The Continental Congress in 1776 called upon the colonies to
constitutions. In effect, the Continental Congress was actually asking the
colonies to summon themselves into being as new states. The sovereignty of
these new states, according to the theory of republicanism, would rest on the
authority of the people.
For a time the manufacturing of governments was even more pressing
manufacturing of gunpowder. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, the yellowing
colonial charters were kept essentially intact but were retouched a bit to reflect
the new vigor of republican thinking. Elsewhere, constitution writers worked
tirelessly to capture the democratic spirit of the age on black-inked parchment.
Massachusetts contributed one especially noteworthy innovation when it called
a special convention to draft its constitution and then submitted the final draft
directly to the people for ratification. Once adopted in 1780, the Massachusetts
constitution could be changed only by another specially called constitutional
convention. This procedure was later imitated in the drafting and ratification of
the federal Constitution.
The newly penned state constitutions had many features in common. Their
similarity, as it turned out, made easier the drafting of a workable federal charter
when the time was ripe. As written documents the state constitutions were
intended to represent a fundamental law, superior to the transient whims of
ordinary legislation. Most of these documents included bills of rights, specifically
guaranteeing long-prized liberties against later legislative encroachment.
Most of them required the annual election of legislators,
who were thus forced to
stay in touch with the mood of the people. All of them deliberately created weak
executive and judicial branches, at least by present-day standards. A generation
of quarreling with His Majesty's officials had implanted a deep distrust of
despotic governors and arbitrary judges.
In all the new state governments, the legislatures, as presumably the most
democratic branch of government, were given sweeping powers. But as Thomas
Jefferson warned, "173 despots [in a legislature] would surely be as oppressive
as one." Many Americans soon came to agree with him.
The democratic character of the new state legislatures was vividly reflected by
the presence of many members from the recently enfranchised poorer western
districts. Their influence was powerfully felt in their several successful
movements to relocate state capitals from the haughty eastern seaports into the
less pretentious interior. In the Revolutionary era, the capitals of New
Hampshire, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia
were all moved westward. These geographical shifts portended political shifts
with which many more conservative Americans began to grow increasingly
Economic changes begotten by the war were likewise noteworthy,
overwhelming. States seized control of former crown lands, and although rich
speculators had their day, many of the large Loyalist holdings were confiscated
and eventually cut up into small farms. Roger Morris's huge estate in New York,
for example, was sliced into 250 parcels--thus accelerating the spread of
The frightful excesses of the French Revolution were avoided,
cheap land was easily available. People do not chop off heads so readily when
they can chop down trees. It is highly significant that in the United States,
economic democracy, broadly speaking, preceded political democracy.
A sharp stimulus was given to manufacturing by the prewar nonimportation
agreements and later by the war itself. Goods that had formerly been imported
from England were mostly cut off, and the ingenious Yankees were forced to
make their own. Ten years after the Revolution, the busy Brandywine Creek,
south of Philadelphia, was turning the waterwheels of numerous mills along an
eight-mile (thirteen-kilometer) stretch. Yet America remained overwhelmingly a
nation of soil-tillers.
Economically speaking, independence had drawbacks. Much of the coveted
commerce of England was still reserved for the loyal parts of the empire; and
now that the Americans were aliens, they were forced to find new customers.
Fisheries were disrupted, and bounties for ships' stores had abruptly ended. In
some respects the hated British Navigation Laws were more disagreeable after
independence than before.
New commercial outlets, fortunately, compensated partially for the loss of old
ones. Americans could now trade freely with foreign nations, subject to local
restrictions--a boon they had not enjoyed in the old days of mercantilism.
Enterprising Yankee shippers ventured boldly--and profitably--into the Baltic
and China seas. In 1784 the Empress of China, carrying a valuable weed
(ginseng) that was highly prized by Chinese herb doctors as a cure for
impotence, led the way into the East Asian markets.
Yet the general economic picture was far from rosy. War had spawned
demoralizing extravagance, speculation, and profiteering, with profits for some
as indecently high as 300 percent. Runaway inflation had been ruinous to many
citizens, and Congress had failed in its feeble attempts to curb economic laws
by fixing prices. The average citizen was probably worse off financially at the
end of the shooting than before.
The whole economic and social atmosphere was unhealthy. A newly rich
class of profiteers was noisily conspicuous, whereas many once-wealthy people
were left destitute. The controversy leading to the war had bred a keen distaste
for taxes; and the wholesale seizure of Loyalist estates had encouraged
disrespect for private property and for the majesty of the law generally. John
Adams had been shocked when gleefully told by a horse-jockey neighbor that
the courts of justice were all closed--a plight that proved to be only temporary."
The Articles of Confederation--some have said "Articles
for a loose confederation or "firm league of friendship." Thirteen independent
states were thus linked together for joint action in dealing with common
problems, such as foreign affairs. A clumsy Congress was to be the chief
agency of government. There was no executive branch--George III had left a bad
taste--and the vital judicial arm was left almost exclusively to the states, which
Congress, though dominant, was closely hobbled. Each state had a single vote,
so that some 68,000 Rhode Islanders had the same voice as more than ten
times that many Virginians. All bills dealing with specified subjects of importance
required at least a two-thirds vote; any amendment of the Articles themselves
required a unanimous vote.
