The Continental Congress in 1776 called upon the colonies to draft new 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 than the 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 uncomfortable."
Economic changes begotten by the war were likewise noteworthy, but not 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 economic democracy.
The frightful excesses of the French Revolution were avoided, partly because 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 Second Continental Congress of Revolutionary days was little more than a conference of ambassadors from the thirteen states.
It was totally without constitutional authority and in general did only what it dared to do, though it asserted some control over military affairs and foreign policy.
In nearly all respects the states were sovereign, for they coined money, raised armies and navies, and erected tariff barriers.
The legislature of Virginia even ratified separately the treaty of alliance of 1778 with France.
Shortly before declaring independence in 1776, the Congress appointed a committee to draft a written constitution for the new nation.
The finished product was the Articles of Confederation. Adopted by Congress in 1777, it was translated into French after the battle of Saratoga so as to convince France that America had a genuine government in the making.
In due course this new constitution was sent out to the states for their approval. But final action was delayed for four years, until 1781, less than eight months before the victory at Yorktown.
The chief apple of discord was western lands. Six of the jealous states, including Pennsylvania and Maryland, had no holdings beyond the Allegheny Mountains.
Seven, notably New York and Virginia, were favored with enormous acreage, in most cases on the basis of earlier sea-to-sea charter grants.
The six land-hungry states argued that the more fortunate states would not have retained possession of this splendid prize if all the other states had not fought for it also.
A major complaint was that the land-blessed states could sell their trans-Allegheny tracts and thus pay off pensions and other debts incurred in the common cause.
States without such holdings would have to tax themselves heavily to defray these obligations.
Why not turn the whole western area over to the central government?
Unanimous approval of the Articles of Confederation by the thirteen states was required, and land-hungry Maryland stubbornly held out until March 1, 1781.
It at length gave in when New York surrendered its western claims and Virginia seemed about to do so.
To sweeten the pill, Congress pledged itself to dispose of these vast areas for the "common benefit."
It further agreed to carve from the new public domain not colonies but a number of "republican" states, which in time would be admitted to the Union on terms of complete equality with all the others.
This extraordinary commitment faithfully reflected the anticolonial spirit of the Revolution, and the pledge was later fully redeemed in the famed Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Fertile public lands thus transferred to the central government proved to be an invaluable bond of union.
The states that had thrown their heritage into the common pot had to remain in the Union if they were to reap their share of the advantages from the land sales.
An army of westward-moving pioneers purchased their farms from the federal government, directly or indirectly, and they learned to look to the national capital, rather than to the state capitals--with a consequent weakening of local influence.
Finally, a uniform national land policy was made possible."
The Articles of Confederation--some have said "Articles of Confusion"--provided 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 remained sovereign.
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 process, 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 went, the 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 affairs.
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 an alarming 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."
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 course.
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 system of 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."
A Conservative Triumph
Jefferson won by a majority of 73 electoral votes to 65.
But the colorless and presumably unpopular Adams polled more electoral strength than he had gained four years earlier--except for New York.
The Empire State fell into the Jeffersonian basket, and with it the election, largely because Aaron Burr, a master wire-puller, turned New York to Jefferson by the narrowest of margins.
The Virginian polled the bulk of his strength in the South and West, particularly in those states where manhood suffrage had been adopted.
Jeffersonians rejoiced wildly over the end of "the Federalist Reign of Terror." Some of them, with alcoholic enthusiasm, bawled the song "Jefferson and Liberty":
But Jeffersonian joy was dampened by an unexpected deadlock.
Through a technicality Jefferson, the presidential candidate, and Burr, his vice-presidential running mate, received the same number of electoral votes for the presidency.
Under the Constitution the tie could be broken only by the House of Representatives (see Art. II, Sec. I, para. 2).
This body was controlled for several more months by the lame-duck Federalists, who had been swept into office during the French war scare and who were eager to elect Burr.
(A "lame duck" has been humorously defined as a politician whose political goose has been cooked at the recent elections.
The possibility of another such tie was removed by the Twelfth Amendment in 1804 [for text, see the Appendix].
Before then, each elector had two votes, with the second-place finisher becoming vice president.)
