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The Constitution (1781–1815)

History SparkNotes


Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms

Key People & Terms


John Adams

A prominent Boston lawyer who first became famous for defending the British soldiers accused of murdering five civilians in the Boston Massacre. At the Continental Congresses, Adams acted as a delegate from Massachusetts and rejected proposals for self-governance within the British Empire. He served as vice president to George Washington and then as president from 17971801.

Samuel Adams

A second cousin of John Adams and a failed Bostonian businessman who became an ardent political activist in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. Samuel Adams organized the first Committee of Correspondence and was a delegate to both Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775.

Alexander Hamilton

A brilliant New York lawyer and statesman who, in his early thirties, was one of the youngest delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. An ardent Federalist, Hamilton supported the Constitution during the ratification debates even though he actually believed that the new document was still too weak. He helped write the Federalist Papers, which are now regarded as some of the finest essays on American government and republicanism. He served as the first secretary of the treasury under George Washington and established the first Bank of the United States.

William Henry Harrison

A former governor of Indiana Territory and brigadier general in the U.S. Army who rose to national stardom when he defeated the Northwest Confederacy at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Harrison went on to be elected president in 1840.

Patrick Henry

A fiery radical who advocated rebellion against the Crown in the years prior to the American Revolution, as in his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. Later, Henry was a die-hard Anti-Federalist who initially opposed ratification of the Constitution.

Andrew Jackson

A hero of the War of 1812and the Creek War who later entered the national political arena and became president in 1829. Jackson, nicknamed “Old Hickory,” was the first U.S. president to come from a region west of the Appalachians.

John Jay

A coauthor of the Federalist Papers, which attempted to convince Anti-Federalist New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. Jay served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and became one of the most hated men in America after he negotiated Jay’s Treaty with Britain in 1794.

Thomas Jefferson

A Virginia planter and lawyer who in 1776 drafted the Declaration of Independence, which justified American independence from Britain. Jefferson went on to serve as the first secretary of state under George Washington and as vice president under John Adams. He then was elected president himself in 1800 and 1804.

James Madison

A Virginia Federalist who advocated for the ratification of the Constitution, coauthored the Federalist Papers, and sponsored the Bill of Rights in Congress. After ratification, he supported southern and western agrarian interests as a Democratic-Republican. After a brief retirement, he reentered politics and was elected president in 1808 and 1812. As president, Madison fought for U.S. shipping rights against British and French aggression and led the country during the War of 1812.

James Monroe

A Virginia officer, lawyer, and Democratic-Republican who was elected president in 1816 and inaugurated the Era of Good Feelings. An excellent administrator, Monroe bolstered the federal government and supported internal improvements, and was so popular in his first term that he ran uncontested in 1820. The “good feelings” ended, however, during the Missouri Crisis that split the United States along north-south lines. Monroe is most famous for his 1823Monroe Doctrine, which warned European powers against interfering in the Western Hemisphere.


A member of the Shawnee tribe who, along with his brother Tenskwatawa (often called the Prophet), organized many of the tribes in the Mississippi Valley into the Northwest Confederacy to defend Native American ancestral lands from white American settlers. Even though the tribes had legal rights to their lands under the Indian Intercourse Acts of the 1790s, expansionist War Hawks in Congress argued the need for action against Tecumseh, and eventually William Henry Harrison was sent to wipe out the Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

George Washington

A Virginia planter and militia officer who led the attack that initiated the French and Indian War in 1754. Washington later became commander in chief of the American forces during the American Revolution and first president of the United States in 1789. Although he lost many of the military battles he fought, his leadership skills were unparalleled and were integral to the creation of the United States. In his noteworthy Farewell Address, Washington warned against factionalism and the formation of political parties, believing they would split the nation irreparably.


Alien Acts

A group of acts passed in 1798, designed to restrict the freedom of foreigners in the United States and curtail the free press in anticipation of a war with France. The Alien Acts lengthened the residency time required for foreigners to become American citizens from five years to fourteen years and gave the president the power to expel aliens considered dangerous to the nation. It was passed simultaneously with the Sedition Act, and together they provoked the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, written the same year in protest. These resolutions stated that individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional laws passed by Congress.

