1783-1815: Government and Politics: Overview
1783-1815: Government and Politics: Overview
“The Age of Experiments in Government.” In 1783 the Treaty of Paris acknowledged the victory of the American republic over the British Empire. In 1815 the Treaty of Ghent acknowledged the American republic’s successful “second revolution” against Great Britain in the War of 1812. The period in between may be called, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “the age of experiments in government.” Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 established a government based on the consent of the governed that would secure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for its citizens. How to implement those republican principles became the responsibility of the American people. The first American constitution, the Articles of Confederation, reflected the revolutionary generation’s fear that a strong central government would threaten “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Articles created “a firm league of friendship” among the states, which retained all their powers except those “expressly delegated” to the national government. By 1787 Americans recognized the limitations of weak central government and wrote a new constitution. A system of “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” established a federal republic, dividing power between the federal and state governments and among three branches of the federal government. In the 1790s the experiments continued when two political parties—Federalists and Democratic-Republicans—emerged with different visions for republican government. Despite frequently heated political debates, Americans had established by 1815 the legitimacy of the Constitution, the federal system of government, and the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another. In that year Gen. Andrew Jackson’s victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans, as reported in the Boston Patriot, seemed nothing less than confirmation of the “Rising Glory of the American Republic.”
State Sovereignty. In 1787 James Winthrop of Massachusetts, author of “The Agrippa Letters,” warned that in a large country like the United States government “will degenerate to a despotism, unless it be made up of a confederacy of smaller states, each having full powers of internal regulation.” James Madison reassured his countrymen that the federal system of government under the Constitution would not destroy state sovereignty because power was divided between the federal and the state governments. As Madison explained in Federalist, number 39, the jurisdiction of the federal government is limited “to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.” Opponents wondered how “inviolable” state sovereignty was when the Constitution granted the federal government a lengthy list of specific powers, imposed several restrictions on state sovereignty, and gave Congress the right “to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper” for executing “all other powers” granted under the Constitution. In 1798 and 1799 Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, alarmed by the centralizing tendencies of the federal government under the Federalists, boldly asserted state sovereignty in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. They argued that the states created the U.S. government and thus retained the right to judge the constitutionality of federal laws and declare invalid those they considered unconstitutional. State sovereignty was subject to conflicting interpretations, especially after the Supreme Court gradually established its right to review the constitutionality of state and federal laws beginning in 1796, and it has remained a political issue throughout American history.
Political Parties. In 1783 Americans celebrated their political independence from Great Britain, but they still found themselves influenced by British political ideas, especially the fear of political parties. On 19 November 1783 the Pennsylvania Gazette published a letter from “an American lady in England to her Friend in the City,” in which the writer hoped that American independence would be permanent, “that little private interests may always give way to public good,” and “that all former party spirit and animosity may be done away.” Most Americans in the 1780s did not accept political parties as essential elements of representative democracy. Instead, they shared James Madison’s belief that parties or “factions” were combinations of individuals who organized to promote their interests “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Yet, within a few years of creating a federal system of government that they hoped would prevent parties, Americans had established two political parties. In 1801 power passed from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans, but President Thomas Jefferson tried to downplay party politics by announcing, “We are all republicans—we are all federalists.” The fear of political parties gradually subsided between 1783 and 1815 because Americans came to believe, as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did, that the more even distribution of wealth in America would control the self-interest and social conflict that led to the formation of factions. Democracy, though limited to white adult males, transformed parties from selfish and competing interest groups into vital and safe political institutions that offered alternative political ideas and programs for the common good.