Unanimity was almost impossible, and this meant that the amending
perhaps fortunately, was unworkable. If it had been workable, the Republic
might have struggled along with a patched-up Articles of Confederation rather
than adopting an effective new Constitution.
The shackled Congress was weak--and was purposely designed to be weak.
Suspicious states, having just won control over taxation and commerce from
Britain, had no desire to yield their newly acquired privileges to an American
parliament--even one of their own making.
Two handicaps of the Congress were crippling. It had no power to regulate
commerce, and this weakness left the states free to establish conflictingly
different laws regarding tariffs and navigation. Nor could the Congress enforce
its tax-collection program. It established a tax quota for each of the states and
then asked them please to contribute their share on a voluntary basis. The
central authority--a "government by supplication"--was lucky if in any year it
received one-fourth of its requests.
The feeble national government in Philadelphia could advise and recommend
and request. But in dealing with the independent states, it could not command or
coerce or enforce. It could not act directly upon the individual citizens of a
sovereign state; it could not even protect itself against gross indignities. In 1783
a dangerous threat came from a group of mutinous Pennsylvania soldiers who
demanded back pay. After Congress had appealed in vain to the state for
protection, the members were forced to move in disgrace to Princeton College
in New Jersey. The new Congress, with all its paper powers, was even less
effective than the old Continental Congress, with no constitutional powers at all.
Yet the Articles of Confederation, weak though they were, proved to be a
landmark in government. They were for those days a model of what a loose
confederation ought to be. Thomas Jefferson enthusiastically hailed the new
structure as the best one "existing or that ever did exist." To compare it with the
European governments, he thought, was like comparing "heaven and hell."
But although the Confederation was praiseworthy as confederations
troubled times demanded not a loose confederation but a tightly knit federation.
This involved the yielding by the states of their sovereignty to a completely new
federal government, which in turn would leave them free to control their local
In spite of their defects, the Articles of Confederation were a significant
stepping-stone toward the present Constitution. They clearly outlined the
general powers that were to be exercised by the central government, such as
making treaties and establishing a postal service. As the first written constitution
of the Republic, the Articles kept alive the flickering ideal of union and held the
states together--until such time as they were ripe for the establishment of a
strong constitution by peaceful, evolutionary methods.
The anemic Articles represented what the states regarded as
surrender of their power. Without this intermediary jump, they probably would
never have consented to the breathtaking leap from the old boycott Association
of 1774 to the Constitution of the United States."
Handcuffed though the Congress of the Confederation was, it
passing supremely farsighted pieces of legislation. These related to an immense
part of the public domain recently acquired from the states and commonly known
as the Old Northwest. This area of land lay northwest of the Ohio River, east of
the Mississippi River, and south of the Great Lakes.
The first of these red-letter laws was the Land Ordinance of 1785. It provided
that the acreage of the Old Northwest should be sold and that the proceeds
should be used to help pay off the national debt. The vast area was to be
surveyed before sale and settlement, thus forestalling endless confusion and
lawsuits. It was to be divided into townships six miles square, each of which in
turn was to be split into thirty-six sections of one square mile each. The sixteenth
section of each township was set aside to be sold for the benefit of the public
schools--a priceless gift to education in the Northwest. The orderly settlement of
the Northwest Territory, where the land was methodically surveyed and titles
duly recorded, contrasted sharply with the chaos south of the Ohio River, where
uncertain ownership and fraud were rampant.
Even more noteworthy was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which related to
the governing of the Old Northwest. This law came to grips with the problem of
how a nation should deal with its colonial peoples--the same problem that had
bedeviled the king and Parliament in London. The solution provided by the
Northwest Ordinance was a judicious compromise: temporary tutelage, then
First, there would be two evolutionary territorial stages,
during which the area
would be subordinate to the federal government. Then, when a territory could
boast sixty thousand inhabitants, it might be admitted by Congress as a state,
with all the privileges of the thirteen charter members. (This is precisely what the
Continental Congress had promised the states when they surrendered their
lands in 1781.) The ordinance also forbade slavery in the Old Northwest--a
pathbreaking gain for freedom.
The wisdom of Congress in handling this explosive problem deserves warm
praise. If it had attempted to chain the new territories in permanent
subordination, a second American Revolution almost certainly would have
erupted in later years, fought this time by the West against the East. Congress
thus neatly solved the seemingly insoluble problem of empire. The scheme
worked so well that its basic principles were ultimately carried over from the Old
Northwest to other frontier areas."
Eonomic storm clouds continued to loom in the mid-1780s. The
system of raising money was breaking down; some of the states refused to pay
anything, while complaining bitterly about the tyranny of "King Congress."