Annapolis Convention

A meeting of delegates from five states in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss the bleak commercial situation in the United States, growing social unrest, and Congress’s inability to resolve disputes among the states. The conference dissolved when Alexander Hamilton proposed holding the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia the next year to revise the Articles of Confederation.


Primarily farmers and poorer Americans in the West, a group that strongly opposed ratification of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists were suspicious of governments in general and a strong central government in particular. Rather, they believed that state legislatures should maintain sovereignty. Although they eventually lost the ratification battle, their protests did encourage the first Congress to attach the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

Articles of Confederation

The first U.S. constitution, adopted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles established a national Congress in which each state in the Union was granted one vote. Congress had the right to conduct foreign affairs, maintain a military, govern western territories, and regulate trade between states, but it could not levy taxes. Because most states refused to finance the Congress adequately, the government under the Articles was doomed to fail. After Shays’s Rebellion in 1786–1787, delegates met to discuss revising the Articles of Confederation, which ultimately led to the drafting of the Constitution.

Bank of the United States

A plan proposed by Alexander Hamilton for a treasury for federal money funded by private investors. The Bank sparked a debate between “strict constructionists” and “loose constructionists” regarding interpretation of the Constitution.

Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the Constitution, sponsored in Congress by James Madison, to guarantee basic freedoms and liberties. The Bill of Rights protects freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition, and the rights to have trial by jury, bear arms, and own property, among others. Moreover, the Ninth Amendment states that the people have additional rights beyond those written explicitly in the Constitution; the Tenth Amendment awards state governments all the powers not granted to the federal government. The promise of a Bill of Rights helped convince many Anti-Federalists to ratify the new Constitution. Today, these rights are considered fundamental American liberties.

Checks and Balances

A term referring to the overlapping of powers granted to the three branches of government under the Constitution. For example, Congress has the power to pass laws and regulate taxes, but the president has the ability to veto, or nullify, those acts. On the other hand, Congress may override a president’s veto if two-thirds of its members support the bill in question. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has the power to review all laws but must rely on the president to enforce its decisions. The framers of the Constitution included this system of checks and balances to prevent any one branch of government from having too much power over the others.


A 1787 document that established the structure of the U.S. government, drafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia by prominent statesmen from twelve states (minus Rhode Island). Unlike its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution established a strong central government divided into three separate but equal branches (legislative, executive, and judiciary). This separation of powers, combined with a system of checks and balances, was designed to prevent the new government from becoming too strong and tyrannical.

Constitutional Convention

A 1787 meeting in Philadelphia in which delegates from twelve states convened to revise the Articles of Confederation. The Convention quickly decided that the Articles should be scrapped and replaced with an entirely new document to create a stronger central government binding the states. The result was the Constitution.

Declaration of Independence

A document written by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 that proclaimed the creation of the United States. The Declaration sets forth a persuasive argument against King George III, claiming that the king ruled the colonies poorly and unjustly. The document thus served not merely as a declaration but also as a rational justification for breaking away from Britain.


Successors of the Anti-Federalists who formed a party under Thomas Jefferson’s leadership during Washington’s and Adams’s presidencies. The Democratic-Republicans generally favored westward expansion, the formation of an agrarian republic, and an alliance with France, and were strict constructionists and advocates of states’ rights. Political battles between the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists were frequent during the first years of the nineteenth century. Though the Federalist Party died out during the War of 1812, the Democratic-Republicans lived on during the Era of Good Feelilngs and eventually became the Democratic party.

Elastic Clause

A nickname for Article I, Section VIII, Paragraph 18 of the Constitution, which states that Congress has the power “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” to carry out its proscribed duties. Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists interpreted this clause to mean that the Constitution allows everything it does not expressly forbid, and used it to justify the creation of the Bank of the United States. George Washington agreed, and the clause has since given presidents and Congress ample justification for expanding federal power. The clause has been dubbed “elastic” because it gives federal policymakers great flexibility when drafting laws.

Electoral College

A body of representatives appointed by states to cast their votes for president. The presidential candidate who receives the most Electoral College votes, regardless of how many popular votes he or she receives, becomes president. The framers of the Constitution created the Electoral College out of fear that the whimsical American masses might one day popularly elect someone “unfit” for the presidency.