“An Empire of Laws.” In his “Thoughts on Government,” written in 1776, John Adams proclaimed: “The very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’” In 1787 delegates to the Constitutional Convention devised a federal republic whose authority depended entirely on the consent of the people. The survival of the republic rested on the people’s willingness to obey laws passed by their representatives in Congress. If the framers of the Constitution could design a government which would, in John Adams’s words, “secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws,” surely Americans would willingly obey laws passed by majority rule. Some individuals and states, however, believed they had a right to rebel against any law they thought to be unjust. Three times between 1786 and 1799 farmers in western Massachusetts and western Pennsylvania rebelled against what they believed to be unjust laws. Their methods of protest included petitions, conventions, and the use of force to prevent officials from executing the laws. Each time, government officials, believing that the law must be obeyed or social disorder would result, used force to end the rebellions. In 1798 and 1799, in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison supported state nullification of unconstitutional federal laws as a legitimate method of protest against unjust laws. In the final days of the War of 1812 delegates from the New England states who opposed the war and Democratic-Republican rule met in the Hartford Convention, where they upheld nullification and presented a series of Constitutional amendments to protect their rights. In later years Americans would continue to search for ways to protect individual and states’ rights, including changing laws through repeal or new legislation, constitutional amendment, appeal to the Supreme Court, civil disobedience, secession, and civil war.
Foreign Policy. With a weak army and navy, British military posts in the Northwest, and Spanish control of the Southwest and access to the Mississippi River, the U.S. government during the Washington administration chose diplomacy, not war, as the basis of its foreign policy. In his Farewell Address to the nation in September 1796 President Washington stated that “our peace and prosperity” depend on “extending our commercial relations” with foreign nations while having “as little political connection as possible.” The prosperity of the United States rested on its ability to market goods to all nations and maintain a steady flow of revenue from tariffs on foreign trade. Neutrality seemed to be the only practical principle of foreign policy, but it was difficult to defend when American commerce got caught in the wars between Britain and France which dominated world affairs from 1793 to 1815. In an effort to protect American shipping and honor from Britain and France, the administrations of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison tried diplomacy, trade restrictions, and finally war. The search for a foreign policy that would make the United States respected at home and abroad also contributed to the belligerent party politics of the era as Federalists accused Democratic-Republicans of importing dangerous principles of equality and anarchy from France, and Democratic-Republicans accused Federalists of importing principles of monarchy and aristocracy from Britain.
The Role of the Military. From their experiences under the British monarchy Americans had learned to fear professional, or “regular,” armies as tools of oppressive rulers. But as witnesses to the deficient performance of militia units in the Revolutionary War, they conceded the necessity of a small regular army under strict civilian control. In March 1783 Continental Army officers in Newburgh, New York, threatened to overthrow Congress if they did not receive their promised back pay and pensions. The Confederation Congress rapidly demobilized the Continental Army and, on 3 June 1784, established a small peacetime army of seven hundred men, each enlisted for twelve months. The army’s primary function was to defend the frontier, but the army’s military weakness compelled the federal government to use purchase and treaty, not warfare, to open Indian lands to white settlement. Military weakness, rooted in republican fears of military power, also guided the Washington administration’s foreign policy of diplomacy and neutrality. Congress expanded the army in 1798 during an undeclared war with France, but once France and the United States signed a peace treaty in 1800 the presence of this enlarged army, with Federalist leader Alexander Hamilton as a senior officer and no external foe in sight, became a political liability for President John Adams. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Democratic-Republican presidents who succeeded Adams, tried trade restrictions as a substitute for military power, but both men eventually increased the size of the regular army. When the United States declared war against Great Britain in June 1812, the regular army was still weak and poorly staffed. The lack of military preparedness was a decisive factor in the War of 1812.
Settling the Frontier. In 1780 the population of the United States was under 3 million; by 1815 it was over 8 million. The availability of open land for a growing population would expand “the Empire of Liberty” by creating opportunity for American farmers, preventing a future of overpopulated cities, increasing inequalities in wealth, and political disorder. The signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 set off a wave of migration into Kentucky, Tennessee, and territory northwest of the Ohio River, and the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 expanded the western migration into vast new territory beyond the Mississippi River. Americans recognized that national control over western lands was necessary for the purposes of revenue, defense, and political union, leading to the important decision to give Congress control over the settlement and administration of new territory, beginning with land ordinances passed by the Confederation Congress in the 1780s. Between 1783 and 1815 Congress passed land acts that made it easier for the common man to buy land by reducing the minimum amount of land that could be purchased, extending terms of payment, and abolishing fees. Frontier settlers often objected to property qualifications for voting, and when it was time to enter the Union, the new western states extended the vote to all adult white males. Democracy and equality of opportunity for white Americans on the frontier would not have been possible, however, without the federal government’s decision to open up Indian lands to settlement through purchase, treaty, and conquest.
