Confederation Period | Wikipedia audio article
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Confederation Period | Wikipedia audio article

The Confederation Period was the era of United
States history in the 1780s after the American Revolution and prior to the ratification of
the United States Constitution. In 1781, the United States ratified the Articles of Confederation
and prevailed in the Battle of Yorktown, the last major land battle between British and
American forces in the American Revolutionary War. American independence was confirmed with
the 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris. The fledgling United States faced several challenges,
many of which stemmed from the lack of a strong national government and unified political
culture. The period ended in 1789 following the ratification of the United States Constitution,
which established a new, more powerful, national government.
The Articles of Confederation established a loose confederation of states with a weak
federal government. An assembly of delegates acted on behalf of the states they represented.
This unicameral body, officially referred to as the United States in Congress Assembled,
had little authority, and could not accomplish anything independent of the states. It had
no chief executive, and no court system. Congress lacked the power to levy taxes, regulate foreign
or interstate commerce, or effectively negotiate with foreign powers. The weakness of Congress
proved self-reinforcing, as the leading political figures of the day served in state governments
or foreign posts. The failure of the national government to handle the challenges facing
the United States led to calls for reform and frequent talk of secession.
The Treaty of Paris left the United States with a vast territory spanning from the Atlantic
Ocean to the Mississippi River. Settlement of the trans-Appalachian territories proved
difficult, in part due to the resistance of Native Americans and the neighboring foreign
powers of Great Britain and Spain. The British refused to evacuate American territory, while
the Spanish used their control of the Mississippi River to stymie Western settlement. In 1787,
Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which set an important precedent by establishing
the first organized territory under the control of the national government.
After Congressional efforts to amend the Articles failed, numerous national leaders met in Philadelphia
in 1787 to establish a new constitution. The new constitution was ratified in 1788, and
the new Federal government of the United States began meeting in 1789, marking the end of
the Critical Period. Some historians believe that the 1780s were a bleak, terrible time
for Americans, while others have argued that the period was actually stable and relatively
prosperous.==Terminology=====Critical period===
During the 1780s, many thought that the country was experiencing a crisis of leadership, and
in 1787 John Quincy Adams echoed these sentiments when he described the country as being in
the midst of a “critical period”. The phrase “America’s Critical Period” was first by historians
used to describe the era in American history between 1783 and 1789 by William Henry Trescot
in his 1857 book, The Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams.
It was popularized by John Fiske’s 1888 book, The Critical Period of American History. Fiske’s
use of the term “critical period” refers to the importance of the era in determining whether
the United States would establish a stronger national government or break up into multiple
sovereign states. Additionally, Fiske’s use of the term refers to the perceived incompetence
of the state governments and the weakness of the national government during the 1780s.
The term “critical period” thus implicitly accepts the Federalist critique of the Articles
of Confederation. Other historians have used an alternative term, the “Confederation Period”,
to describe U.S. history between 1781 and 1789.===Question of a crisis===
Historians such as Forrest McDonald have argued that the 1780s were a time of economic and
political chaos. However, other historians, including Merrill Jensen, have argued that
the 1780s were actually a relatively stable, prosperous time. Gordon Wood suggests that
it was the idea of the Revolution and the thought that it would bring a utopian society
to the new country that made it possible for people to believe they had fallen instead
into a time of crisis. Historian John Ferling argues that, in 1787, only the nationalists,
a relatively small share of the population, viewed the era as a “Critical Period”. Michael
Klarman argues that the decade marked a high point of democracy and egalitarianism, and
the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 represented a conservative counter-revolution.==Independence and self-government==The American Revolutionary War broke out in
April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress met
in May 1775, and established an army funded by Congress and under the leadership of George
Washington, a Virginian who had fought in the French and Indian War. On July 4, 1776,
as the war continued, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. At exactly the
same time that Congress declared independence, it also created a committee to craft a constitution
for the new nation. Though some in Congress hoped for a strong centralized state, most
Americans wanted legislative power to rest primarily with the states and saw the central
government as a mere wartime necessity. The resulting constitution, which came to be known
as the Articles of Confederation, provided for a weak national government with little
power to coerce the state governments.The first draft of the Articles, written by John
Dickinson, was presented to Congress on July 12, 1776, but Congress did not send the proposed
constitution to the states until November 1777. Three major constitutional issues divided
Congress: state borders, including claims to lands west of the Appalachians, state representation
in the new Congress, and whether tax levies on states should take slaves into account.
