Make your own free website on Tripod.com

Early US History
Formation of the USA


Return to the Main Menu.


 

United States, history of the

Many peoples have contributed to the development of the United States of America, a vast 
nation that arose from a scattering of British colonial outposts in the New World.  The 
first humans to inhabit the North American continent were migrants from northeast Asia 
who established settlements in North America as early as 8000 BC and possibly much 
earlier (see NORTH AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY).  By about AD 1500 the native peoples of the 
areas north of the Rio Grande had developed a variety of different cultures (see INDIANS, 
AMERICAN).  The vast region stretching eastward from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic 
Ocean was relatively sparsely populated by tribes whose economies were generally based on 
hunting and gathering, fishing, and farming.

VIKINGS explored the North American mainland in the 10th and 11th centuries and settled 
there briefly (see VINLAND).  Of more lasting importance, however, was the first voyage 
(1492-93) of Christopher COLUMBUS, which inaugurated an age of great European EXPLORATION 
of the Western Hemisphere.  Various European states (including Spain, France, England, 
and Portugal) and their trading companies sent out expeditions to explore the New World 
during the century and a half that followed.  The Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Finns, 
and Swedes all contributed to the early colonization of North America.

The Spanish claimed vast areas including Florida, Mexico, and the region west of the 
Mississippi River although they concentrated their settlement south of the Rio Grande.  
The French explored much of the area that became Canada and established several 
settlements there.  Of most significance, however, for the subsequent development of the 
United States, was the English colonization of the region along the Atlantic coast.

BRITISH COLONIES IN NORTH AMERICA

At the end of the period of turmoil associated with the Protestant Reformation in 
England, the English people became free to turn their attention to other matters and to 
seek new opportunities outside their tiny island.  Internal stability under Elizabeth I 
(r.  1558-1603) and an expanding economy combined with a bold intellectual ferment to 
produce a soaring self-confidence.  Ireland experienced the first impact:  by the 
beginning of the 17th century it had been wholly subjugated by the English.  Scottish and 
English Protestants were dispatched to "colonize" where the savage Irish, as they were 
called, had been expelled, especially in the northern provinces.  Then, entrepreneurs 
began to look to North America, claimed by England on the basis of John CABOT's voyages 
of discovery (1497-99).

The Chesapeake Colonies

The English had failed in their attempts in the 1580s to found a colony at ROANOKE on the 
Virginia coast.  In 1606, however, the LONDON COMPANY, established to exploit North 
American resources, sent settlers to what in 1607 became JAMESTOWN, the first permanent 
English colony in the New World.  The colonists suffered extreme hardships, and by 1622, 
of the more than 10,000 who had immigrated, only 2,000 remained alive.  In 1624 control 
of the failing company passed to the crown, making Virginia a royal colony.  Soon the 
tobacco trade was flourishing, the death rate had fallen, and with a legislature (the 
House of Burgesses, established in 1619) and an abundance of land, the colony entered a 
period of prosperity.  Individual farms, available at low cost, were worked primarily by 
white indentured servants (laborers who were bound to work for a number of years to pay 
for their passage before receiving full freedom).  The Chesapeake Bay area became a land 
of opportunity for poor English people.

In 1632, Maryland was granted to the CALVERT family as a personal possession, to serve as 
a refuge for Roman Catholics. Protestants, as well, flooded into the colony, and in 1649 
the Toleration Act was issued, guaranteeing freedom of worship in Maryland to all 
Trinitarian Christians.

The New England Colonies

In 1620, Puritan Separatists, later called PILGRIMS, sailed on the MAYFLOWER to New 
England, establishing PLYMOUTH COLONY, the first permanent settlement there.  They were 
followed in 1629 by other Puritans (see PURITANISM), under the auspices of the 
MASSACHUSETTS BAY COMPANY, who settled the area around Boston. During the Great Puritan 
Migration that followed (1629-42), about 16,000 settlers arrived in the Massachusetts Bay 
Colony. The Puritans set out to build a "city on a hill" intended to provide a model of 
godly living for the world.  Strict Calvinists, strongly communal, and living in closely 
bound villages, they envisioned a God angered at human transgressions, who chose, purely 
according to his inscrutable will, a mere "righteous fragment" for salvation.  Dissidents 
of a Baptist orientation founded Rhode Island (chartered 1644). In 1639, Puritans on what 
was then the frontier established the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the first 
written constitution in North America;  the colony was chartered in 1662.  The 
settlements in New Hampshire that sprang up in the 1620s were finally proclaimed a 
separate royal colony in 1679. Plymouth later became (1691) part of the royal colony of 
Massachusetts.

