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Unit Overview

In the summer of 1787, fifty-five delegates from every state except for Rhode Island met at the State House in Philadelphia with the intention of revising the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had served the United States through the Revolutionary War and had established a procedure for bringing new states into the Union with the enactment of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordnance of 1787.

Yet the Articles had by design established a central government that possessed few powers. There was no executive under the Articles, and the Congress could not levy taxes, but could only request money from the states. Many prominent Americans, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, became convinced that a stronger central government was necessary for the United States to prosper and indeed defend its very existence against foreign threat.

The Philadelphia delegates soon decided to scrap the Articles and create a new constitution. The resulting Constitutional Convention would lead to the establishment of the world's oldest written constitution and one that would inspire many peoples and governments around the world.

Post-War Problems

The American Revolution ended on September 3, 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. While this treaty marked the beginning for the now free and independent United States, it was only the start of the long struggle to forge a new and viable nation from the ashes of eight long years of fighting.

Many of the American patriots who had fought so bravely against the British went home after the war to resume their lives as farmers. After enduring unimaginable hardships during the war, some veterans were shocked to learn they would be required to pay taxes levied by each state to offset the country’s $80 million war debt. Nearly $11 million was owed to foreign nations while the remaining debt was owed to Americans who had sold supplies to the Continental Army. The burden of these taxes forced some veterans into debtors’ prison and others to relinquish their land to pay the taxes. For men who had sacrificed so much, such treatment was a devastating blow.

Some resisted. Daniel Shays led a large group of farmers on a raid on the armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, where guns and ammunition were stored. The Shaysites’ goal was to prevent the opening of local courts, which were set to foreclose on veterans’ properties. Though the uprising was eventually put down by state militia, many prominent Americans, like Henry Knox and George Washington, were greatly alarmed by the seeming threat of anarchy.
Returning veterans were not the only ones who dealt with hardships after the war. Loyalists who had supported the British faced bitter treatment at the hands of patriots who seized their property and constantly harassed them. Among the approximately 100,000 loyalists who left the colonies (most traveling to Canada) were American Indians and free blacks who had supported and fought with the British during the Revolution. Former slaves who had been lured to the British side by guarantees of freedom now faced the prospect of a return to slavery, while American Indians who had sided with the British saw Americans take their land to expand the new country’s territory.

Until the Revolutionary War, the British had protected the colonies from European powers looking to expand their own empires. In fact, many Loyalists had argued throughout the war that without the protection of the British, America would soon fall under the control of one of these nations. The United States had to unite in order to remain free and independent. At first, the outcome was not certain.

In 1785, delegates from Maryland and Virginia met at George Washington’s home of Mount Vernon to resolve commercial and water use issues between the two states. A year, later, twelve delegates from five states attended a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, with the object of proposing changes to the Articles of Confederation. The actual name of the meeting was “Meeting of Commissioners to Remedy Defects of the Federal Government,” and it focused primarily on trade issues among the states. The result of the meeting was to call for another gathering in May in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Constitutional Convention

The state representatives who met in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 were mostly wealthy and influential men who shared a classical education in Greek and Roman history and a familiarity with the law. But they brought with them differing views as to how powerful a central government should be. Some, like Alexander Hamilton of New York and James Madison of Virginia, favored an energetic executive and a government with the power to tax; others, like Luther Martin of Maryland and John Lansing and Robert Yates of New York, were reluctant to imbue government with additional authority.

Indeed, the delegates to the convention represented a wide variety of interests, and each was motivated in his decision-making by many, sometimes contradictory, factors. In 1913, historian Charles Beard published his influential work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, in which he argued that the delegates were motivated as a group to protect their own economic self-interest. Forty-five years later, historian Forrest McDonald proved that Beard was wrong, that many delegates in fact voted against their own interests during the convention. McDonald found that there was no single motivation for any of the delegates and that the only consistent pattern among them was that they voted in the interest of their states more often than not.

George Washington was chosen as the presiding officer of the convention, and his presence served two purposes that proved beneficial for the proceedings. First, he reassured worried Americans that the motives of the delegates were pure; second, he kept the peace among the delegates, as few dared to misbehave in the presence of the greatest man of the day. At the outset of the convention, the delegates voted to keep the proceedings secret. However, several delegates, most famously James Madison, secretly took detailed notes on the debates and recorded the votes.


State Delegates
Connecticut Oliver Ellsworth*, William Samuel Johnson, Roger Sherman
Delaware Richard Bassett, Gunning Bedford, Jr., Jacob Broom, John Dickinson, George Read
Georgia Abraham Baldwin, William Few, William Houston, William Pierce
Maryland Daniel Carroll, Luther Martin*, James McHenry, John F. Mercer*, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer
Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry*, Nathaniel Gorham, Rufus King, Caleb Strong*
New Hampshire Nicholas Gilman, John Langdon
New Jersey David Brearley, Jonathan Dayton, William Houston*, William Livingston, William Paterson
New York Alexander Hamilton, John Lansing, Jr.*, Robert Yates*
North Carolina William Blount, William Richardson Davie*, Alexander Martin*, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Hugh Williamson
Pennsylvania George Clymer, Thomas Fitzsimons, Benjamin Franklin, Jared Ingersoll, Thomas Mifflin, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, James Wilson
South Carolina Pierce Butler, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Charles Pinckney, John Rutledge
Virginia John Blair, James Madison, George Mason*, James McClurg*, Edmund Randolph*, George Washington, George Wythe*


  • Rhode Island did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
  • Names with an (*) next indicate the delegate did not sign the final draft of the United States Constitution.
  • Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not attend the meeting because they were representing the United States abroad.

