Confederation Period

The Confederation Period was the era of United States history in the 1780s after the American Revolution and prior to the ratification of the United States Constitution. In 1781, the United States ratified the Articles of Confederation and prevailed in the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land battle between British and American forces in the American Revolutionary War. American independence was confirmed with the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris. The fledgling United States faced several challenges, many of which stemmed from the lack of a strong national government and unified political culture. The period ended in 1789 following the ratification of the United States Constitution, which established a new, more powerful, national government.

The Articles of Confederation established a loose confederation of states with a weak federal government. An assembly of delegates acted on behalf of the states they represented. This unicameral body, officially referred to as the United States in Congress Assembled, had little authority, and could not accomplish anything independent of the states. It had no chief executive, and no court system. Congress lacked the power to levy taxes, regulate foreign or interstate commerce, or effectively negotiate with foreign powers. The weakness of Congress proved self-reinforcing, as the leading political figures of the day served in state governments or foreign posts. The failure of the national government to handle the challenges facing the United States led to calls for reform and frequent talk of secession.

The Treaty of Paris left the United States with a vast territory spanning from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Settlement of the trans-Appalachian territories proved difficult, in part due to the resistance of Native Americans and the neighboring foreign powers of Great Britain and Spain. The British refused to evacuate American territory, while the Spanish used their control of the Mississippi River to stymie Western settlement. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which set an important precedent by establishing the first organized territory under the control of the national government.

After Congressional efforts to amend the Articles failed, numerous national leaders met in Philadelphia in 1787 to establish a new constitution. The new constitution was ratified in 1788, and the new Federal government of the United States began meeting in 1789, marking the end of the Critical Period. Some historians believe that the 1780s were a bleak, terrible time for Americans, while others have argued that the period was actually stable and relatively prosperous.


Critical period

During the 1780s, many thought that the country was experiencing a crisis of leadership, and in 1787 John Quincy Adams echoed these sentiments when he described the country as being in the midst of a "critical period".[1] The phrase "America's Critical Period" was first by historians used to describe the era in American history between 1783 and 1789 by William Henry Trescot in his 1857 book, The Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams. It was popularized by John Fiske's 1888 book, The Critical Period of American History. Fiske's use of the term "critical period" refers to the importance of the era in determining whether the United States would establish a stronger national government or break up into multiple sovereign states. Additionally, Fiske's use of the term refers to the perceived incompetence of the state governments and the weakness of the national government during the 1780s. The term "critical period" thus implicitly accepts the Federalist critique of the Articles of Confederation. Other historians have used an alternative term, the "Confederation Period", to describe U.S. history between 1781 and 1789.[2]

Question of a crisis

Historians such as Forrest McDonald have argued that the 1780s were a time of economic and political chaos. However, other historians, including Merrill Jensen, have argued that the 1780s were actually a relatively stable, prosperous time.[3] Gordon Wood suggests that it was the idea of the Revolution and the thought that it would bring a utopian society to the new country that made it possible for people to believe they had fallen instead into a time of crisis.[4] Historian John Ferling argues that, in 1787, only the nationalists, a relatively small share of the population, viewed the era as a "Critical Period".[5] Michael Klarman argues that the decade marked a high point of democracy and egalitarianism, and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 represented a conservative counter-revolution.[6]

Independence and self-government

The American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord.[7] The Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, and established an army funded by Congress and under the leadership of George Washington, a Virginian who had fought in the French and Indian War.[8] On July 4, 1776, as the war continued, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.[9] At exactly the same time that Congress declared independence, it also created a committee to craft a constitution for the new nation. Though some in Congress hoped for a strong centralized state, most Americans wanted legislative power to rest primarily with the states and saw the central government as a mere wartime necessity. The resulting constitution, which came to be known as the Articles of Confederation, provided for a weak national government with little power to coerce the state governments.[10]

The first draft of the Articles, written by John Dickinson, was presented to Congress on July 12, 1776, but Congress did not send the proposed constitution to the states until November 1777. Three major constitutional issues divided Congress: state borders, including claims to lands west of the Appalachians, state representation in the new Congress, and whether tax levies on states should take slaves into account. Ultimately, Congress decided that each state would have one vote in Congress and that slaves would not affect state levies.[11] By 1780, as the war continued, every state but Maryland had ratified the Articles. Maryland refused to ratify the constitution until all of the other states, most prominently Virginia, relinquished their western land claims to Congress. The success of Britain's Southern strategy, along with pressure from America's French allies, convinced Maryland to ratify the Articles and Virginia to cede its claims north of the Ohio River. After Maryland ratified the Articles in January 1781, the new constitution took effect in March 1781. The Congress of the Confederation technically replaced the Second Continental Congress as the national government, but in practice the structure and personnel of the new Congress was quite similar.[12] The first article of the new constitution established a name for the new confederacy  the United States of America.[13]

