Friday, 14 October 2016

The new republic

George Washington in 1796
painted by Gilbert Stuart

The decades following the creation of the United States saw major developments:

  1. the emergence of political parties
  2. shifting relationships with Europe
  3. social and economic changes
  4. the opening up of the frontier.

The rise of party politics

On 30 April 1789 George Washington took the oath of office as President.  In December 1792 he was unanimously re-elected as President, with John Adams re-elected as Vice-President. He was to serve until 4 March 1797. He was a supremely unifying figure, the national hero who stood above party politics in a way that was not possible for his successors. Yet he left office a worried man. In his farewell address delivered in Philadelphia in September 1796 he denounced’ factions’ promoted by ‘artful and enterprising’ politicians, but there was nothing he could do to stop the rise of party politics.

Divisions had emerged within his own cabinet. The Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), an immigrant from the British West Indies, was an instinctive conservative, admitting that ‘this American world is not for me’. In order to fund the national debt and assume state debts he created the First Bank of the United States in 1791. He raised money by a tariff on imports and a highly unpopular tax on whiskey that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Hamilton took this revolt so seriously that he put on his former military uniform and with Washington led the troops across the Appalachians to crush the protests. 

Alexander Hamilton
first US Secretary of the Treasury
by John Trumbull

Hamilton’s supporters formed the first American political party, the Federalists. It was a party of strong government and sound finances. It was centred in the North and was the party of merchants and wealthy landowners.

Hamilton was born on the British West Indian island of Nevis. See here for more on his Caribbean roots.

The Secretary of State, Thomas Jeffersonrepresented a very different view of what America should be. He was suspicious of big government and his Democratic-Republican Party attracted small farmers and urban workers. He viewed great cities as ‘pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man’.  Whereas Hamilton, who had been born in the West Indies and had no loyalty to a particular state, was a supporter of a strong central government, Jefferson, a Virginian, was an advocate of states' rights. Although a slave holder he was a political radical. 

Relations with Britain and France

In 1784 Jefferson became Minister to France, and he was there when the Bastille was stormed in July 1789. He left in September but for a while he retained his sympathies with the Revolution. The Federalists, however, were hostile to the Revolution, and they welcomed Britain’s declaration of war on France in February 1793.

Both Washington and Hamilton welcomed the treaty negotiated by the Chief Justice of the US, John Jay, in 1795 that resolved many of the issues that had not been settled by the 1783 treaty, such as the British evacuation of the North-Western forts. However, the treaty was bitterly opposed by the Republicans, and an underlying cause of dispute remained because British warships were capturing US vessels trading with the French West Indies and seizing crew members suspected of desertion from the Royal Navy. 

The election of 1796 

John Adams
2nd President of the United States

This was the first contested election in US history. Washington’s vice-president John Adamsstood as a Federalist against Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of New York, who stood on the Democratic-Republican ticket. Adams was elected by a narrow majority (68 votes to 71) and, following the rules at the time, Jefferson became his vice-president. This was therefore a government with deep ideological divisions. In 1798, fearing that French agents were attempting to subvert the United States,  Congress passed the highly controversial Alien and Sedition Acts, which targeted suspected aliens but also Jeffersonian newspaper editors.  With Adams now firmly hostile to France, he and Jefferson were no longer on speaking terms.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President of the
United States (1801-09)

In the very lively presidential election 1800 Adams and his fellow Federalist, Charles Pinkney stood against the Republicans, Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Adams lost narrowly to Jefferson by 65 to 73 electoral votes. New York cast the decisive vote but Jefferson owed his victory to the South’s inflated electorate, which counted slaves as three-fifth of whites.  Burr became his vice president. The election might have been dubious in many respects but it marked the first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. 

Jefferson was re-elected in 1804. The election followed the ratification of the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitutionwhich specified that the electors were to vote separately for the president and vice-president. Jefferson, who had never trusted Burr, dropped him from the ticket in that election

In July 1804, Burr shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a duel and fled to South Carolina, but he was never tried.

