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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Colonial resolve
The new nation
     Independence achieved
     United States of America
     Bill of Rights
     The Northwest Territory
     A new capital city
     The emergence of parties
     Freedom of the seas

Civil War
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Independence achieved: 1783

The treaty signed in Paris on 3 September 1783 brings the American Revolution to its successful conclusion. The American commissioners in the negotiations (Benjamin Franklin and John Adams among their number) win extremely good terms for the new nation. Its independence is acknowledged without reservation, and its agreed frontiers are unexpectedly generous.

To the coastal strip of the thirteen colonies is now added the entire region west as far as the Mississippi and north to the Great Lakes. This was the area bitterly fought over between Britain and France in 1754-60. It now falls to the colonists as an immensely rich area available for westward expansion.


United States of America: 1783-1789

The peace treaty of 1783 establishes the thirteen united colonies as a joint entity whose independence is internationally recognized. The colonies have in recent years more often described themselves as states. The United States of America is therefore formally in existence. But how united is it to be? And in what form?

These crucial questions dominate the 1780s. A first attempt to answer them is ratified by the thirteen states in March 1781 under the title Articles of Confederation. The articles treat each colony as virtually a sovereign state, making the task of congress - which plays the role of the federal government - almost impossible. It has no real power to demand either troops or funds from individual states.


These problems are exacerbated during the 1780s by economic crisis (in a widespread postwar depression), by inflation resulting from the liberal issue of paper money, and by a mood of unrest and anarchy expressed in extreme form in an uprising of farmers, led by Daniel Shays in 1786 against the state government of Massachusetts (eventually requiring 4000 militiamen to suppress it).

In this atmosphere the success of the revolution seems in danger of being jeopardized. Reluctant though many of the states are to accept any restraint on their powers, it is eventually agreed that there shall be a convention in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider improvements to the constitution.


When the delegates arrive (from twelve states only, because Rhode Island stays away), George Washington is chosen to preside over the assembly. It is quickly decided that a new constitution is required, rather than a modified version of the Articles of Confederation, but debate soon throws up the first stumbling block. Should the voting power in the proposed two legislative assemblies be equal for each state or vary according to population?

The solution, known as the Great Compromise, is suggested by the Connecticut delegation. They propose that in the lower chamber (the House of Representatives) voting strength will vary. In the upper one (the Senate) each state will have the same representation.


The mood of compromise in this decision, which has held good ever since, is shown in many other areas during four months of deliberation. Much of the dispute is commercially based, in matters of interstate trade. As in any such negotiation, settlements are made.

One topic is both commercial and moral - the question of slavery. Slaves are an important part of the southern economy but are relatively few in the northern states. On the most controversial issue, the Atlantic slave trade, a temporary compromise is reached; it is agreed that it shall not be the subject of any federal law for the next twenty years.


When the text of the proposed constitution is finally agreed and signed, on 17 September 1787, the delegates share a farewell dinner at the City Tavern in Philadelphia before returning to present the text to the conventions of their own states. It has been agreed that ratification by nine states (two thirds of the total) will be enough to bring the constitution into effect. By the end of July 1788 eleven states have voted in favour (North Carolina and Rhode Island withhold their approval until the federal government is in existence). The constitution has passed formally into law when it is ratified by the ninth state (New Hampshire) on June 21.

The electors from every state choose George Washington as the first president. He is inaugurated in New York, on Wall Street, on 30 April 1789.


Bill of Rights: 1791

With the passing of the constitution into law, in 1788, the United States becomes the first nation ever to write, from the start, its own system of law and government. By the same token it is a natural step to alter the model if desirable improvements become evident.

When the state conventions debate the proposed constitution, in 1788, it is argued by many that it does not provide sufficient safeguard for the rights of the individual. In view of this criticism the inaugural congress invites James Madison to draft suitable amendments. He provides twelve, of which ten are adopted.


These first ten amendments to the constitution, ratified in December 1791, become known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The prevailing theme is the protection of the individual against oppressive authority.

Thus the first amendment guarantees freedom of religion and of speech. Others protect citizens from state intrusion on their private property, or specify their rights in a court of law (as, in the fifth amendment, not to have to give evidence against oneself). The second amendment, controversial in the 20th century, guarantees the right to carry arms but backs this up with a specifically 18th-century argument - that the state needs the services of a militia.


Amendments have been added from time to time ever since. Some of them draw the line conclusively between one period of history and another, as in the thirteenth amendment outlawing slavery after the American Civil War. Some (such as the twenty-first amendment on the question of alcohol) even countermand earlier ones.

In the world's first written constitution, with its system of amendments, the founding fathers of the American state provide an admirably flexible manner in which a nation can adjust to the times while retaining a bedrock of shared and known values.


The Northwest Territory: 1787-1795

The area south of the Great Lakes, scene of much of the action in the French and Indian War, is the first trouble spot to demand the attention of the newly independent United States. Under the terms of the treaty of Paris, in 1783, Britain has to surrender all the forts in the region. But the British drag their feet in departing from strategic sites such as Detroit.