Ultimately, Congress decided that each state would have one vote in Congress and that slaves
would not affect state levies. By 1780, as the war continued, every state but Maryland
had ratified the Articles. Maryland refused to ratify the constitution until all of the
other states, most prominently Virginia, relinquished their western land claims to Congress. The
success of Britain’s Southern strategy, along with pressure from America’s French allies,
convinced Maryland to ratify the Articles and Virginia to cede its claims north of the
Ohio River. After Maryland ratified the Articles in January 1781, the new constitution took
effect in March 1781. The Congress of the Confederation technically replaced the Second
Continental Congress as the national government, but in practice the structure and personnel
of the new Congress was quite similar. The first article of the new constitution established
a name for the new confederacy – the United States of America.==End of the American Revolution==After the American victory at the Battle of
Yorktown in September 1781 and the collapse of Prime Minister North’s ministry in March
1782, both sides sought a peace agreement. The American Revolutionary War ended with
the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The treaty granted the United States independence,
as well as control of a vast region south of the Great Lakes and extending from the
Appalachian Mountains west to the Mississippi River. Although the British Parliament had
attached it to Quebec in 1774, as part of the Quebec Act, several states had land claims
in region, as some had been established as colonies through royal charters and proclamations
that defined their boundaries as stretching “from sea to sea”, while others did not have
western boundaries delineated at all. Historians such as Alvord, Harlow, and Ritcheson have
emphasized that Britain’s generous territorial terms were based on a statesmanlike vision
of close economic ties between Britain and the United State. The treaty was designed
to facilitate the growth of the American population and create lucrative markets for British merchants,
without any military or administrative costs to Britain. As the French foreign minister
Vergennes later put it, “The English buy peace rather than make it”. Though many in the United
States hoped for the acquisition of Florida, that territory was restored to Spain, which
had joined the U.S. and France in the war against Britain.Aside from post-war boundaries,
the treaty also addressed several other issues. The United States agreed to honor debts incurred
prior to 1775, while the British agreed to remove their soldiers from American soil.
Privileges that the Americans had received from Britain when they had colonial status,
including protection from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, were withdrawn. Neither the Americans
nor the British would consistently honor the treaty. Individual states ignored treaty obligations
by refusing to restore confiscated Loyalist property, and many continued to confiscate
Loyalist property for “unpaid debts”. Some states, notably Virginia, maintained laws
against payment of debts to British creditors. The British often ignored the provision of
Article 7 regarding removal of slaves.==National leadership==The Articles of Confederation created a Union
of states, albeit a loose one. The confederation’s central government was a unicameral Congress
with legislative and executive function, and was composed of delegates from each state
in the Union. Congress received only those powers which the states had previously (during
the Revolutionary Era) recognized as belonging to king and parliament. Each state had one
vote in Congress, regardless of its size or population, and any act of Congress required
the votes of nine of the 13 states to pass; any decision to amend the Articles required
the unanimous consent of the states. Each state’s legislature appointed multiple members
to its delegation, allowing delegates to return their homes without leaving their state unrepresented.
Under the Articles, states were forbidden from negotiating with other nations or maintaining
a military without Congress’s consent, but the Articles, designed to preserve the independence
and sovereignty of the states, reserved almost all other powers to the states. Congress lacked
the power to raise revenue, and incapable of enforcing its own legislation and instructions.
As such, Congress was heavily reliant on the compliance and support of the states. Following the conclusion of the war, which
had provided the original impetus for the Articles, Congress’s ability to accomplish
anything of material consequence declined significantly. Rarely did more than half of
the roughly sixty delegates attend a session of Congress at the time, causing difficulties
in raising a quorum. Many of the most prominent national leaders, such as Washington, John
Adams, John Hancock, and Benjamin Franklin, retired from public life, served as foreign
delegates, or held office in state governments. One national leader who did emerge during
this period was James Madison, who became convinced of the need for a stronger national
government after serving in the Congress of the Confederation from 1781 to 1783. He would
continue to call for a stronger government for the remainder of the 1780s. Congress met
in Philadelphia from 1778 until June 1783, when it moved to Princeton, New Jersey due
to the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783. Congress would also convene in Annapolis, Maryland
and Trenton, New Jersey before settling in New York City in 1785. The lack of strong
leaders in Congress, as well as the body’s impotence and itinerant nature, embarrassed
and frustrated many American nationalists, including Washington. The weakness of Congress
also led to frequent talk of secession, and many believed that the United States break
into four confederacies, consisting of New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, the Southern
states, and the trans-Appalachian region, respectively.In 1780, Congress created the
Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, which acted as the lone federal court under the
Articles. In early 1781, Congress created executive departments to handle Foreign Affairs,
War, and Finance. A fourth department, the Post Office Department, had existed since
1775 and continued to function under the Articles. Congress also authorized the creation of a
Marine Department, but chose to place the naval forces under the Finance Department
after Alexander McDougall declined to lead the Marine Department. The four departments
were charged with administering the federal civil service, but they had little power independent
of Congress. Pennsylvania merchant Robert Morris served as the Superintendent of Finance
from 1781 to 1784. Though Morris had become somewhat unpopular during the war for due
to his successful business ventures, Congress hoped that he would be able to ameliorate
the country’s ruinous financial state. After his proposals were blocked, Morris resigned
in frustration in 1784, and was succeeded by a three-person Treasury Board. Benjamin
Lincoln served as Secretary of War from 1781 until the end of the Revolutionary War in