Interest on the public debt was piling up at home, and the nation's credit was
Individual states were getting out of hand. Several of them were quarreling over
boundaries, which generated numerous minor pitched battles. Some of the
states were levying duties on goods from their neighbors; New York, for
example, taxed firewood from Connecticut and cabbages from New Jersey. A
number of the states were again starting to grind out depreciated paper
currency, and a few of them had passed laws sanctioning the semiworthless "rag
money." As a contemporary rhymester put it,
Bankrupts their creditors with rage pursue;
No stop, no mercy from the debtor crew.
An alarming uprising, known as Shays's Rebellion, flared
up in western
Massachusetts in 1786. Impoverished backcountry farmers, many of them
Revolutionary War veterans, were losing their farms through mortgage
foreclosures and tax delinquencies. Led by Captain Daniel Shays, a veteran of
the Revolution, these desperate debtors demanded cheap paper money, lighter
taxes, and a suspension of mortgage foreclosures. Hundreds of angry agitators,
again seizing their muskets, attempted to enforce their demands.
Massachusetts authorities responded with drastic action. Supported partly by
contributions from wealthy citizens, they raised a small army under General
Lincoln. Several skirmishes occurred--at Springfield three Shaysites were killed,
and one was wounded--and the movement collapsed. Daniel Shays, who
believed that he was fighting anew against tyranny, was condemned to death but
was later pardoned.
Shays's followers were crushed--but the nightmarish memory lingered on. The
outbursts of these and other distressed debtors struck fear in the hearts of the
propertied class, who began to suspect that the Revolution had created a
Frankenstein's monster of "mobocracy." "Good God!" burst out George
Washington, who felt that only a Tory or a Briton could have predicted such
disorders. There was obviously a crying need for a stronger central government.
A few panicky citizens even talked of importing a European monarch to carry on
where George III had failed.
How critical were conditions under the Confederation? Conservatives, anxious
to safeguard their wealth and position, naturally exaggerated the seriousness of
the nation's plight. They were eager to persuade their fellow citizens to scrap the
Articles of Confederation, under which the states were sovereign, in favor of a
muscular central government, in which the federal authority would be sovereign.
But the poorer states' rights people, who favored at most a simple amending of
the Articles, pooh-poohed the talk of anarchy. Many of them were debtors who
feared that a powerful federal government would force them to pay their
Yet friends and critics of the Confederation agreed that it needed some
strengthening. Popular toasts were "Cement to the Union" and "A hoop to the
barrel." The chief differences arose over how this goal should be attained and
how a maximum amount of states' rights could be reconciled with a strong
central government. America probably could have muddled through somehow
with amended Articles of Confederation. But the adoption of a completely new
constitution certainly spared the Republic much costly indecision, uncertainty,
The nationwide picture was actually brightening before the Constitution was
drafted. Nearly half the states had not issued semiworthless paper currency; and
some of the monetary black sheep showed signs of returning to the sound-
money fold. Congressional control of commerce was in sight, specifically by
means of an amendment to the Articles of Confederation.
Prosperity was beginning to emerge from the fog of depression.
overseas shipping had largely regained its place in the commercial world. If
conditions had been as grim in 1787 as painted by foes of the Articles of
Confederation, the move for a new constitution would hardly have encountered
such heated opposition."
The Horrid Specter of Anarchy..Some of the travel-stained delegates,
first reached Philadelphia, decided upon a daring step. They would completely
scrap the old Articles of Confederation, despite explicit instructions from
Congress to revise. Technically, these bolder spirits were determined to
overthrow the existing government of the United States by peaceful means. The
sovereign states were in danger of losing their sovereignty.
A scheme proposed by populous Virginia, and known as "the large-state plan,"
was first pushed forward as the framework of the Constitution. Its essence was
that representation in both houses of a bicameral Congress should be based on
population--an arrangement that would naturally give the larger states an
Tiny New Jersey, suspicious of Virginia, countered with "the small-state plan."
This provided for equal representation in a unicameral Congress by states,
regardless of size and population, as under the existing Articles of
Confederation. The weaker states feared that under the Virginia scheme the
stronger states would band together and lord it over the rest. Angry debate,
heightened by a stifling heat wave, led to deadlock. The danger loomed that the
convention would break up in complete failure. Even skeptical old Benjamin
Franklin seriously proposed that the daily sessions be opened with prayer by a
After bitter and prolonged debate, the "Great Compromise" of the convention
was hammered out and agreed upon. A cooling of tempers came coincidentally
with a cooling of the temperature. The larger states were conceded
representation by population in the House of Representatives (Art. I, Sec. II,
para. 3; see Appendix ), and the smaller states were appeased by equal
representation in the Senate (see Art. I, Sec. III, para. 1). Each state, no matter
how poor or small, would have two senators. The big states, which would have
to bear the major burden of taxation, obviously yielded more. As a sop to them,
the delegates agreed that every tax bill or revenue measure must originate in the
House, where population counted more heavily (see Art. I, Sec. VII, para. 1).
This critical compromise broke the log jam, and from then on success seemed
In a significant reversal of the arrangement most state constitutions had
embodied, the new Constitution provided for a strong, independent executive in
the presidency. The framers were here partly inspired by the example of
Massachusetts, where a vigorous, popularly elected governor had suppressed
Shays's Rebellion. The president was to be military commander in chief and to
have wide powers of appointment to domestic offices--including judgeships. The
president was also to have veto power over legislation.
