History of the USA

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ial 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. SHAYSS 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 nations 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.




Diverging Visions of the American Republic


In the first elections for the new federal Congress (1789), those favoring the new system won a huge majority. George Washington was unanimously elected to be chief executive, the only president so honored. He was inaugurated in the temporary capital, New York City, on Apr. 30, 1789. The American experiment in republican self-government now began again. The unanimity expressed in Washingtons election would prove short- lived.


Under the leadership of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander HAMILTON, Congress pledged (1790) the revenues of the federal government to pay off all the outstanding debt of the old Articles of Confederation government as well as the state debts. Much of the domestic debt was in currency that had badly depreciated in value, but Congress agreed to fund it at its higher face value; at one stroke, the financial credit of the new government was assured. Southerners, however, mistrusted the plan, claiming that it served only to enrich northern speculators because the southern states had largely paid off their debts. Many southerners feared, too, that the new nation would be dominated by New Englanders, whose criticism of southern slavery and living styles offended them. Before assenting to the funding proposal, the southerners had obtained agreement that the national capital (after 10 years in Philadelphia) would be placed in the South, on the Potomac River.


In 1791, Hamilton persuaded Congress to charter the BANK OF THE UNITED STATES, modeled after the Bank of England. Primarily private (some of its trustees would be federally appointed), it would receive and hold the governments revenues, issue currency and regulate that of state-chartered banks, and be free to invest as it saw fit the federal tax moneys in its vaults. Because it would control the largest pool of capital in the country, it could shape the growth of the national economy. Hamilton also proposed (with limited success) that protective tariffs be established to exclude foreign goods and thus stimulate the development of U.S. factories. In short, he laid out the economic philosophy of what became the FEDERALIST PARTY: that the government should actively encourage economic growth by providing aid to capitalists. Flourishing cities and a vigorous industrial order: this was the American future he envisioned. His strongly nationalist position gained the support of the elites in New York City and Philadelphia as well as broad-based support among the Yankees of New England.


On the other hand, southerners, a rural and widely dispersed people, feared the cities and the power of remote bankers. With Thomas JEFFERSON they worked to counteract the Federalists anglicized vision of the United States. Southerners rejected the concept of an active government, preferring one committed to laissez-faire (that is, allowing people to act without government interference) in all areas--economic and cultural. Jefferson declared that close ties between government and capitalists would inevitably lead to corruption and exploitation. In his view, behind-the-scene schemers would use graft to secure special advantages (tariffs, bounties, and the like) that would allow them to profiteer at the communitys expense.


The Middle Atlantic states at first supported the nationalistic Federalists, who won a second term for Washington in 1792 and elected John ADAMS to the presidency in 1796. However, many of the Scots-Irish, Germans, and Dutch in these states disliked Yankees and distrusted financiers and business proprietors. The growing working class in Philadelphia and New York City turned against the Federalists elitism. By 1800 the ethnic minorities of the Middle Atlantic states helped swing that region behind Jefferson, a Virginian, and his Democratic-Republican party, giving the presidency to Jefferson. Thereafter, until 1860, with few intermissions, the South and the Middle Atlantic states together dominated the federal government. Although the U.S. Constitution had made no mention of POLITICAL PARTIES, it had taken only a decade for the development of a party system that roughly reflected two diverging visions for the new republic. Political parties would remain an integral part of the American system of government.


During the 1790s, however, foreign affairs became dominant, and dreams of republican simplicity and quietude were dashed. A long series of wars between Britain and Revolutionary France began in that decade, and the Americans were inevitably pulled into the fray. By JAYS TREATY (1794) the United States reluctantly agreed to British wartime confiscation of U.S. ship cargoes, alleged to be contraband, in return for British evacuation of western forts on Americ