End of the American Revolution

After the American victory at the Battle of Yorktown in September 1781 and the collapse of Prime Minister North's ministry in March 1782, both sides sought a peace agreement.[14] The American Revolutionary War ended with the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The treaty granted the United States independence, as well as control of a vast region south of the Great Lakes and extending from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River. Although the British Parliament had attached it to Quebec in 1774, as part of the Quebec Act, several states had land claims in region, as some had been established as colonies through royal charters and proclamations that defined their boundaries as stretching "from sea to sea", while others did not have western boundaries delineated at all. Historians such as Alvord, Harlow, and Ritcheson have emphasized that Britain's generous territorial terms were based on a statesmanlike vision of close economic ties between Britain and the United State. The treaty was designed to facilitate the growth of the American population and create lucrative markets for British merchants, without any military or administrative costs to Britain.[15] As the French foreign minister Vergennes later put it, "The English buy peace rather than make it".[16] Though many in the United States hoped for the acquisition of Florida, that territory was restored to Spain, which had joined the U.S. and France in the war against Britain.[17]

Aside from post-war boundaries, the treaty also addressed several other issues. The United States agreed to honor debts incurred prior to 1775, while the British agreed to remove their soldiers from American soil.[18] Privileges that the Americans had received from Britain when they had colonial status, including protection from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, were withdrawn. Neither the Americans nor the British would consistently honor the treaty. Individual states ignored treaty obligations by refusing to restore confiscated Loyalist property, and many continued to confiscate Loyalist property for "unpaid debts". Some states, notably Virginia, maintained laws against payment of debts to British creditors. The British often ignored the provision of Article 7 regarding removal of slaves.[19]

National leadership

Article II of the Articles of Confederation
"Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."[20]

The Articles of Confederation created a Union of states, albeit a loose one. The confederation's central government was a unicameral Congress with legislative and executive function, and was composed of delegates from each state in the Union. Congress received only those powers which the states had previously (during the Revolutionary Era) recognized as belonging to king and parliament.[21] Each state had one vote in Congress, regardless of its size or population, and any act of Congress required the votes of nine of the 13 states to pass;[22] any decision to amend the Articles required the unanimous consent of the states. Each state's legislature appointed multiple members to its delegation, allowing delegates to return their homes without leaving their state unrepresented.[23] Under the Articles, states were forbidden from negotiating with other nations or maintaining a military without Congress's consent, but the Articles, designed to preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states, reserved almost all other powers to the states.[24] Congress lacked the power to raise revenue, and incapable of enforcing its own legislation and instructions. As such, Congress was heavily reliant on the compliance and support of the states.[25]

Following the conclusion of the war, which had provided the original impetus for the Articles, Congress's ability to accomplish anything of material consequence declined significantly. Rarely did more than half of the roughly sixty delegates attend a session of Congress at the time, causing difficulties in raising a quorum. Many of the most prominent national leaders, such as Washington, John Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin, retired from public life, served as foreign delegates, or held office in state governments.[26] One national leader who did emerge during this period was James Madison, who became convinced of the need for a stronger national government after serving in the Congress of the Confederation from 1781 to 1783. He would continue to call for a stronger government for the remainder of the 1780s.[27] Congress met in Philadelphia from 1778 until June 1783, when it moved to Princeton, New Jersey due to the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Congress would also convene in Annapolis, Maryland and Trenton, New Jersey before settling in New York City in 1785.[28] The lack of strong leaders in Congress, as well as the body's impotence and itinerant nature, embarrassed and frustrated many American nationalists, including Washington.[29] The weakness of Congress also led to frequent talk of secession, and many believed that the United States break into four confederacies, consisting of New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, the Southern states, and the trans-Appalachian region, respectively.[30]

In 1780, Congress created the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, which acted as the lone federal court under the Articles. In early 1781, Congress created executive departments to handle Foreign Affairs, War, and Finance. A fourth department, the Post Office Department, had existed since 1775 and continued to function under the Articles. Congress also authorized the creation of a Marine Department, but chose to place the naval forces under the Finance Department after Alexander McDougall declined to lead the Marine Department. The four departments were charged with administering the federal civil service, but they had little power independent of Congress.[31] Pennsylvania merchant Robert Morris served as the Superintendent of Finance from 1781 to 1784. Though Morris had become somewhat unpopular during the war for due to this successful business ventures, Congress hoped that he would be able to ameliorate the country's ruinous financial state.[32] After his proposals were blocked, Morris resigned in frustration in 1784, and was succeeded by a three-person Treasury Board.[33] Benjamin Lincoln served as Secretary of War from 1781 until the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. He was eventually succeeded by Henry Knox, who held the position from 1785 to 1789. Robert Livingston served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1781 to 1783, and he was followed in office by John Jay, who served from 1784 to 1789. Jay proved to be an able administrator, and he took control of the nation's diplomacy during his time in office.[34] Ebenezer Hazard served as the United States Postmaster General from 1782 to 1789.[35]