The Constitution as drafted was a bundle of compromises; they stand out in
every section. A vital compromise was the method of electing the president
indirectly by the Electoral College, rather than by direct means (see Art. II, Sec.
I, para. 2). One Virginia delegate insisted that to leave the choice to the people
was like asking a blind person to choose colors.
Sectional jealousy also intruded. Should the voteless slave of the southern
states count as a person in apportioning direct taxes and also representation in
the House of Representatives? The South, not wishing to be deprived of
influence, answered "yes." The North replied "no," arguing that the North might
as logically have additional representation based on its horses. As a
compromise between total representation and none at all, it was decided that a
slave might count as three-fifths of a person. Hence the memorable, if somewhat
illogical, "three-fifths compromise" (see Art. I, Sec. II, para. 3), an idea seriously
discussed four years earlier.
Most of the states wanted to shut off the African slave trade. But South Carolina
and Georgia, requiring slave labor in their rice paddies and malarial swamps,
raised vehement protests. By way of compromise the convention stipulated that
the slave trade might continue until the end of 1807, at which time Congress
could turn off the spigot (see Art. I, Sec. IX, para. 1). It did so as soon as the
prescribed interval had elapsed. Meanwhile, all the new state constitutions
except Georgia's forbade overseas slave trade."
Heated clashes among the delegates have been overplayed. The
agreement was actually large; otherwise the convention would have speedily
disbanded. Economically, the members of the Constitutional Convention
generally saw eye to eye; they demanded sound money and the protection of
private property. Politically, they were in basic agreement; they favored a
stronger government, with three branches and with checks and balances among
them--what critics called a "triple-headed monster." Finally, the convention was
virtually unanimous in believing that manhood-suffrage democracy--government
by "democratick babblers"--was something to be feared and fought.
Daniel Shays, the prime bogeyman, still frightened the conservative-minded
delegates. They deliberately erected safeguards against the excesses of the
"mob," and they made these barriers as strong as they dared. The awesome
federal judges were to be appointed for life. The powerful president was to be
elected indirectly by the Electoral College; the lordly senators were to be chosen
indirectly by state legislatures (see Art. I, Sec. III, para. 1). Only in the case of
one-half of one of the three great branches--the House of Representatives--
were qualified (propertied) citizens permitted to choose their officials by direct
vote (see Art. I, Sec. II, para. 1).
Yet the new charter also contained democratic elements. Above all, it stood
foursquare on the two great principles of republicanism: that the only legitimate
government was one based on the consent of the governed, and that the powers
of government should be limited--in this case specifically limited by a written
constitution. The virtue of the people, not the authority of the state, was to be the
ultimate guarantor of liberty, justice, and order. "We the people," the preamble
began, in a ringing affirmation of these republican doctrines.
At the end of seventeen muggy weeks--May 25 to September 17, 1787--only
forty-two of the original fifty-five members remained to sign the Constitution.
Three of the forty-two, refusing to do so, returned to their states to resist
ratification. The remainder, adjourning to the City Tavern, appropriately
celebrated the occasion. They little suspected that one day an Eighteenth
Amendment would be added forbidding the manufacture and sale of alcoholic
No members of the convention were completely happy about the result. They
were too near their work--and too weary. Whatever their personal desires, they
finally had to compromise and adopt what was acceptable to the entire body,
and what presumably would be acceptable to the entire country."
The Framing Fathers early foresaw that nationwide acceptance
Constitution would not be easy to obtain. A formidable barrier was unanimous
ratification by all thirteen states, as required for amendment by the still-existent
Articles of Confederation. But since absent Rhode Island was certain to veto the
Constitution, the delegates boldly adopted a different scheme. They stipulated
that when nine states had registered their approval through specially elected
conventions, the Constitution would become the supreme law of the land in
those states ratifying (see Art. VII).
This was extraordinary, even revolutionary. It was in effect an appeal over the
heads of the Congress that had called the convention, and over the heads of the
legislatures that had chosen its members, to the people--or those of the people
who could vote. In this way the framers could claim greater popular sanction for
their handiwork. Congress reluctantly submitted the document to the states on
this basis, without recommendation of any kind.
The American people were somewhat shocked, so well had the secrets of the
convention been kept. The public had expected the old Articles of Confederation
to be patched up; now it was handed a frightening new document in which, many
thought, the precious jewel of state sovereignty was swallowed up. One of the
hottest debates of American history forthwith erupted. The antifederalists, who
opposed the stronger federal government, were arrayed against the federalists,
who naturally favored it.
A motley crowd gathered in the antifederalist camp. It consisted primarily, though
not exclusively, of the states' rights devotees, the backcountry dwellers, the one-
horse farmers, the work-soiled artisans, the ill-educated and illiterate--in
general, the poorer classes. They were joined by paper-moneyites and debtors,
many of whom feared that a potent central government would force them to pay
off their debts--and at full value. Large numbers of antifederalists suspected that
something sinister was being put over on them by the aristocrats.
