip power from the individual states. As a result, the national Congress was so weak and politically ineffective that it was unable to maintain national unity and went virtually bankrupt. The specter of rebellion and collapse forced American elites to create a stronger, more centralized government under the Constitution.

In 1777, America’s leading politicians were well aware that powerful governments could become stifling and oppressive. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had outlined King George III’s “long train of abuses” against the colonies: unfair and unpopular taxes, quartering acts, and other punishments. With these abuses fresh in mind, the framers of the Articles decided that the United States should be only a loose confederation of thirteen nearly independent members. They believed that this structure would bind the states for common defense but would allow republicanism to flourish in smaller communities. The Articles therefore created a national Congress with the power to maintain armies, declare war and peace, govern western lands, and resolve interstate disputes, but lacking the power to levy direct taxes. Each state was given one vote, and most decisions were to be made by majority rule.

Although the confederation looked good on paper, it proved to be wholly ineffective. First, Congress had virtually no power to control the states. Commerce and territorial disputes erupted throughout the decade during which the Articles were in effect. Second, Congress, unable to levy taxes of its own, could only request money from the individual states. Many states, however, refused to pay. Finally, growing domestic unrest among the working classes, which reached a peak in Shays’s Rebellion, convinced wealthier Americans that the Articles had to be amended, if not replaced.

Under the new Constitution, the United States was a more tightly bound federation than the loose confederation that had existed under the Articles. The new federal government was divided into three separate but equal branches, each with distinct powers and authority. The new bicameral Congress was given the power to levy taxes, while the president was given the authority to execute and enforce congressional laws. The Supreme Court assumed the task of judicial review to determine whether Congress’s laws were constitutional. Thus, though the Constitution gave the new government greater power and authority, it also instituted safeguards to keep federal power in check, as the framers of the Articles of Confederation had originally intended.

2.

Which political group do you believe had a more profound effect on the formation of the United States, the Federalists or the Democratic-Republicans?

Even though Democratic-Republican presidents held the White House for twenty-four of the United States’ first thirty-six years, the Federalists had a much greater effect on the formation of the new nation. The Federalists pushed for the ratification of the Constitution and then bolstered the federal government by providing solid economic and legal infrastructure. Their influence put in place the systems that have kept the United States stable and unified throughout its history.

Had the Anti-Federalists had their way, the Constitution might never have been ratified. Patriots like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams believed that the new federal government would be too powerful and too constricting. They feared that the new office of president was too much like a monarch and did not think that Congress should have the right to tax all Americans. Like many political philosophers of their day, they thought that republicanism would never survive in a large country because the government would be too distant from the hearts and minds of the people it represented.

Federalists, however, disagreed. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison argued that republicanism would work for the United States. The republic would be so large, with so many conflicting constituencies, that no single faction would ever be able to dominate the others. Moreover, safeguards inserted into the Constitution, such as the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, would prevent the government from ever becoming too powerful. These Federalist arguments helped convince the states to ratify the Constitution.

Other major Federalist contributions came through Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s economic policies, which bolstered the federal government and put the nation on sound financial footing. Despite protests from Thomas Jefferson and other Democratic-Republicans, Hamilton urged President Washington and Congress to support the development of American manufacturing, pass an excise tax to fund the government, assume all state and federal debts, fund those debts at par, and create a Bank of the United States. The assumption of debt and funding at par gave the country credibility and encouraged speculators to invest in American enterprises. The excise tax filled the federal treasury, and the Bank of the United States helped stabilize the economy. Perhaps most important, the Federalists’ loose interpretation of the Constitution justified strong centralized government.

The Federalists also influenced the U.S. legal infrastructure through the decisions of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall. Most of Marshall’s rulings during his years as chief justice bolstered the federal government’s power vis-à-vis the individual states. In Marbury v. Madison, for example, he secured the power of judicial review for the Supreme Court. In subsequent cases, he also defended the Court’s superior position to state courts. In doing so, Marshall legitimized the federal government and gave it strong legal precedents.

3.

Which nation was responsible for the War of 1812, Britain or the United States? What caused the war?

Despite the fact that the United States was the first to declare war, Britain clearly initiated the conflict, as British troops continued to occupy U.S. territory in the Ohio Valley and the Royal Navy seized American merchant ships and impressed their crews. The United States tried to resolve the disputes diplomatically, and then, when diplomatic attempts failed, imposed trade sanctions on Britain in an attempt to gain London’s attention. However, these measures failed, leaving President James Madison and Congress little choice but to defend American sovereignty.

The war stemmed from the fact that Britain had continued to treat the United States as one of its colonies even after the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a new U.S government. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain had agreed to withdraw its troops from the Ohio Valley and to respect American shipping. In practice, though, neither promise was ever honored: British troops remained stationed in British forts on U.S. territory, and Royal Navy captains continued to seize American merchant ships. The British made the same concessions again in Jay’s Treaty in 1794 but never honored those commitments either. In fact, seizures of American merchant ships increased in the first decade of the 1800s, and Royal Navy officers began to impress an increasing number of American sailors to serve on British warships. Impressment outraged Americans and thus forced the U.S. government to act.

When diplomatic efforts failed to resolve the crisis peacefully, Jefferson encouraged Congress to pass the Embargo Act in 1807 to ban trade with all foreign countries. Jefferson hoped the sanctions would convince the British government to change its ways. Unfortunately, the implementation of the Embargo Act failed miserably and only hurt American merchants. Congress repealed the law in 1809 and tried to use the new Non-Intercourse Act to ban trade only with Britain and France. This act, however, likewise failed to produce any response, leaving Congress effectively out of diplomatic options.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. How did the Anti-Federalists help shape the United States?

2. Did the “elastic clause” justify acts such as Hamilton’s excise tax and Bank of the United States or Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase?

3. How would you characterize Anglo-British relations in the years after independence?

4. Describe how three of the following affected the formation of the federal government: a) Marbury v. Madison b) the Louisiana Purchase c) the Bank of the United States d) the Alien and Sedition Acts

5. Was the Constitution written to be a self-consciously landmark document or was it simply a compilation of compromises? Support your argument.

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