Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Creating a nation

Map of the US in 1783
The Philadelphian politician Benjamin Rush stated: 
‘The American war is over, but this I far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new form of government, and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.'

The future president, John Quincy Adams, was to describe this period as a ‘critical’ – a time when the country was ‘groaning under the intolerable burden… of accumulated evils’.  Yet is was also the time when the nation was created.

The Americans were faced with the task of devising new political institutions within a republican framework, which was in itself a radical departure in an age when monarchical government was the norm. They engaged in a spate of state constitution-making that remains unique in human history and built a constitution based on four pillars: 

  1. the contract theory of government, 
  2. the sovereignty of the people, 
  3. the separation of powers, 
  4. natural rights.  

The Articles of Confederation

Even before the end of the war there was ambiguity and uncertainty about the shape of the new nation. The only unifying body was the Continental Congress, but its powers were limited and it had no constitutional sanction. In November 1777 the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, which stated that America was a confederation of sovereign states.  This enabled it to form a government, though the formal ratification by all thirteen states was not completed until March 1781.

The government had three departments, Foreign Affairs, Finance, and War, and this enabled Congress to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  But there was no president.

The forging of an American identity

The war was vital in creating a common American identity. John Marshall, the future chief justice, who served first in the Virginia militia and then in the Continental army later wrote: 
‘I found myself associated with brave men from different states who were risking life and everything valuable in a common cause. I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country and Congress as my government.'
A distinctive American identity was beginning to emerge. Independence Day quickly became the most popular and most important ritual in the United States. 

Another sign of the emergence of a distinctive American identity was the publication of Noah Webster’s spelling book of 1783, which claimed to rescue ‘our native tongue’ from ‘the clamor’ of pedantry that surrounded English spelling and pronunciation.

In 1782 the Great Seal of the United States was first used publicly.

The Great Seal of the United States
The Great Seal of the United States


In spite of the limits on its powers the Congress began to act like a government. In 1781 the Bank of North America was set up; it would hold government deposits, lend money to the government, and issue bank notes. However, this did not prevent Congress from accumulating huge debts.

On 8 September 1786 Congress authorised the issue of the US dollarbased on the Spanish dollar circulating in North America. The currency was backed by the new Bank of North America, which was funded in part by specie loaned from France. 

The Land Ordinances

Land was an especially urgent problem as the population was on the move, expanding into the land beyond the Appalachians into the territories of Kentucky and Tennessee.  There needed to be some regulation and in 1784 the Land Ordinance, largely drafted by Jefferson, conferred statehood on a territory once its population matched that of any of the original thirteen states (60,000).

Following the Land Ordinance of 1785 Congress began to sell off land, reserving some to war veterans and designating an amount to be set aside for schools. Whenever Indian titles had been extinguished, the Northwest was to be surveyed into townships six miles square along east-west, north-south lines. Each township was to be divided into 36 lots one miles square and the sections were to go at auction for no less than $1 per acre. This set out the distinctive pattern of American towns.

In 1787 the Congress produced the Northwest Ordinance providing for the surveying, settlement and formation of states in the west – the territory bounded by the Appalachians, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. 

This Northwest Territory was the first organised territory of the United States beyond the thirteen colonies. It provided for education, to be funded through land sales. It prohibited slavery in the region and pledged to honour treaties with the Indians.

‘The significance of these land ordinances cannot be overestimated. The precedent they established – that the territories were under the control of Congress not the individual states, and that out of them new states “on an equal footing with the original States” would be created rather than individual ones expanded – established the very bedrock on which the nation, its geographic and its political form, would take shape.’ Susan-Mary Grant, A Concise History of the United States of America (Cambridge, 2012), p. 131

In spite of this, however Congress was weak, lacking all the characteristics needed to form a nation. There was no executive or judiciary. The Congress itself was a single-chamber body elected annually, with one vote per state. It could issue currency, deliver mail and negotiate treaties, but it could not levy taxation or raise an army. 

Shays’s Rebellion

The weakness of the Congress and the economic problems of the new nation were exposed in 1786 by Daniel Shays’s rebellion in Massachusetts, a revolt of discontented farmers demanding debt relief.

The rebellion was suppressed by the state militia. It was not a serious threat but it exposed the need to improve the workings of central government and to create a feeling of loyalty to it.  Reaction to the rebellion varied. Writing from Paris, where he was US ambassador, Thomas Jefferson wrote: 
‘A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ 
However, the shock of the rebellion caused Benjamin Rush to argue for the need for a constitution, and it drew Washington back into public life.  Many ‘federalists’ now saw the need for a stronger central government.