Voting in the House moved slowly to a climax.
As ballots were taken in wearisome succession, representatives snored in their seats; a sick member lay in an adjoining room.
Historians used to think that Hamilton, bargaining secretly with Jefferson, played a decisive role.
But the evidence indicates that the deadlock was broken when a few Federalists, despairing of electing Burr and hoping for moderation from Jefferson, refrained from voting.
The election then went to the rightful candidate.
Jefferson later claimed that the election of 1800 was a "revolution" comparable to that of 1776.
But it was no revolution in the sense of a massive popular upheaval or an upending of the political system.
In truth, Jefferson had narrowly squeaked through to victory. A switch of some 250 votes in New York would have thrown the election to Adams.
What was revolutionary was the peaceful and orderly transfer of power on the basis of an election whose results all parties accepted.
This was a remarkable--indeed even "revolutionary"--achievement for a raw young nation, especially after all the partisan bitterness that had agitated the country during Adams's presidency.
It was particularly remarkable in that age; comparable developments would not take place in Britain for another generation.
After a decade of division and doubt, Americans could take justifiable pride in the vigor of their experiment in democracy."
\The Jeffersonian "Revolution of 1800"
A secret pact, fraught with peril for America, was signed in 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte induced the King of Spain to cede to France, for attractive considerations, the immense trans-Mississippi region of Louisiana, which included the New Orleans area.
Rumors of the transfer were partially confirmed in 1802, when the Spaniards at New Orleans withdrew the right of deposit guaranteed America by the treaty of 1795.
Deposit privileges were vital to frontier farmers who floated their produce down the Mississippi to its mouth, there to await oceangoing vessels.
A roar of anger rolled up the mighty river and into its tributary valleys.
American pioneers talked wildly of descending upon New Orleans, rifles in hand. Had they done so, the nation probably would have been involved in war with both Spain and France.
Thomas Jefferson, both pacifist and anti-entanglement, was again on the griddle. Louisiana in the senile grip of Spain posed no real threat; America could seize the territory when the time was ripe.
But Louisiana in the iron fist of Napoleon, the preeminent military genius of his age, foreshadowed a dark and blood-drenched future.
The United States would probably have to fight to dislodge him; and because it alone was not strong enough to defeat his armies, it would have to seek allies, contrary to the deepening anti-alliance policy.
Hoping to quiet the clamor of the West, Jefferson moved decisively.
Early in 1803 he sent James Monroe to Paris to join forces with the regular minister there, Robert R. Livingston.
The two envoys were instructed to buy New Orleans and as much land to the east as they could get for a maximum of $10 million.
If these proposals should fail and the situation should become critical, negotiations were to be opened with England for an alliance.
"The day that France takes possession of New Orleans," Jefferson wrote, "we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."
Nothing could better illustrate Jefferson's concern.
Though a passionate hater of war and an enemy of entangling alliances, he was proposing to make an alliance with his old foe, England, against his old friend, France, with the object of waging a defensive war.
At this critical juncture, Napoleon suddenly decided to sell all Louisiana and abandon his dream of a New World empire.
Two developments prompted his change of mind.
First, he had failed in his efforts to reconquer the sugar-rich island of Santo Domingo, for which Louisiana was to serve as a granary.
Infuriated ex-slaves, ably led by a gifted black, Toussaint L'Ouverture, had put up a stubborn resistance that was ultimately broken.
Then the island's second line of defense--mosquitoes carrying yellow fever--had swept away thousands of crack French troops.
Santo Domingo could not be reconquered, except perhaps at a staggering cost; hence there was no need for the granary.
"Damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!" burst out Napoleon.
Second, Bonaparte was about to end the twenty-month lull in his deadly conflict with Britain.
Because the British controlled the seas, he feared that he might be forced to make them a gift of Louisiana.
Rather than drive America into the arms of England by attempting to hold the area, he decided to sell the huge wilderness to the Americans and pocket the money for his schemes nearer home.
Napoleon hoped that the United States, strengthened by Louisiana, would one day grow to be a military and naval power that would thwart the ambitions of the lordly British in the New World.