The Restoration Colonies

A long era (1642-60) of turmoil in England, which included the Civil War, Oliver 
Cromwell's republican Commonwealth, and the Protectorate, ended with the restoration of 
the Stuarts in the person of Charles II.  An amazing period ensued, during which colonies 
were founded and other acquisitions were made.  In 1663, Carolina was chartered;  
settlement began in 1670, and from the start the colony flourished.  The territory later 
came under royal control as South Carolina (1721) and North Carolina (1729).

In 1664 an English fleet arrived to claim by right of prior discovery the land along the 
Hudson and Delaware rivers that had been settled and occupied by the Dutch since 1624.  
Most of NEW NETHERLAND now became New York colony and its principal settlement, New 
Amsterdam, became the city of New York.  New York colony, already multiethnic and 
strongly commercial in spirit, came under control of the crown in 1685.  New Jersey, 
sparsely settled by the Dutch, Swedes, and others, was also part of this English claim.  
Its proprietors divided it into East and West Jersey in 1676, but the colony was reunited 
as a royal province in 1702.

In 1681, Pennsylvania, and in 1682, what eventually became (1776) Delaware, were granted 
to William PENN, who founded a great Quaker settlement in and around Philadelphia.  
Quaker theology differed widely from that of the New England Puritans. Believing in a 
loving God who speaks directly to each penitent soul and offers salvation freely, Quakers 
found elaborate church organizations and ordained clerics unnecessary.

Indian Wars

In 1675 disease-ridden and poverty-stricken Indians in New England set off KING PHILIP'S 
WAR against the whites.  Almost every Massachusetts town experienced the horror of Indian 
warfare;  thousands on both sides were slaughtered before King Philip, the Wampanoag 
chief, was killed in 1676 and the war ended.  Virginians, appalled at this event, in 1676 
began attacking the Occaneechees despite the disapproval of the royal governor, Sir 
William BERKELEY.  Then, under Nathaniel Bacon, dissatisfied and angry colonists expelled 
Berkeley from Jamestown and proclaimed Bacon's Laws, which gave the right to vote to all 
freedmen.  Royal troops soon arrived to put down the uprising, known as BACON'S 
REBELLION.

Along the Mohawk River in New York, the Five Nations of the IROQUOIS LEAGUE maintained 
their powerful confederacy with its sophisticated governing structure and strong 
religious faith. Allies of the English against the French along the Saint Lawrence River, 
they dominated a vast region westward to Lake Superior with their powerful and well-
organized armies.  The FRENCH AND INDIAN WARS, a series of great wars between the two 
European powers and their Indian allies, ended in 1763 when French rule was eradicated 
from North America and Canada was placed under the British crown.

18th-Century Social and Economic Developments

In the 1700s the British colonies grew rapidly in population and wealth.  A formerly 
crude society acquired a polished and numerous elite.  Trade and cities flourished.  The 
250,000 settlers who had lived in the mainland colonies to the south of Canada in 1700 
became 2,250,000 by 1775 and would grow to 5,300,000 by 1800.  Settlement expanded widely 
from the coastal beachheads of the 17th century into back-country regions with profoundly 
divergent ways of life.

