George Washington believed that political parties would be damaging to American society and needed to be avoided. Yet the politics of the 1790s (like the United States today) was dominated by the arguments of two distinct political groups: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
The political parties of the 1790s emerged because of disagreements over three main issues: the nature of government, the economy and foreign policy. By understanding these disagreements we can begin to understand the conditions that allowed for the origin of the two-party system in the United States.
Federalists & Democratic Republicans
Disagreements about how the United States should be governed emerged immediately after the revolution. However, these disagreements escalated considerably in the 1790s and can be best understood by examining the arguments between Alexander Hamilton (leader of the Federalists) and Thomas Jefferson (leader of the Anti-Federalists- also known as the Democratic Republicans).
Jefferson and Hamilton’s first major disagreement emerged over the nature of Government. Alexander Hamilton believed that for the United States to be successful it would have to be formed in a similar way to the British imperial model that had been so successful.
It would need a strong central Government, treasury and financial sector, a national army and a strong political executive representing the interests of all the states.
Jefferson, a Southern Plantation owner from Virginia, saw himself as a Virginian first and an American second. He believed that a central treasury and national army would endow the central government with too much power that an economy driven by finance would lead to reckless gambling.
He also thought a strong President would be no better than “a Polish King”, a reference to the Polish tradition of aristocrats electing their monarch from among their number. Furthermore, Jefferson was deeply mistrustful of the British and saw Hamilton’s preference for a British style system as being dangerous to the hard won freedoms of the American Revolution.
Jefferson’s preference was for political power to reside with individual states and their legislatures, not in a central government
Arguments on the economy
As well as the nature of government (a more abstract idea) Hamilton and Jefferson (and their allies) argued about more pressing economic matters. Hamilton was in charge of the Treasury under George Washington and had a very difficult job.
Under the previous Articles of Confederacy, the Government could request money from states but had no formal tax raising powers. This meant that it was very difficult for the newly formed United States to pay its international loans or raise an army.
Under Hamilton’s financial plans, the central Government would have tax raising powers, form a national bank and would print paper money to be used across all the states.
However Jefferson and his anti-federalist allies believed this was just another way of the federalists to centralise power, reduce states rights and work in the interests of the financial sector (primarily based in the north) at the expense of the agricultural sector (primarily in the South).
Disagreement on foreign policy
As well as the nature of Government and the economy, the federalist and anti-federalists divisions further emerged because of profound disagreements about foreign policy.
Jefferson, who had spent much time in France, and saw the French revolution as an extension of the American Revolution, was dismayed by the ambivalence shown by Hamilton and George Washington to France.
He believed, as did his Federalists allies, that this was further evidence of Hamilton’s desire to drive the United States back into the arms of Britain.
Hamilton however saw the French Revolution as unstable and was convinced that only improved relationships with Britain would lead to economic prosperity in the United States.
The defeat of the Federalists
By 1800 the Federalist Party effectively disappeared when Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Federalist Party, the Democratic Republicans, beat his old friend John Adams and the Federalists to the Presidency. But this very difficult decade, marked by mistrust, the rise of factional newspapers and profound arguments about the future of the United States provide the origins of the two-party system in the United States today.
The State House in Boston was designed by Charles Bullfinch, who also designed the Capitol in Washington D.C.
The election of 1796 was the first election in American history where political candidates at the local, state, and national level began to run for office as members of organized political parties that held strongly opposed political principles.
This was a stunning new phenomenon that shocked most of the older leaders of the Revolutionary Era. Even Madison, who was one of the earliest to see the value of political parties, believed that they would only serve as temporary coalitions for specific controversial elections. The older leaders failed to understand the dynamic new conditions that had been created by the importance of popular sovereignty — democracy — to the American Revolution. The people now understood themselves as a fundamental force in legitimating government authority. In the modern American political system, voters mainly express themselves through allegiances within a competitive party system. 1796 was the first election where this defining element of modern political life began to appear.
The two parties adopted names that reflected their most cherished values. The Federalists of 1796 attached themselves to the successful campaign in favor of the Constitution and were solid supporters of the federal administration. Although Washington denounced parties as a horrid threat to the republic, his vice president John Adams became the de facto presidential candidate of the Federalists. The party had its strongest support among those who favored Hamilton's policies. Merchants, creditors and urban artisans who built the growing commercial economy of the northeast provided its most dedicated supporters and strongest regional support.
This mural, located at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., represents Thomas Jefferson's views on the necessity of education.
The opposition party adopted the name Democratic-Republicans, which suggested that they were more fully committed to extending the Revolution to ordinary people. The supporters of the Democratic-Republicans (often referred to as the Republicans) were drawn from many segments of American society and included farmers throughout the country with high popularity among German and Scots-Irish ethnic groups. Although it effectively reached ordinary citizens, its key leaders were wealthy southern tobacco elites like Jefferson and Madison. While the Democratic-Republicans were more diverse, the Federalists were wealthier and carried more prestige, especially by association with the retired Washington.
The 1796 election was waged with uncommon intensity. Federalists thought of themselves as the "friends of order" and good government. They viewed their opponents as dangerous radicals who would bring the anarchy of the French Revolution to America.
The Democratic-Republicans despised Federalist policies. According to one Republican-minded New York newspaper, the Federalists were "aristocrats, endeavoring to lay the foundations of monarchical government, and Republicans [were] the real supporters of independence, friends to equal rights, and warm advocates of free elective government."
This chart depicts the electoral vote distribution for the election of 1796. John Adams (green) edged out Thomas Jefferson (yellow) for the Presidency, with Thomas Pinckney (purple) and Aaron Burr (blue) leading the runners-up. Jefferson's second-place earned him the Vice Presidency.
Clearly there was little room for compromise in this hostile environment.
The outcome of the presidential election indicated the close balance between the two sides. New England strongly favored Adams, while Jefferson overwhelmingly carried the southern states. The key to the election lay in the mid-Atlantic colonies where party organizations were the most fully developed. Adams ended up narrowly winning in the electoral college 71 to 68. A sure sign of the great novelty of political parties was that the Constitution had established that the runner-up in the presidential election would become the vice president.
John Adams took office after a harsh campaign and narrow victory. His political opponent Jefferson served as second in command.
The USS Constitution, launched on October 21, 1797, is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat.
The United States was a small new country. Regardless, it found itself in the midst of the dramatic escalation of political and military conflicts brought on by the French Revolution.
President Washington declared American neutrality in the war, breaking the terms of a 1778 treaty with France that had promised mutual assistance between the two countries. While France had aided the U.S. during the American Revolution, America would not do the same for France.
Washington's decision stemmed from his philosophical commitment to non-involvement in foreign affairs, but was also based upon pragmatic considerations. Ninety percent of all U.S. imports came from Britain and customs duties on these imports produced ninety percent of federal revenues.
The conflict in Europe created an immense opportunity for Americans. Farmers, merchants, and ship owners all stood to profit from the long European war and even American manufacturers were shielded from massive cheap imports from the Old World. The war stimulated a broad recovery of the American economy.
The assistance of American privateers was essential throughout the American Revolution and later during the French Revolution.
In the face of American neutrality that would continue a strong economic relationship with Great Britain, the French government sent Edmond Genet to the U.S. as a diplomatic envoy. Controversially, Genet was instructed to enlist American aid for the French Revolution even though Washington had established a clear policy of neutrality.
In the face of this, Genet called for American privateers to harass British ships and also opened up the French sugar islands in the Caribbean for free trade with U.S. ships. Supporters of the French Revolution, as well as those who stood to benefit from the new lucrative trade opportunities, rallied to support Genet's mission. On the other hand, Federalists saw him as a renegade who broke American laws. The French superpower clearly showed to qualms about trying to force the hand of the new American republic.
Britain responded to the offer of French free trade by seizing American ships that they suspected of carrying French goods. While Americans saw this as a deep violation of their national sovereignty and right to trade as a neutral nation, the British dismissed American claims to free trade as merely war time profiteering with the enemy.
The Northwest Territory encapsulated land that would later become Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and parts of the Dakotas, Minnesota and Montana.
At the same time, the British still occupied forts in the American northwest that were supposed to have been abandoned by the terms of the peace treaty of 1783. Not only did the British army still not surrender these strategic strongholds, but they also supplied Native Americans with goods and encouraged them to attack the U.S. from the west.
While France ignored American neutrality, the British engaged in covert and explicit acts of war. Washington responded to the aggressive British actions by sending John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, on a diplomatic mission to England. He negotiated an extremely broad agreement that dealt with issues from repaying pre-Revolutionary debts, to the British forts in the west, and the rights of free trade across the Atlantic. Jay's Treaty proved to be enormously controversial and historical judgments about its strengths and weaknesses remain sharply divided.
Clearly, America lacked the strength to force powerful Britain to capitulate on key issues. As a result the agreement largely strengthened American ties to Great Britain and was bitterly denounced by the growing political opposition to Washington and his administration. Jay became the victim of harsh public protests that included burning him in effigy. The controversial treaty passed the senate with the minimum number of votes even with Washington's total commitment to its success.
The American republic was caught between the two great superpowers of the day.
The violent uprising that was the French Revolution claimed the lives of many, including the spokesmen and leaders of all interests. Here, the head of King Louis XVI is displayed to an approving crowd.