The distresses of France in Europe were again paving the way for America's diplomatic successes.
Events now moved dizzily.
The American minister, Robert Livingston, pending the arrival of Monroe, was busily negotiating in Paris for a window on the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.
Suddenly, out of a clear sky, the French foreign minister asked him how much he would give for all Louisiana.
Scarcely able to believe his ears (he was partially deaf anyhow), Livingston nervously entered upon the negotiations.
After about a week of haggling, while the fate of America trembled in the balance, treaties were signed, under the date April 30, 1803, ceding Louisiana to the United States for about $15 million."
The Louisiana Godsend
Much of the goodness went out of the good feelings in 1819, when a paralyzing economic panic descended.
It brought deflation, depression, bankruptcies, bank failures, unemployment, soup kitchens, and overcrowded pesthouses known as debtors' prisons.
This was the first national financial panic since President Washington took office.
It was to be followed by a succession of others every twenty or so years, in what seemed an inevitable cycle.
Many factors contributed to the catastrophe of 1819, but looming large was overspeculation in frontier lands.
The Bank of the United States, through its western branches, had become deeply involved in this popular type of outdoor gambling.
Financial paralysis from the panic, which lasted in some degree for several years, gave a rude setback to the nationalistic ardor.
Various parts of the country drifted back toward the old sectionalism, as they concentrated on bailing themselves out.
The West was especially hard hit. When the pinch came, the Bank of the United States forced the speculative ("wildcat") western banks to the wall and foreclosed mortgages on countless farms.
All this was technically legal but politically unwise.
In the eyes of the western debtor, the bank soon became a kind of financial devil.
A more welcome child of the panic was fresh legislation to govern the sale of public lands.
The plight of the western farmer, combined with the evils of land speculation, laid bare the defects of the Land Act of 1800, as amended in 1804.
By its terms a pioneer could buy a minimum of 160 acres at $2 an acre over a period of four years, with a down payment of $80.
When hard times came, entire communities would default on their installments. An improved Land Act of 1820 lightened the burden somewhat.
It permitted the buyer to secure 80 virgin acres at a minimum of $1.25 an acre in cash--for a total cost of $100.
There was less acreage but less outlay.
The panic of 1819 also created backwashes in the political and social world.
It hit especially hard at the poorer classes--the one-suspender men and their families--and hence helped cultivate the seedbed of Jacksonian democracy.
It also directed attention to the inhumanity of imprisoning debtors.
In extreme cases, often overplayed, mothers were torn from their infants for owing a few dollars.
Mounting agitation against imprisonment for debt bore fruit in remedial legislation in an increasing number of states."
Deadlock in Washington was at length broken in 1820 by the time-honored American solution of compromise--actually a bundle of three compromises.
Courtly Henry Clay of Kentucky, gifted conciliator, played a leading role.
Congress, despite abolitionist pleas, agreed to admit Missouri as a slave state.
But at the same time, free-soil Maine, which until then had been a part of Massachusetts, was admitted as a separate state.
The balance between North and South was thus kept at twelve states each and remained there for fifteen years.
Although Missouri was permitted to retain slaves, all future bondage was prohibited in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase north of the line of 36° 30'--the southern boundary of Missouri.
This horse-trading adjustment was politically evenhanded, though denounced by extremists on each side as a "dirty bargain."
Both North and South yielded something; both gained something. The South won the prize of Missouri as an unrestricted slave state.
The North won the concession that Congress could forbid slavery in the remaining territories.
More gratifying to many northerners was the fact that the immense area north of 36° 30', except Missouri, was forever closed to the blight of slavery.
Yet the restriction on future slavery in the territories was not unduly offensive to the slaveowners, partly because the northern prairie land did not seem adapted to slave labor.
Even so, a majority of southern congressmen voted against the compromise.
Neither North nor South was acutely displeased, although neither was completely happy.
Fortunately, the Missouri Compromise lasted thirty-four years--a vital formative period in the life of the young Republic--and during that time it preserved the shaky compact of the states.
Yet the embittered dispute over slavery heralded the future breakup of the Union.
Ever after, the morality of the South's "peculiar institution" was an issue that could not be swept under the rug.