Several non-English ethnic groups migrated to the British colonies in large numbers 
during the 18th century.  By 1775, Germans, who settled primarily in the Middle Colonies 
but also in the back-country South, numbered about 250,000.  They were members of the 
Lutheran and German Reformed (Calvinist) churches or of pietist sects (Moravians, 
Mennonites, Amish, and the like);  the pietists, in particular, tended to live 
separately, avoiding English-speaking peoples.  From the 1730s waves of Scots-Irish 
immigrants, numbering perhaps 250,000 by the time of the Revolution, swelled the ranks of 
the non-English group.  Forming dense settlements in Pennsylvania, as well as in New 
York's Hudson Valley and in the back-country South, they brought with them the 
Presbyterian church, which was to become widely prominent in American life.  Many of 
these immigrants were indentured servants;  a small percentage were criminals, 
transported from the jails of England, where they had been imprisoned for debt or for 
more serious crimes.  The colony of Georgia was granted in 1732 to reformers, led by 
James OGLETHORPE, who envisioned it as an asylum for English debtors, as well as a buffer 
against Spanish Florida.  Georgia, too, was colonized by many non-English people.

The Growth of Slavery

Slaves from Africa were used in small numbers in the colonies from about 1619 (see BLACK 
AMERICANS;  SLAVERY).  After British merchants joined the Dutch in the slave trade later 
in the 17th century, prices tumbled and increasing numbers of black people were 
transported into the southern colonies to be used for plantation labor.  Slaves were also 
used in the northern colonies, but in far fewer numbers.  The survival rates as well as 
birthrates tended to be high for slaves brought to the North American mainland colonies--
in contrast to those transported to the West Indies or to South America.

The expansion of slavery was the most fateful event of the pre-Revolutionary years.  
Virginia had only about 16,000 slaves in 1700;  by 1770 it held more than 187,000, or 
almost half the population of the colony.  In low country South Carolina, with its rice 
and indigo plantations, only 25,000 out of a total population of 100,000 were white in 
1775.  Fearful whites mounted slave patrols and exacted savage penalties upon 
transgression in order to maintain black passivity.
Meanwhile, on the basis of abundant slave labor, the world of great plantations emerged, 
creating sharp distinctions in wealth among whites.  Southern society was dominated by 
the aristocracy;  however, whites of all classes were united in their fear of blacks.  
Miscegenation was common, especially where slaves were most numerous, and mulattos were 
regarded as black, not white.  An almost total absence of government in this sparsely 
settled, rural southern environment resulted in complete license on the part of owners in 
the treatment of their slaves.  Paradoxically, the ideal of liberty--of freedom from all 
restraints--was powerful in the southern white mind.

Religious Trends

As transatlantic trade increased, communication between the colonies and England became 
closer, and English customs and institutions exerted a stronger influence on the 
Americans. The aristocracy aped London fashions, and colonials participated in British 
cultural movements.  The Church of England, the established church in the southern 
colonies and in the four counties in and around New York City, grew in status and 
influence.  At the same time, in both Britain and America, an increasingly rationalistic 
and scientific outlook, born in the science of Sir Isaac NEWTON and the philosophy of 
John LOCKE, made religious observance more logical and of this world.  Deism and so-
called natural religion scoffed at Christianity and the Bible as a collection of ancient 
superstitions.

Then from England came an upsurge of evangelical Protestantism, led by John Wesley (the 
eventual founder of the Methodist church;  see WESLEY family) and George WHITEFIELD.  It 
sought to combat the new rationalism and foster a revival of enthusiasm in Christian 
faith and worship.  Beginning in 1738, with Whitefield's arrival in the colonies, a 
movement known as the GREAT AWAKENING swept the colonials, gaining strength from an 
earlier outbreak of revivalism in Massachusetts (1734-35) led by Jonathan EDWARDS.  
Intensely democratic in spirit, the Great Awakening was the first intercolonial cultural 
movement. It vastly reenergized a Puritanism that, since the mid-1600s, had lost its 
vigor.  All churches were electrified by its power--either in support or in opposition.  
The movement also revived the earlier Puritan notion that America was to be a "city on a 
hill," a special place of God's work, to stand in sharp contrast to what was regarded as 
corrupt and irreligious England.

