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Building the State (1781-1797)

Context

General Summary

Important Terms, People, and Events

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the American colonies developed, for the most part, independently of each other. Each of the colonies had a distinctive character, distinctive customs and traditions, and a different style of government. Though geographically united and all colonies of Great Britain, they existed in isolation, the majority ignorant of the needs and desires specific to other colonies. However, as the colonies underwent similar experiences subjected to British oppression, they began to see the need for unity. Communication between the political leaders of the separate colonies increased and, gradually, political interaction followed. The First Continental Congress convened in 1774, uniting the colonies in political resistance to the British, and symbolizing the first step toward unified national government. Still, political leaders and common colonists alike found it difficult to define their citizenship and interests beyond the borders of their towns and colonies.

On July 4, 1776 the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and began in earnest the Revolutionary War, which would win them that independence. Primary among the many concerns facing the new nation was the creation of a united national government out of the thirteen disparate governments of the states. This was officially accomplished by the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1777. However, during the war there was little time to devote to establishing the institutions and functions of government and the Second Continental Congress ruled under an uncertain set of rules, basically concerning itself with matters of diplomatic and military concern on an as-needed basis.

Once the war ended, however, the need for a well-defined national government was clear. The government organized according to the Articles of Confederation and the nation began the effort of defining its government, a process that took many twists and turns during the early years of American history. This early founding period resulted in the ultimate failure of the Articles and left the nation with a new document that has served as the framework of US government for more than 200 years since its drafting, the Constitution. The period also ended with the details of many of the functions of the national government solidified through precedent. In fact, many of the precedents set by the first Congress, the newly established Supreme Court, and by the nation's first president, George Washington, still endure as standard operating procedure for the national government.

During this period, some of the nation's most prominent future leaders first made their mark on the national government. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, all future Presidents of the United States, played active roles in the framing of the Constitution and the exploration of national politics that followed during Washington's administration. All of these men formed the political values that would shape their presidencies during the period of state-building.

More than anything, the period that saw the building of the state left much room for the nation to grow and evolve, and established the conditions under which this evolution would take place. Washington left office with the international situation uncertain, the fate of westward expansion unknown, and the powers of the national government still contested. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the party emerged from the conflicts arising from the central issues of building the state, the evolution of the government into two major political parties, a system which still prevails today. The existence of both a majority and opposition party determined the course of the United States as it grew into what it is today. Additionally, the problems faced by the early national government of reconciling the interests of geographically and ideologically varied states hinted at the emergence of sectionalism, the defining political reality of the first half of the nineteenth century.

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