State governments

Population by state in the 1790 Census[36]
State Tot. pop. Enslaved pop. Free pop.
Connecticut 237,946 2,764 235,182
Delaware 59,096 8,887 50,209
Georgia 82,548 29,264 53,284
Maryland 319,728 103,036 216,692
Massachusetts 378,787 0 378,787
New Hampshire 141,885 158 141,727
New Jersey 184,139 11,423 172,716
New York 340,120 21,324 318,796
North Carolina 393,751 100,572 293,179
Pennsylvania 434,373 3,737 430,636
Rhode Island 68,825 948 67,877
South Carolina 249,073 107,094 141,979
Virginia 691,737 287,959 403,778
Total[37] 3,929,214 697,681 3,231,533

After the 13 colonies declared their independence and sovereignty in 1776, each was faced with the task of replacing royal authority with institutions based on popular rule. To varying degrees, the states embraced egalitarianism during and after the war. Each state wrote a new constitution, all of which established an elected executive, and many of which greatly expanded the franchise. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was perhaps the most democratic of these constitutions, as it granted suffrage to all taxpaying male citizens. Many of the new constitutions included a bill of rights that guaranteed freedom of the press, freedom of speech, trial by jury, and other freedoms.[38] Conservative patriots such as Oliver Wolcott, who had fought for independence from Britain but not major changes to the social order, looked with alarm on the new influence of the lower classes and the rise of politicians independent from the upper class.[39]

Following the end of the Revolutionary War, the states embarked on various reforms. Several states enshrined freedom of religion in their constitutions, and every Southern state ended the Anglican Church's status as the state religion. Several states established state universities, while private universities also flourished. Numerous states reformed their criminal codes to reduce the number of capital crimes. The Northern states invested in infrastructure projects, including roads and canals that provided access to Western settlements.[40] The states also took action regarding slavery, which appeared increasingly hypocritical to a generation that had fought against what they saw as tyranny. During and after the Revolution, every Northern state passed laws providing for gradual emancipation or the immediate abolition of slavery. Though no Southern states provided for emancipation, they passed laws restricting the slave trade and did not prevent the ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory.[41]

The states continued to carry the burden of heavy debt loads acquired during the Revolutionary War. With the partial exceptions of New York and Pennsylvania, which received revenue from import duties, most states relied on individual and property taxes for revenue. To cope with this debt, several states were forced to raise taxes to a level several times higher than it had been prior to the war. These taxes sparked anger among the populace, particularly in rural areas, and in Massachusetts led to an armed uprising known as Shays' Rebellion. As both Congress and the government of Massachusetts proved unable to suppress the rebellion, former Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln raised a private army which put an end to the insurgency.[42]

Britain relinquished its claim to Vermont in the Treaty of Paris, but the state did not join the United States. Though most in Vermont wanted to become the fourteenth state, New York and New Hampshire, which both claimed parts of Vermont, blocked this ambition. Throughout the 1780s, Vermont acted as an independent state, known as the Vermont Republic.[43]

National fiscal policies

Under the Articles, only the states could levy taxes or regulate commerce. The United States acquired huge debts during the Revolutionary War, in part due to Congress's lack of taxation powers.[44] In 1779, Congress had relinquished most of it economic power to the states, as it stopped printing currency and requested that the states directly pay the soldiers, but the states also suffered from fiscal instability.[45] Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance, sought major centralizing reforms, including the partial assumption of state debt, the suspension of payments to military personnel, and the creation of the Bank of North America. As Congress approved of these measures, Morris emerged as perhaps the most powerful individual in the national government, with some referring to him as "The Financier," or even "The Dictator."[46] In 1783, Morris, with the support of Congressmen such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton, finally won Congressional approval of a 5% levy on imports, which would grant the national government a consistent and independent source of revenue. However, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the states became more resistant to granting power to Congress. Though all but two states approved the levy, it never won the unanimous backing of the states and thus Congress struggled to find revenue throughout the 1780s.[47]

Continental Army

National security was a high priority for the long-term.[48] In the short term the downsized little Continental Army would suffice because there were no major wars 1783-1793 and Americans had confidence the Atlantic would provide protection. However the issue arose of what a republican army would look like, in contrast to the aristocratic control of the British, French and Spanish armies.[49] As the war came to an end, the officers and enlisted men of the Continental Army became increasingly disgruntled over their lack of pay, as Congress had suspended payment due to the poor financial state of the national government. Congress had promised the officers a lifetime pension in 1780, but few of the officers believed that they would receive this benefit. In December 1782, several officers, led by Alexander McDougall, petitioned Congress for their benefits. The officers hoped to use their influence to force the states to allow the federal government to levy a tariff, which in turn would provide revenue to pay the soldiers.[50] Historians such as Robert Middlekauff have argued that some members of the national government, including Congressman Alexander Hamilton and Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, attempted to use this growing dissatisfaction to increase the power of Congress.[51] An anonymous letter circulated among the officers; the document called for the payment of soldiers and threatened mutiny against General Washington and Congress. In a gathering of army officers in March 1783, Washington denounced the letter, but promised to lobby Congress for payment. Washington's speech defused the brewing Newburgh Conspiracy, named for the New York town in which the army was encamped, but dissatisfaction among the soldiers remained high. In May 1783, fearing a mutiny, Washington furloughed most of his army.[52]