Excise Tax of 1791

A liquor tax proposed by Alexander Hamilton in 1790 to raise revenue so that Congress could pay off all national and state debts. The excise tax was immensely unpopular with western farmers, whose protests eventually culminated in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

The Federalist Papers

A series of eighty-five articles written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in 1787–1788 to convince New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution. The Federalist Papers are now regarded as some of the finest essays on the Constitution, American government, and republicanism.


Primarily from the wealthier and propertied classes of Americans along the eastern seaboard, a group that supported ratification of the Constitution and creation of a strong central government. The Federalists eventually became a full-fledged political party under the leadership of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Adams was the first and only Federalist president, as the party died after Federalist delegates from the Hartford Convention protested the War of 1812 and were labeled traitors.

Great Compromise

An agreement between the large and small states at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to create a bicameral (two-house) Congress with one chamber of delegates assigned based on population (the House of Representatives) and another chamber in which all states had two representatives regardless of population (the Senate). The agreement ended the deadlock among the states and set a precedent for compromise in American politics.

Hartford Convention

An 1814–1815 meeting of delegates from five New England states in Hartford, Connecticut, to discuss possible secession from the Union due to discontent with the War of 1812. The delegates ultimately decided to remain in the Union but sent a petition to Congress, requesting amendments to the Constitution in order to alter the office of the presidency and to change the distribution and powers of Congress. None of their demands were met, however, because the petition arrived at Congress during celebrations over Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans and the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Nonetheless, the convention demonstrated the sectional nature of the war and the growing differences between the North and the South.

Indian Intercourse Acts

A series of acts passed in the 1790s that attempted to smooth relations between the United States and Native American tribes along the western frontier. The act attempted to regulate trade between these groups and promised that the United States would acquire western lands only via treaties. Most American settlers ignored this bill, which produced bloody clashes between tribes and settlers.

Judiciary Act of 1789

The first act that Congress passed, which created the tiered U.S. federal court system. The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Jay, was at the head of the court system, supported by three circuit courts and thirteen district courts. Even though the Judiciary Act strengthened federal judicial power, it also upheld local and state courts by stipulating that most cases heard in federal courts would be appeals cases.

Land Ordinance of 1785

An ordinance passed by the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation that established an efficient system to survey and auction lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Loose Constructionists

People such as Alexander Hamilton,who believed that the Constitution allowed the government to take any actions that were not expressly forbidden in the document. The loose constructionists’ interpretation was challenged by Thomas Jefferson and other strict constructionists, who believed that the Constitution must be read literally.

Macon’s Bill No. 2

An 1810 bill that restored U.S. commerce with Britain and France (after their interruption under the Embargo Act and Non-Intercourse Act) but threatened to revive the terms of the Non-Intercourse Act if either country failed to respect U.S. neutrality and shipping rights.

New Jersey Plan

Also known as the small state plan, a proposal at the 1787 Constitutional Convention to create a unicameral (single-house) legislature in which all states would be equally represented. The New Jersey plan appealed to smaller states but not to more populous states, which backed the Virginia Plan to create a bicameral legislature in which representatives were apportioned by population. The Great Compromise solved the dilemma by creating a bicameral Congress featuring one house with proportional representation and another with equal representation.

Non-Intercourse Act

An 1809 act that replaced the ineffective Embargo Act in an attempt to revive the faltering American economy by boosting U.S. exports. The Non-Intercourse Act banned trade only with France and Britain (unlike the Embargo Act, which banned exports completely) until both nations agreed to respect American sovereignty. When this bill also failed, Congress passed Macon’s Bill No. 2.

Northwest Confederacy

A confederation of Native American tribes in the Mississippi Valley, led by Tecumseh and his brother, for mutual defense against white settlers. Although the tribes of the Northwest Confederacy had legal rights to their lands under the Indian Intercourse Acts of the 1790s, expansionist War Hawks in Congress nonetheless prevailed, and William Henry Harrison was sent to wipe out the Confederacy. Tecumseh’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

A framework passed by the national Congress under the Articles of Confederation to decide which western U.S. territories (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana) could become states. Because the ordinance also abolished slavery and established basic civil liberties (trial by jury, freedom of religion) in the Northwest Territory, it is often seen as an important first step toward the creation of the Bill of Rights.