Native Americans. The U.S. government’s Indian policy was based on several factors: a weak army, British and Spanish alliances with Native American tribes, relentless pressure from settlers to expand into Indian lands, and racial attitudes. The Confederation government in the 1780s, lacking the military power to assert its authority, tried to acquire Indian lands through treaties. However, white settlers continued to pour into Indian areas in violation of treaties, and Native Americans resisted the endless expansion into their homelands. Indian policy under the new federal government was guided by a belief in the racial superiority of white civilization and the inevitable surrender of Native American culture to that civilization. The Washington administration tried to attract Native American tribes away from their British and Spanish allies by offering to buy land and have Indians assimilate into American culture. President Jefferson continued the policy of assimilation, encouraging Handsome Lake, the Seneca religious leader, to “Persuade our red brethren to be sober and cultivate their lands, and their women to spin and weave for their families.” Some Native Americans, such as the Cherokee in the South, accepted assimilation, but several tribes in the Northwest resisted by organizing confederacies and engaging in warfare in the 1790s and again between 1805 and 1815. American victory over Great Britain in the War of 1812 meant that Native Americans could no longer rely on British or Spanish support to resist American advances on their lands and culture. The war was a turning point, paving the way for the eventual removal of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi River.
African Americans. After the Revolutionary War, African Americans, thousands of whom fought for liberty with the Continental Army or state militias, wondered whether the United States government would make the words of the Declaration of Independence—“All men are created equal”—a reality. Unfortunately the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, knowing that states in the lower South would never support a government that abolished slavery, decided that the survival of republican government for white Americans took precedence over freeing African Americans. But the presence of slavery in the midst of a government dedicated to liberty and equality did initiate antislavery activity at the state level. The legislatures of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware passed laws in the 1780s and 1790s making it easier to free slaves. By 1792 antislavery societies had been established from Massachusetts to Virginia. By 1804 every state from Pennsylvania north had passed gradual emancipation laws, and by 1810 nearly three-quarters of all Northern African Americans were free. Life for free African Americans in the North and the South was not easy; they were subject to legal, economic, and racial discrimination. Still, their numbers grew dramatically, from 59, 466 in 1790 (7.9 percent of the total African American population) to 186, 446 in 1810 (13.5 percent of the total African American population). Slavery was well on its way to becoming the South’s “peculiar institution,” but it was by no means a dying institution. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 enormously increased the production and profitability of cotton, but the cultivation of that crop required fertile land and intensive labor. The expansion of the southwestern frontier after the War of 1812 provided the land, but the end of the international slave trade in 1808 meant that slave labor would have to come from the sale and transfer of slaves from the older slave states to the new plantations in the Southwest. Westward migration uprooted slaves from familiar surroundings, broke up families, and subjected slaves to harsher conditions on the frontier.
The Development of Democracy. When most American political thinkers used the word democracy in the 1780s, they meant either the lowest order of society—the “common people”—or a type of government in which the common people exercised direct rule. From history these thinkers had learned that democracy went hand in hand with self-interest, disorder, and dictatorship. In 1787 the framers of the Constitution created a republic, or representative democracy, to protect the rights of the people while preventing the dangers of direct democracy. Ultimate power rested with the people, but they delegated that power, either directly or indirectly, to representatives in three branches of government. For Theophilus Parsons, a conservative Massachusetts lawyer who believed that educated gentlemen like himself were best suited to make political decisions, the proper role for the people was to “look on, and observe the conduct of their servants, and continue or withdraw their favor annually, according to their merit or demerit.” What Parsons did not foresee was the transformation of democracy into a desirable political principle. With the relatively equal distribution of wealth in American society and with no permanent class distinctions, the common people were not content merely to “look on” as their social superiors ruled for them. The development of two political parties in the 1790s, each with distinct ideas about the future of the United States, resulted in increased voter participation and demands to reduce or abolish property and taxpaying requirements for voting. The new western states, which attracted individuals seeking the equality of opportunity promised by the American Revolution, gave the right to vote to all adult white males. After 1800 the Federalists, who called their political opponents “Democrats” as an insult, had to acknowledge that democracy, limited though it was to white males, was becoming a sacred political principle that no politician could ignore.