On Washington's request, Congress attempted to pass an amendment granting the national government the power to levy an impost on imports, but the amendment was defeated by the states. Morris finally paid the army with certificates that the soldiers labeled "Morris notes." The notes promised to pay the soldiers in six months, but few of the soldiers believed that they would ever actually receive payment. Most of the Morris notes were sold to speculators.[53] Many of the impoverished enlisted men were forced to beg for help on their journeys home. In June, the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 broke out among angry soldiers who demanded payment, causing Congress to relocate the capital to Princeton. Upon re-convening, Congress reduced the size of the army from 11,000 to 2,000. On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned from the army, earning the admiration of many for his willingness to relinquish power.[54] Following Washington's resignation, the army shrank to a mere 625 soldiers, while Congress effectively disbanded the Continental Navy in 1785 with the sale of the USS Alliance. The small, poorly equipped army would prove powerless to prevent squatters from moving onto Native American lands, further inflaming a tense situation on the American frontier.[55]

Western settlement

After the war, tens of thousands of Americans settled new lands located far from the Atlantic Coast. Though life in these new lands proved hard for many, Western settlement offered the prize of property, an unrealistic aspiration for some in the East.[56] Westward expansion stirred enthusiasm even in those who did not move west, and Washington co-founded the Potomac Company to build a canal linking the Potomac River with Ohio River. Washington hoped that this canal would provide a cultural and economic link between the East and West, thus ensuring that the West would not ultimately secede.[57] Land speculators such as the Ohio Company acquired title to vast tracts of land in the West, and often came into conflict with settlers.[58]

In 1784, Virginia formally ceded its claims north of the Ohio River, and Congress created a government for the region now known as the Old Northwest with the Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Land Ordinance of 1785. These laws established the principle that Old Northwest would be governed by a territorial government, under the aegis of Congress, until it reached a certain level of political and economic development. At that point, the former territories would enter the union as states, with rights equal to that of any other state.[59] The federal territory stretched across most of the area west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River, though Connecticut retained a small part of its claim in the West in the form of the Connecticut Western Reserve, a strip of land south of Lake Erie.[60] In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which granted Congress greater control of the region by establishing the Northwest Territory. Under the new arrangement, many of the formerly elected officials of the territory were instead appointed by Congress.[61] In order to attract Northern settlers, Congress outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory, though it also passed a fugitive slave law to appease the Southern states.[62]

While most the Old Northwest fell under the control of the federal government, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia retained control of the Old Southwest. as each state claimed territory that extended to the Mississippi River.[63] In 1784, settlers in Western North Carolina sought statehood as the State of Franklin, but their efforts were denied by Congress, which did not want to set a precedent regarding the secession of states.[64] With Virginia's consent, the western portion of Virginia nearly gained statehood as the state of Kentucky, but Congress chose to deny it statehood after the ratification of the Constitution in 1788.[65] Georgia's smaller population, and the presence of the Spanish and powerful Native American tribes, prevented it from fostering western settlement to the same degree as in Virginia and North Carolina.

With the aid of two foreign powers, Native Americans resisted western settlement. Though Southern leaders and many nationalists lent their political support to the settlers, most Northern leaders were more concerned with trade than with western settlement, and the weak national government lacked the power to compel concessions from foreign governments. The 1784 closure of the Mississippi River by Spain denied access to the sea for the exports of Western farmers, greatly impeding efforts to settle the West, and they provided arms to Native Americans.[66] The British had restricted settlement of the trans-Appalachian lands prior to 1776, and they continued to supply arms to Native Americans after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Between 1783 and 1787, hundreds of settlers died in low-level conflicts with Native Americans, and these conflicts discouraged further settlement.[67] As Congress provided little military support against the Native Americans, most of the fighting was done by the settlers.[68] By the end of the decade, the frontier was engulfed in the Northwest Indian War against a confederation of Native American tribes.[69] These Native Americans sought the creation of an independent Indian barrier state with the support of the British, posing a major foreign policy challenge to the United States.[70]