1783. He was eventually succeeded by Henry Knox, who held the position from 1785 to 1789.
Robert Livingston served as the Secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1781 to 1783, and
he was followed in office by John Jay, who served from 1784 to 1789. Jay proved to be
an able administrator, and he took control of the nation’s diplomacy during his time
in office. Ebenezer Hazard served as the United States Postmaster General from 1782 to 1789.==State governments==
After the 13 colonies declared their independence and sovereignty in 1776, each was faced with
the task of replacing royal authority with institutions based on popular rule. To varying
degrees, the states embraced egalitarianism during and after the war. Each state wrote
a new constitution, all of which established an elected executive, and many of which greatly
expanded the franchise. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 was perhaps the most democratic of
these constitutions, as it granted suffrage to all taxpaying male citizens. Many of the
new constitutions included a bill of rights that guaranteed freedom of the press, freedom
of speech, trial by jury, and other freedoms. Conservative patriots such as Oliver Wolcott,
who had fought for independence from Britain but not major changes to the social order,
looked with alarm on the new influence of the lower classes and the rise of politicians
independent from the upper class.Following the end of the Revolutionary War, the states
embarked on various reforms. Several states enshrined freedom of religion in their constitutions,
and every Southern state ended the Anglican Church’s status as the state religion. Several
states established state universities, while private universities also flourished. Numerous
states reformed their criminal codes to reduce the number of capital crimes. The Northern
states invested in infrastructure projects, including roads and canals that provided access
to Western settlements. The states also took action regarding slavery, which appeared increasingly
hypocritical to a generation that had fought against what they saw as tyranny. During and
after the Revolution, every Northern state passed laws providing for gradual emancipation
or the immediate abolition of slavery. Though no Southern states provided for emancipation,
they passed laws restricting the slave trade and did not prevent the ban on slavery in
the Northwest Territory.The states continued to carry the burden of heavy debt loads acquired
during the Revolutionary War. With the partial exceptions of New York and Pennsylvania, which
received revenue from import duties, most states relied on individual and property taxes
for revenue. To cope with this debt, several states were forced to raise taxes to a level
several times higher than it had been prior to the war. These taxes sparked anger among
the populace, particularly in rural areas, and in Massachusetts led to an armed uprising
known as Shays’ Rebellion. As both Congress and the government of Massachusetts proved
unable to suppress the rebellion, former Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln raised a private army
which put an end to the insurgency.Britain relinquished its claim to Vermont in the Treaty
of Paris, but the state did not join the United States. Though most in Vermont wanted to become
the fourteenth state, New York and New Hampshire, which both claimed parts of Vermont, blocked
this ambition. Throughout the 1780s, Vermont acted as an independent state, known as the
Vermont Republic.==National fiscal policies==Under the Articles, only the states could
levy taxes or regulate commerce. The United States acquired huge debts during the Revolutionary
War, in part due to Congress’s lack of taxation powers. In 1779, Congress had relinquished
most of it economic power to the states, as it stopped printing currency and requested
that the states directly pay the soldiers, but the states also suffered from fiscal instability.
Robert Morris, the Superintendent of Finance, sought major centralizing reforms, including
the partial assumption of state debt, the suspension of payments to military personnel,
and the creation of the Bank of North America. As Congress approved of these measures, Morris
emerged as perhaps the most powerful individual in the national government, with some referring
to him as “The Financier,” or even “The Dictator.” In 1783, Morris, with the support of Congressmen
such as Madison and Alexander Hamilton, finally won Congressional approval of a 5% levy on
imports, which would grant the national government a consistent and independent source of revenue.
However, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the states became more resistant to
granting power to Congress. Though all but two states approved the levy, it never won
the unanimous backing of the states and thus Congress struggled to find revenue throughout
the 1780s.==Continental Army==
National security was a high priority for the long-term. In the short term the downsized
little Continental Army would suffice because there were no major wars 1783-1793 and Americans
had confidence the Atlantic would provide protection. However the issue arose of what
a republican army would look like, in contrast to the aristocratic control of the British,
French and Spanish armies. As the war came to an end, the officers and enlisted men of
the Continental Army became increasingly disgruntled over their lack of pay, as Congress had suspended
payment due to the poor financial state of the national government. Congress had promised
the officers a lifetime pension in 1780, but few of the officers believed that they would
receive this benefit. In December 1782, several officers, led by Alexander McDougall, petitioned
Congress for their benefits. The officers hoped to use their influence to force the
states to allow the federal government to levy a tariff, which in turn would provide
revenue to pay the soldiers. Historians such as Robert Middlekauff have argued that some
members of the national government, including Congressman Alexander Hamilton and Superintendent
of Finance Robert Morris, attempted to use this growing dissatisfaction to increase the
power of Congress. An anonymous letter circulated among the officers; the document called for
the payment of soldiers and threatened mutiny against General Washington and Congress. In
a gathering of army officers in March 1783, Washington denounced the letter, but promised
to lobby Congress for payment. Washington’s speech defused the brewing Newburgh Conspiracy,
named for the New York town in which the army was encamped, but dissatisfaction among the
soldiers remained high. In May 1783, fearing a mutiny, Washington furloughed most of his
army. On Washington’s request, Congress attempted
to pass an amendment granting the national government the power to levy an impost on
imports, but the amendment was defeated by the states. Morris finally paid the army with
certificates that the soldiers labeled “Morris notes.” The notes promised to pay the soldiers
in six months, but few of the soldiers believed that they would ever actually receive payment.