The French Revolution brought fundamental changes to the feudal order of monarchical and aristocratic privilege. Americans widely celebrated the French Revolution in its glorious opening in 1789, as it struck at the very heart of absolutist power. France seemed to be following the American republican example by creating a constitutional monarchy where traditional elites would be restrained by written law. Where the king had previously held absolute power, now he would have to act within clear legal boundaries.
The French Revolution soon moved beyond this already considerable assault on the traditional order. Largely pushed forward by a crisis brought on by a war that began in 1792 against Prussia and Austria, the French Revolution took a dramatic turn that climaxed with the beheading of King Louis XVI and the abandonment of Christianity in favor of a new state religion based on reason. The French Revolution became far more radical than the American Revolution. In addition to a period of extreme public violence, which became known as the Reign of Terror, the French Revolution also attempted to enhance the rights and power of poor people and women. In fact, it even went so far as to outlaw slavery in the French colonies of the Caribbean.
The profound changes set in motion by the French Revolution had an enormous impact in France as well as through the large scale European war it sparked from 1792 to 1815. It also helped to transform American politics starting in the mid-1790s. While the French Revolution had initially received broad support in the United States, its radicalization in 1792-1793 led to sharp disagreement in American opinion.
This cartoon, "Corsican Crocodile dissolving the Council of Frogs," depicts Napoleon's coup d'état of the French government in 1799. Five years later he proclaimed himself Emperor of France.
Domestic attitudes toward the proper future of the American republic grew even more intense as a result of the example of revolutionary France. Conservatives like Hamilton, Washington, and others who would soon organize as the Federalist political party saw the French Revolution as an example of homicidal anarchy. When Great Britain joined European allies in the war against France in 1793, Federalists supported this action as an attempt to enforce proper order.
The opposing American view, held by men like Jefferson and others who came to organize as the Democratic-Republican political party, supported French actions as an extension of a world-wide republican struggle against corrupt monarchy and aristocratic privilege. For example, some groups among the Whiskey Rebels in western Pennsylvania demonstrated their international vision when they rallied beneath a banner that copied the radical French slogan of "liberty, equality, and fraternity."
The example of the French Revolution helped convince Americans on both sides that their political opponents were motivated by dangerous and even evil forces that threatened to destroy the young republic.
John Adams, the second President of the United States, was charged with the task of following in George Washington's formidable footsteps. The French Revolution. The emergence of the two-party system. Threats of war with France and England. The first transfer of Presidential political power. George Washington called "debauched" and worse. The clampdown of personal freedoms. Welcome to the political 1790s in America.
The extraordinary conflict that divided American life in the 1790s centered on divergent understandings of the meaning of the American Revolution and how its legacy should be nurtured in the new nation. Arguments about that fundamental question probably would have been controversial under any circumstances, but were dramatically heightened by the explosive example of the French Revolution. The United States was still a fragile experiment in republican government. Its domestic events and attitudes would greatly be shaped by events in Europe.
Painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington graces the inner-dome of the U.S. Capitol. Brumidi used classical and Renaissance imagery to commemorate the life and contributions of George Washington.
The deep conflict of the 1790s stimulated a profound new development in American politics. During the Revolution patriots had expected, and even demanded, that all virtuous people support them in a cause they saw as the only real force for the public good. Even into the 1790s, most Americans believed that there could be only one legitimate position to take on political issues. This helps to explain the rabid opinions of the period that were set before the public by a remarkable growth in newspapers during the decade. These newspapers did not pretend to be objective in how they reported events. Instead, newspapers sold issues because of their intense commitment to a particular partisan view of the contentious events of the day.
Despite all the good George Washington accomplished, he was still met with great criticism throughout his presidency.
Consider these diametrically opposed opinions about President Washington. A Federalist newspaper trumpeted, "Many a private person might make a great President; but will there ever be a President who will make so great a man as Washington?" Meanwhile, a Democratic-Republican paper condemned that same hero. "If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by Washington. . . . Let the history of the federal government instruct mankind, that the mask of patriotism may be worn to conceal the foulest designs against the liberties of the people." As this newspaper suggests, most people believed that their political enemies would destroy the nation if allowed to hold power.
It was John Adams' misfortune to be elected president in these deeply divided times. A genuine patriot and man of deep principle, domestic and international controversies placed nearly impossible challenges before the second president. If even Washington suffered harsh public attack from opposition newspapers, imagine what they were prepared to say about the less imposing John Adams.
By 1798 Adams and the Federalist Congress passed a series of laws that severely limited American civil liberties. Acting upon their judgment that political critics were treasonous opponents of good government, Adams followed the lead of Congressional leaders and heightened domestic repression. Adams supported policies that have subsequently been widely viewed as unconstitutional. Nevertheless, he was a moderating influence in his own party and refused to use the threat of war as a tool to exploit patriotic fervor to his own advantage. The gulf that separates our political attitudes from those of Adams and his Federalist colleagues in the late 1790s reveals the fundamental transformation of American political thought during that decade.
Blue Jacket, a Shawnee warrior, helped lead the Native American forces against Major General Arthur St. Clair in 1791. The clash left nearly 700 of St. Clair's people dead, compared with the approximately 40 Indians who lost their lives.
The early 1790s witnessed major crises on a number of different fronts from the perspective of the federal government. It faced domestic unrest from the backcountry. On the international front there was trouble with France and England. And Native Americans in the west regrouped to pose a significant threat to U.S. plans for expansion.
Frontier conditions were always sensitive and complicated cultural borderlands, but never more so than in the wake of the American Revolution. Almost all native groups had allied with the British and served as Loyalists during the war, but when British negotiators agreed upon the terms of the 1783 peace treaty, they offered no protection to their former Indian allies.
Most in the new American republic saw no reason to treat Native Americans well after the war. White settlers claimed ownership of all Indian lands west of the Appalachians by right of military conquest as well as by the terms of the 1783 peace treaty. But Native Americans quite rightly rejected these claims. Indians had not suffered any permanent military defeat during the Revolution, nor did a single Native American representative attend or sign the peace treaty.
This painting shows the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, a year following the defeat of several Ohio Indian tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Chief Little Turtle presents a wampum belt to General Anthony Wayne.
Given these fundamental differences of opinion, the Confederation government, as well as various state governments, negotiated with Indian groups to try and secure access for white settlement in the west. Numerous treaties from the mid and late 1780s created favorable terms for new settlement, but they were usually achieved through liquor, bribes, or physical threats.
Although the Iroquois and Cherokee still reeled from the consequences of their strong alliance with the British in the Revolutionary War, other more westerly groups spurred a collective native opposition to the increasing threat from the American republic. For example, Chief Alexander McGillivray, a mixed blood Creek in the southeast, called for expelling all whites from tribal lands and looked to the Spanish in Florida as a powerful ally against the Americans. Native groups north of the Ohio River had an even stronger ally from British Canada.
Although King George III's Proclamation of 1763 set the boundaries between the English colonies and Indian territory, the new United States looked to expand well beyond these lines.
By 1790 many of these native nations formed a broad Western Confederacy to defend themselves from aggressive American settlement. Raids by Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee scored major victories that included defeating U.S. military forces in 1790 and 1791.
Facing a real threat from western Indians, the federal government again chose to act through martial mobilization rather than negotiation. The U.S. army in the west was dramatically expanded. General "Mad Anthony" Wayne led it to a major victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo, Ohio, in August 1794. That battle shaped the conditions under which the Treaty of Greenville was negotiated in 1795. The Western Confederacy remained intact and the U.S. acknowledged Native American land ownership and renounced its claim to land through the right of conquest. However, the treaty also required native groups to relinquish control of large amounts of territory and bound them not to make alliances with other powers, namely the British. As far as western native groups were concerned, the Revolutionary War had only really come to an end with the treaty of 1795.
Realizing the Whiskey Rebellion needed to be subdued, George Washington dispatched troops to western Pennsylvania. He is pictured reviewing the men at Harrisburg.
More taxes on whiskey? "No way!" said the rebellious farmers of western Pennsylvania.
New taxes placed on whiskey to increase federal revenue cut deeply into ordinary people's livelihood. In the newly settled backcountry, poverty was widespread. For farmers to survive economically, they needed to convert bulky corn and grain into more easily transported whiskey. The new taxes debilitated this crucial economic resource for many frontier settlers from New York to Georgia.
In addition to the specific issue of the whiskey tax, many backcountry settlers resented distant rule from the more populous east coast. For example, anyone in western Pennsylvania facing charges in a federal court had to travel all the way to Philadelphia to get a trial. Furthermore, renewed Indian wars in the early 1790s made westerners resentful of what they saw as easterners' indifference to the risks of life on the frontier. The overlapping resentments soon got hotter than a distillery still.
Fisher Ames argued eloquently for the government to protect private property and maintain public order.
The violent climax occurred in the area around Pittsburgh in the summer of 1794. Following a pattern established in the American Revolution, local farmers had begun holding special meetings to discuss their opposition to the tax as early as 1792. A mass meeting in Pittsburgh declared that the people would prevent the tax from being collected and one tax collector was even tarred and feathered in protest.
President Washington soon declared such meetings unlawful, but among ordinary settlers in western Pennsylvania he was often seen as just another large-scale landowner from the east who didn't understand local conditions. Many men would not back down in the face of what they considered an oppressive and unjust tax. Matters came to a head when an angry crowd who refused to pay the tax harassed a federal marshal, tax collector, and a handful of federal soldiers. The troops surrendered and the marshal's house was torched. Other minor protests soon swept western Pennsylvania and there were rumors of holding a convention to discuss secession from the United States.
