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The First Years of the Union (1797-1809)

Context

General Summary

Important Terms, People, and Events

During the period from the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 to George Washington's Farewell Address of 1796, the young United States went about the early stages of the experiment of democratic government. Washington's presidency set precedents for operating procedure in the national government, and each branch of the government developed and explored its particular role. During Washington's eight years in office, the nation transformed from a loose association of states into a cohesive unit, vested in its collective national government. However, the close quarters created by governmental cohesion spawned the early signs of political division. Alexander Hamilton's policy initiatives as Secretary of Treasury, perhaps more than anything else, brought the sharply differing political ideologies of different segments of the nation to light.

Punctuated by Thomas Jefferson's resignation from Washington's cabinet in dismay at the administration's efforts to consolidate power in the central government, politicians and nation split into two rival political parties, Republicans, who opposed strong central government, and Federalists, who were in favor of a strong national government. Though the Federalists were well entrenched in their position of power, the Republicans began to mount a greater and greater challenge. The struggle between the two parties, largely defined by the differing economic and social modalities of North and South, was the primary political reality of the day at the time of Washington's Farewell Address. The conflict between the parties would characterize the years to come.

By 1808, when Thomas Jefferson decided not to seek a third term in office, the conflict between Federalists and Republicans had all but evaporated. Despite some remnants of Federalist power, primarily in the judiciary branch, Republicans had clearly taken control of the national government. John Adams' presidency had convinced many of the folly of Federalism, and Thomas Jefferson's election in 1800 had been the result. Republican power grew and matured during Jefferson's presidency. Jefferson left these Republicans, led by his successor, James Madison, with a number of issues to deal with on the national scale.

Perhaps Thomas Jefferson's greatest legacy was the doubling of the size of the US through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The acquisition of Louisiana by the United States was both a boon and a source of trouble for the US. The land to the West of the Mississippi would provide farmland and homesteads for future Americans, and open up further westward expansion. As the US increased its economic base, tapping into the resources of the west, and its population grew with ample room for settlement, the nation's power and prestige as an international entity expanded. However, out of the new Louisiana Territory grew many sources of political controversy, both domestic and international. Internationally, the Louisiana Purchase meant that the US now held a larger part in the somewhat disputed western lands of North America. Conflicts with Spanish and British forces also present in the west became commonplace, and led to violent struggles on a number of occasions. Additionally, conflicts with the Native American tribes, which inhabited the Louisiana Territory, were inevitable and became a major feature of westward expansion. Finally, the issue of the legality of slavery in the new Territory and in the states which came out of it proved so divisive that disagreement over this issue continued throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and was the clear precursor to the Civil War.

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson left office at a time of great international unrest. The US had been caught up in the affairs of both sides in the war between Britain and France, and, at the time of the election of 1808, was desperately trying to maintain its neutrality in the face of naval challenges from both great powers. Jefferson, and his successor, Madison, both failed to bring about a peaceful conclusion to this conflict, and the result was the outbreak of the War of 1812, a conflict that would ravage US lands and spur the rebirth of sharp political division.

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