Issue #1:  How much power should the federal government have?

From the beginning, delegates argued over the balance of power between the federal government and the states.  The “consolidationists” or “nationalists”—men such as Alexander Hamilton of New York, James Madison of Virginia, and James Wilson of Pennsylvania—argued for an energetic central government that could solve problems among the states and forge the United States into a single nation whose reputation would increase in the eyes of the world. The “federalists”—men like Luther Martin of Maryland, and John Lansing and Robert Yates of New York—feared the augmentation of centralized power. In the end, the nationalists would win out and the strengthened federal government would become the country’s highest authority. The essential grant of power to the federal government involved giving Congress the power to levy taxes. For the first time, the national government would be able to act directly upon individuals and not simply upon the states.

National Government
Expressed, Implied, and Inherent Powers

  • control commerce in foreign and interstate markets
  • provide for the coinage of money
  • install an army and a navy
  • have the ability to declare war
  • create federal courts that are subordinate to the Supreme Court
  • engage in foreign relations
  • use several expressed powers that are implied

National and State Government
Concurrent Powers

  • set taxes
  • have the ability to borrow money
  • use money for the welfare of the general public
  • form courts
  • set and regulate laws

State Government
Reserved Powers

  • control interstate commerce
  • form systems of local government
  • hold elections
  • serve in the best interest to protect the republic’s morals, welfare, and health

Issues #2 and #3:  How should the central government be structured?  How would states be represented in the legislative branch of government?

Shortly after the convention convened, Governor Edmund Randolph, who relied heavily on James Madison, presented what became known as the Virginia Plan. This plan would create a new national government with three distinct branches. The Convention spent the next two weeks discussing Madison’s creation. The Virginia Plan called for a two-house legislative branch of the government composed of representatives from each state. In one chamber, population would determine the number of each state’s representatives.  The members of that chamber would elect members to the other legislative body.  States with larger populations would have more representation in both houses than the smaller states. The smaller states objected because they wanted a more equal distribution of representatives.

In response to the Virginia Plan, William Paterson and other New Jersey delegates created the New Jersey Plan. The plan called for a single-house (unicameral) legislature in which all states were represented equally. Of course, the larger states objected to the New Jersey Plan because they would be underrepresented. For the most part, this plan proposed to amend and not replace the Articles of Confederation.

Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut forged a solution known as the “Connecticut (or “Great”) Compromise.” This compromise led to that creation of a bicameral national legislature. The Compromise featured ideas from the New Jersey and Virginia plans. In the lower house of Congress, representation would be based on a state’s population, as in the Virginia Plan. The voters in each state would elect members to the House of Representatives. The number of representatives from each state would be based on the population of the state in the most recent census. In the upper house of Congress, each state would have an equal number of representatives, as in the Virginia Plan. Two senators would represent each state in the Senate.  This compromise appealed to both large states and the smaller states, but the next debate concerned how to count the population of each state for representation in the House of Representatives.

Issue #4:  Should slaves be counted for representation in the national legislature?

The Southern states argued that slaves should be included in the population count to determine how many representatives each state would have in the House of Representatives. Northern states, however, countered that because slaves were considered property, they should not be included in population to determine representation. A compromise was reached in which three-fifths of “all other persons” would be counted for the purposes of representation. It should be noted that here, as in the rest of the Constitution, the delegates avoided the use of the word “slave.”

The “Three-fifths Clause,” which is in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, was in effect until the end of the Civil War in 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, and slavery was outlawed. The Three-fifths Compromise was one of the most controversial actions of the Constitutional Convention.

Issue #5:  How would mob rule be prevented?

To the delegates, the word “democracy” connoted “mob rule,” and its excesses were seen to be the reason for the downfall of the republics of the ancient world. The fear was that one or a few elites, demagogues, would manipulate the people and that democracy would degenerate into tyranny.  “Democracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy,” John Adams wrote. “Such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination  . . . to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable cruelty of one or a very few.”

Thus, though they proclaimed that “We the People of the United States” created the Constitution, the delegates were careful to insulate government from the arbitrary whims of the volatile mass of “the people.” The delegates thus avoided having any mass plebiscite of the entire “people” of the United States decide anything in the new government. Not only were Congressmen in both houses the representatives of the individual states, but Americans would not directly elect even the President of the United States.  Instead, a new creation, the Electoral College, would choose the president, with each state being allotted a number of votes equal to the number of members of Congress.


After a long, hot summer of debate and compromise, the delegates finalized a document that provided for a stronger centralized government. The Committee of Style and Arrangement, chaired by Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, submitted a final version of the Constitution for signing on September 17, 1787. However, several delegates were dissatisfied with the final version of the Constitution, and three who stayed until the end of the convention, refused to sign it: Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry. Others who had opposed the direction that the convention was taking, such as Luther Martin, John Lansing and Robert Yates, had left Philadelphia for good during the proceedings.

To make the Constitution the law of the land, at least nine of the thirteen states would have to ratify the Constitution. The debate over ratification in the states was perhaps the most astounding act of political deliberation in the history of mankind. Supporters of ratification cleverly stole the moniker of their convention opponents, calling themselves “Federalists” and those who opposed the new Constitution “Anti-federalists.”

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay of New York anonymously authored a series of eighty-five essays in support of the proposed Constitution, signing each essay “Publius.” The Federalist Papers were directed at the ratification debate in New York and had a limited impact on the national debate, though they have become for many the definitive guide to the Founders’ original intent when determining the meaning of the Constitution.