Whiskey distillers in what was known as "the American West" realized that new policies such as the whiskey tax favored businessmen who mass-produced the alcohol. They decided to band together under this flag.
The federal government reacted dramatically to the violence and the possibility of it spreading to other backcountry areas. Alexander Hamilton had long supported military mobilization to suppress the tax resistance in the west and supported Washington in raising a 13,000-troop force (larger than the Continental Army had ever been). When they arrived in the Pittsburgh area the resistance dissolved and the federal force had to search hard to arrest twenty men that they accused of involvement in the Whiskey Rebellion.
The rebellion of the summer of 1794 ultimately took on more important symbolic significance than anything else. The federal government had shown itself willing to mobilize militarily to assert its authority. Furthermore, the government made plain that the west must conform to national laws that took precedence over local customs.
But many perceived the sweeping actions of the federal government as going too far. Even an ardent Federalist like Fisher Ames observed that, "Elective rulers can scarcely ever employ the physical force of a democracy without turning the moral force or the power of public opinion against the government." Like the Shays' Rebellion eight years earlier, the Whiskey Rebellion tested the boundaries of political dissent. In both instances, the government acted swiftly — and militarily — to assert its authority.
Thomas Jefferson supported the plan to build the young nation's capital along the Potomac River; Alexander Hamilton disagreed with the selected site. Hamilton finally agreed to the idea when Jefferson pledged support for some of Hamilton's financial reforms.
The 1790s brought extraordinary divisions to the forefront of American life and politics. Strong differences about how best to maintain the benefits of the Revolution lay at the center of these conflicts. Hamilton's economic policies were among the earliest sources of tension. They sparked strong reactions not only from elected officials and ordinary farmers, but even split Washington's cabinet.
Thomas Jefferson, who was the secretary of state at the time, thought Hamilton's plans for full payment of the public debt stood to benefit a "corrupt squadron of paper dealers." To Jefferson, speculation in paper certificates threatened the virtue of the new American Republic. Even Madison, who had worked closely with Hamilton in co-authoring The Federalist Papers, thought the public debt repayment plan gave too big a windfall to wealthy financiers.
As a counter-measure Madison proposed that Congress should set aside some money for the original owners of the debts who tended to be ordinary Americans and not new investors and speculators.
On a pragmatic level Madison's idea would have been difficult to implement. Nearly half the members of Congress invested in public securities. They stood to benefit financially from Hamilton's plan. Its passage was doubly assured.
Hamilton's successful bid to charter a national Bank of the United States also brought strong opposition from Jefferson. Their disagreement about the bank stemmed from sharply opposed interpretations of the Constitution. For Jefferson, such action was clearly beyond the powers granted to the federal government. In his "strict interpretation" of the Constitution, Jefferson pointed out that the tenth amendment required that all federal authority be expressly stated in the law. Nowhere did the Constitution allow for the federal government to create a bank.
Hamilton responded with a "loose interpretation" that allowed such federal action under a clause permitting Congress to make "all Laws which shall be necessary and proper."
Neither side was absolutely right. The Constitution needed interpretation. In this difference, however, we can see sharply contrasting visions for the future of the republic.
Thomas Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton's fiscal policies.
Opposition to Hamilton's financial policies spread beyond the cabinet. The legislature divided about whether or not to support the Bank of the United States. This split in Congress loomed as a potential threat to the union because northern representatives overwhelmingly voted favorably, while southerners were strongly opposed. The difference stemmed from significant economic differences between the sections. Large cities, merchants, and leading financiers were much more numerous in the north and stood to benefit from Hamilton's plans.
Keen observers began to fear that sharp sectional differences might soon threaten the union. Indeed, the Bank ultimately found support in Congress through a compromise that included a commitment to build the new federal capital on the banks of the Potomac River. In part this stemmed from the fact that southern states such as Virginia had already paid off their war debt and stood to gain nothing from a central bank. While most of the commercial beneficiaries of Hamilton's policies were concentrated in the urban northeast, the political capital of Washington, D.C. would stand in the more agricultural south. By dividing the centers of economic and political power many hoped to avoid a dangerous concentration of power in any one place or region.
The increasing discord of the early 1790s pointed toward an uncertain future. The Virginian Jefferson and the New Yorker Hamilton serve as useful figureheads for the opposing sides. While Hamilton was an adamant elitist whose policies favored merchants and financiers, Jefferson, though wealthy, favored policies aimed toward ordinary farmers.
Their differences also extended to the branch of government that each favored. Hamilton thought a strong executive and a judiciary protected from direct popular influence were essential to the health of the republic. By contrast, Jefferson put much greater faith in democracy and felt that the truest expression of republican principles would come through the legislature, which was elected directly by the people. Their differences would become even sharper as the decade wore on.
Alexander Hamilton is one of the few American figures featured on U.S. Currency who was never president. He was killed in 1804 in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Presidents Washington ($1), Lincoln ($5), Jackson ($20), and Grant ($50) all appear on currency. But what about this guy Alexander Hamilton on the ten-spot? How did he get there? A sawbuck says you'll know the answer after reading this piece.
A major problem facing the first federal government was how to deal with the financial chaos created by the American Revolution. States had huge war debts. There was runaway inflation. Almost all areas of the economy looked dismal throughout the 1780s. Economic hard times were a major factor creating the sense of crisis that produced the stronger central government under the new Constitution.
George Washington chose the talented Alexander Hamilton, who had served with him throughout the Revolutionary War, to take on the challenge of directing federal economic policy as the treasury secretary. Hamilton is a fascinating character whose ambition fueled tremendous success as a self-made man. Born in the West Indies to a single mother who was a shopkeeper, he learned his first economic principles from her and went on to apprentice for a large mercantile firm. From these modest origins, Hamilton would become the foremost advocate for a modern capitalist economy in the early national United States.
Hamilton's influential connections were not just with Washington, but included a network of leading New York merchants and financiers. His 1780 marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, from a wealthy Hudson River valley land holding family, deepened his ties to rich and powerful leaders in New York. His innovative financial policies helped overcome the fiscal problems of the Confederacy, and also benefited an economic elite with which he had close ties.
Alexander Hamilton conceived of the First Bank of the United States as a way to standardize American currency and cope with national Revolutionary War debt. The Bank still stands today on Independence National Park in Philadelphia.
The first issue that Hamilton tackled as Washington's secretary of the treasury concerned the problem of public credit. Governments at all levels had taken on so much debt during the Revolution. The commitment to pay them back was not taken very seriously. By the late 1780s, the value of such public securities had plunged to a small fraction of their face value. In other words, state IOU's — the money borrowed to finance the Revolution — were viewed as nearly worthless.
Hamilton issued a bold proposal. The federal government should pay off all Confederation (state) debts at full value. Such action would dramatically enhance the legitimacy of the new central government. To raise money to pay off the debts, Hamilton would issue new securities bonds). Investors who had purchased these public securities could make enormous profits when the time came for the United States to pay off these new debts.
The spinning jenny was one of several major technological innovations that made British textiles such an economic force.
Hamilton's vision for reshaping the American economy included a federal charter for a national financial institution. He proposed a Bank of the United States. Modeled along the lines of the Bank of England, a central bank would help make the new nation's economy dynamic through a more stable paper currency.
The central bank faced significant opposition. Many feared it would fall under the influence of wealthy, urban northeasterners and speculators from overseas. In the end, with the support of George Washington, the bank was chartered with its first headquarters in Philadelphia.
The third major area of Hamilton's economic plan aimed to make American manufacturers self-sufficient. The American economy had traditionally rested upon large-scale agricultural exports to pay for the import of British manufactured goods. Hamilton rightly thought that this dependence on expensive foreign goods kept the American economy at a limited level, especially when compared to the rapid growth of early industrialization in Great Britain.
Rather than accept this condition, Hamilton wanted the United States to adopt a mercantilist economic policy. This would protect American manufacturers through direct government subsidies (handouts to business) and tariffs (taxes on imported goods). This protectionist policy would help fledgling American producers to compete with inexpensive European imports.
Hamilton possessed a remarkably acute economic vision. His aggressive support for manufacturing, banks, and strong public credit all became central aspects of the modern capitalist economy that would develop in the United States in the century after his death. Nevertheless, his policies were deeply controversial in their day.
Many Americans neither like Hamilton's elitist attitude nor his commitment to a British model of economic development. His pro-British foreign policy was potentially explosive in the wake of the Revolution. Hamilton favored an even stronger central government than the Constitution had created and often linked democratic impulses with potential anarchy. Finally, because the beneficiaries of his innovative economic policies were concentrated in the northeast, they threatened to stimulate divisive geographic differences in the new nation.
Regardless, Hamilton's economic philosophies became touchstones of the modern American capitalist economy.
Bet you $10 you now see why he's on the $10 bill.
Although James Madison was the youngest member of the Continental Congress, his leadership was a critical factor in the development of American government. Madison proposed the Virginia Plan, he authored some of the Federalist Papers, and he wrote the Bill of Rights.
The first national election occurred in 1789. Along with President Washington, voters elected a large number of supporters of the Constitution. In fact, almost half of the ninety-one members of the first Congress had helped to write or ratify the Constitution.
Not surprisingly, given Anti-Federalists' opposition to the strong new central government, only eight opponents of the Constitution were sent to the House of Representatives. Most Anti-Federalists concentrated their efforts in state politics.