Silver-buckled federalists were more respectable; they generally embraced the
cultured and propertied groups. Most of them lived in the settled areas along the
seaboard, not in the raw backcountry. They were in outlook rather closely akin to
the conservative Loyalist group of Revolutionary days. In fact, many of the
remaining former Loyalists vigorously supported the Constitution; without them it
might have failed of ratification.
Antifederalists, their worst fears aroused, voiced vehement objections to the
"gilded trap" known as the Constitution. They cried with much truth that it had
been drawn up by the aristocratic elements and hence was antidemocratic. They
likewise charged that the sovereignty of the states was being submerged and
that the freedoms of the individual were jeopardized by the absence of a bill of
They decried the dropping of annual elections for congressional representatives,
the setting up of a federal stronghold ten miles square (later the District of
Columbia), the creation of a standing army, the omission of any reference to
God, and the highly questionable procedure of ratifying with only two-thirds of
the states. A Philadelphia newspaper added that Benjamin Franklin was "a fool
from age" and George Washington "a fool from nature.""
The minority had triumphed--doubly. A militant minority of
American radicals had
engineered the military Revolution that cast off the unwritten British constitution.
A militant minority of conservatives--now embracing many of the earlier radicals-
-had engineered the peaceful revolution that overthrew the inadequate
constitution known as the Articles of Confederation. Eleven states, in effect, had
seceded from the Confederation, leaving two out in the cold.
A majority had not spoken. Only about one-fourth of the adult white males in the
country, chiefly the propertied people, had voted for delegates to the ratifying
conventions. Careful estimates indicate that if the new Constitution had been
submitted to a manhood-suffrage vote, as in New York, it would have
encountered much more opposition, probably defeat.
Conservatism was victorious. Safeguards had been erected against mob-rule
excesses, and the democratic gains of the Revolution were conserved in the
face of possible anarchy. Radicals like Patrick Henry, who had overthrown
British rule, had in turn been overthrown by American conservatives. The result
was a kind of peaceful counterrevolution. It restored the economic and political
stability of colonial years and set the drifting ship of state on a more promising
Yet if the architects of the Constitution were conservative, it is worth
emphasizing that what they conserved was the principle of popular, democratic
government, made forever sacred in the fires of the Revolution.
By ingeniously embedding the doctrine of self-rule in a self-limiting
checks and balances, the Constitution reconciled the potentially conflicting
principles of liberty and order. It represented a marvelous achievement; one that
preserved the ideals of the Revolution even while setting boundaries to them.
One of the distinctive--and enduring--paradoxes of American history was thus
revealed: in the United States, conservatives and radicals alike have
championed the heritage of democratic revolutionism."
General Washington, the esteemed war hero, was unanimously
president by the Electoral College in 1789--the only presidential nominee ever to
be honored by unanimity. His presence was imposing: 6 feet 2 inches, 175
pounds (1.88 meters, 79.5 kilograms), broad and sloping shoulders, strongly
pointed chin, and pockmarks (from smallpox) on nose and cheeks. Much
preferring the quiet of Mount Vernon to the turmoil of politics, he was perhaps
the only president who did not in some way angle for this exalted office.
Balanced rather than brilliant, he commanded his followers by strength of
character rather than by the arts of the politician.
Washington's long journey from Mount Vernon to New York City, the temporary
capital, was a triumphal procession. He was greeted by roaring cannon, pealing
bells, flower-carpeted roads, and singing and shouting citizens. With appropriate
ceremony, he solemnly and somewhat nervously took the oath of office on April
30, 1789, on a crowded balcony overlooking Wall Street, which some have
regarded as a bad omen.
The Constitution does not mention a cabinet; it merely provides that the
president "may require" written opinions of the heads of the executive-branch
departments (see Art. II, Sec. II, para. 1). But this system proved so
cumbersome, and involved so much homework, that cabinet meetings gradually
evolved in the Washington administration.
At first only three full-fledged department heads served under the president:
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander
Hamilton, and Secretary of War Henry Knox."
Drawing up a bill of rights headed the list of tasks facing
the new government.
Many antifederalists had sharply criticized the Constitution drafted at
Philadelphia for its failure to provide guarantees of individual rights such as
freedom of religion and trial by jury. Many states had ratified the federal
Constitution on the understanding that it would soon be amended to include
Amendments to the Constitution could be proposed in either of two ways--by a
new constitutional convention requested by two-thirds of the states or by a two-
thirds vote of both houses of Congress. Fearing that a new convention might
unravel the narrow federalist victory in the ratification struggle, James Madison
determined to draft the amendments himself. He then guided them through
Congress, where his scholarly and political skills were quickly making him the
Adopted by the necessary number of states in 1791, the first ten amendments to
the Constitution, popularly known as the Bill of Rights, safeguard some of the
most precious of American principles. Among these are protections for freedom
of religion, speech, and the press; the right to bear arms and to be tried by a
jury; and the right to assemble and petition the government for redress of
grievances. The Bill of Rights also prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, and
arbitrary government seizure of private property.
