History of the United States (1776-1789)

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the U.S. History
Colonial America
1776 – 1789
1789 – 1849
1849 – 1865
1865 – 1918
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Era Overview

On April 19, 1775, a detachment of the British regular Army marched inland from Boston, Massachusetts, in search of a cache of arms and with orders to arrest certain prominent local leaders. At Lexington, they confronted and fired upon a small group of local militia, who had gathered on the town common, or "green." Further along their line of march, they confronted a much larger group of militia at a bridge in Concord, and were turned back. Retreating to Boston, the British soldiers were subjected to continual sniper attacks. The Battle of Lexington and Concord, coming after a dozen years of escalating political conflict between the colonies and the British Parliament, marked the beginning of the American Revolution.

On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress, with representatives from 13 of the British colonies along the Atlantic Coast of North America, began meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Congress immediately began to organize a federal government for the 13 associated colonies, taking over governmental functions previously exercised by the King and Parliament of Great Britain, and directed the several States to prepare State constitutions for their own governance. The Congress appointed George Washington to head a Continental Army, and dispatched him to Boston, where local militia were besieging a British Army.

After a year of warfare, the Congress declared the United States of America independent of Great Britain in the Declaration of Independence. The drafting of the Declaration was the responsibility of a committee of five, which included, among others, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, but the style of the document is attributed primarily to Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson's work was reviewed by Franklin at length and then submitted to the Congress where numerous changes were made, including the exclusion of his charges against George III regarding slavery.

With the help of an alliance with France, the United States were eventually able to win the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain, settled by the Treaty of Paris, which endowed the nascent United States with a great wilderness empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River, and including the southern Great Lakes region.

In the aftermath of war, economic depression and the weakness of political institutions troubled the young country. The Second Continental Congress continued to act as a federal government, formalizing its own status by the Articles of Confederation, proposed and put into effect in 1778, but not fully ratified until 1781. The Articles of Confederation outlined the governance of a permanent federation of States, without fully clarifying whether the United States was to be a nation-state or a mere league of States, acting in cooperation.

The perceived need for a more powerful and complete federal government led, in 1787, to the calling of a convention, to consider revising the Articles. That Convention, meeting in Philadelphia, chose, instead, to write a Constitution, which was ratified by eleven States in 1788.

In 1789, the Constitution of the United States was put into operation, and George Washington was elected the first President of the United States.

Independence and the American Revolution

The United States of America was formed by the association of 13 British North American colonies, arrayed along the Atlantic coast of North America. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, the colonies had developed traditions of popular self-government, while enjoying the benign neglect of a Britain, preoccupied by civil war and other problems. After the conclusion of the world war, known in Europe as the Seven Years' War and in North America, as the French and Indian War, in 1763, Britain had emerged as the world's dominant power, but found itself mired in debt and struggling to finance the Navy and Army necessary to world Empire. The British Parliament's attempt to raise taxes on the North American colonists raised fears among the Americans, that their rights as "Englishmen," particularly their rights of self-government, were in danger. The colonial elite had inherited a decidedly Whigish political viewpoint, which clashed with the strong Tory viewpoint of the British leadership.

A series of disputes with Parliament over taxation led first to informal committees of correspondence among the colonies to coordinated protest and resistance and finally to the calling of a general convention, referred to as the first Continental Congress to inaugurate a trade boycott. The first Continental Congress included 12 of the colonies, but not British Florida or the then-tiny Georgia at the south or Newfoundland and Nova Scotia at the north, nor French-speaking Quebec. The first Continental Congress resolved that a second Congress should be called in the event that attempts at reconciliation with Britain failed.

The Second Continental Congress first met in May 1775, in the aftermath of armed clashes between Massachusetts militia and British Regular Army detachments in April. The Second Continental Congress, with 13 colonies represented, immediately began to organize itself as a federal government, and instructed the colonies to write constitutions for themselves as States. In June 1775, George Washington, a prominent Virginian with experience in the French and Indian War, was appointed commander of a newly organized Continental Army, incorporating the militia besieging the British Army occupying Boston.

