States and Nation Building, 1775–1783

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The American Revolution represents a culmination of conflicting social, political and economic forces. Colonies became states and colonial charters often became state constitutions that gave most governmental power to the legislatures. Nevertheless, as the Revolution proceeded the states became building blocks for the nation within which Americans experimented in forming governments based on their experience, as well as on democratic and republican principles.

state constitutions

The creation of state constitutions was a significant achievement because, unlike charters, written constitutions were intended to explicitly limit the powers of government, rather than allow it to rely on custom and tradition. Moreover, state constitutions incorporated the republican principle that political power came from the people. Most state constitutions specified the separation of powers—executive, legislative, and judicial—in contrast to the British practice of mixing these powers on the basis of distinct social ranks: commons, aristocracy, and royalty. Furthermore, the 1780 Massachusetts constitution set a precedent of dividing the legislature into two houses, one representing ordinary people and the other the wealthy property holders of the state. The adoption of this constitution, written by John Adams, set another precedent that further entrenched the principle of "constitutionalism" in American culture. Instead of being approved by a legislature, the Massachusetts constitution was submitted to the voters, thereby making it in principle a fundamental law derived from the people and superior to legislative law; laws passed by the legislature had to conform to the constitution.

The Virginia constitution approved in 1776 incorporated a Bill of Rights that stated that government should protect the liberties of its citizens. In 1786, Virginia adopted a law of religious tolerance that separated church and state, a precedent followed by other states and incorporated in the federal Constitution. Pennsylvania had the most radical experiment. Its 1776 constitution was the most democratic of any state's. It allowed all adult males to vote, while other states restricted voting to males who owned property. Pennsylvania also eliminated the executive branch and reduced its legislature to one house.

The states began the abolition of slavery. In 1780 Pennsylvania passed a law emancipating slaves at age twenty-eight. Other states followed this example of legalizing gradual emancipation. In 1781, after the Massachusetts Bill of Rights declared all men free and equal and a slave won her freedom in a court case, slavery ended

as institution in that state. Thus the states became laboratories for republicanism and their experiments in democracy affirmed the value of federalism, besides providing a foundation for the Constitution adopted in 1788.

states' rights and the revolutionary war

The military necessity of unity and coordinated collective action made the war a force for national identity, but the distinctive political culture, history, and economy of each state determined the primary political identity of that state. And the ongoing struggle between national unity and states' rights has continued this fundamental constitutional tension throughout American history.

The American Revolution represents a period in U.S. history when the states' rights view was the dominant paradigm for governance; it was the revolution that brought cause for the states to confederate in the interest of their collective defense. Independent state militias had been the norm prior to the Continental Congress taking over the "troops of the United Provinces of North America" on July 4, 1775. The role of the states in providing soldiers for the Continental Army and militias was essential, yet the states varied significantly in their contribution to the cause: Massachusetts and Virginia provided fifteen battalions each, some others as few as one or two. [See figure 1.] The states, not the Continental Congress, bore the expenses of the soldiers' wages and pensions. Each soldier was clothed at the state's expense, and was provided with arms if not able to provide his own—these items were deducted from soldiers' monthly pay. The states had significant difficulty in recruiting the allotted number of soldiers, and they were forced to raise additional bounties.

federalism: legacy of states' rights

The influence of the revolutionary era has left a longstanding legacy in American history, particularly with respect to the states' rights doctrine. The states maintained provincial authority before they confederated as the United States. The Articles of Confederation (1781) was the first U.S. constitution. Under the Articles, the United States successfully fought and won the war for independence from Great Britain, but there were weaknesses in the instruments of federal power needed to deal with emerging national issues. The Articles required amendment, but any changes required unanimity of the sovereign states and obtaining it proved a complex and daunting task.

The two sides in the debate over the scope and manner of changes were Federalist (nationalistic) and anti-Federalist (states' rights) views on war and the experiences during the revolutionary period. Even under the Constitution (1788), states retain powers not given the national government. The events during and after the revolution demonstrate state sovereignty in action, and foreshadow disputes to follow throughout U.S. history.

The Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) were a Federalist policy viewed by many southerners as a subversion of state authority, and their passage led to the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (penned by the Anti-Federalists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively)—the first firm statements interpreting the Constitution as defining a compact between the states and refuting federal authority over state issues. These works provide the foundation upon which the concepts of nullification (right of a state to declare a federal law null and void within its boundaries), and later secession, were based. The regional distinction, based largely on differences between urban and rural needs, later played out in the conversion of South Carolinian John C. Calhoun from a


Proportion of contribution to war, September 16, 1776
source: Bolton, pp. 49.
New Hampshire3Delaware1
Rhode Island2Virginia15
Connecticut8North Carolina9
New York4South Carolina6
New Jersey4Georgia1

nationalist to a states' rights advocate, leading him to resign as vice president in 1832. The Nullification Crisis of that year came about as southern states felt more and more that northern policies no longer represented their interests or supported their rights.

Today, conflict over the balance between federal and states' rights endures. Whereas the national government has gradually increased its power over time, the modern Republican Party in the 1980s, under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, embraced the goal of returning authority to the states and decreasing the overall size of the federal government. The ideals of the Anti-Federalists continue to be expressed in twenty-first-century policy discussions—for example, on the issue of gay marriage—as states seek to retain their roles as crucibles of experiments in democracy.


Bolton, Charles Knowles. The Private Soldier Under Washington. New York: Scribners, 1902.

Main, Jackson Turner. The Sovereign States: 1775–1783. New York: New Viewpoints, 1973.

Michael W. Hail and

Jeremy L. Hall

See also:Articles of Confederation; Constitution: Creating a Republic; Declaration of Independence; Stamp Act Congress.

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States and Nation Building, 1775–1783

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