To guard against the danger that enumerating such rights might lead to the
conclusion that they were the only ones protected, Madison inserted the crucial
Ninth Amendment. It declares that specifying certain rights "shall not be
construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."
In a gesture of reassurance to the states' righters, he included
significant Tenth Amendment, which reserves all rights not explicitly delegated
or prohibited by the federal Constitution "to the States respectively, or to the
people." By preserving a strong central government while specifying protections
for minority and individual liberties, Madison's amendments partially swung the
federalist pendulum back in an antifederalist direction. (see Amendments I-X, in
The first Congress also nailed other newly sawed government planks into place.
It created effective federal courts under the Judiciary Act of 1789. The act
organized the Supreme Court, with a chief justice and five associates, as well as
federal district and circuit courts, and established the office of attorney general.
New Yorker John Jay, Madison's collaborator on The Federalist papers and one
of the young Republic's most seasoned diplomats, became the first chief justice
of the United States.
The Whiskey Rebellion, which flared up in southwestern Pennsylvania
sharply challenged the new national government. Hamilton's excise tax bore
harshly on these homespun pioneer folk. They regarded it not as a tax on a
luxury but as a burden on an economic necessity and a medium of exchange.
Even preachers of the gospel were paid in "Old Monongahela rye." Defiant
distillers finally erected whiskey poles, similar to the liberty poles of anti-stamp
tax days in 1765, and raised the cry "Liberty and No Excise." Boldly tarring and
feathering revenue officers, they brought collections to a halt.
President Washington, once a revolutionist, was alarmed by what he called
these "self-created societies." With the warm encouragement of Hamilton, he
summoned the militia of several states. Anxious moments followed the call, for
there was much doubt as to whether men in other states would muster to crush
a rebellion in a sister state. Despite some opposition, an army of about thirteen
thousand rallied to the colors, and two widely separated columns marched
briskly forth in a gorgeous, leaf-tinted Indian summer, until knee-deep mud
slowed their progress.
When the troops reached the hills of western Pennsylvania, they found no
insurrection. The "Whiskey Boys" were overawed, dispersed, or captured.
Washington, with an eye to healing old sores, pardoned the two small-fry
The Whiskey Rebellion was small--some three rebels were killed--but its
consequences were large. George Washington's government, now substantially
strengthened, commanded a new respect. Yet the numerous foes of the
federalists condemned the administration for its brutal display of force--for
having used a sledge hammer to crush a gnat."
Almost overnight, Hamilton's fiscal feats had established the
sound credit rating. The Treasury could now borrow needed funds in the
Netherlands on favorable terms.
But Hamilton's financial successes--funding, assumption, the excise tax, the
bank, the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion--created some political
liabilities. All these schemes encroached sharply upon states' rights. Many
Americans, dubious about the new Constitution in the first place, might never
have approved it if they had foreseen how the states were going to be
overshadowed by the federal colossus. Now, out of resentment against
Hamilton's revenue-raising and centralizing policies, an organized opposition
began to build. What once was a personal feud between Hamilton and Jefferson
developed into a full-blown and often bitter political rivalry.
National political parties, in the modern sense, were unknown to America when
George Washington took his inaugural oath. There had been Whigs and Tories,
federalists and antifederalists, but these groups were factions rather than
parties. They had sprung into existence over hotly contested special issues;
they had faded away when their cause had triumphed or had become hopelessly
The Founders at Philadelphia had not envisioned the existence of permanent
political parties. Organized opposition to the government--especially a
democratic government based on popular consent--seemed tainted with
disloyalty. Opposition to the government affronted the spirit of national unity that
the glorious cause of the Revolution had inspired.
The notion of a formal party apparatus was thus a novelty in
the 1790s, and
when Jefferson and Madison first organized their opposition to the Hamiltonian
program, they confined their activities to Congress and did not anticipate
creating a long-lived and popular party. But as their antagonism to Hamilton
endured, and as the amazingly boisterous and widely read newspapers of the
day spread their political message, and Hamilton's, among the people, primitive
semblances of political parties began to emerge.
The two-party system has existed in the United States since
that time. Ironically,
in light of early suspicions about the very legitimacy of parties, their competition
for power has actually proved to be among the indispensable ingredients of a
sound democracy. The party of the "outs"--"the loyal opposition"--traditionally
plays the invaluable role of the balance wheel on the machinery of government,
ensuring that politics never drifts too far out of kilter with the wishes of the
President Washington, in a last desperate gamble to avert war,
decided to send
Chief Justice John Jay to London in 1794. The Jeffersonians were acutely
unhappy over the choice, partly because they feared that so notorious a
Federalist and Britain-lover would sell out his country. Arriving in London, Jay
gave the Jeffersonians further cause for alarm when, at the presentation
ceremony, he routinely kissed the queen's hand.