Protection of Individual Rights
An immediate issue that the new Congress took up was how to modify the Constitution. Representatives were responding to calls for amendments that had emerged as a chief issue during the ratification process. Crucial states of Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York (among others) had all ultimately supported the Constitution — but only with the expectation that explicit protections for individual rights would be added to the highest law of the land. Now that supporters of the Constitution controlled the federal government, what would they do?
The legal tradition of having a precise statement of individual rights had deep roots in Anglo-American custom. So it's not surprising that the first Congress amended the Constitution by adding what became known as the Bill of Rights.
Amendment 10: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
James Madison, now a member of Congress from Virginia, once again took the leading role crafting proposed amendments that would be sent to the states for approval. Madison skillfully reviewed numerous proposals and examples from state constitutions and ultimately selected nineteen potential amendments to the Constitution.
As one might expect, the nationalist Madison took care to make sure that none of the proposed amendments would fundamentally weaken the new central government. In the end, ten amendments were ratified in 1791.
These first ten amendments to the Constitution became known as the Bill of Rights and still stand as both the symbol and foundation of American ideals of individual liberty, limited government, and the rule of law. Most of the Bill of Rights concerns legal protections for those accused of crimes.
Rights and Protections Guaranteed in the Bill of Rights
For instance, the fourth through eighth amendments provide protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to a fair and speedy jury trial that will be free from unusual punishments.
The First Amendment, perhaps the broadest and most famous of the Bill of Rights, establishes a range of political and civil rights including those of free speech, assembly, press, and religion.
The last two amendments, respectively, spell out that this list of individual protections is not meant to exclude other ones, and, by contrast, set forth that all powers claimed by the federal government had to be expressly stated in the Constitution.
Amendment I Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Amendment III No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.
Amendment IV The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Amendment VII In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Amendment VIII Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
Amendment IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
Amendment X The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
While the Bill of Rights created no deep challenge to federal authority, it did respond to the central Anti-Federalist fear that the Constitution would unleash an oppressive central government too distant from the people to be controlled.
By responding to this opposition and following through on the broadly expressed desire for amendments that emerged during the ratification process, the Bill of Rights helped to secure broad political support for the new national government. A first major domestic issue had been successfully resolved.
Understanding the Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights remains an active force in contemporary American life as a major element of Constitutional law. The meaning of its protections remains hotly debated. For example, the privilege to bear arms to support a militia, which appears in the second amendment, produces significant political controversy today.
More sweepingly, the extension of the Bill of Rights to protect individuals from abuse not only by the federal government, but also from state and local governments remains an unsettled aspect of Constitutional interpretation.
Originally, the protections were solely meant to limit the federal government, but with the fourteenth amendment's guarantee in 1868 that no state could deprive its citizens of the protections in the Bill of Rights this original view began to be expanded. To this day the Supreme Court has not definitively decided if the entire Bill of Rights should always be applied to all levels of government.
A memorable 1776 portrait by Benjamin West, of British Colonel Guy Johnson (foreground) and Mohawk Chief, Karonghyontye, who was also known as David Hill. Notice the Indian elements in the Colonel's uniform.
Washington's towering stature and legacy might misleadingly suggest that the early years of the new nation were times of great confidence and self-congratulation. In fact, just the opposite was nearly the case. Americans knew that the historical record of the long-term success of republican governments was exceedingly poor. Previous examples and classical political theory suggested that republics almost all suffered the fate of collapsing into anarchy and then being taken over by a power-seizing tyrant.
The Philadelphia patriot Benjamin Rush keenly understood the risks facing the new nation. As a result he sharply rejected the idea that the military defeat of the British meant the end of the American Revolution. "On the contrary," he wrote in 1787," nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government."
Besides being a known American patriot, Benjamin Rush was also a premiere thinker in the area of neurology.
The unsettled domestic issues that threatened to overturn the new republic were varied and complex. Any one of the major crisis points of the early 1790s might overturn the fragile new government. Where was the greatest threat: the challenging legal and political issues raised during the ratification of the Constitution, the disastrous economy of the 1780s, popular protests against federal policies in the west, or the varied military threats from Native Americans, the British in Canada, and war in Europe? If any one of them could have toppled the government, imagine how their combination must have made Americans fear for the future of the country.
Most of these deeply unsettling threats would be addressed by the first federal government and usually in an aggressive manner that scored decisive victory. Interestingly, however, the solutions achieved by the first wielders of federal power also helped to create the conditions that would force them from office and lead to a dramatic change in American politics by 1800. To understand how much changed between the presidential elections of George Washington (1789) and Thomas Jefferson (1800), the kinds of challenges that had to be faced in the first decade of government under the new federal Constitution must be examined.
This painting, from the late 1700s, is an idyllic portrait of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate.
George Washington, like most powerful Virginians of the 18th century, derived most of his wealth and status from the labor of African and African American slaves. At his father's death in 1743, eleven-year-old George inherited ten slaves. His property grew larger with the death of his half-brother Lawrence in 1754, which brought him the 2600 -acre plantation of Mt. Vernon along with another 18 slaves.
Greater still, was the wealth that Martha Custis brought to the marriage. While most of her slaves remained on other properties, she brought 12 personal slaves with her when she moved to Mt. Vernon in 1759. Washington was energetic and purposeful in all aspects of life, which included being a successful plantation master. By 1786 his careful management had increased his property to 7300 acres and 216 slaves.
Washington's ability as a planter placed him within the traditional gentry elite of Virginia. His wealth rested on the exploitation of humans as property, but he expressed no qualms about benefiting from what we now see as a fundamentally immoral institution. However, the American Revolution challenged Washington's traditional acceptance of slavery on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds. When Washington arrived in Massachusetts in 1775 to take command of the patriot militia that was surrounding the British in Boston, he was surprised to discover that New Englanders had begun to allow free African Americans as well as slaves to join their ranks as soldiers.
After meeting with his officers, Washington reversed this policy and tried to make an all-white Continental Army. The following month the British Army in Virginia declared that any slave of a patriot master who fled to fight the patriots would gain his freedom. This policy may have been referenced by Francis Scott Key in the poem that was to become our national anthem, with the line "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: " This line, and indeed, all but the first stanza, is most often ommitted from modern performances of the anthem.
Washington immediately grasped the strategic crisis posed by this British promise of freedom in a country where one in every five people was black. In fact, seventeen Mt. Vernon slaves fled to join the British during the war. Pragmatic concerns quickly led Washington to reverse his policy and by December 1775 the Continental Army, in the North at least, included black soldiers.
An idyllic painting of what life was like on Washington's plantation, Mount Vernon.
Washington's Revolutionary ideals also helped transform his attitude toward slavery. When contemplating the British actions that compelled him to join the patriot cause, Washington explained to his old friend George Fairfax that British "custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway."
Like many other patriots of the period, Washington described British tyranny as threatening to enslave white Americans. Slavery was the condition that everyone knew to be the most extreme example of human oppression. While the invocation of the slavery metaphor was widespread, Washington went a major step further than most of his fellow slave masters. He decided to limit the severity of his plantation discipline and, ultimately, he even freed his slaves.
Washington's emancipation of his slaves was an unusual and honorable decision for a man of his day. No other Virginia Founding Father matched his bold steps. By the early 1770s Washington clearly tried to lessen the evils of slavery on his plantation. From this point on he rarely bought a slave and never sold them away from Mt. Vernon without their consent. Washington hoped to act as a humane master by keeping slave families together. However, he soon discovered that slavery was only profitable when operated in a brutal fashion. Mt. Vernon became increasingly inefficient in Washington's final two decades.
Death of Washington captures the first president on his death bed with Martha Washington by his side.
Five months before his death, Washington drew up a will that included a detailed and exact description of how his slaves were to be freed. Beyond freedom, those slaves who were children were to receive occupational training and to learn to read and write, while elderly slaves were to receive financial support. Knowing full well that some heirs would dislike this loss of their potential inheritance, Washington insisted that "this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled ... without evasion, neglect, or delay."
In spite of these far reaching actions, some may still judge Washington's post-Revolutionary attitude toward slavery too limited. At his death in 1799, Mt. Vernon included 317 slaves, but only 124 of them belonged to George and only these would be freed. The rest were Martha's. Temporarily inherited from her deceased first husband, they would pass to her heirs upon her death and could not be legally controlled by George. More significantly, however, Washington never publicly explained his new belief that slavery should end.
In a private letter in 1786 he stated, it is "among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by the legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees." Even his private commitment was to a cautious and gradual process, but he never allowed even this moderate anti-slavery position to be known publicly. In the end, Washington's commitment to national unity prevented him from throwing his enormous public stature behind the radical cause of emancipation. He feared that such action would deeply divide the new nation.
Could Washington have forged an anti-slavery coalition that might have ended the evil institution and avoided the bloodshed of the Civil War? Might public action on his part have caused an earlier civil war that would have wrecked the nation still in its infancy? Those are questions that History cannot answer and that we can never know. But it is clear that in his own cautious way Washington struggled with the most profound question of the Revolutionary Era and ultimately decided that his moral sense of what was right overcame his personal interest in perpetuating slavery.
The commercial center of Philadelphia in 1796 was located along the western shore of the Delaware River.
Washington departed the presidency and the nation's then capital city of Philadelphia in September 1796 with a characteristic sense of how to take dramatic advantage of the moment.