Most of the Morris notes were sold to speculators. Many of the impoverished enlisted men were
forced to beg for help on their journeys home. In June, the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 broke
out among angry soldiers who demanded payment, causing Congress to relocate the capital to
Princeton. Upon re-convening, Congress reduced the size of the army from 11,000 to 2,000.
On December 23, 1783, Washington resigned from the army, earning the admiration of many
for his willingness to relinquish power. Following Washington’s resignation, the army shrank
to a mere 625 soldiers, while Congress effectively disbanded the Continental Navy in 1785 with
the sale of the USS Alliance. The small, poorly equipped army would prove powerless to prevent
squatters from moving onto Native American lands, further inflaming a tense situation
on the American frontier.==Western settlement==After the war, tens of thousands of Americans
settled new lands located far from the Atlantic Coast. Though life in these new lands proved
hard for many, Western settlement offered the prize of property, an unrealistic aspiration
for some in the East. Westward expansion stirred enthusiasm even in those who did not move
west, and Washington co-founded the Potomac Company to build a canal linking the Potomac
River with Ohio River. Washington hoped that this canal would provide a cultural and economic
link between the East and West, thus ensuring that the West would not ultimately secede.
Land speculators such as the Ohio Company acquired title to vast tracts of land in the
West, and often came into conflict with settlers. In 1784, Virginia formally ceded its claims
north of the Ohio River, and Congress created a government for the region now known as the
Old Northwest with the Land Ordinance of 1784 and the Land Ordinance of 1785. These laws
established the principle that Old Northwest would be governed by a territorial government,
under the aegis of Congress, until it reached a certain level of political and economic
development. At that point, the former territories would enter the union as states, with rights
equal to that of any other state. The federal territory stretched across most of the area
west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River, though Connecticut retained a small
part of its claim in the West in the form of the Connecticut Western Reserve, a strip
of land south of Lake Erie. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which granted
Congress greater control of the region by establishing the Northwest Territory. Under
the new arrangement, many of the formerly elected officials of the territory were instead
appointed by Congress. In order to attract Northern settlers, Congress outlawed slavery
in the Northwest Territory, though it also passed a fugitive slave law to appease the
Southern states.While most the Old Northwest fell under the control of the federal government,
Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia retained control of the Old Southwest. as each state
claimed territory that extended to the Mississippi River. In 1784, settlers in Western North
Carolina sought statehood as the State of Franklin, but their efforts were denied by
Congress, which did not want to set a precedent regarding the secession of states. With Virginia’s
consent, the western portion of Virginia nearly gained statehood as the state of Kentucky,
but Congress chose to deny it statehood after the ratification of the Constitution in 1788.
Georgia’s smaller population, and the presence of the Spanish and powerful Native American
tribes, prevented it from fostering western settlement to the same degree as in Virginia
and North Carolina.With the aid of two foreign powers, Native Americans resisted western
settlement. Though Southern leaders and many nationalists lent their political support
to the settlers, most Northern leaders were more concerned with trade than with western
settlement, and the weak national government lacked the power to compel concessions from
foreign governments. The 1784 closure of the Mississippi River by Spain denied access to
the sea for the exports of Western farmers, greatly impeding efforts to settle the West,
and they provided arms to Native Americans. The British had restricted settlement of the
trans-Appalachian lands prior to 1776, and they continued to supply arms to Native Americans
after the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Between 1783 and 1787, hundreds of settlers
died in low-level conflicts with Native Americans, and these conflicts discouraged further settlement.