Unhappily, Jay entered the negotiations with weak cards, which were further
weakened by Hamilton. The latter, fearful of war with England, secretly supplied
the British with the details of America's bargaining strategy. Not surprisingly, Jay
won few concessions. The British did promise to evacuate the chain of posts on
U.S. soil--a pledge that inspired little confidence, since it had been made before
in Paris (to the same John Jay!) in 1783. In addition, Britain consented to pay
damages for the recent seizures of American ships. But the British stopped
short of pledging anything about future maritime seizures and impressments or
about supplying arms to Indians. And they forced Jay to give ground by binding
the United States to pay the debts still owed to British merchants on pre-
When the Jeffersonians learned of Jay's concessions, their rage was fearful to
behold. The treaty seemed like an abject surrender to Britain, as well as a
betrayal of the Jeffersonian South. Southern planters would have to pay the
major share of the pre-Revolutionary debts, while rich Federalist shippers were
collecting damages for recent British seizures. Jeffersonian mobs hanged,
burned, and guillotined in effigy that "damn'd archtraitor, Sir John Jay." His
unpopular pact, more than any other issue, vitalized the newborn Democratic-
Republican party of Thomas Jefferson. Even George Washington's huge
popularity was compromised by the controversy over the treaty.
Jay's Treaty had other unforeseen consequences. Fearing that the treaty
foreshadowed an Anglo-American alliance, Spain moved hastily to strike a deal
with the United States. Pinckney's Treaty of 1795 granted the Americans
virtually everything they demanded, including free navigation of the Mississippi
and the large disputed territory north of Florida.
Exhausted after the diplomatic and partisan battles of his second term, President
Washington decided to retire. His choice contributed powerfully to establishing a
two-term tradition for American presidents (not broken until 1940 by Franklin D.
Roosevelt and made a part of the Constitution in 1951 by the Twenty-second
In his Farewell Address to the nation in 1796 (never delivered
orally but printed
in the newspapers), Washington strongly advised the avoidance of "permanent
alliances" like the still-vexatious French Treaty of 1778. Contrary to general
misunderstanding, Washington did not oppose all alliances, but favored only
"temporary alliances" for "extraordinary emergencies." This was admirable
advice for a weak and divided nation in 1796. But what is sound counsel for a
growing youth may not apply later to a muscular giant.
Washington's contributions as president were enormous, even though the
sparkling Hamilton at times seemed to outshine him. The central government, its
fiscal feet now under it, was solidly established. The West was expanding. The
merchant marine was plowing the seas. Above all, Washington had kept the
nation out of both overseas entanglements and foreign wars. The experimental
stage had passed, and the presidential chair could now be turned over to a less
impressive figure. But republics are notoriously ungrateful. When Washington
left office in 1797, he was showered with the brickbats of partisan abuse, quite in
contrast with the bouquets that had greeted his coming
Exulting Federalists had meanwhile capitalized on the anti-French
drive through Congress in 1798 a sheaf of laws designed to reduce or gag their
The first of these oppressive laws was aimed at supposedly pro-Jeffersonian
"aliens." Most European immigrants, lacking wealth, were scorned by the
aristocratic Federalist party. But they were welcomed as voters by the less
prosperous and more democratic Jeffersonians. The Federalist Congress,
hoping to discourage the "dregs" of Europe, erected a disheartening barrier.
They raised the residence requirements for aliens who desired
citizens from a tolerable five years to an intolerable fourteen. This drastic new
law violated the traditional American policy of open-door hospitality and speedy
Two additional Alien Laws struck heavily at undesirable immigrants. The
president was empowered to deport dangerous foreigners in time of peace and
to deport or imprison them in time of hostilities. Though defensible as a war
measure--and an officially declared war with France seemed imminent--this was
an arbitrary grant of power contrary to American tradition and to the spirit of the
Constitution, even though the stringent Alien Laws were never enforced.
The "lockjaw" Sedition Act, the last of the harsh Federalist measures, was a
direct slap at two priceless freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution by the Bill of
Rights--freedom of speech and freedom of the press (First Amendment). This
law provided that anyone who impeded the policies of the government or falsely
defamed its officials, including the president, would be liable to a heavy fine and
imprisonment. Severe though the measure was, the Federalists believed that it
was justified. The verbal violence of the day was unrestrained, and foul-penned
editors, some of them exiled aliens, assailed Adams's anti-French policy in
Many outspoken Jeffersonian editors were indicted under the Sedition Act, and
ten were brought to trial. All of them were convicted, often by packed juries
swayed by prejudiced Federalist judges. A few of the victims were harmless
partisans, who should have been spared the notoriety of martyrdom. Among
them was Congressman Matthew Lyon (the "Spitting Lion"), who had earlier
gained fame by spitting in the face of a Federalist. He was sentenced to four
months in jail for writing of President Adams's "unbounded thirst for ridiculous
pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice."
Another culprit was lucky to get off with a fine of $100 after
he had expressed
the wish that the wad of a cannon fired in honor of Adams had landed in the
seat of the president's breeches.
The Sedition Act, at least in spirit, was in direct conflict with the Constitution.