As always, Washington was extremely sensitive to the importance of public appearance and he used his departure to publicize a major final statement of his political philosophy. Washington's Farewell Address has long been recognized as a towering statement of American political purpose and has been read annually in the U.S. Congress as part of the national recognition of the first President's birthday for over 100 years. Although the celebration of that day and the Farewell Address no longer receives such strenuous attention, Washington's final public performance still deserves close attention.
The Farewell Address definitely embodies the core beliefs that Washington hoped would continue to guide the nation. Several hands produced the document itself. The opening paragraphs remain largely unchanged from the version drafted by James Madison in 1792, while most of the rest was penned by Alexander Hamilton, whom Washington directed to remove the bitterness from an intermediate draft that the president himself had written. Although the drawn out language of the Address follows Hamilton's style, there is little doubt that the core ideas were not only endorsed by Washington but were beliefs that he and Hamilton had developed together as the new nation's leading nationalists.
The Address opened by offering Washington's rationale for deciding to leave office and expressed mild regret at not having been able to step down after his first term. Unlike the end of his previous term, now Washington explained, "choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it." Washington was tired of the demands of public life, which had become particularly severe in his second term, and looked forward to returning to Mt. Vernon.
George Washington delivered his Farewell Address from Congress Hall in Philadelphia.
Although he might have closed the Address at this point, Washington continued at some length to express what he hoped could serve as guiding principles for the young country. Most of all Washington stressed that the "national Union" formed the bedrock of "collective and individual happiness" for U.S. citizens. As he explained, "The name of AMERICAN, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local distinctions."
Washington feared that local factors might be the source of petty differences that would destroy the nation. His defense of national unity lay not just in abstract ideals, but also in the pragmatic reality that union brought clear advantages to every region. Union promised "greater strength, greater resource, [and] proportionately greater security from danger" than any state or region could enjoy alone. He emphasized, "your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty."
The remainder of the Address, delivered at Congress Hall in Philadelphia, examined what Washington saw as the two major threats to the nation, one domestic and the other foreign, which in the mid-1790s increasingly seemed likely to combine. First, Washington warned of "the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party." To Washington political parties were a deep threat to the health of the nation for they allowed "a small but artful and enterprising minority" to "put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party."
George Washington's handwritten copy of his famous Farewell Address. Alexander Hamilton helped Washington edit his first draft.
Yet, it was the dangerous influence of foreign powers, judging from the amount of the Address that Washington devoted to it, where he predicted the greatest threat to the young United States. As European powers embarked on a long war, each hoping to draw the U.S. to its side, Washington admonished the country "to steer clear of permanent Alliances." Foreign nations, he explained, could not be trusted to do anything more than pursue their own interests when entering international treaties. Rather than expect "real favors from Nation to Nation," Washington called for extending foreign "commercial relations" that could be mutually beneficial, while maintaining "as little political connection as possible." Washington's commitment to neutrality was, in effect, an anti-French position since it overrode a 1778 treaty promising mutual support between France and the United States.
Washington's philosophy in his Farewell Address clearly expressed the experienced leader's sense that duty and interest must be combined in all human concerns whether on an individual level or in the collective action of the nation. This pragmatic sensibility shaped his character as well as his public decision-making. Washington understood that idealistic commitment to duty was not enough to sustain most men on a virtuous course. Instead, duty needed to be matched with a realistic assessment of self-interest in determining the best course for public action.
Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives rendered this portrait titled The Inauguration of Washington in 1875.
Washington happily resigned his military command at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. He saw himself living out his days as a farmer at Mt. Vernon. But he would be called on to lead the country again — this time not in war, but peace.
During the critical period of the 1780s Washington privately feared that the weak central government dictated by the Articles of Confederation threatened the long-term health of the nation. He supported the call for a Constitutional Convention and after some hesitation attended as a delegate where he was elected the presiding officer.
He took a relatively limited role, however, in the debate that created the proposed Constitution. Nor did he publicly favor ratification. It seems that his sense of personal reserve prevented him from actively campaigning. As he was likely to become the first president, he avoided the appearance of self-serving motivation by not aggressively supporting the Constitution in public.
The significance of the first presidential administration under the Constitution is hard to overstate. The Constitution provided a bare structural outline for the federal government, but how it would actually come together was unclear. The precedent established by the first president would be enormous. Washington generally proceeded with great caution. For the most part he continued precedents that had been established under the Articles of Confederation. For instance, he carried over the three departments of the government that had existed before the Constitution.
But the nationalist Washington favored a stronger central government and made sure that executive authority was independent from total legislative control. For instance, Washington appointed his own head to each department of government whom the legislature could only accept or reject. Furthermore, Washington identified the three leaders (Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton of the treasury, and Henry Knox of war) as his personal "cabinet" of advisers, thus underscoring the executive's domain. Particularly in his first term as president from 1789-1792, Washington's enormous personal popularity and stature enhanced the legitimacy of the modest new national government.
Unfortunately for Washington, events in his second term somewhat clouded his extraordinary success. For one, his own cabinet split apart as Thomas Jefferson increasingly dissented from the economic policies proposed by Alexander Hamilton, most of which Washington supported.
Even more disturbing to Washington was the emergence of a new form of political activity where the public divided into opposing parties. Although now a fundamental feature of modern democracy, Washington and many others perceived organized opposition to the government as treasonous!
These clouds at the end of Washington's public career, like the difficulties of his first military command in the 1750s, remind us that even this most stellar of the Founding Fathers hardly glided through public life without controversy. As impressive and even as indispensable as Washington had been to the creation of the new nation, he remained a leader with qualities that could not appeal to all of the people all of the time. Most interestingly perhaps, is that some of the personal qualities that made him extraordinarily effective are also ones that might make him extremely unpopular today.
Washington consciously cultivated a distance from the public and a personal reserve that made him aloof. He was a curious combination of late-18th century qualities — a regal republican whose disdain for democratic excess helped give life, power, and respectability to what would soon become the world's first modern democracy.
The Marriage of Washington to Martha Custis, by Junius Brutus Stears, (1849). Martha's 2 children from her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis are standing with other guests in the background.
George Washington was a serious man.
He carried himself with a grave dignity often described as aloofness. Quite the opposite of being an informal joker, Washington held people at a distance. A central part of his personality included strong self-control that avoided excessive camaraderie. Surely, his long military service played a significant role molding this character. First as a militia officer on the Virginia frontier preceding and during the French and Indian War (1754-58) and then again as the commander of the Continental Army (1775-83), Washington believed that familiarity could weaken the respect an officer needed for effective command.
The Battle of Fort Necessity was the first major military action in George Washington's career. The site has been designated a National Battlefield.
During his first military term, Washington had been sent west by the Governor of Virginia to try to keep the French out of newly claimed Virginia land. Such an expedition required great skill not only with the French and difficult frontier conditions, but also an awareness of the importance of Native Americans in shaping the balance of power in the contested region. The youthful Washington, basically in his first command, clearly lacked the necessary experience. His rash killing of members of a French diplomatic mission and then his defeat at the Battle of Fort Necessity in July 1754 made for a disastrous start to the French and Indian War.
Matters were made worse by the sharp divisions that separated Virginia militia traditions from those of the regular British Army. Where Washington naively thought he had performed rather well and hoped to receive a commission to become a full-fledged British officer, the British saw him as an incompetent provincial officer who lacked the aristocratic birth, the wealth, and the skill required of a proper British officer.
"Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all." -George Washington, 1759, in a letter to the captains of the Virginia Regiments during the French and Indian War. This image is a copy of an engraving by H.B. Hall after Alonzo Chappel, showing Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78.
Washington's experience in the French and Indian War later included some bright moments and he became Virginia's most celebrated hero of the war thanks in large part to several remarkable escapes from heavy gunfire. Washington's leading knowledge of frontier conditions and enormous personal energy had made him a charismatic figure. But overall his leadership in this first long war was badly flawed.
When Washington returned to active military leadership at the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, he again faced enormous challenges. But he also had matured in the decade and a half between conflicts and had developed a much more sophisticated understanding of the political dimension of military leadership. Washington had married the wealthy widow Martha Custis in 1759 and with her money had expanded Mt. Vernon and turned it into an impressive plantation. Furthermore, he had served several terms in the Virginia legislature and had become a much more experienced leader. Although Washington's record as a military strategist is sometimes questioned, he did score a handful of absolutely critical victories in the Revolutionary War.
Washington's key strategic insight was to realize that independence depended more on keeping an army in the field than on winning major battles. In spite of a persistent lack of adequate funding from the Congress and in the face of growing conflict from his own officers and enlisted men, Washington held the army together through a skilled combination of discipline and personal example. The army's survival at Valley Forge in the harsh winter of 1777-1778 is the classic example.
Washington's greatest contribution to the Revolutionary War, however, was his consistent acknowledgment of the preeminence of civilian leadership. When other military leaders might have been tempted to seize political power and rule as a more efficient strong man, Washington's respect for the preeminence of civil authority over martial authority kept the republican experiment alive.
Charles Willson Peale portrays George Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Provincials in this oil painting from 1772.
Believe it or not, George Washington was once a kid. He rode horses. He thought about running away from home and going off to sea.
Not only does our assessment of Washington begin before he was famous, but it also starts before the distortions of mythmakers whose accounts of Washington led them to make up stories to explain his greatness. Relatively little information about his early childhood survives, but it's clear that the story of the cherry tree and that young Washington never telling a lie is itself a fabrication.