Economy and trade

A brief recession followed the war, but prosperity returned by 1786. Those who remained benefited from the exodus of many Loyalists who left behind their land and businesses.[71] Almost twenty percent of Americans had remained loyal to Britain, and as many as 80,000 of these Loyalists left the United States during and after the war.[72] Economically mid-Atlantic states recovered particularly quickly and began manufacturing and processing goods, while New England and the South experienced more uneven recoveries.[73] Trade with Britain resumed, and the volume of British imports after the war matched the volume from before the war, though exports fell precipitously.[74] Adams, serving as the ambassador to Britain, called for a retaliatory tariff in order to force the British to negotiate a commercial treaty, particularly regarding access to Caribbean markets. However, Congress lacked the power to regulate foreign commerce or compel the states to follow a unified trade policy, and Britain proved unwilling to negotiate.[75] While trade with the British did not fully recover, the U.S. expanded trade with France, China, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other European countries. Despite these good economic conditions, many traders complained of the high duties imposed by each state, which served to restrain interstate trade. Many creditors also suffered from the failure of domestic governments to repay debts incurred during the war.[76] Though the 1780s saw moderate economic growth, many experienced economic anxiety, and Congress received much of the blame for failing to foster a stronger economy.[77]

Foreign affairs

In 1776, the Continental Congress had drafted the Model Treaty, which served as a guide for U.S. foreign policy during the 1780s. The treaty sought to abolish trade barriers such as tariffs, while avoiding political or military entanglements.[78] In this, it reflected the foreign policy priorities of many Americans, who sought to play a large role in the global trading community while avoiding war. Lacking a strong military, and divided by differing sectional priorities, the U.S. was often forced to accept unfavorable terms of trade during the 1780s.[79]


William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, had served as Prime Minister during the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris. Shelburne had hoped for peaceful relations and increased trade with the U.S., but his government fell in 1783, and his successors were less intent on amicable relations with the United States.[80] The British continued to pursue mercantilist economic policies, and excluded the U.S. from trading with its Caribbean colonies. Britain flooded the U.S. with manufactured goods, while withholding goods that could have aided U.S. industrialization.[81] In the Western territories, the British retained control of several forts and continued to cultive alliances with Native Americans and potentially disloyal American settlers.[82] Their policies slowed down U.S. settlement while also allowing Britain to extract profits from the lucrative fur trade.[83] The British justified their continued occupation of the forts on the basis that the U.S. states had impeded the collection of pre-war debts, which a subsequent investigation by Jay confirmed. As there was little the powerless Congress could do to coerce the states into action, the British retained their justification to continue to occupy the forts.[84] The British hoped that the U.S. would ultimately collapse due to its lack of cohesion, at which point they could re-establish hegemony over North America.[85]


Spain, a co-belligerent during the Revolutionary War, controlled the territories of Florida and Louisiana, positioned to the south and west of the United States, respectively. Americans had long recognized the importance of navigation rights on the Mississippi River, as it was the only realistic outlet for many settlers in the trans-Appalachian lands to ship their products to the Eastern Seaboard and other markets.[86] Despite having fought a common enemy in the Revolutionary War, Spain saw U.S. expansionism as a threat to its empire. Seeking to stop the American settlement of the Old Southwest, Spain denied the U.S. navigation rights on the Mississippi River, provided arms to Native Americans, and recruited friendly American settlers to the sparsely populated territories of Florida and Louisiana.[87] Additionally, Spain disputed the Southern and Western borders of the United States. The most important border dispute centered on the border between Georgia and West Florida, as Spain and the United States both claimed parts of present-day Alabama and Mississippi. Spain also conspired with U.S. General James Wilkinson in a plot to make much of the Southwestern United States secede.[88]

Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay sought a treaty with Spain to resolve these disputes and expand commerce with Spain. The resulting Jay–Gardoqui Treaty would have required the U.S. to renounce any right to access the Mississippi River for twenty-five years in return for a commercial treaty and the mutual recognition of borders. In 1786, Jay submitted the treaty to Congress, precipitating a divisive debate.[89] Southerners, led by James Monroe of Virginia, opposed the provision regarding the Mississippi and accused Jay of favoring Northeastern commercial interests over Western growth. Ratification of treaties required nine votes under the Articles of Confederation, and all five Southern states voted against ratification, dooming the treaty.[90]


Under the leadership of Foreign Minister Vergennes, France had entered the Revolutionary War, in large part to damage the British. The French were an indispensable ally during the war, providing supplies, finances, and a powerful navy. In 1778, France and the United States signed the Treaty of Alliance, establishing a "perpetual" military alliance, as well as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which established commercial ties.[91] In the Treaty of Paris, Britain consented to relatively favorable terms to the United States partly out of a desire to weaken U.S. dependency on France. After the war, the U.S. sought increased trade with France, but commerce between the two countries remained limited.[92] The U.S. also requested French aid in pressuring the British to evacuate their forts in U.S. territory, but the French were not willing to intervene in Anglo-American relations again.[93]