Anti-Federalists, who were less organized politically and intellectually, fought back in articles published under such pseudonyms as “Centinel,” “Brutus,” and “the Federal Farmer.” Some of the more famous Anti-Federalists included Patrick Henry and George Mason of Virginia and George Clinton of New York. The primary argument of the Anti-federalists was that the new government was too powerful and threatened the rights of the states and their citizens.

Many Anti-federalists voiced the idea that they could support the Constitution if a bill of rights were added to the document. Most state constitutions contained a bill of rights protecting freedom of speech, religion, the press, and other individual rights. Though Hamilton and other Federalists rejected the notion of a bill of rights, arguing that it was superfluous in a document that created a central government with limited powers, in the end Federalists agreed to introduce a bill of rights in the first Congress once the Constitution was ratified.

The Constitution went into force when New Hampshire became the ninth state to approve the new frame of government on June 21, 1788. Rhode Island was the thirteenth and final state to ratify and did not do so until 1790, when the new government was already in operation.

President George Washington

It is likely that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention would never have designed a strong executive branch with one president at its head if not for the very being of George Washington, who was universally trusted by Americans as a man who was not tempted by power.

The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first President of the United States on February 14, 1789, with John Adams as Vice President. Washington’s inauguration took place on April 30, 1790, in New York City, the young nation’s capital. Serving as the first president was no easy task. Though Article II of the Constitution laid out the basic details of the office of the President, there was much room, as in the rest of the document, for interpretation. 

Many of the decisions President Washington made, even those that may seem insignificant, set a precedent for future Presidents.  For example, it was Washington who began the tradition of a president delivering an inaugural address and the tradition of delivering the State of the Union Address in person before Congress.  Even the design and layout of the nation’s capital would be largely left to his discretion. 

Article II, section 2 gives the President the authority to appoint, with Senate approval, various officials including ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and the heads of executive departments. The Constitution also states that the President “may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.” President Washington, however, met with his appointees regularly and in person, and this group of advisors—Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General—became known as his “Cabinet.” 


Once appointed as Secretary of Treasury, Hamilton initiated a series of measures that were designed to put the new government on a sound financial footing and to establish the federal government as the engine of national economic progress. His initiatives included fully funding the national debt, establishing a national bank, and encouraging American manufacturing.

Between 1790 and 1791, Hamilton issued three reports detailing what he saw as the problems facing the new nation and describing his proposals to remedy the situation.  In his First Report on the Public Credit, Hamilton argued for repaying the national debt in full. Anyone who had a government bond could expect to be paid back the full amount. Foreign creditors would also be paid back in full.  In order to raise the revenue needed to accomplish these goals, Hamilton proposed a tariff, an excise tax on alcohol, and the issuance of new government bonds.  Hamilton reasoned that these measures would generate confidence in the new government and help secure future creditors.  In addition, Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume all state debt. 

Again, the idea was to establish the credit worthiness of government securities, but Hamilton also hoped to create a tie, a link between wealthier elements in society, and the fate of the federal government.  Hamilton wanted to win the loyalties of those powerful people in society to the national government. If the survival of the national government was in the best interests of the wealthy, Hamilton reasoned, then the new government had a future.

The plan created a controversy at the time. James Madison took a leading role in opposition to Hamilton’s proposal, arguing that most of the original creditors of the government, often poor farmers and veterans, sold their bonds to speculators at about one-quarter of the original value because they needed the cash. Therefore, it would be the speculators who would benefit from funding, thereby enriching further a class that already held a great deal of wealth.  Madison proposed instead that the government pay current bond holders market value plus interest.  In cases where the bond was sold privately, the government would also pay the original holder face value.

Hamilton countered that it would be logistically impossible for the government to track down all original bond holders and vet competing claims. Moreover, the government had a responsibility to honor bonds that read "payable to the bearer." Hamilton reasoned that it would undermine any faith future investors had in the United States government if current bond holders were not given their due return. Hamilton asserted that Madison’s proposal unfairly penalized speculators.

Assumption of state debt also faced staunch opposition.  Some states carried massive debt, particularly in the North.  Critics argued that Hamilton’s plan would unfairly benefit indebted states while penalizing those that had already paid off most, if not all, of their debt. Virginia representatives, in particular, asserted that, to be fair, the government would actually owe their constituents money should it proceed with a policy of assuming state debt.

After fierce debate, a compromise was reached.  In a deal allegedly brokered by Thomas Jefferson, Madison agreed to garner support for Hamilton’s plan in exchange for relocating the nation’s capital to the banks of the Potomac River.  By mid- July, Congress passed The Residence Act of 1790, which provided for the establishment of “a district of territory not exceeding ten miles square, to be located . . . on the River Potomac . . . for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States.”Later that month, Congress approved most of Hamilton’s plan including the assumption of state debt.

Submitted to Congress in December of 1790, Hamilton’s second report proposed the establishment of a national bank. According to the report, this bank would: standardize and control United States currency; hold government funds; assist in the collection and expenditure of tax revenue; provide loans for both businesses and the government; and regulate banking practices.  The bank would be a quasi-public institution, partially owned by the government.  However, 80% of the stock would be privately owned, and only five individuals on the  twenty-five person board of directors would be government appointees.  Again, the plan met with staunch opposition.  Many in Congress questioned the constitutionality of creating a national bank.  Although the bill ultimately passed both houses, the vote was split: northern states overwhelmingly favored the bill while southern states were diametrically opposed. Once again, James Madison led the opposition.

