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Building the State (1781-1797)

General Summary

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Context

After the United States declared its Independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, the long process of building the state began. This era started with the individual state constitutions, which blended the traditions of British and colonial rule with the new, more radical republicanism that infused the nation during the Revolutionary War. State governments established, Americans realized the need for a national government to take on responsibility for diplomatic representation and military control. The first attempt at national government was laid out in the Articles of Confederation. The Articles established a loose federation of states that all essentially acted as individual republics; the balance of power lay heavily in the states favor and the national government was far too weak to perform even its basic duties.

During the mid 1780s, the government under the Articles of Confederation proved unable to successfully levy and collect taxes, and unable to carry out the basic requirements of diplomacy. The nation was in danger of breaking apart. After Shays' Rebellion alerted many Americans to the weakness of the current national government, political leaders decided to alter the framework of government under which the United States operated.

The Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and determined that it was in the nation's best interest to create an entirely new framework of government. For nearly four months, the delegates at the convention deliberated on how best to accomplish this rebuilding effort. The Constitution, the result of these proceedings, sets out the tripartite system of government that is still in place in the US today. It created a bicameral legislature consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, an executive branch headed by the president and staffed by the cabinet, and provided for the establishment of a judicial branch, consisting of a federal-court system headed by the Supreme Court.

Although the Constitution established the basic framework of government, its wording was vague in regard to the details. Thus, the first Congress under the Constitution and the first President, George Washington, were responsible for working out the details of governance. In the first years of the new United States, Washington and the Congress created, among other things, the now accepted traditions of the cabinet and the judicial system. The precedents they set established the standard operating procedure of the national government for years to come.

During the fight to ratify the Constitution, a division sprang up between those who wanted to grant the central government broad powers, the Federalists, and those who feared that a national government which was too strong would prove despotic, the Anti-federalists. This debate continued into the Washington administration, as Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton set forth a program of economic Federalism which included the assumption of state debts by the national government, and the creation of the Bank of the United States. His efforts paid off for the US on a general scale, but Hamilton's actions turned many away from Federalism, since they believed Hamilton had overstepped the bounds of the national government.

Added to the growing internal turmoil was the threat of war with Britain, Spain, and the Native Americans over the control of the American West (which at this point was the area around Ohio). On the brink of war with all three parties, Washington sent successful diplomatic missions to achieve peace. However, international relations proved to be yet another area where passions ran high and the American population was divided. Washington left office in 1797 pleading for an end to political division and embroilment in foreign affairs. Yet despite his best efforts, the American public was far more sharply divided in 1797 than it had been at the outset of his presidency. Even so, upon Washington's departure from office, America itself was a far more powerfully established nation.

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