The Missouri Compromise only ducked the question--it did not resolve it.
Sooner or later, Thomas Jefferson predicted, it will "burst on us as a tornado."
The Missouri dispute proved to be another serious setback to nationalism and a tremendous stimulus to sectionalism--in the North, South, and West.
From this time forward, the embattled South began to develop a nationalism of its own, a kind of sectional nationalism.
Needing sectional reinforcements, it cast flirtatious eyes upon the adolescent West, which in turn was seeking allies.
Hotheads in both the North and South, numbering only a tiny minority, clamored for secession or a shooting showdown in 1820.
But fortunately for the Union, hostilities were postponed.
With every passing decade the North was becoming stronger in population, wealth, industry, and transportation--all of which added up to military strength.
Admittedly, the Missouri solution was a compromise--a partial surrender on both sides.
Subsequent generations have tended to sneer at Henry Clay and the other architects of the settlement as weak--as "appeasers."
Yet the fact should not be overlooked that compromise and statesmanship are often Siamese twins.
In a free and peaceful association of once-sovereign states, no group of them could lord it over the others--that is, if they were all going to live together under the same roof.
Without compromise there could have been no Constitution in 1787.
Compromise made the Union in 1789; compromise saved the Union until 1860. When compromise broke down, the Union broke up.
The Missouri Compromise and the concurrent panic of 1819 should have dimmed the political star of President Monroe.
Certainly both unhappy events had a dampening effect on the Era of Good Feelings.
But smooth-spoken James Monroe was so popular, and the Federalist opposition so weak, that in the presidential election of 1820 he received every electoral vote except one.
Unanimity was an honor reserved for George Washington. Monroe, as it turned out, was the only president in American history to be reelected after a term in which a major financial panic began."
President Monroe, including the aged Jefferson and Madison, recommended that the Republic lock arms with hitherto distrusted England.
The one notable exception was again the lone-wolf nationalist, Secretary Adams, who was hardheaded enough to beware of Britons bearing gifts.
Why should the lordly British, with the mightiest navy afloat, need America as an ally--an America that had neither naval nor military strength?
Such a union, argued Adams, was undignified--like a tiny American "cockboat" sailing "in the wake of the British man-of-war."
Adams, ever alert, thought that he detected the joker in the Canning proposal.
The British feared that the aggressive Yankees would one day seize Spanish territory in the Americas--perhaps Cuba--which would jeopardize England's possessions in the Caribbean.
If Canning could seduce the United States into joining with him in support of the territorial integrity of the New World, America's own hands would be morally tied.
A self-denying alliance with Britain would not only hamper American expansion, concluded Adams, but it was unnecessary.
He suspected--correctly--that the European powers had not agreed upon any definite plans for invading the Americas.
In any event the British navy would not permit hostile fleets to come, because the South American markets had to be kept open at all costs for English merchants.
It was presumably safe for Uncle Sam, behind the protective wooden petticoats of the British navy, to blow a defiant, nationalistic blast at all Europe.
The distresses of the Old World again set the stage for another American diplomatic coup.
The Monroe Doctrine was born late in 1823, when the nationalistic Adams won the nationalistic Monroe over to his way of thinking.
The president, in his regular annual message to Congress on December 2, 1823, incorporated a stern warning to the European powers.
Its two basic features were (1) noncolonization and (2) nonintervention.
Monroe first directed his verbal blast primarily at the lumbering Russian bear in the Northwest.
He proclaimed, in effect, that the era of colonization in the Americas had ended and that henceforth there would be a permanently closed season.
What the great powers had they might keep, but neither they nor any other Old World powers could seize or otherwise acquire more.
This lofty declaration was later resented by those nations, notably Germany and Italy, that were not unified and hence unable to take out colonial hunting licenses until late in the century.
At the same time, Monroe sounded a trumpet blast against foreign intervention.
He was clearly concerned with regions to the south, where fears were felt for the fledgling Spanish-American republics.
Monroe bluntly warned the crowned heads of Europe to keep their hated monarchical systems out of this hemisphere.
For its part the United States would not intervene in the war that the Greeks were then fighting against the Turks for their independence."