By doing so, they remain in close contact with the Indian tribes of the Ohio region. The British encourage Indian resistance to American encroachment, hoping to create a buffer zone to the south of British North America, or Canada. But British encouragement of the Indians is misleading. It is not transformed into practical assistance.


Before independence four colonies (Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts) have claims under their original charters to parts of the Ohio region. During the 1780s they cede these claims to the federal government. In 1787 Congress defines the region as the Northwest Territory. All land within it is to be sold in lots, either to individuals or companies.

It is expected that as many as five states will eventually emerge from this area. Meanwhile separate parts of it are to be administered as territories. Once a territory has a population of 60,000 free inhabitants, it will have the right to draw up a state constitution and to enter the union on equal terms with the original thirteen states.


These careful proposals pay scant attention to the interests of the Indians. They rely on disputed treaties, virtually imposed on the tribes by American delegates in 1784-5 and rapidly repudiated by the Indians themselves. In 1789 the government builds Fort Washington (the kernel of the future Cincinnati) on the north bank of the Ohio river. Meanwhile violent Kentucky frontiersmen have been creating mayhem in raids on Indian villages.

The result is equally violent reprisals, led by the chiefs of the Miami and Shawnee tribes who are determined to keep the American intruders south of the Ohio river.


Two expeditions sent by George Washington against the tribes are complete disasters. The second, in 1791, is led by a personal friend of Washington, Arthur St Clair. His 1400 men are surprised by the Indians at dawn in their camp beside the Maumee river. Three hours later more than 600 are dead and nearly 300 seriously wounded. Indian casualties are 21 killed and 40 wounded. It is one of the worst days in US military history.

The Americans have their revenge in 1794, once again in the region of the Maumee, when an army commanded by Anthony Wayne defeats a force of Shawnees and other tribes at a woodland location which becomes known as Fallen Timbers.


In the aftermath of Fallen Timbers, representatives of the defeated tribes assemble for peace talks in Fort Greenville in 1795. Their leaders accept a treaty which cedes to the United States much of present-day Ohio.

This concession, giving the green light to a surge of new land speculation and settlement, is only the first of many in the region. Eventually the Northwest Territory yields five states, joining the union between 1803 and 1848 (Ohio 1803, Indiana 1816, Illinois 1818, Michigan 1837, Wisconsin 1848). In the early years, until 1813, Indian resistance to this encroachment is gallantly continued by Tecumseh. But the beginning of the National Road in 1811 is a powerful sign of American determination to open up the region.


A new capital city: 1790-1800

In the early years of the nation the congress is a peripatetic body, meeting in as many as eight different cities of which Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York are merely the best known. But it is already recognised that a fixed seat of government is a necessity, and that a federal authority legislating for all the thirteen states should not be resident in any one of them.

The most appropriate site would be on a navigable waterway, roughly in the middle of the nation's long Atlantic seaboard. By 1790 the Potomac has been agreed upon. In 1791 George Washington selects an area of the specified size (ten miles square) straddling the river. The United States settles down to the task of creating the world's first custom-built capital city.


Washington employs a French architect, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, to choose locations for the main public buildings and to suggest an overall layout for the city. It is L'Enfant who selects what becomes known as Capitol Hill for the site of congress, and a south-facing ridge as the place where the 'presidential palace' will be built.

Competitions are launched to select designs for the two buildings. William Thornton is the winner for the Capitol (of which Washington lays the cornerstone in 1793) and a plan by James Hoban is chosen for the presidential residence.


Both buildings are sufficiently far advanced by 1800 for the seat of government to move in that year from Philadelphia (where congress has led a stable existence since 1790) to the city which has already been named Washington. Only one administrative block is ready, in the form of a red-brick building to house the treasury. The contrast between this and the nearby presidential residence, built in a light-grey limestone, prompts the first informal use of the term White House.

Later the president's dwelling lives more precisely up to its name, when it is rebuilt (to the original design) and is painted white after being severely damaged in the war of 1812.


The emergence of parties

The unanimous election of George Washington in 1789, receiving the vote of every single state elector, is repeated when he stands in 1792 for a second term. But this is the last occasion when there is any such consensus, and in 1796 he resists all pressure to stand for a third term. Instead, on September 19 of that year, he delivers an influential Farewell Address in which he outlines his vision for the nation's future.

Party strife begins to emerge during Washington's first term, and it has its roots within his own small cabinet - in a severe difference of opinion between the secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and the secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. The issue between them is disagreement over the amount of power which should be wielded by the federal government. Controversy centres in particular on the Bank of the United States, created by Hamilton in 1791.


Hamilton's bank, modelled on the Bank of England, has the power to issue notes and government bonds and thus to manage the national debt. Indeed Hamilton is immediately able to revitalize the economy by redeeming at full value the outstanding bonds of the heavily indebted individual states.