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

By the middle of the 18th century the wave of American expansion was beginning to top the 
Appalachian rise and move into the valley of the Ohio.  Colonial land companies looked 
covetously to that frontier.  The French, foreseeing a serious threat to their fur trade 
with the Indians, acted decisively. In 1749 they sent an expedition to reinforce their 
claim to the Ohio Valley and subsequently established a string of forts there.  The 
British and the colonists were forced to respond to the move or suffer the loss of the 
vast interior, long claimed by both British and French.  The French and Indian War (1754-
63) that resulted became a worldwide conflict, called the SEVEN YEARS' WAR in Europe.  At 
its end, the British had taken over most of France's colonial empire as well as Spanish 
Florida and had become dominant in North America except for Spain's possessions west of 
the Mississippi River.

Rising Tensions

A delirious pride over the victory swept the colonies and equaled that of the British at 
home.  Outbursts of patriotic celebration and cries of loyalty to the crown infused the 
Americans.  The tremendous cost of the war itself and the huge responsibility 
accompanying the new possessions, however, left Britain with an immense war debt and 
heavy administrative costs.  At the same time the elimination of French rule in North 
America lifted the burden of fear of that power from the colonists, inducing them to be 
more independent-minded.  The war effort itself had contributed to a new sense of pride 
and confidence in their own military prowess.  In addition, the rapid growth rate of the 
mid-18th century had compelled colonial governments to become far more active than that 
of old, established England.  Because most male colonists possessed property and the 
right to vote, the result was the emergence of a turbulent world of democratic politics.

London authorities attempted to meet the costs of imperial administration by levying a 
tax on the colonials;  the STAMP ACT of 1765 required a tax on all public documents, 
newspapers, notes and bonds, and almost every other printed paper.  A raging controversy 
that brought business practically to a standstill erupted in the colonies.  A Stamp Act 
Congress, a gathering of representatives from nine colonies, met in New York in October 
1765 to issue a solemn protest.  It held that the colonials possessed the same rights and 
liberties as did the British at home, among which was the principle that "no taxes be 
imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their 
representatives." In March 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act;  it passed the 
Declaratory Act, asserting its complete sovereignty over the colonies.

Thereafter the transatlantic controversy was rarely quiet.  The colonists regarded the 
standing army of about 6,000 troops maintained by London in the colonies after 1763 with 
great suspicion--such a peacetime force had never been present before.  British 
authorities defended the force as necessary to preserve peace on the frontier, especially 
after PONTIAC'S REBELLION (1763-65), which had been launched by the brilliant Indian 
leader Pontiac to expel the British from the interior and restore French rule.  In 
another attempt to quell Indian unrest, London established the Proclamation Line of 1763.  
Set along the crest of the Appalachians, the line represented a limit imposed on colonial 
movement west until a more effective Indian program could be developed.  The colonists 
were much angered by the prohibition.  Historical memories of the use of standing armies 
by European kings to override liberty caused widespread suspicion among the colonists 
that the soldiers stationed on the Line of 1763 were to be employed not against the 
Indians, but against the colonials themselves should they prove difficult to govern.
Indeed, for many years colonists had been reading the radical British press, which argued 
the existence of a Tory plot in England to crush liberty throughout the empire.  
Surviving from the English Civil War of the previous century was a profound distrust of 
monarchy among a small fringe of radical members of Britain's Whig party, primarily Scots 
and Irish and English Dissenters--that is, Protestants who were not members of the Church 
of England.  As members of the minority out-groups in British life, they had suffered 
many political and economic disadvantages.  Radical Whigs insisted that a corrupt network 
of Church of England bishops, great landlords, and financiers had combined with the royal 
government to exploit the community at large, and that--frightened of criticism--this 
Tory conspiracy sought to destroy liberty and freedom.

In the cultural politics of the British Empire, American colonists were also an out-
group;  they bitterly resented the disdain and derision shown them by the metropolitan 
English. Furthermore, most free colonists were either Dissenters (the Congregationalists 
in New England and the Presbyterians and Baptists in New York and the South);  or non-
English peoples with ancient reasons for hating the English (the Scots-Irish); or 
outsiders in a British-dominated society (Germans and Dutch);  or slaveowners sharply 
conscious of the distaste with which they were regarded by the British at home.