He was born in 1732 into a Virginia family of modest wealth. Although not among the richest or most politically powerful families of the day, the Washington household property included 20 slaves by 1743. Had the family fortune continued to expand, Washington might have found himself beginning to enter the top rank of Virginia society. However, inheritance was not to be his route to greatness. George's father died when he was only 11 and he ended up moving in with Lawrence Washington, his older half-brother.
This early lithograph depicts young George Washington honing his skills as a surveyor.
Lawrence became an important role model for young George. He was particularly impressed by his half-brother's service in an American regiment of the British Army in a campaign against the Spanish in Colombia, South America.
Another important influence on George was a local boy named George William Fairfax who hailed from a prominent family. Washington's skill at horseback riding won the favor of the visiting Lord Fairfax. When a surveying party went west to measure the Fairfax's vast new royal grant of land, 16-year-old George went along for the adventure. More than just fun times, the experience began Washington's life-long interest in western lands and equipped him with surveying and backwoods skills that would serve him well in the future.
Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, England is the ancestral home of the Washington family.
As often happened in the colonial period, early death struck the Washington family once more when Lawrence died in 1752. By the age of 20 George had suffered the death of both his real and surrogate fathers. Along with this second major loss came the end of George's hopes to get an education in England — part of the required training for elite men in colonial Virginia.
George inherited Lawrence's 2600-acre estate and 18 slaves who made the Mount Vernon plantation profitable. In a colonial world where connections to powerful people and family tradition played an important role in securing public office, George managed to win the title of major in the Virginia militia that had previously been held by Lawrence. Although lacking significant military experience, George Washington was about to ride into a public career that would carry him to national fame. But first he would have to ride to the frontier and make a name for himself battling French and Indian foes.
In this portrait, Washington at Window, circa 1948 (artist unknown), a thoughtful George Washington pauses from his writing for a moment.
A brilliant group of political leaders emerged during the Revolutionary Era and the early years of the new nation. Collectively, they are called the Founding Fathers and their names are familiar — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
Late 18th-century America still had a relatively small population, yet this group of major figures looms larger and appears more talented than any similar group at any other time in the country's history. It seems clear that the momentous events of the period and their obvious significance, encouraged many, perhaps most, of these individuals to step beyond the bounds of ordinary life to achieve greatness.
This is a mid-19th century painting of George Washington at Valley Forge.
Perhaps the most eminent of this group, and almost certainly the single most important for the success of the Revolution and the stability of the new nation, was George Washington. As an able delegate from Virginia, he participated in the First and Second Continental Congresses.
However, his role in the fight toward independence became crucial during the war itself when he served for its duration as the commander of the Continental Army. After a brief retirement from public service, he once again became a political leader at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where he was elected the presiding officer. Once Washington somewhat reluctantly agreed to be a presidential candidate, his election in 1789 received almost universal support. Everyone knew that he was the obvious choice to be the first president of the United States.
What made Washington such a towering figure even among this group of outstanding leaders? How did his personality and personal experiences help shape not only his own public career, but also the country's course in these critical founding years? Examining him in biographical detail can help us to understand many central elements of the creation of the nation. Washington's path to greatness also suggests significant ways that American life and politics have changed dramatically since the nation's founding in the late 18th century.
1987 marked the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution.
With the narrow approval of the Constitution in Virginia and New York, in June and July 1788, respectively, the Federalists seemed to have won an all-out victory. The relatively small states of North Carolina and Rhode Island would hold out longer, but with 11 states ratifying and all the populous ones among them, the Federalists had successfully waged a remarkable political campaign of enormous significance and sweeping change.
The ratification process included ugly political manipulation as well as brilliant developments in political thought. For the first time, the people of a nation freely considered and approved their form of government. It was also the first time that people in the United States acted on a truly national issue. Although still deciding the issue state-by-state, everyone was aware that ratification was part of a larger process where the whole nation decided upon the same issue. In this way, the ratification process itself helped to create a national political community built upon and infusing loyalty to distinct states. The development of an American national identity was spurred on and closely linked to the Constitution.
This maps shows how the U.S. in 1789 was divided into 4 federal court districts. Take note that Rhode Island and North Carolina had not ratified the Constitution and weren't part of the districting.
The Federalists' efforts and goals were built upon expanding this national commitment and awareness. But the Antifederalists even in defeat contributed enormously to the type of national government created through ratification. Their key objection challenged the purpose of a central government that didn't include specific provisions protecting individual rights and liberties. Since the new national government was even more powerful and even more distant from the people, why didn't it offer the kinds of individual protections in law that most state constitutions had come to include by 1776?
To the Antifederalists, the separation of powers was far too mild a curb against the threat of government tyranny. As a result states beginning with Massachusetts ratified the Constitution, but called for further protections to be taken up by the new Congress as soon as it met. This loomed on the unresolved political agenda of the national Congress and the adoption of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) is a legacy of the victory-in-defeat of Antifederalists. Their continued participation in the political process even when they seemed to have lost on the more general issue had immense importance.
The Constitution was created out of a tough-minded political process that demanded hard work, disagreement, compromise, and conflict. Out of that struggle the modern American nation took shape and would continue to be modified.
The Federalist Papers were a series of essays by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison written for the Federalist newspaper.
The convention in Virginia began its debate before nine states had approved the Constitution, but the contest was so close and bitterly fought that it lasted past the point when the technical number needed to ratify had been reached. Nevertheless, Virginia's decision was crucial to the nation. Who can imagine the early history of the United States if Virginia had not joined the union? What if leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison had not been allowed to hold national political office? In the end Virginia approved the Constitution, with recommended amendments, in an especially close vote (89-79). Only one major state remained, the Constitution was close to getting the broad support that it needed to be effective.
Perhaps no state was as deeply divided as New York, where the nationalist-urban artisan alliance could strongly carry New York City and the surrounding region, while more rural upstate areas were strongly Antifederalist. The opponents of the Constitution had a strong majority when the convention began and set a tough challenge for Alexander Hamilton, the leading New York Federalist. Hamilton managed a brilliant campaign that narrowly won the issue (30-27) by combining threat and accommodation. On the one hand, he warned that commercial down state areas might separate from upstate New York if it didn't ratify. On the other hand, he accepted the conciliatory path suggested by Massachusetts; amendments would be acceptable after ratification.
America's first native sculptor, John Frazee, was unhappy with the amount of foreign artists doing work for the new Capitol. He was more than happy to do this very classical looking bust of John Jay.
The debate in New York produced perhaps the most famous exploration of American political philosophy, now called The Federalist Papers. Originally, they were a series of 85 anonymous letters to newspapers, which were co-written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Together they tried to assure the public of the two key points of the Federalist agenda. First, they explained that a strong government was needed for a variety of reasons, but especially if the United States was to be able to act effectively in foreign affairs. Second, it tried to convince readers that because of the "separation" of powers in the central government, there was little chance of the national government evolving into a tyrannical power. Instead of growing ever stronger, the separate branches would provide a "check and balance" against each other so that none could rise to complete dominance.
The influence of these newspaper letters in the New York debate is not entirely known, but their status as a classic of American political thought is beyond doubt. Although Hamilton wrote the majority of the letters, James Madison authored the ones that are most celebrated today, especially Federalist, Number 10.
John Jay contributed to the Federalist Papers and was in charge of foreign affairs for the fledgling nation.
Here Madison argued that a larger republic would not lead to greater abuse of power (as had traditionally been thought), but actually could work to make a large national republic a defense against tyranny. Madison explained that the large scope of the national republic would prevent local interests from rising to dominance and therefore the larger scale itself limited the potential for abuse of power. By including a diversity of interests (he identified agriculture, manufacturing, merchants, and creditors, as the key ones), the different groups in a larger republic would cancel each other out and prevent a corrupt interest from controlling all the others.
Madison was one of the first political theorists to offer a profoundly modern vision of self-interest as an aspect of human nature that could be employed to make government better, rather than more corrupt. In this he represents a key figure in the transition from a traditional republican vision of America, to a modern liberal one where self-interest has a necessary role to play in public life.
The man behind the signature: This portrait of John Hancock was painted by John Singleton Copley.
The ratification process started when the Congress turned the Constitution over to the state legislatures for consideration through specially elected state conventions of the people. Five state conventions voted to approve the Constitution almost immediately (December 1787 to January 1788) and in all of them the vote was unanimous (Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia) or lopsided (Pennsylvania, Connecticut). Clearly, the well-organized Federalists began the contest in strong shape as they rapidly secured five of the nine states needed to make the Constitution law. The Constitution seemed to have easy, broad, and popular support.
However, a closer look at who ratified the Constitution in these early states and how it was done indicates that the contest was much closer than might appear at first glance. Four of the five states to first ratify were small states that stood to benefit from a strong national government that could restrain abuses by their larger neighbors.
This copy of the Constitution was used by delegates to the New York ratification convention.
The process in Pennsylvania, the one large early ratifier, was nothing less than corrupt. The Pennsylvania state assembly was about to have its term come to an end, and had begun to consider calling a special convention on the Constitution, even before Congress had forwarded it to the states. Antifederalists in the state assembly tried to block this move by refusing to attend the last two days of the session, since without them there would not be enough members present for the state legislature to make a binding legal decision. As a result extraordinarily coercive measures were taken to force Antifederalists to attend. Antifederalists were found at their boarding house and then dragged through the streets of Philadelphia and deposited in the Pennsylvania State House with the doors locked behind them. The presence of these Antifederalists against their will, created the required number of members to allow a special convention to be called in the state, which eventually voted 46 to 23 to accept the Constitution.