Other issues

The Barbary pirates, who operated out of the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, posed a threat to shipping in the Mediterranean Sea during the late 18th century. Most European powers paid the Barbary pirates tribute to avoid their raids, but the U.S. was not willing to meet the terms sought by the pirates, in part due to the national government's lack of revenue. As such, the pirates preyed on U.S. shipping during the 1780s.[94]

Creation of a new constitution

Reform efforts

Many in Congress bemoaned the lack of power granted to the national government, and during the Revolutionary War several members of Congress proposed granting greater military and revenue-raising powers to Congress. Soldiers and former soldiers formed a powerful bloc calling for a stronger national government, which they believed would have allowed better war-time leadership. Merchants also sought a strong national government that could provide order and sound economic policies. Many expansionists also sought greater powerful for the national government, as they believed the national government could best protect American lands in the West. Despite growing feelings of nationalism, particularly among younger Americans, the efforts of nationalists to grant Congress greater powers were defeated by those who preferred the continued supremacy of the states.[95] The end of the war in 1783 temporarily ended any possibility of the states giving up power to a central government.[96] Most Americans saw the Revolutionary War as a struggle against a strong government, and few state leaders were willing to surrender their own state's sovereignty.[97]

The national government's inability to resist foreign governments convinced many leaders, including Washington, Madison, and Hamilton, of the need for a new constitution with a stronger national government.[98] Additionally, John Jay, Henry Knox, and others called for an independent executive who could govern more decisively than a large, legislative body like Congress.[99] In 1786, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina proposed the creation of a grand Congressional committee to consider constitutional amendments. The committee proposed seven amendments, and its proposals would have granted the central government the power to regulate commerce and fine states that failed to supply adequate funding to Congress. Congress failed to act on these proposals, and reformers began to take action outside of Congress.[100]

Calling the Philadelphia Convention

In 1785, Washington hosted the Mount Vernon Conference, which established an agreement between Maryland and Virginia regarding several commercial issues. Encouraged by this example of interstate cooperation, Madison convinced the Virginia assembly to host another conference, the Annapolis Convention, with the goal of promoting interstate trade.[101] Only five state delegations attended the convention, but the delegates that did attend largely agreed on the need to reform the federal government. The delegates called for a second convention to take place in 1787 in Philadelphia to consider constitutional reform. In the months after the Annapolis Convention, reformers took steps to ensure better turnout at the next convention. They secured the blessing of Congress to consider constitutional reform and made sure to invite Washington, the most prominent national leader. The nationalist call for a constitutional convention was bolstered by the outbreak of Shays' Rebellion, which convinced many of the need for a national government powerful enough to help suppress uprisings.[102]

Though there was not a widespread feeling in the population that the Articles of Confederation needed major reform, the leaders of each state recognized the problems posed by the weak national government. When the Philadelphia Convention opened in May 1787, every state but Rhode Island sent a delegation. Three quarters of the delegates had served in Congress, and all recognized the difficulty, and importance, of amending the Articles. Though each delegate feared the loss of their own state's power, there was wide agreement among the delegates that the United States required a stronger federal government capable of effectively managing foreign relations and ensuring national security. Many also hoped to establish a uniform currency and national copyright and immigration laws. With the attendance of powerful and respected leaders like Washington and Franklin, who helped provide some measure of legitimacy to the convocation, the delegates agreed to pursue sweeping changes to the national government.[103]

Writing a new constitution

Shortly after the convention began in September 1787 delegates elected Washington preside over the convention and agreed that the meetings would not be open to the public. The latter decision allowed for the consideration of an entirely new constitution, as open consideration of a new constitution would likely have inspired great public outcry. Shortly after the start of the convention, Virginia's delegates introduced a set of reforms known as the Virginia Plan. Drafted by Madison, the Virginia Plan called for a stronger national government with three independent branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. The plan granted the federal government legislative power on all issues, as well as the power to nullify state laws. Madison's plan was well-received and served as the basis for the convention's discussion, though several of its provisions were altered over the course of the convention.[104] During the convention, Madison and James Wilson of Pennsylvania emerged as two of the most important advocates of a new constitution based on the Virginia Plan, while prominent opponents to the final document would include Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry.[105]

The balance of power between the federal government and the state governments emerged as the most debated topic of the convention, and the convention ultimately agreed to a framework in which the federal and state governments shared power. The federal government would regulate interstate and foreign commerce, coin money, and oversee foreign relations, but states would continue to exercise power in other areas. A second major issue was the allocation of Congressional representatives. Delegates from large states wanted representation in Congress to be proportional to population, while delegates from smaller states preferred that each state receive equal representation. In the Connecticut Compromise, the delegates agreed to create a bicameral Congress in which each state received equal representation in the upper house (the Senate), while representation in the lower house (the House of Representatives) was apportioned by population. The issue of slavery also threatened to derail the convention, though national abolition was not a priority for Northern delegates. The delegates agreed to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted three-fifths of the slave population for the purposes of taxation and representation. Southerners also won inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause, which allowed owners to recover their escaped slaves from free states, as well as a clause that forbid Congress from banning the Atlantic slave trade until 1808. The delegates of the convention also sought to limit the democratic nature of the new constitution, with indirect elections established for the Senate and the office of the President of the United States, who would lead the executive branch.[106]