A divisive controversy racked the colonies in the mid-18th century concerning the 
privileges of the Church of England. Many believed in the existence of an Anglican plot 
against religious liberty.  In New England it was widely asserted that the colonial tie 
to immoral, affluent, Anglican-dominated Britain was endangering the soul of America.  
Many southerners also disapproved of the ostentatious plantation living that grew out of 
the tobacco trade--as well as the widespread bankruptcies resulting from dropping tobacco 
prices--and urged separation from Britain.
The current ideology among many colonists was that of republicanism.  The radicalism of 
the 18th century, it called for grounding government in the people, giving them the vote, 
holding frequent elections, abolishing established churches, and separating the powers of 
government to guard against tyranny.  Republicans also advocated that most offices be 
elective and that government be kept simple, limited, and respectful of the rights of 
citizens.

Deterioration of Imperial Ties

In this prickly atmosphere London's heavy-handedness caused angry reactions on the part 
of Americans.  The Quartering Act of 1765 ordered colonial assemblies to house the 
standing army; to override the resulting protests in America, London suspended the New 
York assembly until it capitulated.  In 1767 the TOWNSHEND ACTS levied tariffs on many 
articles imported into the colonies.  These imports were designed to raise funds to pay 
wages to the army as well as to the royal governors and judges, who had formerly been 
dependent on colonial assemblies for their salaries.  Nonimportation associations 
immediately sprang up in the colonies to boycott British goods.  When mob attacks 
prevented commissioners from enforcing the revenue laws, part of the army was placed 
(1768) in Boston to protect the commissioners.  This action confirmed the colonists' 
suspicion that the troops were maintained in the colonies to deprive them of their 
liberty.  In March 1770 a group of soldiers fired into a crowd that was harassing them, 
killing five persons;  news of the BOSTON MASSACRE spread through the colonies.

The chastened ministry in London now repealed all the Townshend duties except for that on 
tea.  Nonetheless, the economic centralization long reflected in the NAVIGATION ACTS--
which compelled much of the colonial trade to pass through Britain on its way to the 
European continent--served to remind colonials of the heavy price exacted from them for 
membership in the empire.  The Sugar Act of 1764, latest in a long line of such 
restrictive measures, produced by its taxes a huge revenue for the crown.  By 1776 it 
drained from the colonies about 600,000, an enormous sum.  The colonial balance of trade 
with England was always unfavorable for the Americans, who found it difficult to retain 
enough cash to purchase necessary goods.

In 1772 the crown, having earlier declared its right to dismiss colonial judges at its 
pleasure, stated its intention to pay directly the salaries of governors and judges in 
Massachusetts. Samuel ADAMS, for many years a passionate republican, immediately created 
the intercolonial Committee of Correspondence.  Revolutionary sentiment mounted.  In 
December 1773 swarms of colonials disguised as Mohawks boarded recently arrived tea ships 
in Boston harbor, flinging their cargo into the water.  The furious royal government 
responded to this BOSTON TEA PARTY by the so-called INTOLERABLE ACTS of 1774, practically 
eliminating self-government in Massachusetts and closing Boston's port.

Virginia moved to support Massachusetts by convening the First CONTINENTAL CONGRESS in 
Philadelphia in the fall of 1774.  It drew up declarations of rights and grievances and 
called for nonimportation of British goods.  Colonial militia began drilling in the 
Massachusetts countryside.  New Englanders were convinced that they were soon to have 
their churches placed under the jurisdiction of Anglican bishops.  They believed, as 
well, that the landowning British aristocracy was determined, through the levying of 
ruinous taxes, to reduce the freeholding yeomanry of New England to the status of 
tenants.  The word "slavery" was constantly on their lips.

The War for Independence

In April 1775, Gen.  Thomas GAGE in Boston was instructed to take the offensive against 
the Massachusetts troublemakers, now declared traitors to the crown.  Charged with 
bringing an end to the training of militia and gathering up all arms and ammunition in 
colonial hands, on April 19, Gage sent a body of 800 soldiers to Concord to commandeer 
arms.  On that day, the Battles of LEXINGTON AND CONCORD took place, royal troops fled 
back to Boston, and American campfires began burning around the city.  The war of the 
AMERICAN REVOLUTION had begun.