As Congress provided little military support against the Native Americans, most of the
fighting was done by the settlers. By the end of the decade, the frontier was engulfed
in the Northwest Indian War against a confederation of Native American tribes. These Native Americans
sought the creation of an independent Indian barrier state with the support of the British,
posing a major foreign policy challenge to the United States.==Economy and trade==
A brief recession followed the war, but prosperity returned by 1786. Those who remained benefited
from the exodus of many Loyalists who left behind their land and businesses. Almost twenty
percent of Americans had remained loyal to Britain, and as many as 80,000 of these Loyalists
left the United States during and after the war. Economically mid-Atlantic states recovered
particularly quickly and began manufacturing and processing goods, while New England and
the South experienced more uneven recoveries. Trade with Britain resumed, and the volume
of British imports after the war matched the volume from before the war, though exports
fell precipitously. Adams, serving as the ambassador to Britain, called for a retaliatory
tariff in order to force the British to negotiate a commercial treaty, particularly regarding
access to Caribbean markets. However, Congress lacked the power to regulate foreign commerce
or compel the states to follow a unified trade policy, and Britain proved unwilling to negotiate.
While trade with the British did not fully recover, the U.S. expanded trade with France,
China, the Netherlands, Portugal, and other European countries. Despite these good economic
conditions, many traders complained of the high duties imposed by each state, which served
to restrain interstate trade. Many creditors also suffered from the failure of domestic
governments to repay debts incurred during the war. Though the 1780s saw moderate economic
growth, many experienced economic anxiety, and Congress received much of the blame for
failing to foster a stronger economy.==Foreign affairs==In 1776, the Continental Congress had drafted
the Model Treaty, which served as a guide for U.S. foreign policy during the 1780s.
The treaty sought to abolish trade barriers such as tariffs, while avoiding political
or military entanglements. In this, it reflected the foreign policy priorities of many Americans,
who sought to play a large role in the global trading community while avoiding war. Lacking
a strong military, and divided by differing sectional priorities, the U.S. was often forced
to accept unfavorable terms of trade during the 1780s.===Britain===William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, had
served as Prime Minister during the negotiations that led to the Treaty of Paris. Shelburne
had hoped for peaceful relations and increased trade with the U.S., but his government fell
in 1783, and his successors were less intent on amicable relations with the United States.
The British continued to pursue mercantilist economic policies, and excluded the U.S.
from trading with its Caribbean colonies. Britain flooded the U.S. with manufactured
goods, while withholding goods that could have aided U.S.
industrialization. In the Western territories, the British retained control of several forts
and continued to cultive alliances with Native Americans and potentially disloyal American
settlers. Their policies slowed down U.S. settlement while also allowing Britain to
extract profits from the lucrative fur trade. The British justified their continued occupation
of the forts on the basis that the U.S. states had impeded the collection of pre-war debts,
which a subsequent investigation by Jay confirmed. As there was little the powerless Congress
could do to coerce the states into action, the British retained their justification to
continue to occupy the forts. The British hoped that the U.S. would ultimately collapse
due to its lack of cohesion, at which point they could re-establish hegemony over North
America.===Spain===Spain, a co-belligerent during the Revolutionary
War, controlled the territories of Florida and Louisiana, positioned to the south and
west of the United States, respectively. Americans had long recognized the importance of navigation
rights on the Mississippi River, as it was the only realistic outlet for many settlers
in the trans-Appalachian lands to ship their products to the Eastern Seaboard and other
markets. Despite having fought a common enemy in the Revolutionary War, Spain saw U.S. expansionism
as a threat to its empire. Seeking to stop the American settlement of the Old Southwest,
Spain denied the U.S. navigation rights on the Mississippi River, provided arms to Native
Americans, and recruited friendly American settlers to the sparsely populated territories
of Florida and Louisiana. Additionally, Spain disputed the Southern and Western borders
of the United States. The most important border dispute centered on the border between Georgia
and West Florida, as Spain and the United States both claimed parts of present-day Alabama
and Mississippi. Spain also conspired with U.S. General James Wilkinson in a plot to
make much of the Southwestern United States secede.Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay
sought a treaty with Spain to resolve these disputes and expand commerce with Spain. The
resulting Jay–Gardoqui Treaty would have required the U.S. to renounce any right to
access the Mississippi River for twenty-five years in return for a commercial treaty and
the mutual recognition of borders. In 1786, Jay submitted the treaty to Congress, precipitating
a divisive debate. Southerners, led by James Monroe of Virginia, opposed the provision
regarding the Mississippi and accused Jay of favoring Northeastern commercial interests
over Western growth. Ratification of treaties required nine votes under the Articles of
Confederation, and all five Southern states voted against ratification, dooming the treaty.===France===Under the leadership of Foreign Minister Vergennes,
France had entered the Revolutionary War, in large part to damage the British. The French
were an indispensable ally during the war, providing supplies, finances, and a powerful
navy. In 1778, France and the United States signed the Treaty of Alliance, establishing
a “perpetual” military alliance, as well as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which established
commercial ties. In the Treaty of Paris, Britain consented to relatively favorable terms to
the United States partly out of a desire to weaken U.S. dependency on France. After the