This strengthening of the federal government's power offends the libertarian principles of Jefferson, who is committed to protecting the rights of the separate states of the union. The clash between the two men, which becomes intense from 1791, is reflected also in their views on foreign policy. Hamilton is pro-British, Jefferson is excited by the ideals of republican France.


The parties which form around the two men acquire appropriate names. The term for Hamilton's faction exists already. He and two colleagues have written a series of eighty-five newspaper essays in 1787-8, during the debate on the constitution, under the title The Federalist. These have argued for a strong central government. Hamilton's followers become the Federalists.

Jefferson's supporters (among whom James Madison is prominent) are by 1792 calling themselves Republicans. This not only reflects their French leaning (which their opponents emphasize by calling them Democratic-Republicans, a name which has stuck). It also consciously implies that President Washington, who likes to wear court dress and to ride in a coach and six, is behaving in too monarchical a fashion.


In the election of 1796, when party organization is in its infancy, the electoral system still has all the candidates running for the post of president and vice-president alike, with the offices going to the first and second in the race. (The 12th amendment to the constitution, in 1804, introduces separate presidential and vice-presidential contests.) The result in 1796 is that a Federalist, John Adams, and a Republican, Thomas Jefferson, become respectively president and vice-president.

Subsequently both offices always go to the same party, and from 1800 it is the Republicans who prevail. Jefferson is president for two terms (1801-9), followed by Madison for two (1809-17) and Monroe for two (1817-25).


The easy transfer of presidential power between the political parties on Jefferson's election proves conclusively that the American republic has pioneered a successful working democracy, very different from the violent upheavals of French politics or the corruption of the unreformed British model.

This democracy is still based on a restricted franchise, and the leading politicians are all from a small leisured and landed class (the most distinguished among them, Washington and Jefferson, being southern slave owners). But more than anywhere else in the world at this time, the new American system points the way towards a fully democratic future.


Freedom of the seas: 1793-1812

The first international crisis to confront the young republic derives from the even newer republic on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1793 France, after executing Louis XVI, is at war with several European powers including Britain. Warfare between the French and the British will continue almost without interruption for the next twenty years.

As close neighbours of the United States in their West Indian colonies, and as the two main Atlantic powers of the period, France and Britain inevitably damage neutral America in their struggle. Each warring nation tries to stifle any traffic entering the other's harbours, to the detriment of America's maritime trade.


When it becomes evident that complete neutrality will be hard to maintain, differences of opinion emerge as to which side America should favour. The more conservative leaders, including Alexander Hamilton and George Washington himself, assume that the link with Britain remains strong - in spite of the recent war of independence and Britain's vindictive exclusion of America, since 1783, from the markets of other British colonies.

Others, among them Thomas Jefferson, incline strongly to France, seeing the republic as the beacon of a new Europe liberated from the rule of reactionary monarchs.


In the early years of the war Washington's view prevails. His envoy to London in 1794, John Jay, agrees a treaty which restores the semblance of friendship between America and Britain. In retaliation the French begin to sink merchant ships flying the American flag.

An effort to improve relations with France - made by Washington's successor as president, John Adams, in 1797 - ends disastrously. Adams sends ministers to negotiate a treaty to protect US shipping. On arrival in Paris they are approached by three agents who ask for a bribe of $250,000 dollars for Talleyrand, and a loan of $10 million to France, as a suitable sweetener before discussions begin. The envoys immediately set sail for home.


News of these French proceedings causes outrage in America when made public in 1798 (the incident becomes known as the XYZ Affair, because the report replaces the name of the French agents with those letters). The resulting measures include controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, and the recall of Washington from retirement to command a rapidly enlarged army. These steps put the nation almost on a war footing against France. But over the coming years it is the relationship with Britain which fragments.

British control of the seas is steadily tightened in the fight against Napoleon, with no consideration shown to neutral vessels. American shipping in the Atlantic is increasingly harried by the British navy.


Great offence is caused by British insistence on the right to waylay and search any American vessel on suspicion of British deserters being among the crew. An encounter in 1807 between two frigates, the British Leopard and the American Chesapeake, provokes particular outrage. The Chesapeake fires only one shot before surrendering, but suffers twenty-one casualties from a British cannonade.

On this occasion four alleged British deserters are taken off the Chesapeake. But identities are often hard to establish. Frequently American citizens are press-ganged in this way into the British navy (as many as 3800 during these years, it is calculated).


American trade is at the same time damaged by Britain's orders in council, which impose crippling restrictions on goods carried by neutral shipping (in response to Napoleon's similar continental system). Thomas Jefferson, president from 1801 to 1809, tries unsuccessfully to use economic pressure on Britain to force a change of policy.

His successor as president, James Madison, goes further. In a mood of exasperation, in 1811, he urges congress to prepare for war unless Britain finally revokes the orders in council.


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