The first real test of the Constitution in an influential state with both sides prepared for the contest came in Massachusetts in January 1788. Here influential older Patriots like Governor John Hancock and Sam Adams led the Antifederalists. Further, the rural western part of the state, where Shays' Rebellion had occurred the previous year, was an Antifederalist stronghold. A bitterly divided month-long debate ensued that ended with a close vote (187-168) in favor of the Constitution. Crucial to this narrow victory was the strong support of artisans who favored the new commercial powers of the proposed central government that might raise tariffs (taxes) on cheap British imports that threatened their livelihood. The Federalists' narrow victory in Massachusetts rested on a cross-class alliance between elite nationalists and urban workingmen.
A revolutionary leader in Massachusetts, Samuel Adams founded Bowdoin College when he was governor of Massachusetts. At the time, Maine (where Bowdoin College is located) was part of Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts vote also included an innovation with broad significance. John Hancock who shifted his initial opposition to the Constitution led the move toward ratification. Satisfied that certain amendments protecting individual rights were going to be considered by the first new Congress that would meet should the Constitution become law. This compromise helped carry the narrow victory in Massachusetts and was adopted by every subsequent state convention to ratify (except Maryland).
By the spring conventions in the required nine states had ratified, and the Constitution could become law. But with powerful, populous, and highly divided Virginia and New York yet to vote, the legitimacy of the new national system had not yet been fully resolved.
Patrick Henry delivers his famous "If this be treason, make the most of it!" speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses.
The Antifederalists were a diverse coalition of people who opposed ratification of the Constitution. Although less well organized than the Federalists, they also had an impressive group of leaders who were especially prominent in state politics.
Ranging from political elites like James Winthrop in Massachusetts to Melancton Smith of New York and Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia, these Antifederalist were joined by a large number of ordinary Americans particularly yeomen farmers who predominated in rural America. The one overriding social characteristic of the Antifederalists as a group was their strength in newer settled western regions of the country.
On August 31, 1787, George Mason declared he would "rather chop off my right hand than put it to the Constitution as it now stands."
In spite of the diversity that characterized the Antifederalist opposition, they did share a core view of American politics. They believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States lay in the government's potential to become corrupt and seize more and more power until its tyrannical rule completely dominated the people. Having just succeeded in rejecting what they saw as the tyranny of British power, such threats were seen as a very real part of political life.
To Antifederalists the proposed Constitution threatened to lead the United States down an all-too-familiar road of political corruption. All three branches of the new central government threatened Antifederalists' traditional belief in the importance of restraining government power.
The President's vast new powers, especially a veto that could overturn decisions of the people's representatives in the legislature, were especially disturbing. The court system of the national government appeared likely to encroach on local courts. Meanwhile, the proposed lower house of the legislature would have so few members that only elites were likely to be elected. Furthermore, they would represent people from such a large area that they couldn't really know their own constituents. The fifty-five members of the proposed national House of Representatives was quite a bit smaller than most state legislatures in the period. Since the new legislature was to have increased fiscal authority, especially the right to raise taxes, the Antifederalists feared that before long Congress would pass oppressive taxes that they would enforce by creating a standing national army.
The preamble of the United States Constitution: Most of the world's democracies have based their constitutions on this document.
This range of objections boiled down to a central opposition to the sweeping new powers of the proposed central government. George Mason, a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention who refused to support the Constitution, explained, the plan was "totally subversive of every principle which has hitherto governed us. This power is calculated to annihilate totally the state governments." The rise of national power at the expense of state power was a common feature of Antifederalist opposition.
The most powerful objection raised by the Antifederalists, however, hinged on the lack of protection for individual liberties in the Constitution. Most of the state constitutions of the era had built on the Virginia model that included an explicit protection of individual rights that could not be intruded upon by the state. This was seen as a central safeguard of people's rights and was considered a major Revolutionary improvement over the unwritten protections of the British constitution.
Why, then, had the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention not included a bill of rights in their proposed Constitution? Most Antifederalists thought that such protections were not granted because the Federalists represented a sinister movement to roll back the gains made for ordinary people during the Revolution.
The Antifederalists and Federalists agreed on one thing: the future of the nation was at stake in the contest over the Constitution.
Along with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, James Madison penned The Federalist Papers.
The supporters of the proposed Constitution called themselves "Federalists." Their adopted name implied a commitment to a loose, decentralized system of government. In many respects "federalism" — which implies a strong central government — was the opposite of the proposed plan that they supported. A more accurate name for the supporters of the Constitution would have been "nationalists."
The "nationalist" label, however, would have been a political liability in the 1780s. Traditional political belief of the Revolutionary Era held that strong centralized authority would inevitably lead to an abuse of power. The Federalists were also aware that that the problems of the country in the 1780s stemmed from the weaknesses of the central government created by the Articles of Confederation.
For Federalists, the Constitution was required in order to safeguard the liberty and independence that the American Revolution had created. While the Federalists definitely had developed a new political philosophy, they saw their most import role as defending the social gains of the Revolution. As James Madison, one of the great Federalist leaders later explained, the Constitution was designed to be a "republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government."
Leading Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, was commemorated with his portrait on the 3¢ stamp.
The Federalists had more than an innovative political plan and a well-chosen name to aid their cause. Many of the most talented leaders of the era who had the most experience in national-level work were Federalists. For example the only two national-level celebrities of the period, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, favored the Constitution. In addition to these impressive superstars, the Federalists were well organized, well funded, and made especially careful use of the printed word. Most newspapers supported the Federalists' political plan and published articles and pamphlets to explain why the people should approve the Constitution.
In spite of this range of major advantages, the Federalists still had a hard fight in front of them. Their new solutions were a significant alteration of political beliefs in this period. Most significantly, the Federalists believed that the greatest threat to the future of the United States did not lie in the abuse of central power, but instead could be found in what they saw as the excesses of democracy as evidenced in popular disturbances like Shays' Rebellion and the pro-debtor policies of many states.
How could the Federalists convince the undecided portion of the American people that for the nation to thrive, democracy needed to be constrained in favor of a stronger central government?
The Flag Room — The United States is born.
A framework for a new and stronger national government had been crafted at the Philadelphia Convention by a handful of leaders. But how could their proposed system be made into law?
Could they convince the public that the weak central government of the Articles of Confederation needed to be strengthened? The Articles required that any changes in constitutional law be presented to the state legislatures, and that any successful alteration required unanimous approval. Since the new proposal increased the power of the national government at the expense of state sovereignty, it was a certainty that one, and probably several more, state legislatures would oppose the changes. Remember, that Rhode Island had refused to even send a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention because it opposed any stronger revisions in the Articles, much less the sweeping proposal that ended up being produced there.
Aware of the major challenge before them, the framers of the new plan crafted a startling new approach through a ratifying procedure that went directly to the people. By this method, the Constitution would become law if nine of the thirteen states approved it after holding special conventions to consider the issue. Building on a model adopted by Massachusetts in passing its state constitution of 1780, the framers suggested that constitutional law was of such sweeping significance that it would be inappropriate to have it approved though ordinary political channels.
The caption under this cartoon, which appeared in 1788 in the Massachusetts Centinel, stated "The Pillar of the Great Federal Edifice rises daily." It depicts Massachusetts as an addition to the "Federal Superstructure," indicating Massachusetts' impending ratification of the Constitution.
Instead, special conventions should be held for the people to evaluate such important changes. Politicians in Congress were well aware of the weaknesses of the current central government and shared the framers' sense that the state legislatures were very likely to oppose the new plan, so Congress approved the new terms of this unusual, and even illegal, ratification route. Surprisingly, so too did state legislatures that began arranging for the election of special delegates to the state ratification conventions.
A great debate about the future of the nation was about to begin.
Roger Sherman was the only man to sign all 4 of the important Revolutionary documents: The Association of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
"Representation" remained the core issue for the Philadelphia Convention. What was the best way for authority to be delegated from the people and the states to a strengthened central government?
After still more deeply divided argument, a proposal put forward by delegates from Connecticut (a small population state ), struck a compromise that narrowly got approved. They suggested that representatives in each house of the proposed bicameral legislature be selected through different means. The upper house (or Senate) would reflect the importance of state sovereignty by including two people from each state regardless of size. Meanwhile, the lower house (the House of Representatives) would have different numbers of representatives from each state determined by population. Representation would be adjusted every ten years through a federal census that counted every person in the country.
By coming up with a mixed solution that balanced state sovereignty and popular sovereignty tied to actual population, the Constitution was forged through what is known as the Connecticut Compromise. In many respects this compromise reflected a victory for small states, but compared with their dominance in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation it is clear that negotiation produced something that both small and large states wanted.
Other major issues still needed to be resolved, however, and, once again, compromise was required on all sides. One of the major issues concerned elections themselves. Who would be allowed to vote? The different state constitutions had created different rules about how much property was required for white men to vote. The delegates needed to figure out a solution that could satisfy people with many different ideas about who could have the franchise (that is, who could be a voter).
For the popular lower house, any white man who paid taxes could vote. Thus, even those without property, could vote for who would represent them in the House of Representatives. This expanded the franchise in some states. To balance this opening, the two Senators in the upper house of the national government would be elected by the state legislatures. Finally, the President (that is, the executive branch) would be elected at the state level through an electoral college whose numbers reflected representation in the legislature.