war, the U.S. sought increased trade with France, but commerce between the two countries
remained limited. The U.S. also requested French aid in pressuring the British to evacuate
their forts in U.S. territory, but the French were not willing to intervene in Anglo-American
relations again.===Other issues===
The Barbary pirates, who operated out of the North African states of Morocco, Algiers,
Tunis, and Tripoli, posed a threat to shipping in the Mediterranean Sea during the late 18th
century. Most European powers paid the Barbary pirates tribute to avoid their raids, but
the U.S. was not willing to meet the terms sought by the pirates, in part due to the
national government’s lack of revenue. As such, the pirates preyed on U.S. shipping
during the 1780s.==Creation of a new constitution=====
Reform efforts===Many in Congress bemoaned the lack of power
granted to the national government, and during the Revolutionary War several members of Congress
proposed granting greater military and revenue-raising powers to Congress. Soldiers and former soldiers
formed a powerful bloc calling for a stronger national government, which they believed would
have allowed better war-time leadership. Merchants also sought a strong national government that
could provide order and sound economic policies. Many expansionists also sought greater powerful
for the national government, as they believed the national government could best protect
American lands in the West. Despite growing feelings of nationalism, particularly among
younger Americans, the efforts of nationalists to grant Congress greater powers were defeated
by those who preferred the continued supremacy of the states. The end of the war in 1783
temporarily ended any possibility of the states giving up power to a central government. Most
Americans saw the Revolutionary War as a struggle against a strong government, and few state
leaders were willing to surrender their own state’s sovereignty.The national government’s
inability to resist foreign governments convinced many leaders, including Washington, Madison,
and Hamilton, of the need for a new constitution with a stronger national government. Additionally,
John Jay, Henry Knox, and others called for an independent executive who could govern
more decisively than a large, legislative body like Congress. In 1786, Charles Cotesworth
Pinckney of South Carolina proposed the creation of a grand Congressional committee to consider
constitutional amendments. The committee proposed seven amendments, and its proposals would
have granted the central government the power to regulate commerce and fine states that
failed to supply adequate funding to Congress. Congress failed to act on these proposals,
and reformers began to take action outside of Congress.===Calling the Philadelphia Convention===
In 1785, Washington hosted the Mount Vernon Conference, which established an agreement
between Maryland and Virginia regarding several commercial issues. Encouraged by this example
of interstate cooperation, Madison convinced the Virginia assembly to host another conference,
the Annapolis Convention, with the goal of promoting interstate trade. Only five state
delegations attended the convention, but the delegates that did attend largely agreed on
the need to reform the federal government. The delegates called for a second convention
to take place in 1787 in Philadelphia to consider constitutional reform. In the months after
the Annapolis Convention, reformers took steps to ensure better turnout at the next convention.
They secured the blessing of Congress to consider constitutional reform and made sure to invite
Washington, the most prominent national leader. The nationalist call for a constitutional
convention was bolstered by the outbreak of Shays’ Rebellion, which convinced many of
the need for a national government powerful enough to help suppress uprisings.Though there
was not a widespread feeling in the population that the Articles of Confederation needed
major reform, the leaders of each state recognized the problems posed by the weak national government.
When the Philadelphia Convention opened in May 1787, every state but Rhode Island sent
a delegation. Three quarters of the delegates had served in Congress, and all recognized
the difficulty, and importance, of amending the Articles. Though each delegate feared
the loss of their own state’s power, there was wide agreement among the delegates that
the United States required a stronger federal government capable of effectively managing
foreign relations and ensuring national security. Many also hoped to establish a uniform currency
and national copyright and immigration laws. With the attendance of powerful and respected
leaders like Washington and Franklin, who helped provide some measure of legitimacy
to the convocation, the delegates agreed to pursue sweeping changes to the national government.===Writing a new constitution===Shortly after the convention began in September
1787 delegates elected Washington preside over the convention and agreed that the meetings
would not be open to the public. The latter decision allowed for the consideration of
an entirely new constitution, as open consideration of a new constitution would likely have inspired
great public outcry. Shortly after the start of the convention, Virginia’s delegates introduced
a set of reforms known as the Virginia Plan. Drafted by Madison, the Virginia Plan called
for a stronger national government with three independent branches of government: executive,
legislative, and judicial. The plan granted the federal government legislative power on
all issues, as well as the power to nullify state laws. Madison’s plan was well-received
and served as the basis for the convention’s discussion, though several of its provisions
were altered over the course of the convention. During the convention, Madison and James Wilson
of Pennsylvania emerged as two of the most important advocates of a new constitution
based on the Virginia Plan, while prominent opponents to the final document would include
Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry.The balance of power between the federal
government and the state governments emerged as the most debated topic of the convention,
and the convention ultimately agreed to a framework in which the federal and state governments
shared power. The federal government would regulate interstate and foreign commerce,
coin money, and oversee foreign relations, but states would continue to exercise power
in other areas. A second major issue was the allocation of Congressional representatives.