During the winter of 1775-1776, an attempt to capture Quebec failed, and the buildup of British forces at Halifax, Nova Scotia, precluded what became Canada from joining the 13 "American" States. The Americans were able to capture a British fort at Ticonderoga, New York and to transport cannon through the wilderness of western Massachusetts to the outskirts of Boston. The appearance of cannon on Dorchester heights, above the city, led the British to evacuate Boston, March 17, 1776.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia declared the independence of the United States in a remarkable document, the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson. The first country to recognize the United States after declaring its independence was the city-state of Dubrovnik (at that time also called Ragusa).

In August, the British Navy bore the British Army to New York City, where the British occupied the city, brushing aside Washington's feeble efforts of defence. The British would continue to occupy New York City to the end of the war. A grand plan, later known as the Saratoga Campaign, was drafted in London to make coordinated movements down from Canada and up from the Hudson, to meet at Albany, New York, dividing the colonies in two, and separating New England from the rest. Failed communications and planning resulted in the army descending from Canada, commanded by General Burgoyne, bogging down in some of the densest forest in North America, north of Albany. Burgoyne's army advanced only a few miles during the whole Summer of 1777, and finally was overwhelmed at Saratoga by a gathering of militia, spearheaded by a small core of professionally trained American regulars, far outnumbering the British forces. Meanwhile, the British Army, which was supposed to advance up the Hudson to meet Burgoyne, went, instead, to Philadelphia, in a vain attempt to end the war by capturing the American "capital city."

The victory at Saratoga led the French into an open alliance with the United States. With the entry of the French, the American Revolution became part of a world war, in which the French were, in turn, joined by Spain and the Netherlands, all European naval powers with an interest in stemming growing British power. The British turned their military attention to the less densely populated southern colonies, where the fervor for Revolution was also supposedly less intense. In 1781, a combined American and French Army, acting with the support of a French fleet, captured a large British Army, led by Cornwallis, at Yorktown, Virginia. The surrender of Cornwallis ended serious British efforts to find a military solution.

In treaty negotiations, the United States was represented by a team led by Benjamin Franklin, and which included John Adams and John Jay. Ignoring their agreement with the French not to seek a separate peace, which would cripple French efforts to gain concessions from the British, the Americans were able to negotiate nominal boundaries for the nascent United States over the Allegeheny Mountains to the Mississippi River and the southern Great Lakes region, encompassing a vast unsettled region nearly as large as Western Europe. The settlement with Great Britain was termed the Treaty of Paris (1783).

The Development of Federal Institutions

The Articles of Confederation

The Treaty of Paris left the United States, independent and at peace, but with an unsettled governmental structure. The Second Continental Congress had drawn up Articles of Confederation in 1777, to regularize its own status. These described a permanent confederation, but granted to the Congress, the only federal institution, little power to finance itself or to ensure that its resolutions were enforced. In the economic depression, which followed the war, political unrest in several States, and efforts by debtors to use popular government to erase their obligations, increased the anxiety of the elite, which had led the Revolution. The apparent inability of the Congress to redeem the obligations incurred during the war, or to become a forum for productive cooperation among the States encouraging commerce and economic development, only aggravated a gloomy outlook.

The Constitutional Convention

A series of attempts to organize a movement to outline and press reforms culminated in the Congress calling the convention, which met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the Summer of 1787. Known to history as Constitutional Convention of 1787, the meeting was called with the modest goal of suggesting reforms to the Articles of Confederation, but quickly (and secretly) began work on a wholly new Constitution, soon after first meeting. The Constitution proposed by the Convention, called for a federal government, limited in scope, but independent of and superior to the States, within its assigned role, able to tax, and equipped with both Executive and Judicial branches as well as a two house legislature. The national legislature, or Congress, envisioned by the Congress embodied the key compromise of the Convention, between the small States, which wanted to retain the power they had under the one State/one vote Congress of the Articles of Confederation, and the large States, which wanted the weight of their larger populations and wealth to have a proportionate share of power. The upper House, the Senate, would represent the States equally, while the lower House, House of Representatives, would be elected from districts of approximately equal population.

