After declaring independence from Britain in 1776, the delegates at the Second Continental Congress immediately set to the task of creating a government. In 1777, Congress submitted the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, to the states, who finally ratified it a few years later.
Congress proved unable to manage the country’s economic affairs under the Articles. Because most state currencies had become useless due to wartime inflation, Congress printed its own continental dollars to keep the economy alive, but these faltered as well. Congress also proved unable to raise enough money from the states, because the federal government had no way of forcing the states to pay taxes. Most states also ignored Congress’s attempts to resolve numerous interstate disputes that arose.
In addition, many Americans became fed up with their incompetent state legislatures and demanded debt relief and cheaper money. A few even revolted, as in Shays’s Rebellion in 1786–1787, which culminated in Daniel Shays leading 1,200 western Massachusetts farmers in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield. Although the rebellion was quickly dismissed, it convinced many American leaders that change was needed if the U.S. were to survive.
To resolve these problems, delegates from most of the states met at the Annapolis Convention in 1786. When nothing was resolved, they agreed to reconvene in 1787 at a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. At this second convention, it was quickly decided that an entirely new constitution was needed rather than just a revision to the Articles.
A major point of contention was the structure of the new legislative branch. Small states supported the New Jersey Plan, under which all states would have equal representation in the legislature. Large states advocated the Virginia Plan to create a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which representatives would be appointed according to population. The Great Compromise among the states created a bicameral Congress in which states would be equally represented in the Senate and proportionally represented in the House of Representatives.
The framers of the Constitution believed strongly in checks and balances and separation of powers to prevent any one branch of government from ever becoming too powerful. As a result, the new government would also have a strong executive branch and an independent judiciary branch.
When the delegates submitted the Constitution to the states for ratification, heated debates erupted between the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, who thought it gave the federal government too much power. Federalists Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison coauthored the Federalist Papers in 1787–1788 to convince Anti-Federalist Americans, especially in New York, that the Constitution was necessary. Eventually, the Anti-Federalists conceded on the condition that a Bill of Rights be written to preserve liberties, such as freedoms of speech and religion and the right to trial by jury.
The Electoral College unanimously chose George Washington to be the first president, with John Adams as vice president. Soon after, the new secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, wanted to repair the national credit and revive the economy by having the federal government assume all the debts of the individual states. He also wanted to establish a national Bank of the United States. The Constitution said nothing about a national bank, but Hamilton believed that the Constitution allowed many unwritten actions that it did not expressly forbid. Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state and a strict constructionist, believed that the Constitution forbade everything it did not allow. These ideological differences within Washington’s cabinet formed the basis of what later became full-fledged political parties—the Hamiltonian Federalists and the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.
Despite the passage of the Indian Intercourse Acts, beginning in 1790, Native Americans frequently raided American settlements west of the Appalachians until federal troops crushed several tribes in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Later, when farmers in western Pennsylvania threatened to march on Philadelphia to protest the excise tax on liquor in 1794, Washington dispatched 13,000 federal troops to crush the insurgents. The Whiskey Rebellion, however, ended without bloodshed.
Events in Europe also affected the United States. The French Revolution of 1789 and France’s subsequent war with Britain split American public opinion: some wanted to support republican France, while others wanted to help England. However, under the Franco-American alliance of 1778, the United States was obligated to assist France.
Unprepared for another war, Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation of 1793 . Citizen Genêt, the French ambassador to the United States, ignored the proclamation and, immediately upon his arrival in the United States, began commissioning privateers and planning to use U.S. ports in the French campaign against Britain. Outraged over the Citizen Genêt affair, Washington requested Genet’s recall.
Meanwhile, Spain threatened to block Americans’ access to the vital Mississippi River, while Britain still refused to withdraw from American territory in the Ohio Valley. These issues were not resolved until Jay’s Treaty with Britain in 1794 and Pinckney’s Treaty in 1795.
Finally, in his famous Farewell Address in 1796, Washington warned against entangling alliances with European powers and potential political factions in the United States.
In 1797, Washington was succeeded by his Federalist vice president, John Adams, who faced continued challenges from Europe. When Adams sent an ambassador to Paris to restore Franco-American relations, three French officials demanded a bribe before they would speak with him. This incident, the XYZ Affair, shocked Americans and initiated two years of undeclared naval warfare.
To prevent unwanted French immigrants from entering the country, Adams and a sympathetic Congress passed the Alien Acts in 1798. They also passed the Sedition Act, which banned public criticism of the government in an attempt to stifle political opposition and wipe out the Democratic-Republicans. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison responded with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, which nullified the Sedition Act in those states. They argued that because the states had created the Union, they also had the right to nullify any unconstitutional legislation.
The Democratic-Republicans defeated the Federalists in the election of 1800. Despite years of mutual hatred, the Federalists relinquished the government to their political enemies in a peaceful transfer of power. Thomas Jefferson, champion of western and southern farmers, became president and immediately advocated a reduction in the size and power of the federal government.
In reality, federal power increased in many ways during Jefferson’s eight years in office. The Supreme Court reasserted its power of judicial review in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase more than doubled the size of the country despite the fact that the Constitution said nothing about new land purchases.
Jefferson continued to face challenges from Europe, as neither Britain nor France respected American shipping rights as a neutral country. Both countries seized hundreds of American merchant ships bound for Europe, and British warships impressed (captured for forced labor) thousands of American sailors. To end these practices, Jefferson and Congress passed the Embargo Act in 1807, closing all U.S. ports to export shipping and placing restrictions on imports from Britain. Unfortunately, the boycott backfired, and the U.S. economy slumped as Britain and France found other sources of natural resources.
Congress repealed the Embargo Act in 1809 but replaced it with the Non-Intercourse Act, which banned trade only with Britain and France. A year later, with James Madison in office as president, the American economy still had not improved, so Congress passed Macon’s Bill No. 2, which restored trade relations with all nations but promised to revive the Non-Intercourse Act if either Britain or France violated U.S. shipping rights.
Meanwhile, War Hawks in Congress from the West and South pressed Madison for war against the British and Tecumseh’s Native American Northwest Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Since the British were still seizing American ships and impressing American sailors, Congress declared war on Britain in 1812.
The War of 1812 was primarily a sectional conflict supported by Americans in the West and South and condemned by those in the Northeast. In 1814, delegates from the New England states met at the Hartford Convention to petition Congress and redress grievances. By the time Congress received their complaint, however, the war had ended and the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.
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