When it came time to sign the bill into law, President Washington was hesitant.  He called upon Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph for advice.  Both favored a presidential veto.  In his Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bill for Establishing a National Bank, Jefferson wrote that “The incorporation of a bank, and other powers assumed by this bill have not, in my opinion, been delegated to the U.S. by the Constitution.” Like Madison, Jefferson argued for a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton responded with his Opinion on the Constitutionality of the Bank.   According to Hamilton, the necessary and proper clause (Article One, Section 8, Clause 18) of the Constitution granted Congress any power that was both not expressively prohibited by the Constitution and beneficial to the general welfare. After careful consideration of both arguments, President Washington decided to sign the bill in late February, 1791.

The following year, Hamilton issued his third and final report.  This time, Hamilton’s aim was to encourage Americans to manufacture products rather than exporting raw materials to foreign countries to manufacture goods that Americans would then purchase. To achieve this end, Hamilton proposed a tariff as well as government subsidies. The tariff would serve two purposes: to protect fledgling industries and to raise revenue.  Part of the revenue raised could then be invested in industry in the form of government subsidies.  

According to Hamilton, these measures encouraged diversification and technological innovation.  On a global scale, domestic industry ensured independence by reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign goods. Hamilton further asserted that industry, commerce, and trade were essential if the new republic was going to be a strong player in the world economy.  Finally, industry encouraged immigration and population growth, which in turn increased demand for agricultural products, thereby benefitting Southern farmers as well as Northern manufacturers. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison again led the way in opposition to the plan, arguing that subsidies would lead to favoritism and corruption.   

Foreign Policy

During the American Revolution, France was an important ally. To secure the relationship, the Second Continental Congress signed two treaties, officially entering into a defensive alliance with France under King Louis XVI. Combined, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance created what is often referred to as the Franco-American Alliance of 1778.  However, relations with France began to deteriorate with the outbreak of the French Revolution

In the beginning, most Americans supported the revolutionaries, who were inspired by America’s own fight for independence.  Moreover, French involvement in the American Revolution helped turn the tide of the war. As the French Revolution grew increasingly violent and when the French government declared war on Great Britain in 1793, American opinion became divided. The President’s own advisors disagreed: Thomas Jefferson believed that the United States ought to be supportive of the French Revolutionaries while Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, favored supporting Britain.

The French government under which the Franco-American treaty was signed no longer existed; the French king had been executed.  In light of these events, many began to wonder exactly what the United States’ obligations were under the treaty.  While some argued that the agreement was now void, Thomas Jefferson contended that the United States should honor the treaty.  On April 22, 1793, however, President Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality in the war between France and Britain.

Though American sentiment toward France was beginning to wane, it paled in comparison to the resentment many harbored toward the British.  More than a decade after the American Revolution, several disputes remained between Britain and the United States.  For example, British soldiers were still stationed at forts in western U.S. territories, a blatant violation of the Treaty of Paris of 1783.  In addition, the British were supplying Indians with guns and ammunition in an effort to limit American settlement along the Ohio River.
To make matters worse, Britain had decided that it was struggling for its survival; to recognize the rights of neutrals, to allow the United States to carry goods from the United States or from the Caribbean Islands to France during wartime was simply unacceptable. They began seizing American merchant ships headed for enemy territory (the French were doing the same, but on a much smaller scale).  The British had also been impressing (seizing and putting into the service of the British Navy) American sailors who they claimed were deserters from the British Navy. 

As a wave of anti-British feeling swept the country, President George Washington maintained the belief that it was in the new nation’s best interest to avoid another war with Britain.  Further, Alexander Hamilton believed the United States needed to expand trade if it were to survive.  Chief Justice John Jay was sent to Britain to negotiate a treaty.  Later referred to as “Jay’s Treaty,” the agreement achieved both of these objectives.

Though Washington and Hamilton’s goals were met, many Americans were outraged by the terms of the treaty.  Western settlers resented the fact that there was no provision preventing British fur traders from conducting business south of the U.S. - Canadian border.  Others thought the treaty undermined the very independence they had fought for and won because, though troops were withdrawn from U.S. territory, Britain was not obligated to end the practices of impressment or supplying Indian combatants with weapons.  In addition, U.S. citizens would be taxed to pay off pre-Revolutionary debts owed to British merchants.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison argued that closer ties to Britain would dangerously increase the power of the central government.

Jay’s Treaty also strained America’s already fragile relationship with France. In France, Jay’s Treaty was viewed as an insult and as a flagrant violation of the Treaty of 1778. In retaliation, the French navy stepped up its effort to seize American merchant ships headed to Britain.

In 1795, the United States also settled boundary disputes with Spain.  Negotiated by Thomas Pinckney, the Treaty of San Lorenzo, also known as Pinckney’s Treaty, accomplished two vital goals:  Spain recognized the Mississippi River and the 31st parallel as the official western and southern boundaries of the United States; and Spain agreed to grant access to the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans.  The latter of these two concessions was vitally important for American merchants in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.

The Whiskey Rebellion

From the early colonial days, American colonists made money from the sale of alcohol. This started during the triangle trade when sugar cane was used to make molasses in the West Indies and then sent to the American colonies where it was used to manufacture rum. Because of the time required to transport goods long distances, it was cheaper to reduce sugar cane to molasses for shipping. A shipment of sugar cane would spoil on a long journey.