The Constitution, itself, called for ratification by State conventions, specially elected for the purpose, and Congress recommended the Constitution to the States, asking that such ratification conventions be called.

Several of the smaller States, led by tiny Delaware, embraced the Constitution, with little reservation. But, in New York and Virginia, particularly New York, the matter became one of controversy. Virginia had been the first successful British colony in North America, had a large population and its political leadership had played prominent roles in the Revolution. New York was a large, populous State; with the best situated and sited Port on the Atlantic Coast, the State was essential for the success of the United States. Local New York politics was tightly controlled by a parochial elite, and it was not clear that local political leaders wanted to share their power with the national politicians, who would control the Federal government.

The New York ratification convention became the focus for a struggle over the wisdom of adopting the Constitution.

The struggle for ratification

Those who advocated the Constitution took the name Federalists, and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most well-known Federalists include Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These were the main contributors to the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays, published in New York newspapers, which served in many ways as seminal documents for the new United States that was to come. These were written, however, after the Constitutional Convention and were a part of the ratification debates in the state of New York.

Opponents of the plan for stronger government took the name Antifederalists. They feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as despotic and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Antifederalists were Patrick Henry and George Mason. They were also quite concerned with the absence of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to France at the time, was neither a Federalist nor an Antifederalist, but decided to remain neutral and accept either outcome. However, in letters from France he did express his reservations about the finished document to his friend and eventual ally, James Madison. The Federalists gained a great deal of prestige and advantage from the approval of George Washington, who had chaired the Constitutional Convention.

Promises of a Bill of Rights from Madison secured ratification in Virginia, while in New York, the Clintons, who controlled New York politics, relented sufficiently to allow Alexander Hamilton to secure ratification from the New York convention. Under the terms of the Constitution, the federal government could be put into operation, governing those States, which had ratified, when nine had ratified. Technically, the Constitution of the United States went into effect with the ratification of New Hampshire, June 21, 1788. With the addition of Virginia on June 25 and with New York's ratification on July 26, eleven States had ratified, including all of the major States.

North Carolina's ratification convention adjourned without ratifying. Dominated by antifederalists, led by an admirer of Jefferson, the convention was convinced to withhold its ratification, pending concrete moves by the first Congress to adopt a Bill of Rights, amending the new Constitution to guarantee certain fundamental rights.

Rhode Island had made no moves to call a ratification convention, before the federal government was put into operation in March and April 1789.

The Confederation Congress made the necessary arrangements for the first national election, in which George Washington was chosen as first President, and John Adams, as first Vice-President. New York was designated as the first, temporary national capital, where Washington was inaugurated in April 1789 at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan.

Under the leadership of James Madison, the first Congress made good on the federalist pledge of a Bill of Rights, proposing to the States, twelve amendments, ten of which were speedily adopted, and are known as the Bill of Rights. Of the twelve, one failed of ratification, and one was finally ratified as the 27th amendment. North Carolina's ratification convention reassembled soon after Congress proposed the Bill of Rights and ratified the Constitution. Rhode Island ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790, and the Bill of Rights the following week in June.

Federalists and Antifederalists: the emerging Party system

The Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and the founding fathers regularly derided political "factionalism," which characterized government in many of the States. The struggle over the ratification of the Constitution, however, suggested the first outlines of the system of political parties, which was to later emerge.

The Federalists, who had advocated the Constitution, enjoyed the opportunity to put the new government into operation, while after the adoption of the Constitution, the Antifederalists, never as well-organized, effectively ceased to exist. However, the ideals of states' rights and a weaker federal government, were in many ways absorbed by the growth of a new party, the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, which eventually assumed the role of loyal opposition to the Federalists, and finally took control of the Federal government in 1800, with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President.

A Rebellion of farmers emerged stating that "The Constitution is too strong". And even killed citizens of the U.S. Washington was enraged and he and his army extinguished the small rebellion.

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