It soon became a world war, with England's European enemies gladly joining in opposing 
England in order to gain revenge for past humiliations.  British forces were engaged in 
battle from the Caribbean and the American colonies to the coasts of India. Furthermore, 
the United Colonies, as the Continental Congress called the rebelling 13 colonies, were 
widely scattered in a huge wilderness and were occupied by a people most of whom were in 
arms.  The dispersion of the American population meant that the small (by modern 
standards) cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia could be taken and held for long 
periods without affecting the outcome.

LOYALISTS numbered about 60,000, living predominantly along the coast where people of 
English ethnic background and anglicized culture were most numerous, but they were widely 
separated and weak.  Pennsylvania's Quakers had looked to the crown as their protector 
against the Scots-Irish and other militant groups in Pennsylvania.  The Quakers were 
appalled at the rebellion, aggressively led in the Middle Colonies by the Presbyterian 
Scots-Irish, and refused to lend it support.  London deluded itself, however, with the 
belief that the Loyalists represented a majority that would soon resume control and end 
the conflict.
Within a brief period after the Battle of Concord, practically all royal authority 
disappeared from the 13 colonies.  Rebel governments were established in each colony, and 
the Continental Congress in Philadelphia provided a rudimentary national government.  The 
task now before the British was to fight their way back onto the continent, reestablish 
royal governments in each colony, and defeat the colonial army.  By March 1776 the 
British evacuated Boston, moving to take and hold New York City.  Within days of the 
British arrival in New York, however, the Congress in Philadelphia issued (July 4) the 
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.  In December 1776, Gen.  George WASHINGTON reversed the 
early trend of American defeats by a stunning victory at Trenton, N.J.  (see TRENTON, 
BATTLE OF). Thereafter, as the fighting wore on and the cause survived, Washington became 
in America and abroad a symbol of strength and great bravery.

In February 1778 the French joined the conflict by signing an alliance with the 
Continental Congress.  With the aid of the French fleet the British army in the north was 
reduced to a bridgehead at New York City.  Shifting its efforts to the south, the royal 
army campaigned through Georgia and the Carolinas between 1778 and 1780, marching to the 
James Peninsula, in Virginia, in 1781.  Here, in the YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN, by the combined 
efforts of Washington's troops and the French army and navy, Lord CORNWALLIS was forced 
to surrender on Oct.  19, 1781.  The fighting, effectively, was over.  In September 1783 
the Treaty of Paris secured American independence on generous terms.  The new nation was 
given an immense domain that ran westward to the Mississippi River (except for Britain's 
Canadian colonies and East and West Florida, which reverted to Spanish rule).

A NEW NATION

The first federal constitution of the new American republic was the ARTICLES OF 
CONFEDERATION.  With ratification of that document in 1781, the nation had adopted its 
formal name, the United States of America.

Government under the Articles of Confederation

Under the Articles the only national institution was the Confederation Congress, with 
limited powers not unlike those of the United Nations.  The states retained their 
sovereignty, with each state government selecting representatives to sit in the Congress.  
No national executive or judiciary had been established.  Each state delegation received 
an equal vote on all issues.  Congress was charged with carrying on the foreign relations 
of the United States, but because it had no taxing powers (it could only request funds 
from the states), it had no strength to back up its diplomacy.  In addition, it had no 
jurisdiction over interstate commerce;  each state could erect tariffs against its 
neighbors.

The Confederation Congress, however, achieved one great victory:  it succeeded in 
bringing all 13 of the states to agree on a plan for organizing and governing the western 
territories (the "public lands") beyond the Appalachians.  Each state ceded its western 
claims to the Congress, which in three ordinances dealing with the Northwest (1784, 1785, 
and 1787) provided that new states established in the western regions would be equal in 
status to the older ones.  After a territorial stage of quasi self-government, they would 
pass to full statehood.  The land in the NORTHWEST TERRITORY (the Old Northwest, that is, 
the area north of the Ohio River) would be surveyed in square parcels, 6 mi (9.7 km) on a 
side, divided into 36 sections, and sold to settlers at low cost;  one plot would be 
reserved for the support of public schools. Furthermore, slavery was declared illegal in 
the Northwest Territory.  (The Southwest Territory, below the Ohio, was organized by the 
later federal Congress in 1790 as slave country.)