With a tradition of distilling alcohol firmly entrenched in America, many people began to travel to the colonies with the hopes of making their fortune in spirits, another name for alcohol. Among the first group of immigrants was the Scotch-Irish, well-known for the whiskey they produced in Europe. As these people arrived in America, they found much of the best farmland already taken, and they traveled farther west to find suitable farmland. As these early settlers ventured westward, they found few roads or means of transportation back to the East, which would be critical in shipping their crops to markets before they spoiled. In addition, these early settlers often clashed with American Indians who believed them to be trespassers on Indian land. Frontier life was much different than life today. Early settlers on the frontier had to build or grow whatever they needed to survive. They also had to rely on one another during tough times. Money was rare on the frontier. People traded goods in exchange for items they needed. In addition, based on their experiences back home, the Scotch-Irish distrusted the government, particularly the British government. Because of this distrust, the early Scotch-Irish settlers were happy to live far away from governing powers.

As the rum traders had earlier, frontier settlers were faced with a big problem. How could they ship their crops east to markets without the crops spoiling in transit? They answered this question the same way the earlier triangle trade had solved the problem. Instead of transporting all crops to the East, they would reduce the cargo into a product that would not spoil; liquor was the easily transportable product.

After the United States gained its independence from England in 1781, the new country was deeply in debt. By 1790, the United States government had assumed the debts of the thirteen states and needed revenue to pay off the war debt. Taxes were the only way the government could raise money. Congress levied the Distilled Spirits Excise Tax in 1791. This tax placed a nine-cent-per-gallon charge on all spirits produced in the country. As soon as the farmers learned of the tax, they protested. They claimed the tax was unfair because it placed a higher burden on small distilleries than on large distilleries. They also complained they received no benefit from the taxes. The tax revenue did not provide better roads and canals for transportation of their crops, nor did it provide protection from Indians. Farmers protested the tax in different ways. Most people simply refused to pay the tax, while others threatened excise officers who collected the taxes. Some of the most violent protests occurred in western Pennsylvania, where excise offices were burned and tax officials were beaten.

While the farmers did not want to pay the tax in the first place, it also was true they were incapable of paying it. Most of the people required to pay this tax had no money because they very rarely used it. These people bartered or traded for what they needed and had no real use for money.

Realizing that this tax revolt was a major threat to the young United States government, in 1794 President George Washington led 12,000 militia to western Pennsylvania to squelch the Whiskey Rebellion. Shortly before the militia arrived, settlers involved with the rebellion fled into the countryside, and the rebellion ended quickly. While some criticized Washington’s reaction as using a “sledge hammer to crush a gnat,” the President’s message to Americans was clear:  The national government would enforce the law.

The Election of 1796 and the Adams Presidency

The intense disputes between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over both fiscal and foreign policy were the foundation of the political parties that emerged over the course of the 1790s. Thomas Jefferson, along with James Madison, came to symbolize the position of the common people, and what became known as the Democratic-Republicans formed around them.  Hamilton and his supporters were viewed as the champions of industry and wealth, and their allies became known as the Federalists.  For the most part, President Washington seemed to lean toward Hamiltonian ideas—so much so, in fact, that Jefferson resigned as his Secretary of State in 1794—yet the Father of his Country bemoaned the formation of formal parties in America.

As Washington’s second term drew to a close, party development had advanced to the point where the presidential election of 1796 was a contest, not between individual candidates, each thinking themselves worthy, or candidates supported by their states or their regions, but between candidates who more and more were identified as Federalists or Republicans.

After two terms as president, Washington retired from office, an act which set a precedent for future presidents to serve no more than two terms. The election of 1796 would be the first in which candidates represented the interests of competing political parties.  The Federalist Party endorsed John Adams for president and Thomas Pinckney for vice president.  Alexander Hamilton, however, did not support Adams. In an effort to influence the election, Hamilton persuaded several southern electors to omit John Adams’ name from their ballots.  However, northern electors found out about the clandestine scheme, and they omitted Pinckney’s name from their ballots.  As a result, Adams won the presidency by a narrow margin while Thomas Jefferson won the vice presidency. 

As president, John Adams continued many of the policies of Washington.  He even retained many of Washington’s cabinet members, rather than appointing his own.  As the war between France and Britain continued, Adams tried to maintain the policy of neutrality that Washington had initiated.  However, neutrality was becoming increasingly difficult as the French continued to seize American ships in the wake of Jay’s Treaty.  Hoping to negotiate an agreement, Adams sent three representatives to Paris.  The Americans, expecting French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, were instead greeted by three low-ranking bureaucrats who proceeded to demand a large sum of money in exchange for a meeting with Talleyrand.  The American delegation refused to pay the bribe. 

At home, the incident became known as the XYZ Affair, and it sparked anti-French sentiment. In response, Congress authorized the creation of a navy department and an army to be led by General George Washington.  American ships were authorized to begin seizing French ships in the Caribbean.  The United States was now engaged in an undeclared or “quasi” war with France.

In addition, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were directed at the Jeffersonians. The Acts were actually comprised of four acts of legislation. The Naturalization Act stated that someone from another country must live in the United States for fourteen years before applying for citizenship. The previous residency requirement for citizenship was five years. The Alien Friends Act gave the President of the United States the power to deport any nonresident of the United States deemed a threat to the government. The Alien Enemies Act stated that residents of countries in conflict with the United States could be deported. Finally, the Sedition Act stated that publishing false, incorrect, and scandalous writing about the United States, the government, or government officials was a crime.

By 1800, both France and the United States were eager to end the hostilities. Again, President Adams sent a delegation to Paris to negotiate an agreement. The resulting Treaty of Mortefontaine, or Convention of 1800, settled the “Quasi” War with France.  However, news of the treaty took time to get across the Atlantic, and the delay cost Adams the election of 1800.