The drafting of the Constitution

In February 1787 Congress invited the states to send delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.  All responded except Rhode Island, which feared it would lose its power to impose import duties. The delegates convened on 14 May. At the Philadelphia Convention the delegates quickly abandoned their initial modest aim of revising the Articles, and instead set about creating a new Constitution. Their task was formidable: to create a central government, while accommodating the interests of the individual states.

George Washington was unanimously elected the presiding officer of the Convention.  The oldest delegate was the eighty-one-year-old Benjamin Franklin. The ablest political philosopher was the Virginian, James Madison

The Founding Fathers, as they were to be called, were members of the colonial elite and shared a common set of ideas. Their debates were recorded by the Virginian, James Madison, and provide a fascinating insight into how the Constitution was influenced by the thinkers of the European Enlightenment. From John Locke and the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, they derived the idea that government owes its legitimacy to the consent of the governed. From the thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, notably Machiavelli, they derived the theory of civic humanism – the virtuous man is one who works for the public good. But they also imbibed more pessimistic thinking, from the Christian doctrine of original sin and from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, from which they concluded that strong government was needed to prevent chaos and civil war. From the French Enlightenment thinker, Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois they derived the idea of the separation of powers as a safeguard against despotism. 

James Madison
author of the
Virginia Plan
These principles were embodied in James Madison’s ‘Virginia Plan’. This proposed separate legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and a truly national government to make laws binding upon individual citizens and states. Congress would be divided into two houses, a lower one chosen by popular vote and an upper house chosen by the lower house from nominees of state legislatures. Under this plan Congress would be the supreme authority.  

On 15 June delegates submitted the ‘New Jersey Plan’, which proposed to keep the existing structure of equal representation of states in a single-chamber Congress, but to give it power to regulate commerce and authority to name an executive and a Supreme Court.

Congress accepted the main proposals of the Virginia Plan and agreed to work towards a national government.  A furious disagreement about the issue of representation was resolved by the ‘Great Compromise’, put forward by the Connecticut lawyer, Roger Sherman. In the lower house, the House of Representatives, the states would be represented according to population, in the upper house, the Senate, the states would be equally represented regardless of population.

The Constitution

The Constitution begins with ‘We the people of the United States’, encapsulating in its opening sentence the doctrine of popular sovereignty.  It created a federal government but carefully circumscribed its powers, as a defence against tyranny. Its powers were parcelled out among three branches: 

  1. the bicameral legislature (the Congress, that was divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives); 
  2. the executive, headed by the president, 
  3. the judiciary, the Supreme Court chosen by presidential nomination with Senate approval.

The Senate comprised two senators from each state, regardless of the size of the state. The composition of the House of Representatives was determined by population. It was to be elected every two years and would be according to Virginia’s George Mason, ‘the grand repository of the democratic principle of the government’.   However, the Senate revealed the delegates’ suspicion of popular democracy. Senators were elected by state legislatures, not the popular vote. They would serve a six-year-term, expiring biennially by thirds. This fear of the masses is shown even more clearly in the mechanism for electing the president. Citizens could not vote directly for the president or the vice-president, but for an electoral college that would make the decision. Only male property-owners could vote in federal elections.

The President was commander-in-chief of the armed forces and he had a veto over acts of Congress, subject to being overridden by a two-thirds vote in each house. He was instructed to report annually on the state of the nation. Unlike the British monarch he could not declare war or make peace. Unlike the British monarch as well, he could be removed. The House could impeach him on charges of treason, bribery, or ‘other high crimes and misdemeanors’ and the Senate could remove an impeached president by a two-thirds vote upon conviction. 

Presidential elections were to be held every four years in November. No limit was set to the number of terms a president might serve. In the same elections the whole of the House and a third of the Senate would be up for re-election.  

The Convention voted against direct election for the president. Instead the legislatures of each state were to choose presidential electors to form an electoral college. (This did not work out as intended. Before long the electors were to be chosen by popular vote, and to act as agents for the party will.) 

The Constitution revealed a caution about youth. The president had to be at least thirty-five years old, senators thirty, and representatives twenty-five. The president was to have a vice-president, though the one task given him by the Constitution was the chair the Senate.

Following both the Virginia and New Jersey Plans the Constitution established a Supreme Court, providing for a chief Justice of the United States. Soon the Supreme Court would be declaring laws void when they conflicted with the Constitution, even though this was nowhere implied in the Constitution itself.

