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United States, 1780-1789

The new United States was huge. It was six times the size of England and Wales. About 95% of them lived in rural areas. Greater Philadelphia, the largest urban place, contained 44, 096; New York City, the next largest only contained 33,131; Boston had 18,320; Charleston had 16,359; and Baltimore had 13,503. The next 17 largest cities ranged from 7,921 inhabitants down to 2,584 and most were in the Northeast. The total population in 1790 was about 3.9 million people, a statistic that includes slaves but does not include all the pre-Columbian peoples. The country contained a little over 890,000 square miles but most of the population hugged the coast. Very few people had crossed the fall line, the places where there were waterfalls as rivers flowed to the ocean.

States had give up their claims to land in the west, the trans-Appalachian region, in order to get the Confederation organized and its constitution ratified. Maryland led the effort. This was ironic because one of their complaints against the British had been the disposition of this land. But then and later, there were conflicting coast-to- coast claims.

The constitution was liberal. It provided for freedom of religion, freedom of speech and assembly and other civil liberties. It tried to protect property rights with debtor laws and requiring that taxes and debts be paid in specie. Robert Morris, the finance minister tried to get taxing power but the states and the people they represented did not want the national government to have that kind of power. The government did get some revenue from land sales but most of it was borrowed, domestically and from abroad. This created a powerful creditor class who were determined to get paid.

The United States had formidable foreign problems. Spain controlled the Louisiana territory and is control of port of New Orleans was a critical issue. The Spanish closed the port to USers, which meant the population of the northwest would not grow because people would have no effective way to export their goods, for they used the Ohio-Mississippi Rivers. The Spanish and the United States also disputed the northern boundary of the two Floridas, an area north of 31 degrees. The British violated the Treaty of Paris because they did not vacate forts as they had promised. Britain closed its West Indies to US trade, which hurt the US economically, but USers resorted to smuggling, a criminal activity at which they were adept because they had done it for decades when they were still colonies. Naturally, they saw nothing wrong with it. British refused to allow the United States to export to Great Britain but, of course, was willing to allow people in the US to import. It refused to negotiate a commercial treaty or to send diplomats. It retained influence over the Indians in northern Ohio and encouraged them to resist US authority. The US states, for their part, did not fulfill their treaty obligations and the national government could not make them.

The Confederation Congress faced serious domestic crises as well. In Vermont, Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys created a republic in an effort to the New Hampshire Grants from becoming part of New York. Allen and his brothers were land speculators. Allen's followers used threats, intimidation, and violence to keep Vermont free of New York. In 1777, they created their own government which eventually became the state of Vermont in 1791. The Watauga Association was created by settlers Watauga River in today's East Tennessee. In 1772, settlers created the Watauga Association. In 1776, they asked North Carolina for production. In 1784, it joined the State of Franklin after North Carolina ceded its western lands to the United States. In 1785, the settlers John Sevier governor for a three-year term, established courts, appointed magistrates, levied taxes, and enacted laws. A permanent constitution was adopted in Nov., 1785. But Congress refused to recognize it as a state and North Carolina reneged on its ceding of the land. When Sevier's term expired, the state went back to North Carolina.

Congress left an enduring legacy in its land laws and procedures for creation of territories and the admission of states. In the 1784 land law, it established that territorial governments created in the public domain areas would become full-fledged states, not colonies. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the rectilinear land survey system. The Northwest Ordinance (1787) was passed at the insistence of a group of New England land speculators who called themselves the Ohio Company. They needed the Northwest territory (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) organized so it would be settled and they could earn money. This ordinance used the rectilinear survey system as well and stipulated that each Section 16 be used the finance public education, thus establishing the precedent of federal aid to education. Other measures reflecting the liberalism of the Congress were that no less than three and no more than five states be formed from the territory. When 5,000 non-Indians agreed, they could get a representative assembly and a non-voting delegate to Congress. When 60,000 a proposed state could petition for admission as a state and, if granted, would enter equal to all the other states. The ordinance guaranteed civil liberties including freedom of religion, to wit, Article 1 stated that "No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory." It provided for free education. Slavery was forbidden. As to Indians, Article 3 stated: "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them. were not to be deprived of life or property or harmed in any way unless the Congress authorized it." It was quite an achievement. The provision about the people who had lived there for thousands of years was largely ignored but the other provisions were used in the US thereafter.