The Election of 1800 and Jefferson’s Presidency

The presidential election of 1800 pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams. Aaron Burr of New York was the Democratic-Republican vice presidential candidate. The Constitution had provided that each elector would cast two votes for president, with the runner up becoming vice president. The Democratic-Republican Party’s leaders intended for one of their electors to refrain from voting for Burr, thus giving the presidency to Jefferson the vice presidency to Burr as planned.

The plan misfired, however, and the Democratic-Republican electors each voted for both Jefferson and Burr. Per the Constitution, the election was then thrown into the United States House of Representatives, which was controlled by the Federalists. The two top vote-getters, Jefferson and Burr, were the only candidates. Alexander Hamilton, a Federalist leader, disliked both Jefferson and Burr, but his personal distrust of Burr led him to support Jefferson in the election. This intensified a long-standing political and personal rivalry between Burr and Hamilton.

Burr resigned the vice presidency and ran for governor of New York in 1804. Burr sought the support of the Federalist Party, but Hamilton refused to support him. Burr was defeated in the gubernatorial election and blamed Hamilton for his loss. Burr got wind of the insults Hamilton levied against him in private. He challenged Hamilton to a duel, and they met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Some witnesses reported Hamilton purposely fired high into the trees, but Burr took careful aim and fatally wounded Hamilton. Burr soon fled the state and was charged with murder in New Jersey and New York, but he was never arrested for the shooting. He eventually returned to Washington, D.C., where he completed his term as vice president and in that capacity presided over the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase.

The Rise of the Federal Judiciary

Article III of the Constitution declares that “the judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.” The Judiciary Act of 1789 established the United States federal judiciary system, determined the number of Supreme Court justices, and created the office of the attorney general. The authority of the federal judiciary had been a controversial topic in the debates of the ratification of the Constitution. Anti-Federalists feared judicial power, claiming it could be used as a tool for national tyranny.

When Federalist John Marshall was appointed the fourth Chief Justice of the United States in January 1801, he knew he had a difficult challenge. His predecessor, John Jay, noted that the Supreme Court lacked both “energy” and “dignity.” Marshall resolved to change that. It would not be long before he got his chance.

In the winter of 1801, the United States was preparing to witness its first transfer of government power from one political party to another. For twelve years, the Federalist Party had dominated the political landscape. On March 4, however, President-elect Thomas Jefferson of the Republican Party was preparing to take control of the government. In anticipation of Jefferson’s inauguration, the Federalists placed as many of their supporters in influential positions as possible. To this end, they pushed through a law allowing the president to appoint as many judges as he believed “expedient” for terms of five years. President John Adams wasted no time in appointing forty-two men as justices of the peace. Adams’ appointment of these men on the eve of his exodus from office became known as the Midnight Justiceships. The Federalist Senate quickly confirmed and commissioned Adams’ appointments; but in his last days in office, the outgoing president failed to deliver official papers confirming all his appointments.

Dismissing Adams’ efforts to pack the courts with loyal Federalists as a political ploy, Jefferson took office and immediately directed his Secretary of State, James Madison, not to deliver any more of Adams’ last-minute appointments. Jefferson later decided to authorize the delivery of twenty-five of the commissions, but denied seventeen others. One of those denied was William Marbury. He and three others decided to bring suit against the Secretary of State to claim their appointments. At the Supreme Court’s December 1801 term, Marbury’s lawyer asked the court to issue a “writ of mandamus” (literally meaning “we command”) against Madison, forcing him to proffer the commissions.
Led by Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall, the Court had to make a difficult decision. If the Court issued the writ, but the Jefferson administration ignored it, Marshall worried that this might weaken the Court’s power. Similarly, if the Court denied the writ, it might look as if fear motivated the Court’s actions. Both results, Marshall reasoned, would undermine the authority of the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority in the case of Marbury v. Madison in February 1803, Marshall crafted a brilliant decision that at once skirted the issue and yet guaranteed the expansion of the judiciary’s power. Marshall ruled that Madison and Jefferson were wrong for withholding the appointments. He further agreed with Marbury’s lawyer that the appropriate remedy was a writ of mandamus and that the Judiciary Act of 1789 granted the Court the power to issue writs of mandamus. Marshall, however, claimed the Judiciary Act exceeded the authority established for the Court under Article III of the Constitution and was, therefore, unconstitutional.

Marshall claimed the case did not fall under the original jurisdiction of the Court; thus, it could not be initiated in the Supreme Court. Marshall argued that Marbury and his compatriots should first have taken their complaint to the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, where, if necessary, it could have been appealed to the Supreme Court.

By framing his decision in this way and declaring that the court was impotent to act in the case, Marshall avoided a showdown with the Jefferson administration. At the same time, however, his reasoning established the Supreme Court as the final arbiter in cases of law. The principle of judicial review, which held that the Supreme Court had the power to review laws passed by Congress and the president, was established. Such a power had been proposed by Hamilton in Federalist Number 78 in 1788 but had not yet been accepted as a principle of the new government. Beginning with Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison, judicial review would win broad acceptance among the American people.

The War of 1812

In the first years of the nineteenth century, Napoleonic France and Great Britain were at war. At first, the United States attempted to pursue a policy of neutrality while maintaining trade with both countries. This approach would soon prove unworkable.

Great Britain and, to a lesser extent France, began seizing American ships on the high seas and kidnapping American sailors in a procedure that was known as “impressment.” The British navy needed more sailors to fight the war with France and forced these American seamen to fight on British warships. Some were truly deserters from the British navy, but many were not, and the actions of British captains angered Americans.