The proposed constitution contained several other important differences from the Articles of Confederation. States saw their economic power severely curtailed, and notably were barred from impairing contracts. While members of the Confederate Congress and most state legislators served one-year terms, members of the House would serve for two-year terms and members of the Senate would serve for six-year terms. Neither house of Congress would be subject to term limits. Though the states would elect members of the Senate, the House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people. The president would be elected independent of the legislature, and hold broad powers over foreign affairs, military policy, and appointments. The president also received the power to veto legislation. The judicial power of the United States would be vested in the Supreme Court of the United States and any inferior courts established by Congress, and these courts would have jurisdiction over federal issues. The amendment process would no longer require unanimous consent of the states, although it still required the approval of Congress and a majority of states.[107]

Struggle for ratification

Constitutional ratification by state[108]
  Date State Votes
Yea Nay
1 December 7, 1787 Delaware 30 0
2 December 11, 1787 Pennsylvania 46 23
3 December 18, 1787 New Jersey 38 0
4 January 2, 1788 Georgia 26 0
5 January 9, 1788 Connecticut 128 40
6 February 6, 1788 Massachusetts 187 168
7 April 26, 1788 Maryland 63 11
8 May 23, 1788 South Carolina 149 73
9 June 21, 1788 New Hampshire 57 47
10 June 25, 1788 Virginia 89 79
11 July 26, 1788 New York 30 27
12 November 21, 1789 North Carolina 194 77
13 May 29, 1790 Rhode Island 34 32

Though the Philadelphia Convention had succeeded in its goal of producing a new constitution, ratification of the Constitution was not assured. Even by the end of the convention, sixteen of the fifty-five delegates had either left the convention or refused to sign the document.[109] Article Seven of the Constitution submitted the document to state conventions, rather than Congress or the state legislatures, for ratification. Though Congress had not authorized consideration of a new Constitution, most members of Congress respected the stature of the leaders who had assembled in Philadelphia.[110] Roughly one-third of the members of Congress had been delegates at the Philadelphia Convention, and these former delegates proved to be powerful advocates for the new constitution. After debating for several days, Congress transmitted the Constitution to the states without recommendation, letting each state decide for itself whether or not to ratify the document.[111]

Ratification of the Constitution required the approval of nine states. The ratification debates in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia were of particular importance, as they were the four largest and most powerful states in the nation.[112] Those who advocated ratification took the name Federalists. To sway the closely divided New York legislature, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay anonymously published The Federalist Papers, which became seminal documents that affected the debate in New York and other states.[113] Opponents of the new constitution became known as Anti-Federalists. Though most Anti-Federalists acknowledged the need for changes to the Articles of Confederation, they feared the establishment of a powerful, and potentially tyrannical, central government. Members of both camps held wide ranges of views; for example, some Anti-Federalists like Luther Martin wanted only minor changes to the Articles of Confederation, while others such as George Mason favored a less powerful version of the federal government proposed by the Constitution.[114] Federalists were strongest in eastern, urban counties, while Anti-Federalists tended to be stronger in rural areas.[115] Each faction engaged in a spirited public campaign to shape the ratification debate, though the Federalists tended to be better financed and organized. Over time, the Federalists were able to convince many in the skeptical public of the merits of the new Constitution.[116]

The Federalists won their first ratification victories in December 1787, when Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all ratified the Constitution.[117] By the end of February 1788, six states, including Massachusetts, had ratified the Constitution. In Massachusetts, the Federalists won over skeptical delegates by promising that the first Congress of the new Constitution would consider amendments limiting the federal government's power. This promise to amend the Constitution after its ratification proved to be extremely important in other ratification debates, as it helped Federalists win the votes of those who saw the need for the Constitution but opposed some of its provisions.[118] In the following months, Maryland and South Carolina ratified the Constitution, but North Carolina voted against ratification, leaving the document just one state short of taking effect. In June 1788, New Hampshire and Virginia both ratified the document. In Virginia, as in Massachusetts, Federalists won support for the Constitution by promising ratification of several amendments. Though Anti-Federalism was strong in New York, its constitutional convention nonetheless ratified the document in July 1788 since failure to do so would leave the state outside of the union. Rhode Island, the lone state which had not sent a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, was viewed as a lost cause by the Federalists due to its strong opposition to the proposed constitution, and it would not ratify the Constitution until 1790.[119]

Inauguration of a new government

1789 electoral vote totals
George Washington69
John Adams34
John Jay9
Robert H. Harrison6
John Rutledge6
John Hancock4
George Clinton3
Samuel Huntington2
John Milton2
James Armstrong1
Benjamin Lincoln1
Edward Telfair1