The Confederation Congress, however, did not survive.  Because of its lack of taxing 
power, its currency was of little value; widespread social turbulence in the separate 
states led many Americans to despair of the new nation.  The republic--regarded as a 
highly precarious form of government in a world of monarchies--was founded with the 
conviction that the people would exercise the virtue and self-denial required under self-
government.  Soon, however, that assumption seemed widely discredited.  SHAYS'S REBELLION 
in Massachusetts (1786-87) was an attempt to aid debtors by forcibly closing the court 
system; mobs terrorized legislators and judges to achieve this end. The new state 
legislatures, which had assumed all powers when royal governors were expelled, 
confiscated property, overturned judicial decisions, issued floods of unsecured paper 
money, and enacted torrents of legislation, some of it ex post facto (effective 
retroactively).

The established social and political elite (as distinct from the rough new 
antiauthoritarian politicians who had begun to invade the state legislatures, talking 
aggressively of "democracy" and "liberty") urgently asserted the need for a strong 
national government.  The influence that the London authorities had formerly provided as 
a balance to local government was absent.  Minorities that had been protected by the 
crown, such as the Baptists in Massachusetts and the Quakers in Pennsylvania, were now 
defenseless.  The wealthy classes maintained that they were at the mercy of the masses. 
The new United States was so weak that it was regarded contemptuously all over the world 
and its diplomats ignored.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787

A chain of meetings, beginning with one between Virginia and Maryland in 1786 to solve 
mutual commercial problems and including the larger ANNAPOLIS CONVENTION later that year, 
led to the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION in Philadelphia in 1787. Deciding to start afresh 
and fashion a new national government independent of, and superior to, the states, the 
delegates made a crucial decision:  the nation's source of sovereignty was to lie in the 
people directly, not in the existing states.  Using the British Parliament as a model, 
they provided for a CONGRESS OF THE UNITED STATES that would have two houses to check and 
balance one another.  One house would be elected directly by the people of each state, 
with representation proportionate to population;  the other would provide equal 
representation for each state (two senators each), to be chosen by the state 
legislatures.

The powers of the national government were to be those previously exercised by London:  
regulation of interstate and foreign commerce, foreign affairs and defense, and Indian 
affairs;  control of the national domain;  and promotion of "the general Welfare." Most 
important, the Congress was empowered to levy "taxes, duties, imposts, and excises." The 
states were prohibited from carrying on foreign relations, coining money, passing ex post 
facto laws, impairing the obligations of contracts, and establishing tariffs. 
Furthermore, if social turbulence within a state became serious, the federal government, 
following invitation by the legislature or the executive of that state, could bring in 
troops to insure "a republican form of government."

A PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES with powers much like those of the British king, except 
that the office would be elective, was created.  Chosen by a special body (an ELECTORAL 
COLLEGE), the president would be an independent and powerful national leader, effectively 
in command of the government.  Recalling the assaults on judicial power that had been 
rampant in the states, the Constitutional Convention also created a fully independent 
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, members of which could be removed only if they 
committed a crime.  Then, most important, the document that was drawn up at Philadelphia 
stated that the Constitution, as well as laws and treaties made under the authority of 
the U.S.  government, "shall be the supreme Law of the Land."

The proposed constitution was to be ratified by specially elected ratifying conventions 
in each state and to become operative after nine states had ratified it.  In the national 
debate that arose over ratification, ANTI-FEDERALISTS opposed the concentration of power 
in the national government under the document;  a key question was the absence of a BILL 
OF RIGHTS. Many Americans thought that a bill of rights was necessary to preserve 
individual liberties, and to accommodate this view proponents of the Constitution 
promised to add such a bill to the document after ratification.  With the clear 
understanding that amendments would be added, ratification by nine states was completed 
(1788) and the CONSTITUTION OF THE UNITED STATES became operative.  The Bill of Rights 
was then drafted by the first Congress and became the first ten amendments to the 
Constitution.

 


Return to the Main Menu.