On June 21, 1807, the HMS Leopard fired on and boarded the USS Chesapeake off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia. Three Americans were killed. Eighteen Americans were injured. Four sailors were impressed into British service.  (One was a British deserter.) Many clamored for war with Britain, but Congress responded with the draconian Embargo Act, which prohibited American ships from leaving port. President Thomas Jefferson enforced the law ruthlessly, imprisoning hundreds of American merchants and seamen.

The British further inflamed American sensibilities by failing to evacuate forts in the American West, despite a provision of the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that required this. The British also encouraged American Indians on the frontier borderlands between the United States and British Canada to resist American settlement in the area. Some Americans favored war with England because it would give the United States an excuse to seize Canadian territory.

In 1809 James Madison became president. He tried to avoid war, but by 1812 the congressmen favoring war against Britain — the War Hawks — had become powerful enough to persuade Madison to ask Congress to declare war on Great Britain.

The War of 1812 was fought on land and on the sea. Battles took place as far north as Canada and as far south as New Orleans. During the two years of the war, both sides achieved victories, committed major blunders, and suffered tragic losses. The war turned in Britain’s favor when the French army suffered a disastrous defeat in Russia in 1812. Napoleon Bonaparte, the French leader, was forced from power, and the British were free to devote more attention to the war against the United States.

In 1814 British soldiers burned buildings in Washington, D.C., including the White House, but did not take over the city. A few weeks later, British warships attacked Baltimore Harbor. The fighting lasted all night, but in the morning the American flag still waved over Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry and wrote a poem about the battle. Later a melody was added to the poem, and it became The Star-Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem.

One of the effects of the war was the sharp decline in American trade as the British navy patrolled the coast of the northeastern United States and seized American ships as prizes of war. The drop in shipping created an economic depression in New England, where merchants depended on an active trade with England. As a result, support for the war, which had never been very strong in New England, turned to strong opposition.

In December 1814, there was a meeting in Hartford, Connecticut, in which representatives from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts discussed seceding from the United States and negotiating a separate peace with the British. However, the war ended before the Hartford Convention could move to secede from the Union.

In 1814, England and the United States reached an agreement to end the war. Napoleon had escaped from exile, returned to power, and was on the march. The British needed to end the war in America to concentrate on defeating France. Strangely enough, the most dramatic victory the Americans won in the War of 1812 was the Battle of New Orleans, which took out two weeks after British and American diplomats in Europe had signed the Treaty of Ghent. American forces under General Andrew Jackson defeated a British force attacking the city in January 1815.

Neither America nor Britain gained either money or land in the war, and neither side could claim that they had “won” the war. Nevertheless, the war did demonstrate to the world that the United States was independent and able to protect itself from European countries.