In September 1788, the Congress of the Confederation formally certified that the Constitution had been ratified. It also set the date for the presidential election and the first meeting of the new federal government. Additionally, Congress engaged in debate regarding where the incoming government would meet, with Baltimore briefly emerging as the favorite. To the displeasure of Southern and Western interests, Congress ultimately chose to retain New York City as the seat of government.[121][122]

Though Washington desired to resume his retirement following the Constitutional Convention, the American public at large anticipated that he would be the nation's first president. Federalists such as Hamilton eventually coaxed him to accept the office. On February 4, 1789, the Electoral College, the mechanism established by the Constitution to conduct the indirect presidential elections, met for the first time, with each state's presidential electors gathering in their state's capital. Under the rules then in place, each elector could vote for two persons (but the two people chosen by the elector could not both inhabit the same state as that elector), with the candidate who won the most votes becoming president and the candidate with the second-most becoming vice president. Each elector cast one vote for Washington, while John Adams won the most votes of all other candidates, and thus won election as vice president. Electors from 10 of the 13 states cast votes. There were no votes from New York, because their The New York legislature failed to appoint its allotted electors in time; North Carolina and Rhode Island did not participate as they had not yet ratified the Constitution.[123][124]

The Federalists performed well in the concurrent House and Senate elections, ensuring that the both chambers of United States Congress would be dominated by proponents of the federal government established by the Constitution.[125] This in turn ensured that there would not be a constitutional convention to propose amendments, which many Federalists had feared would critically weaken the national government.[126]

The new federal government commenced operations with the seating of the 1st Congress in March 1789 and the inauguration of Washington the following month. In September 1789, Congress approved the United States Bill of Rights, a group of Constitutional amendments designed to protect individual liberties against federal interference, and the states ratified these amendments in 1791. After Congress voted for the Bill of Rights, North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified the Constitution in 1790 and 1791, respectively.[127][128]

See also


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Works cited

  • Chandler, Ralph Clark (Winter 1990). "Public Administration Under the Articles of Confederation". Public Administration Quarterly. 13 (4): 433–450. JSTOR 40862257. 
  • Ferling, John (2003). A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford University Press. 
  • Ferling, John (2009). The Ascent of George Washington. Bloomsbury Press. 
  • Herring, George (2008). From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Oxford University Press. 
  • Lienesch, Michael (January 1983). "Historical Theory and Political Reform: Two Perspectives on Confederation Politics". 45 (1): 94–115. JSTOR 1407276. 
  • Maier, Pauline (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. Simon & Schuster. 
  • Middlekauff, Robert (2005). The Glorious Cause: the American Revolution, 1763–1789. Oxford University Press. 
  • Taylor, Alan (2016). American Revolutions A Continental History, 1750–1804. W. W. Norton & Company. 
  • Vile, John (2005). The Constitutional Convention of 1787: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of America's Founding, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. 
  • Wood, Gordon S. (1997). The Creation of the American Republic. University of North Carolina Press. 
  • Wood, Gordon S. (2002). The American Revolution. Modern Library. 

Further reading

  • Beeman, Richard; Botein, Stephen; Carter II, Edward C., eds. (1987). Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-1719-8. 
  • Bouton, Terry. "The Trials of the Confederation." in by Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012): 370–87.
  • Coleman, Aaron N. The American Revolution, State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765–1800 (2016, Lexington Books)
  • Cress, Lawrence D. "Republican Liberty and National Security: American Military Policy as an Ideological Problem, 1783 to 1789," William and Mary Quarterly 38#1 (1981) pp. 73–96 online
  • Ellis, Joseph J. (2015). The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789. Alfred A. Knopf. 
  • Edling, Max (2003). A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. Oxford University Press. 
  • Fiske, John (December 7, 2008) [1888]. The Critical Period of American History. Project Gutenberg. EBook #27430. 
  • Fleming, Thomas. The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Collins, 2007.
  • Graebner, Norman A., Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph M. Siracusa. Foreign Affairs and the Founding Fathers: From Confederation to Constitution, 1776–1787 (Praeger, 2011)
  • Holton, Woody (2008). Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. Hill and Wang. 
  • Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781–1789 (1953).
  • Klarman, Michael (2016). The Framers' Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. Oxford University Press. 
  • Larson, Edward (2014). The Return of George Washington: Uniting the States, 1783–1789. HarperCollins. 
  • Marks, Frederick W. Independence on Trial: Foreign Affairs and the Making of the Constitution (2d ed. 1986)
  • Marshall, Jonathan. "Empire or Liberty: The Antifederalists and Foreign Policy, 1787-1788," Journal of Libertarian Studies 4#3 (Summer 1980). 233-54 online
  • Morris, Richard B. (1987). The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789. New York: Harper & Row. 
  • Nevins, Allan. The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775–1789 (1927) online edition
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