The push to change the constitution grew, pushed by a variety of groups. Conservatives were alarmed at the power of the common man and wanted a government which would be allied with the wealthy and well-born, one which would keep the masses in control. The elite (this was a class-based society in which people "deferred" to their betters) w wanted a central government stronger than that of the Confederation. It wanted to use the government to help them—collect debts, stable currency, international trade. People in the back country wanted protection against the various tribes which were resisting the invasions of their lands by the USers. Merchants wanted a stronger government. Part of the reason was a desire for sound currency; another was a government which could enforce contracts in a state different from which the merchants lived. Unpaid creditors wanted a stronger central government. Artisans and people in infant industry wanted uniform tariffs and, often, restriction on the marketplace in their favor. They did not want to compete with foreigners. Cosmopolitan people tended to want a stronger central government, one more akin to the centralized monarchies in Europe that could enforce their will at home and abroad.

Patrick Henry and people who thought like him liked the Articles of Confederation. Power was in the states and, thus, closer to home. They believed that they could better control state governments and that a national government could not help but reduce freedom.

Many luminaries of the independence movement disagreed, however. George Washington and his aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, wanted a stronger national government. So, too, did Richard Morris and James Madison. Nationally-minded men wanted an effective government, one which could enforce its will on the populace and defend US interests abroad

Shays Rebellion in fall of 1786 encouraged some New Englanders to want change. Daniel Shays led a group of armed men who sought to prevent the courts from sitting so that foreclosures could not take place in western Massachusetts. It beaten but it was symptomatic of a larger problem, the problems and inconsistencies in the many currencies being issued in the states, variations in debtor and stay laws, and the poor economic conditions. Men of property feared that their property was not safe and wanted something done about it.

Commissioners from Maryland and Virginia met at Alexandria, Virginia in 1785 to try to resolve disputes between the two state over navigation on the Potomac River but they quickly realized that the Potomac issue was symptomatic of larger interstate commerce issues, for the constitution only called for negotiations among two or more states, a cumbersome to solve problems They called for all states to send delegates to a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland in 1786 but only five states sent delegates. Undaunted, they persuaded Congress in February, 1787 to call a convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for May. The convention was to consider ways to revise the Article of Confederation and report back the Congress.Any changes would have to be approved by all the states.

All the states but Rhode Island sent delegates, who tended to be young and nationally-minded. The delegates also tended to be men of wealth. George Washington was chosen to preside; he was so well known, a wealthy planter, and nationalistic. People, like Patrick Henry, who were happy with the Articles of Confederation did not attend. Thus, the Constitutional Convention was not representative of even the white male population.

The convention became a conspiracy to overthrow the national government peacefully. They met in secret. Although people in the US have grown so accustomed to seeing the Constitution of 1787 as wonderful and the framers as heroes, the fact is that they violated the law by deciding to overthrow the current constitution and write a completely new one. If a group of wealthy men met in secret to write a entirely new constitution today, people would demand that something be done to stop them. But 1787 was a different age, one in which people deferred to their betters and with poor communications. We only know what the framers did because of the notes kept by a delegates and some letters, James Madison, the author of most of the Constitution, kept a journal.

The document they created bore a striking resemblance to the British constitution, but was republican instead of monarchic and had numerous compromises to satisfy state governments. That the chief executive would be a President with substantial powers, a republican king as it were, was a foregone conclusion. Since it was not a hereditary position they had the provide for succession by creating a vice president. Each would be elected by a group of notables, the Electoral College. Each state legislature selected a number of Electors equal to the number of people it could elect to Congress. Thus, the people were forbidden from electing the president and vice president. The Senate resembled the House of Lords, for its members were selected by state legislatures to serve six year terms. It was assumed that the Senators would be from the upper levels of society and would be a check upon the House of Representatives whose members were to be elected by those eligible to vote for the most numerous house of the state legislature. In other words, the average person would not have much power in the new government.