To modern eyes, the most stunning and disturbing constitutional compromise by the delegates was over the issue of slavery. Some delegates considered slavery an evil institution and George Mason of Virginia even suggested that the trans-Atlantic slave trade be made illegal by the new national rules. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia where slavery was expanding rapidly in the late-18th century angrily opposed this limitation. If any limitations to slavery were proposed in the national framework, then they would leave the convention and oppose its proposed new plan for a stronger central government. Their fierce opposition allowed no room for compromise and as a result the issue of slavery was treated as a narrowly political, rather than a moral, question.
The delegates agreed that a strengthened union of the states was more important than the Revolutionary ideal of equality. This was a pragmatic, as well as a tragic, constitutional compromise, since it may have been possible (as suggested by George Mason's comments) for the slave state of Virginia to accept some limitations on slavery at this point.
The slave trade was always a controversial issue in the history of the United States.
The proposed constitution actually strengthened the power of slave states in several important respects. Through the "fugitive clause," for example, governments of free states were required to help recapture runaway slaves who had escaped their masters' states. Equally disturbing was the "three-fifths formula" established for determining representation in the lower house of the legislature. Slave states wanted to have additional political power based on the number of human beings that they held as slaves. Delegates from free states wouldn't allow such a blatant manipulation of political principles, but the inhumane compromise that resulted meant counting enslaved persons as three-fifths of a free person for the sake of calculating the number of people a state could elect to the House of Representatives.
After hot summer months of difficult debate in Philadelphia from May to September 1787, the delegates had fashioned new rules for a stronger central government that extended national power well beyond the scope of the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution created a national legislature that could pass the supreme law of the land, could raise taxes, and with greater control over commerce. The proposed rules also would restrict state actions, especially in regard to passing pro-debtor laws. At the end of the long process of creating the new plan, thirty-eight of the remaining forty-one delegates showed their support by signing the proposed Constitution. This small group of national superstars had created a major new framework through hard work and compromise.
Now another challenge lay ahead. Could they convince the people in the states that this new plan was worth accepting?
QUIZ TIME: Constitution Quiz
In spite of the common vision and status that linked most of the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, no obvious route existed for how to revise the Articles of Confederation to build a stronger central government.
The meeting began by deciding several important procedural issues that were not controversial and that significantly shaped how the Convention operated. First, George Washington was elected as the presiding officer. They also decided to continue the voting precedent followed by the Congress where each state got one vote.
James Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution."
They also agreed to hold their meeting in secret.
There would be no public access to the Convention's discussions and the delegates agreed not to discuss matters with the press. The delegates felt that secrecy would allow them to explore issues with greater honesty than would be possible if everything that they said became public knowledge.
In fact, the public knew almost nothing about the actual proceedings of the Convention until James Madison's notes about it were published after his death in the 1840s.
The delegates also made a final crucial and sweeping early decision about how to run the Convention. They agreed to go beyond the instructions of the Congress by not merely considering revisions to the Articles of Confederation, but to try and construct a whole new national framework.
The assembly room inside Independence Hall is where the Constitution was signed in 1787.
The stage was now set for James Madison, the best prepared and most influential of the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention. His proposal, now known as the Virginia Plan, called for a strong central government with three distinctive elements.
First, it clearly placed national supremacy above state sovereignty.
Second, this strengthened central government would have a close relationship with the people, who could directly vote for some national leaders.
Third, Madison proposed that the central government be made up of three distinct branches: a bicameral legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. The lower house of the legislature would be elected directly by the people and then the lower house would elect the upper house. Together they would choose the executive and judiciary.
By having the foundational body of the proposed national government elected by the people at large, rather than through their state legislatures, the national government would remain a republic with a direct link to ordinary people even as it expanded its power.
After deliberating for months, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved their new Constitution in September 1787.
Madison's Virginia Plan was bold and creative. Further, it established a strong central government, which most delegates supported. Nevertheless, it was rejected at the Convention by opposition from delegates representing states with small populations.
These small states would have their national influence dramatically curbed in the proposed move from one-state one-vote (as under the Articles) to general voting for the lower legislative house where overall population would be decisive.
The Virginia Plan was unacceptable to all the small states, who countered with another proposal, dubbed the New Jersey Plan, that would continue more along the lines of how Congress already operated under the Articles. This plan called for a unicameral legislature with the one vote per state formula still in place.
Although the division between large and small states (really between high and low population states) might seem simplistic, it was the major hurdle that delegates to the Convention needed to overcome to design a stronger national government, which they all agreed was needed.
After long debates and a close final vote, the Virginia Plan was accepted as a basis for further discussion. This agreement to continue to debate also amounted to a major turning point. The delegates had decided that they should craft a new constitutional structure to replace the Articles.
This was so stunning a change and such a large expansion of their original instructions from the Congress that two New York delegates left in disgust.
Could the states ever form a more perfect union?
Benjamin Franklin was the premier scientist, author, businessman and all-around scholar of his time.
At the same time that Shays' Rebellion attempted to force the government to take a new course of action in response to hard times, another group of Americans gathered to consider a very different vision for the future of the republic. The group was especially concerned about economic policy and the way that competing state policies often worked at cross-purposes. Responding to such concerns, the Virginia legislature called for a convention to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786 to discuss commercial matters. Only twelve delegates came from five states, but they agreed to meet again the next year in Philadelphia.
When Shays' Rebellion erupted in the interim, this group had even stronger reasons to meet to discuss plans for responding to the range of problems in the "critical period" of the 1780s. Following on the possibility of widespread popular unrest as evidenced by Shays' Rebellion, the Congress, in January 1787, directed the meeting to consider revisions to the Articles of Confederation.
The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia brought together all the great leaders of the United States (unless they came from Rhode Island).
The Philadelphia Convention drew fifty-five delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to send anyone to a meeting about strengthening the power of the central government). Most of the delegates had gained national-level experience during the Revolution by serving as leaders in the military, the Congress, or as diplomats. The impressive group included many prominent Revolutionary leaders like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Robert Morris. Some of the older leaders of the Revolution, however, were not present. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were abroad serving as diplomats to France and England, respectively.
Meanwhile, key local leaders like Sam Adams of Boston had lost his bid to be a delegate, while the Virginian patriot Patrick Henry was elected, but refused to go because he opposed the purpose of the Convention. In their place were a number of younger leaders, who had been less prominent in the Revolution itself. Most notable among them were the Virginian James Madison and the West Indian-born New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.
Charles Willson Peale drew these sketches of the Maryland State House, site of the Annapolis Convention of 1786.
These national "superstars" did not, however, include people from western parts of the country, nor did it include any artisans or tenant farmers. Indeed, there was only a single person of modest wealth whom we could consider a yeoman farmer. These were superstars and that meant that they did not reflect anything close to the full range of American society. Partly because the delegates had already served as national representatives, they shared a general commitment to a strong central government. Many were strong nationalists who thought the Articles of Confederation gave too much power to the states and were especially concerned about state governments' vulnerability to powerful local interests. Instead, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention aimed to create an energetic national government that could deal effectively with the major problems of the period from external matters of diplomacy and trade to internal issues of sound money and repayment of public debt.
The modern day Northampton courthouse, built in 1884 on the same site as the courthouse where Shays' Rebellion occurred.
The crisis of the 1780s was most intense in the rural and relatively newly settled areas of central and western Massachusetts. Many farmers in this area suffered from high debt as they tried to start new farms. Unlike many other state legislatures in the 1780s, the Massachusetts government didn't respond to the economic crisis by passing pro-debtor laws (like forgiving debt and printing more paper money). As a result local sheriffs seized many farms and some farmers who couldn't pay their debts were put in prison.
These conditions led to the first major armed rebellion in the post-Revolutionary United States. Once again, Americans resisted high taxes and unresponsive government that was far away. But this time it was Massachusetts's settlers who were angry with a republican government in Boston, rather than with the British government across the Atlantic.
The farmers in western Massachusetts organized their resistance in ways similar to the American Revolutionary struggle. They called special meetings of the people to protest conditions and agree on a coordinated protest. This led the rebels to close courts by force in the fall of 1786 and to liberate imprisoned debtors from jail. Soon events flared into a full-scale revolt when the resistors came under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army. This was the most extreme example of what could happen in the tough times brought on by the economic crisis. Some thought of the Shaysites (named after their military leader) as heroes in the direct tradition of the American Revolution, while many others saw them as dangerous rebels whose actions might topple the young experiment in republican government.
Patriots or traitors? Farmers from western Massachusetts followed petitions for economic relief with insurgency in the fall of 1786. A group of protestors, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays, began a 6 month rebellion by taking over the Court of Common Pleas in Northampton; the goal was to prevent the trial and imprisonment of debt-ridden citizens.
James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts, was clearly in the latter group. He organized a military force funded by eastern merchants, to confront the rebels. This armed force crushed the movement in the winter of 1786-1787 as the Shaysites quickly fell apart when faced with a strong army organized by the state. While the rebellion disintegrated quickly, the underlying social forces that propelled such dramatic action remained. The debtors' discontent was widespread and similar actions occurred on a smaller scale in Maine (then still part of Massachusetts), Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania among others places.
While Governor Bowdoin had acted decisively in crushing the rebellion, the voters turned against him in the next election. This high level of discontent, popular resistance, and the election of pro-debtor governments in many states threatened the political notions of many political and social elites. Shays' Rebellion demonstrated the high degree of internal conflict lurking beneath the surface of post-Revolutionary life. National leaders felt compelled to act to put an end to such popular actions that took place beyond the bounds of law.