Delegates from large states wanted representation in Congress to be proportional to population,
while delegates from smaller states preferred that each state receive equal representation.
In the Connecticut Compromise, the delegates agreed to create a bicameral Congress in which
each state received equal representation in the upper house (the Senate), while representation
in the lower house (the House of Representatives) was apportioned by population. The issue of
slavery also threatened to derail the convention, though national abolition was not a priority
for Northern delegates. The delegates agreed to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted
three-fifths of the slave population for the purposes of taxation and representation. Southerners
also won inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause, which allowed owners to recover their escaped
slaves from free states, as well as a clause that forbid Congress from banning the Atlantic
slave trade until 1808. The delegates of the convention also sought to limit the democratic
nature of the new constitution, with indirect elections established for the Senate and the
office of the President of the United States, who would lead the executive branch.The proposed
constitution contained several other important differences from the Articles of Confederation.
States saw their economic power severely curtailed, and notably were barred from impairing contracts.
While members of the Confederate Congress and most state legislators served one-year
terms, members of the House would serve for two-year terms and members of the Senate would
serve for six-year terms. Neither house of Congress would be subject to term limits.
Though the states would elect members of the Senate, the House of Representatives would
be elected directly by the people. The president would be elected independent of the legislature,
and hold broad powers over foreign affairs, military policy, and appointments. The president
also received the power to veto legislation. The judicial power of the United States would
be vested in the Supreme Court of the United States and any inferior courts established
by Congress, and these courts would have jurisdiction over federal issues. The amendment process
would no longer require unanimous consent of the states, although it still required
the approval of Congress and a majority of states.===Struggle for ratification===
Though the Philadelphia Convention had succeeded in its goal of producing a new constitution,
ratification of the Constitution was not assured. Even by the end of the convention, sixteen
of the fifty-five delegates had either left the convention or refused to sign the document.
Article Seven of the Constitution submitted the document to state conventions, rather
than Congress or the state legislatures, for ratification. Though Congress had not authorized
consideration of a new Constitution, most members of Congress respected the stature
of the leaders who had assembled in Philadelphia. Roughly one-third of the members of Congress
had been delegates at the Philadelphia Convention, and these former delegates proved to be powerful
advocates for the new constitution. After debating for several days, Congress transmitted
the Constitution to the states without recommendation, letting each state decide for itself whether
or not to ratify the document.Ratification of the Constitution required the approval
of nine states. The ratification debates in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and
Virginia were of particular importance, as they were the four largest and most powerful
states in the nation. Those who advocated ratification took the name Federalists. To
sway the closely divided New York legislature, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay anonymously published
The Federalist Papers, which became seminal documents that affected the debate in New
York and other states. Opponents of the new constitution became known as Anti-Federalists.
Though most Anti-Federalists acknowledged the need for changes to the Articles of Confederation,
they feared the establishment of a powerful, and potentially tyrannical, central government.
Members of both camps held wide ranges of views; for example, some Anti-Federalists
like Luther Martin wanted only minor changes to the Articles of Confederation, while others
such as George Mason favored a less powerful version of the federal government proposed
by the Constitution. Federalists were strongest in eastern, urban counties, while Anti-Federalists
tended to be stronger in rural areas. Each faction engaged in a spirited public campaign
to shape the ratification debate, though the Federalists tended to be better financed and
organized. Over time, the Federalists were able to convince many in the skeptical public
of the merits of the new Constitution.The Federalists won their first ratification victories
in December 1787, when Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey all ratified the Constitution.
By the end of February 1788, six states, including Massachusetts, had ratified the Constitution.