But the Supreme Court, dominated by Federalists, was of no mind to declare this
Federalist law unconstitutional. (The law expired, in March 1801, to much
rejoicing from Jeffersonians.) This attempt by the Federalists to crush free
speech and silence the opposition party, high-handed as it was, undoubtedly
made many converts for the Jeffersonians.
Yet the Alien and Sedition Acts, despite pained outcries from the Jeffersonians,
commanded widespread popular support. Anti-French hysteria played directly
into the hands of witch-hunting conservatives. In the congressional elections of
1798-1799, the Federalists, riding a wave of popularity, scored the most
sweeping victory of their entire history."
As the presidential contest of 1800 approached, the differences
Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were sharply etched. As might be
expected, federalists of the pre-Constitution period (1787-1789) became
Federalists in the 1790s. Largely welded by Hamilton into an effective group by
1793, they openly advocated rule by the "best people." "Those who own the
country," remarked Federalist John Jay, "ought to govern it." With their
intellectual arrogance and Tory tastes, Hamiltonians distrusted full-blown
democracy as the fountain of all mischiefs and feared the "swayability" of the
untutored common folk.
Hamiltonian Federalists also advocated a strong central government with the
power to crush democratic excesses like Shays's Rebellion, protect the lives and
estates of the wealthy, and subordinate the sovereignty-loving states. They
believed that government should support private enterprise, not interfere with it.
This attitude came naturally to the seaboard merchants, manufacturers, and
shippers who made up the majority of Federalist support. If a gunner could have
fired a cannonball fifty miles (eighty kilometers) inland, it would have hit few
Federalists were also pro-British in foreign affairs. Many of them still harbored
mildly Loyalist sentiments from Revolutionary days. All of them recognized that
foreign trade, especially with England, was a key cog in Hamilton's fiscal
Leading the anti-Federalists, who came eventually to be known as Democratic-
Republicans or sometimes simply Republicans, was Thomas Jefferson. Lanky
and relaxed in appearance, lacking personal aggressiveness, weak-voiced, and
unable to deliver a rabble-rousing speech, he became a master political
organizer through his ability to lead people rather than drive them. His strongest
appeal was to the middle class and to the underprivileged--the "dirt" farmers, the
laborers, the artisans, and the small shopkeepers.
Liberal-thinking Jefferson, with his aristocratic head set on a farmer's frame, was
a bundle of inconsistencies. By one set of tests he should have been a
Federalist, for he was a Virginia aristocrat and slaveowner who lived in an
imposing hilltop mansion at Monticello. A so-called traitor to his upper class,
Jefferson cherished uncommon sympathy for the common people, especially the
downtrodden, the oppressed, and the persecuted. As he wrote in 1800, "I have
sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over
the mind of man."
Jeffersonian Republicans demanded a weak central regime. They believed that
the best government was the one that governed least. The bulk of the power,
Jefferson argued, should be retained by the states. There the people, in intimate
contact with local affairs, could keep a more vigilant eye on their public
servants. Otherwise, a dictatorship might develop. Central authority--a kind of
necessary evil--was to be kept at a minimum through a strict interpretation of the
Constitution. The national debt, which Jefferson regarded as a curse
illegitimately bequeathed to later generations, was to be paid off.
Jeffersonian Republicans, themselves primarily agrarians, insisted that there
should be no special privileges for special classes, particularly manufacturers.
Agriculture, to Jefferson, was the favored branch of the economy. He regarded
farming as essentially ennobling; it kept people away from wicked cities, out in
the sunshine and close to the sod--and God. Most of his followers naturally
came from the agricultural South and Southwest.
Above all, Jefferson advocated the rule of the people. But he did not propose
thrusting the ballot into the hands of every adult white male. He favored
government for the people, but not by all the people--only by those men who
were literate enough to inform themselves and wear the mantle of American
citizenship worthily. Universal education would have to precede universal
suffrage. The ignorant, he argued, were incapable of self-government. But he
had profound faith in the reasonableness and teachableness of the masses and
in their collective wisdom when taught. His enduring appeal was to America's
The open-minded Jefferson championed free speech, because without free
speech the misdeeds of tyranny could not be exposed. He even went so far as to
say that as between "a government without newspapers" and "newspapers
without a government," he would choose the latter. Yet no other American
leader, except perhaps Abraham Lincoln, ever suffered more foul abuse from
editorial pens; Jefferson might well have prayed for freedom from the Federalist
Jeffersonian Republicans, unlike the Federalist "British boot-lickers," were
basically pro-French. They earnestly believed that it was to America's advantage
to support the liberal ideals of the French Revolution, rather than applaud the
reaction of the English Tories.
So as the young Republic's first full decade of nationhood came to a close, the
Founders' hopes seemed already imperiled. Conflicts over domestic politics and
foreign policy undermined the unity of the Revolutionary era and called into
question the very survivability of the American experiment in democracy. As the
presidential election of 1800 approached, the danger loomed that the fragile and
battered American ship of state, like many another before it and after it, would
founder on the rocks of controversy. The shores of history are littered with the
wreckage of nascent nations torn asunder before they could grow to a stable
maturity. Why should the United States expect to enjoy a happier fate?