Second Continental Congress

A meeting of colonial delegates that convened in different places from 1775 to 1789 to establish a new U.S. government after declaring independence from Britain. In 1777, the Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation as the first U.S. constitution.

Sedition Act

A 1798 act (passed simultaneously with the Alien Acts) that banned all forms of public expression critical of the president or Congress. President John Adams approved the act, fearing the influence of French immigrants in the United States and also hoping the free speech ban would harm his political opponents, the Democratic-Republicans. Ironically, the act only made the opposition party stronger. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions the same year in protest, arguing that individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional laws passed by Congress.

Separation of Powers

A term referring to the fact that each of the three branches in the American federal government has separate and distinct powers. The legislative branch, for example, has the sole ability to propose and pass laws, while the executive branch has the power to enforce those laws, and the judiciary the power to review them. The writers of the Constitution separated these powers to prevent any one part of the new government from becoming too powerful.

Shays’s Rebellion

A 1786–1787 revolt by western Massachusetts farmer Daniel Shays, who led 1,200 other men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Springfield, Massachusetts. Shays and others like him throughout the United States were dissatisfied with the ineptitude of state legislatures during the economic depression after the American Revolution. Shays’s Rebellion and other revolts spurred leading Americans to meet and discuss revising the Articles of Confederation.

Strict Constructionists

People such as Thomas Jefferson who believed that the Constitution forbade the government to take any actions that it did not expressly permit. The strict constructionists’ interpretation was challenged by Alexander Hamilton and other loose constructionists, who believed that the Constitution allowed the government many implied powers.

Three-Fifths Clause

A nickname for Article I, Section II, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, which states that representation in the House of Representatives is determined by counting all free persons and “three-fifths of all other persons,” or slaves. The three-fifths clause was created as part of the Great Compromise between states with few slaves and those with many slaves.

Treaty of Ghent

The December 1814 treaty that ended the War of 1812between Britain and the United States. The treaty stated that the war had ended in a stalemate and that neither side had gained or lost any territory. Ironically, the Battle of New Orleans—the greatest American victory in the war—was fought about two weeks after the treaty had been signed, as General Andrew Jackson had not gotten word of the war’s end.

Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions

Two resolutions, passed in 1798–1799 and written by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, that declared that the individual states had the right to nullify unconstitutional acts of Congress. The resolutions stated that because the individual states had created the Union, they also reserved the right to nullify any legislation that ran counter to their interests.

Virginia Dynasty

A nickname that arose because four of the first five presidents (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) all hailed from Virginia. Many northern states resented this fact, as demonstrated by the Hartford Convention’s 1814 request that presidents should not come from the same state as their predecessor.

Virginia Plan

Also known as the large state plan, a proposal at the 1787Constitutional Convention to create a bicameral (two-house) legislature in which delegates would be appointed according to the population of the state they represented. Large states with greater populations supported this plan, unlike small states, which backed the New Jersey Plan to create a unicameral legislature in which all states were equally represented. The Great Compromise solved the dilemma by creating a bicameral Congress featuring one house with proportional representation and another with equal representation.

War Hawks

A younger generation of statesmen, primarily from the West and South, who replaced the Founding Fathers in the first decade of the 1800s. The War Hawks favored westward expansion and a nationalist agenda and thus encouraged war against both the Northwest Confederacy and against Britain (in the War of 1812). Despite their early zeal, many War Hawks, such as Henry Clay, eventually settled down to become some of the most revered statesmen in American history.

XYZ Affair

A bribery scandal that caused public uproar during the Adams administration in 1798. After several naval skirmishes and French seizures of American merchant ships, Adams sent ambassadors to Paris to try to normalize relations. When the emissaries arrived, however, French officials demanded $250,000 before they would even speak with the Americans, let alone guarantee a truce. These officials, whom Adams dubbed X, Y, and Z, outraged Congress and the American public. Adams’s popularity skyrocketed, and Congress braced for war. Although no war declaration was ever made, the United States and France waged undeclared naval warfare in the Atlantic for several years.

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