  • a form of government in which power is concentrated on a single branch leaving all other local authorities subject to its rule
  • an agreement adopted by the Continental Congress of the founding 13 states that served as the first constitution of the United States; it was a loose federation of states with a weak federal government and strong state governments; it was eventually replaced by the current Consitution due to the need for a stronger federal government
  • a meeting of delegates from May 25 to September 17, 1787 aimed at addressing the problems in governing the United States which resulted in the creation of the United States Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation
  • one of the two houses or chambers of the United States Congress; members of the House of Representatives are elected by the citizens of each state; the number of representatives elected from each state in proportion to the population of the state.
  • an agreement reached at the Constitutional Convention that allowed states with slavery to count three out of every five slaves as part of the total population for the purpose of taxation and representation
  • a convention of delegates called together from the 13 colony-states that became the governing body during the American Revolution and the years following
  • Constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime.
  • War between American colonists and Great Britain in which the colonists gained their independence.
  • the general in charge of the Patriot Army during the American revolution and the first president of the United States
  • the powers shared by both the federal government and state governments
  • the policy of a nation to protect itself against other nations by increasing its own power or gathering alliances to ensure that no one state is powerful enough to dominate all others
  • army of the United States of America that formed at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War created by the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775
  • any of the powers of government that are are specifically stated in the United States Constitution
  • a United States political party founded in 1787 under Alexander Hamilton that advocated for a stronger federal government and the adoption of the Constitution
  • powers that a sovereign state holds; in the United States the president draws these powers from the constitution
  • power of a court to determine if a statue, treaty or other government action is constitutional
  • a failed plan presented by William Paterson at the Constitutional Convention on June 15, 1787 in response to the Virginia Plan to create one house of Congress with one official elected by appointment for each state
  • a political power reserved in the constitution exclusively to an assigned political authority, usually a state rather than the federal government
  • all of the activities involved in running any type of organization (such as a school or a company); the group of people responsible for running an organization
  • the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution which protect the basic rights and freedoms of all citizens
  • the diplomatic policies of a nation reguarding interactions with other nations
  • the process of allowing citizens to shape the planning of legislation and government policies through the election of local representatives
  • a union of political units for a common purpose that is normally established to deal with critical issues
  • the total financial obligations of a nation; the total amount of money a nation owes
  • the ability to perceive or feel; to be aware
  • a plan of government presented at the Constitutional Convention in which the population of each state would determine that state’s number of representatives in Congress
  • a document which establishes the fundamental rights and political principals of a nation
  • freedom from the control, influence, or support of another person or group
  • the right, power, or authority to interpret and enforce the law; the extent, territory, or range of authority
  • an official public announcement; official declaration
  • to give formal approval; confirm; to establish as law
  • executed with secrecy with the purpose of deception
  • a part of the United States located on the continent of North America
  • the name given to a person who supported the United States Constitution in 1787; a person who believes that the national government should be strong
  • the act of seizing people or property for public use
  • a law enacted by a governing body; process of lawmaking
  • officially elected body of people who hold the power to make laws for a state or nation
  • to make a product from raw materials through the use of industrial machines usually on a large scale
  • a region in the northeastern United States where the first English settlers lived in the 17th century
  • objects that explodes (such as grenades) or that can be fired from a gun
  • taking upon oneself; something taken for granted or accepted without proof
  • a settlement of differences reached by mutual concessioins
  • a formal meeting of people with a shared interest
  • impairment of moral principal by unlawful means
  • a long downturn in economic activity; sustain recession; low production and sales with a high rate of business failure and unemployment
  • the system which governs or exercises influence over a state or community
  • the introduction of a something new or better, such as a new product or way to do something
  • providing a reason to act a certain way in order to accomplish a desired result
  • a person who favors a republic as the best form of government; a member of the Republican Party
  • a sudden and drastic change; the often violent attempt to end the rule of one government and replace it with a completely new government
  • consisting of a single, unifed group of lawmakers
  • any change or addition to the United States Constitution; a correction or improvement
  • divided into two parts
  • something that marks the end or limits of a territory
  • a war between the northern United States (known as the Union) and southern slave states (known as the Confederate States of America) over the issue of slavery which was fought from 1861 - 1865
  • a group of people delegated to perform a certain function such as investigating an issue or taking action for a specific cause
  • a government run by the majority where the people hold the power and have equal rights and privlidges
  • dealing with matters of money, capital, or credit
  • the court system
  • a person who buys and sells goods
  • the point on the horizon directly between the north and west
  • chief executive; the highest position of office in a Republican state
  • open defiance of or resistance to authority; a violent uprising against the government
  • to identify; to know that something has been seen or experienced before
  • all of the land and waters that belong to or are controlled by a particular country; an area of land claimed by the United States, but not officially recognized as a state 
  • a belief or practice that has been passed down through a family, tribe, or society for a very long time
  • two or more people, parties, or nations that agree to help one another achieve a common goal
  • the buying and selling of goods between cities or nations
  • a disagreement; opposition
  • the main lawmaking body in the United States that consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives
  • money
  • a person chosen to voice the opinion of or act on behalf of an entire group; a representative
  • pretaining to the home, family or the internal affairs of a country
  • an imaginary line that separates an area of land settled by a group of people from either an unsettled area or an area settled by another group of people
  • a governing official who exercises influence over an organized body; a person who governs
  • the production and sale of goods, in general; a group of businesses that make a particular good or provide a particular service (the automobile industry, the tourist industry)
  • a state of concern or attention; curiosity
  • the greater quantity; more than half the total number
  • An imaginary line of latitude that runs east to west on a map.
  • to make something uniform or consistent; to standardize
  • a form of government where the head of state is not a monarch and officials are elected into office rather than inheriting their position
  • a formal speech, usually delivered on an important occasion or to a special audience
  • the absence of government or law
  • published written work used to spread news, results, academic analysis or debate; an independent document that is part of a book or other publication
  • the city that serves as the official seat of government in a state or nation
  • a period of one hundred years
  • the way people use what they have in order to get what they need or want
  • a government order that restricts international trade in some way
  • coming from or related to a place outside of one's own country
  • a judge; to bring in accordance with the law
  • freedom from the control, coercion, interference, or restriction of others; independence
  • the legal ownership of one person by another; the condition of a person who is legally owned by another
  • harsh, cruel, and unfair treatment by an individual or group who has absolute authority over others; the abuse of power
  • the health, safety, happiness, and success of a person or group of people
  • all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, France, and Russia) to defeat the Central Powers during World War I; all of the nations that united (including Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II
  • common era
  • to say that something belongs to you; to ask for something you believe you deserve
  • to discuss or examine an important topic or issue by presenting and considering opposing points of view
  • a period of ten years
  • a change, event, or condition that is produced by a cause; a result
  • relating to or affecting the entire world
  • part of a larger body of water, deep enough for ships to anchor, that provides protection from wind, waves and water currents
  • the effect or influence that one thing has on another
  • land with water on all sides that is too small to be a continent
  • the highest house of Congress in the United States consisting of two representatives from each state who are elected by the people to serve a six year term
  • a tax added by the government to goods produced and shipped in from other countries
  • a formal agreement between two or more nations, usually regarding trade, peace, or alliance
  • a name that refers to all of the states that did not secede from the United States during the American Civil War
  • the amount of a particular good or service that people want and have the ability to buy
  • a principle of entitlement; fundamental rules
  • the goods carried on a ship, airplane, or vehicle; freight
  • the person with the highest rank or most power in a group
  • land along a sea or ocean
  • to give permission
  • a male monarch who inherits his position by right of birth
  • command; authoritative instruction
  • a particular space with definite or indefinite boundaries that has a specific name
  • media; the publishing or broadcasting of news by reporters, publishers and broadcasters; newspapers, television, radio, periodicals
  • a system used for standardized measurment
  • to take suddenly, especially by force
  • a person held in servidtude who is the property of another
  • a large inlet of the sea that is often parallel to the coast
  • a legal proceeding that takes place in a court of law in which evidence is presented to a judge or some other competent tribunal who then hands down a decision
  • a proposed law
  • something that is greater in excellence (better) or higher in quality; favorable
  • a rule established by custom or authority
  • to charge or impose by law, such as a tax or a fine
  • an often customary method of achieving an end
  • a process by which a conflict or disagreement between two or more parties is settled in a court of law
  • the point on a compass that is directly opposite from east; the direction of sunset
  • a law