At the insistence of the slaveholders, slavery was written into the Constitution, though it was not explicitly mentioned. Slaves were ‘all other persons' (Art. I, Sec 2) and ‘Persons held to service or labor' (Art IV, Sec. 2). In apportioning representation in the House of Representatives, slaves counted for three-fifths of a person. As a concession to the opponents of slavery it was decreed that the slave trade should be abolished in 1808.  

The most notorious provision was the fugitive slave clause (Section II, clause 3):

 ‘No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.’

Benjamin Rush wrote to a correspondent in London: 
‘No mention was made of negroes or slaves in this constitution, only because it was thought the very words would contaminate the glorious fabric of American liberty and government. Thus you see the cloud which a few years ago was no larger than a man’s hand has descended in plentiful dews and at last cover’d every part of our land.’ 
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,
Howard Chandler Christy
Now on display on the stairwell of the West Wing
of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Ratifying the Constitution

In September Congress submitted the Constitution to the state legislatures for ratification. The agreement of all thirteen colonies had been required to amend the Articles, but only nine needed to ratify the Constitution for it to come into effect. This proved a difficult process. Pennsylvania and Connecticut ratified it via majority decisions, and New York, New Jersey, and Delaware by unanimous ones.  The two most reluctant states were Virginia and New York.  Virginia’s Patrick Henry, spoke for all the dissidents when he argued that the Constitution undermined the rights of the individual states. 

This proved to be the fundamental issue. Two camps had emerged, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists included Washington, Franklin, the Virginian James Madison, Alexander Hamilton (Washington’s former aide-de-camp), and the former president of the Continental Congress, John Jay.   The Anti-Federalists included Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and Richard Henry Lee. But against the states rights supporters was a powerful body of federalist opinion, which argued for the need for a strong central government. 

The Federalist case was set out in The Federalist, eighty-five essays published in the New York newspapers between the autumn of
1787 and the summer of 1788 under the pseudonym ‘Publius’. 

They were written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, with a few by John Jay. Hamilton argued for a strong federal government, while Madison focused on the checks and balances found in the Constitution. In order to accommodate the fears of their opponents, they promised to add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. 

By the summer of 1788 the required nine states had ratified. By the end of 1788 only North Carolina and Rhode Island were holding out. Upon notification that New Hampshire had become the ninth state to ratify, Congress began to draft plans for the transfer of power. New York City was selected as the seat of the new government and 4 March 1789 was the date set for the meeting of the new Congress. On 10 October 1788 the Confederation Congress was wound down.

President Washington

George Washington was unanimously elected. On 30 April 1789 he took his oath of office in New York City, wearing a plain brown suit rather than his military uniform. He had rejected any title that sounded royal, and was addressed as ‘Mr President’. 

The Bill of Rights

In December 1791 the Bill of Rights promised by the Federalists became law in the form of the first ten amendments. 

The First Amendment protected freedom of speech, the press and religion, the Second the right to bear arms. The Fifth Amendment prevented an individual from testifying against himself. Much of this was based on the English Bill of Rights and the presumptions of the English common law, but the strict separation of church and state was a major departure.  The Tenth Amendment reserved to the states or to the people all powers not specifically granted to the federal government.

The creation of Washington DC

Article One, Section Eight, of the Constitution therefore permitted the establishment of a ‘District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States’.  However, the Constitution does not specify a location for the capital. In 1790, Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson came to an agreement that the federal government would pay each state's remaining Revolutionary War debts in exchange for establishing the new national capital in the Southern United States.

In July 9, 1790, Congress approved the creation of a national capital on the Potomac River on land donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia. In the meantime the capital moved to Philadelphia in December 1790, while the new federal city was under construction. 

In March 1791 the French-born engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, arrived in Georgetown and began to plan the layout of the city.  On September 9, 1791 the city was named in honour of President Washington. The federal district was named Columbia (a poetic name for the United States). In 1801 Congress passed the Organic Act of 1801, which officially organized the District and placed the entire territory under the exclusive control of the federal government. 

In 1792 Washington accepted the design of the Irish architect, James Hoban, for the President’s house.  

On Saturday 1 November 1800 his successor John Adams became the first president to take residence in the building. On 17 November Congress held its first session in Washington. The third president, Thomas Jefferson, became the first president to be inaugurated in the new federal city when he took the oath of office on 4 March 1801.


  1. Within a remarkably short space of time the Founding Fathers had created a new nation and given it a constitution based on the principles of the Enlightenment.
  2. The United States was extending beyond the original colonies. Provision had been made for new states to come into the union on existing footing with the original thirteen.
  3. But two issues remained unresolved: the balance to be drawn between the rights of the states and the powers of the federal government; and how a nation committed to equality and human rights could accommodate the institution of slavery.

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