In Massachusetts, the Federalists won over skeptical delegates by promising that the
first Congress of the new Constitution would consider amendments limiting the federal government’s
power. This promise to amend the Constitution after its ratification proved to be extremely
important in other ratification debates, as it helped Federalists win the votes of those
who saw the need for the Constitution but opposed some of its provisions. In the following
months, Maryland and South Carolina ratified the Constitution, but North Carolina voted
against ratification, leaving the document just one state short of taking effect. In
June 1788, New Hampshire and Virginia both ratified the document. In Virginia, as in
Massachusetts, Federalists won support for the Constitution by promising ratification
of several amendments. Though Anti-Federalism was strong in New York, its constitutional
convention nonetheless ratified the document in July 1788 since failure to do so would
leave the state outside of the union. Rhode Island, the lone state which had not sent
a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention, was viewed as a lost cause by the Federalists
due to its strong opposition to the proposed constitution, and it would not ratify the
Constitution until 1790.===Inauguration of a new government===In September 1788, the Congress of the Confederation
formally certified that the Constitution had been ratified. It also set the date for the
presidential election and the first meeting of the new federal government. Additionally,
Congress engaged in debate regarding where the incoming government would meet, with Baltimore
briefly emerging as the favorite. To the displeasure of Southern and Western interests, Congress
ultimately chose to retain New York City as the seat of government.Though Washington desired
to resume his retirement following the Constitutional Convention, the American public at large anticipated
that he would be the nation’s first president. Federalists such as Hamilton eventually coaxed
him to accept the office. On February 4, 1789, the Electoral College, the mechanism established
by the Constitution to conduct the indirect presidential elections, met for the first
time, with each state’s presidential electors gathering in their state’s capital. Under
the rules then in place, each elector could vote for two persons (but the two people chosen
by the elector could not both inhabit the same state as that elector), with the candidate
who won the most votes becoming president and the candidate with the second-most becoming
vice president. Each elector cast one vote for Washington, while John Adams won the most
votes of all other candidates, and thus won election as vice president. Electors from
10 of the 13 states cast votes. There were no votes from New York, because the New York
legislature failed to appoint its allotted electors in time; North Carolina and Rhode
Island did not participate as they had not yet ratified the Constitution.The Federalists
performed well in the concurrent House and Senate elections, ensuring that the both chambers
of United States Congress would be dominated by proponents of the federal government established
by the Constitution. This in turn ensured that there would not be a constitutional convention
to propose amendments, which many Federalists had feared would critically weaken the national
government.The new federal government commenced operations with the seating of the 1st Congress
in March 1789 and the inauguration of Washington the following month. In September 1789, Congress
approved the United States Bill of Rights, a group of Constitutional amendments designed
to protect individual liberties against federal interference, and the states ratified these
amendments in 1791. After Congress voted for the Bill of Rights, North Carolina and Rhode
Island ratified the Constitution in 1790 and 1791, respectively.==See also==
Colonial history of the United States, for the period prior to the American Revolution
History of the United States (1776–89)==References=====Works cited===
Chandler, Ralph Clark (Winter 1990). “Public Administration Under the Articles of Confederation”.
Public Administration Quarterly. 13 (4): 433–450. JSTOR 40862257.
Ferling, John (2003). A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic.
Oxford University Press. Ferling, John (2009). The Ascent of George
Washington. Bloomsbury Press. Herring, George (2008). From Colony to Superpower:
U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Oxford University Press.
Lienesch, Michael (January 1983). “Historical Theory and Political Reform: Two Perspectives
on Confederation Politics”. 45 (1): 94–115. JSTOR 1407276.
Maier, Pauline (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. Simon
& Schuster. Middlekauff, Robert (2005). The Glorious Cause:
the American Revolution, 1763–1789. Oxford University Press.
Taylor, Alan (2016). American Revolutions A Continental History, 1750–1804. W. W.
Norton & Company. Vile, John (2005). The Constitutional Convention
of 1787: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of America’s Founding, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO.
Wood, Gordon S. (1997). The Creation of the American Republic. University of North Carolina
Press. Wood, Gordon S. (2002). The American Revolution.
Modern Library.===Further reading===
Beeman, Richard; Botein, Stephen; Carter II, Edward C., eds. (1987). Beyond Confederation:
Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity. University of North Carolina Press.
ISBN 0-8078-1719-8. Bouton, Terry. “The Trials of the Confederation.”
in by Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution
(2012): 370–87. Coleman, Aaron N. The American Revolution,
State Sovereignty, and the American Constitutional Settlement, 1765–1800 (2016, Lexington Books)
Cress, Lawrence D. “Republican Liberty and National Security: American Military Policy
as an Ideological Problem, 1783 to 1789,” William and Mary Quarterly 38#1 (1981) pp.
73–96 online Ellis, Joseph J. (2015). The Quartet: Orchestrating
the Second American Revolution, 1783–1789. Alfred A. Knopf.
Edling, Max (2003). A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution
and the Making of the American State. Oxford University Press.
Fiske, John (December 7, 2008) [1888]. The Critical Period of American History. Project
Gutenberg. EBook #27430. Fleming, Thomas. The Perils of Peace: America’s
Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Collins, 2007.
Graebner, Norman A., Richard Dean Burns, and Joseph M. Siracusa. Foreign Affairs and the
Founding Fathers: From Confederation to Constitution, 1776–1787 (Praeger, 2011)
Holton, Woody (2008). Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. Hill and
Wang. Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History
of the United States During the Confederation, 1781–1789 (1953).
Klarman, Michael (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution.
Oxford University Press. Larson, Edward (2014). The Return of George
Washington: Uniting the States, 1783–1789. HarperCollins.
Marks, Frederick W. Independence on Trial: Foreign Affairs and the Making of the Constitution
(2d ed. 1986) Marshall, Jonathan. “Empire or Liberty: The
Antifederalists and Foreign Policy, 1787-1788,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 4#3 (Summer
1980). 233-54 online Morris, Richard B. (1987). The Forging of
the Union, 1781–1789. New York: Harper & Row. Nevins, Allan. The American States During
and After the Revolution, 1775–1789 (1927) online edition

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