The most important achievements of Jefferson’s presidency concerned the expansion westwards. He used his influence to bring Ohio into the Union in 1802. In 1803 he purchased Louisiana and in 1804 he sent out of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His second term, however, was less successful. In response to the failure of both France and Britain to respect American neutrality he launched an embargo on exports that only served to hurt the economy of the northern states.

The War of 1812

In 1808 Jefferson announced his intention to retire from politics and his Republican successor James Madison of Virginia easily won the election of that year. In June 1812 the resentments caused by Britain’s continued pressing of US servicemen erupted into war. 

The War of 1812 has been seen as one of the most unnecessary in history.  The United States had long been resentful of British attacks on its shipping but Britain had finally altered her policy (6 June) just before the war was declared (18 June). But the boarding of American ships was not the only issue. 

The British were blamed for stirring up the revolt of the Shawnee leaders Tecumsehand his brother Tenskwatawa in 1811. From his base on the Tippecanoe River in northern Indiana Tecumseh travelled from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to form a confederation of tribes to defend Indian hunting grounds and to establish an independent Indian nation east of the Mississippi under British protection.  In 1811 William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana advanced on the Tippecanoe River. The Shawnees were defeated and Tecumseh fled to British protection in Canada. The battle reinforced suspicions that the British were inciting the Indians. American frontiersmen saw Ontario as a pistol pointing at the United States and in Congress there was strong desire to seize Canada.  

With the exception of the New Englanders, Congress was enthusiastic for a war that they saw as a defence of American honour - and, more prosaically, as a defence of the northwest territories against British encroachments. The so-called War Hawks were led by two men from the southern and western districts, Henry Clay of Kentucky (1777-1852)  and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (1782-1850).

Neither side gained much from the war. The Americans were ill-prepared, both financially and militarily.   Their army was small and poorly equipped, though their navy was in comparatively good shape.  The Americans attempted three invasions of Canada, while the British failed to launch an invasion from the Great Lakes. 

painting by Anton Otto Fischer
depicting the victory by USS Constitution
over HMS Guerrière

The most notable events are:

  • the Americans’ humiliation of the Royal Navy in the battle between the frigates USS Constitution and HMS Guerrière on 19 August 1812.
  • The American capture of York (Toronto), the seat of government in Ontario on 27 April 1813, though it cost the life of General Zebulon Pike.
  • General William Henry Harrison’s defeat of Tecumseh at Thames River on 5 October 1813.  Following Tecumseh’s death in the battle the Indians were no longer able to play off one European power against another. 
  • The British burning of the Presidential Mansion on 24 August 1814. When it was restored it was painted white and has been known as the White House ever since. 
  • The composition of what was to become the American national anthem, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by the lawyer Francis Scott Key, written while the British blockaded Fort McHenry, Baltimore, on 14 September 1814.
  • General Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans in January 1815, in which a force of 4000 defeated a British expedition under General Pakenham almost three times the size. But the battle did not have great military significance, as it occurred a few weeks after the peace was signed.

General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans
as imagined by painter Edward Percy Moran in 1910.

The war was unpopular in New England because of its disruption of maritime trade. In the autumn of 1814 representatives of the New England states met at Hartford, Connecticut. They sent a mild set of demands to Washington for some amendments to the constitution, but the programme of the ‘Hartford Federalists’ raised the spectre of secession from the federal Union.

The Treaty of Ghent

In August 1814 peace talks began in the Flemish city of Ghent. By this time the British had decided that the war was not worth the cost. They were preoccupied with the negotiations at the Congress of Vienna, British merchants were eager to resume trade with the United States, and the British public was war-weary. The British returned territory near Lakes Superior and Michigan and in Maine to the United States; the Americans returned Upper Canada to Britain. It was almost a return to the status quo.


  1. The early years of the new Republic saw the emergence of political parties. The Federalists wanted strong central government and sound finances. Their opponents, the Democratic-Republicans saw themselves as representing small farmers and were suspicious of 'big government'.
  2. The war with Britain generated a new patriotism and launched the United States toward economic independence.

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