The Constitution contained numerous compromises. Madison of Virginia had proposed that the new government have two legislative houses based on population, that the upper house be elected by the lower, that voting be by members instead of states, and that the executive and judicial branches be elected by the Congress. This Virginia Plan, which favored the larger, more populous state, was countered by the New Jersey Plan which called for a unicameral legislature in which each state would have one vote and that the executive and legislative branches by chosen separately. The Great Compromise was that each state would have two senators ,who would vote as individuals, and all revenue bills had to originate in the lower house. In the Three-Fifths Compromise, slaves would only be counted as 60% of a person for the purpose of determining representation; non-slave states did not want to count them. Slave states did. This compromise clearly recognized slaves as human beings, something which racists have sought to deny. Although there was substantial sentiment to abolish slavery, the only proviso that abolitionists could get was a prohibition asserting the Congress could not abolish the slave trade until 1808.

The framers, although wanting a stronger government, also feared strong governments. They wrote a number of checks and balances into the document. They created numerous checks and balance. Each house of Congress was a check on the other. The Senate had to ratify foreign treaties and executive appointments. As a check upon the army, it could have receive annual appropriations unlike the navy which could receive multi-year funding. There was a very real fear of a standing army, especially one with any independence of action; some members of the army had been trying to force changes in the government. Washington used his prestige to stop it. The President was the commander in chief of the military but only Congress could declare war. The president could veto legislation but his veto could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of both houses. Judges were to be appointed for life (during good behavior) and could rule on matters involving national laws, treaties, the Constitution, and suits involving the states or citizens of more than one state. They stipulated a Supreme Court and such lower courts as Congress might provide.

Amendments to the Constitution could be started either by Congress or by popular conventions of two-thirds of the states. Once proposed, the amendment had to be ratified either by the vote of three-fourths of the states or state conventions elected for that purpose.

Sovereignty was a critical issue for the question of where it resided had been a primary cause of the independence movement and because the states would be reluctant to give up their sovereignty. Most of the framers believed that sovereignty resided in the people but the majority made sure that the people would not rule. So, the framers created a federal system, one reminiscent of what the colonials had been arguing before the American Revolution. The national government would be sovereign, for only it would be allowed to make foreign policy. Power would be shared by the national government and state governments. Persons who were citizens would be citizens of both. The federal system did create a constant battle of where the jurisdictional boundaries lay.

Ratification was not easy, for this secret document caused a furor; it dramatically increased the power of the national government and reduced the power of the people and the states. Those who supported ratification, the Federalists, were the wealthy, conservatives, creditors, and urban workers (who shared the economic views of those supporters). The opponents, the Anti-Federalists, tended to be people who feared government, people in rural areas, and men like Patrick Henry who had risen to power because of the machinations of the independence movement. Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. When these nine had ratified, the Constitution was technically ratified for it only took nine states. The political reality was that the Constitution would not work without the entry of New York and Virginia. The latter ratified by a vote of 89 to 79. The Federalists barely won in New York with only a 30-27 vote. after a war of words that produced The Federalist Papers. The new government was declared on March 4, 1789 composed of eleven states.

The first states admitted to the union afterwards were North Carolina (November, 1789); Rhode Island (May 29, 1790), and Vermont (March, 1791). The government lived up to its promise; these were to be equal to the original states.

Ratification had turned on the promise that the first Congress under the new constitution would submit amendments that would protect the rights of the people against the national government. Conservatives swallowed hard and met this liberal demand. Once the government was formed, amendments were passed and submitted to the states. Ten were ratified and became the Bill of Rights.

Allen Nevins,The American States during and after the Revolution, 1775–1789 (1971).
Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (1963)
Merrill Jensen,The New Nation (1962).
S. C. Williams, History of the Lost State of Franklin (1933)


1. Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census. Internet Release Date: June 15, 1998. Found at on August 26, 2003.

Don Mabry