, . " "

Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


Chapter 6. The Constitution and the New Republic

By the late 1780s, most Americans had grown deeply dissatisfied with the deficiencies of the Confederationwith its factiousness, its instability, its ineffectuality in the face of such crises as Shays's Rebellion, and above all with its inability to deal with the economic problems that afflicted the new nation. A decade earlier, they had deliberately avoided creating a genuine national government, fearing that it would encroach on the sovereignty of the individual states. Now they were ready to reconsider. Serious discussions began in 1786 about the construction of a new political system; and in 1787, the nation created for itself what the individual states had created for themselves years before: a written constitution and a government consisting of three independent branches.

The American Constitution derived most of its principles from the state documents that had preceded it. But it was also a remarkable achievement in its own right. Out of the contentious atmosphere of a fragile new nation, Americans fashioned a system of government that has survived as one of the stablest and most successful in the world. William Gladstone, the great nineteenth-century British statesman, once called the Constitution the "most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man." And although Gladstone may have exaggerated, the American people in the years that followed almost universally agreed. Indeed, to them the Constitution took on some of the characteristics of a sacred document, a holy mystery. Its framers were viewed by later generations as men almost godlike in their wisdom. Its provisions, set out in a brief 7,000 words, were considered for years to come to bean unassailable "fundamental law," from which all public policies, all political principles, all solutions of controversies must spring.

Yet the adoption of the Constitution did not complete the creation of the republic. It only defined the terms in which debate over the future of government would continue. Americans may have agreed that the Constitution was a nearly perfect document, but they disagreedat times fundamentallyon what that document meant. Some believed that the founders had intended the federal government to exercise broad powers beyond those specifically enumerated in the Constitution ("implied powers"). Others argued that the framers had intended to limit federal power to the precise areas specified in the Constitution ("expressed powers"), that all other authority would remain at the state level. Out of this disagreement emerged the first great political battles of the new nation.

Toward a New Government

So unpopular and ineffectual had the Confederation Congress become by the mid-1780s that it began to lead an almost waiflike existence. In 1783, its members timidly withdrew from Philadelphia to escape from the clamor of army veterans demanding their back pay. They took refuge for a while in Princeton, New Jersey, then moved on to Annapolis, and in 1785 settled in New York. Through all of this, the delegates were often conspicuous largely by their absence. Only with great difficulty was a quorum secured to permit ratification of the treaty with Great Britain ending the Revolutionary War. Eighteen members, representing only eight states, voted on the Confederation's most important piece of legislation, the Northwest Ordinance. In the meantime, a major public debate was beginning over the future of the Confederation.

Advocates of Centralization

Weak and unpopular though the Confederation was, it satisfied for a time a great manyprobably a ma-jorityof the people. They did not want a strong, or prestigious central government, and they were will-ing to tolerate the deficiencies of Congress in order to avoid the even greater problems they believed a more powerful national state would produce. They had fought the Revolutionary War to avert the danger of what they considered remote and tyrannical authority; now they desired to keep political power centered in the states, where it could be carefully and closely controlled.

Important groups in the population, however, were beginning to clamor for a national government capable of dealing with the new nation's many problemsparticularly the economic problems that most directly afflicted them. Some military men, many of them members of the exclusive and hereditary Society of the Cincinnati (formed by Revolutionary army officers in 1783), were disgruntled at the refusal of Congress to fund their pensions. They began aspiring to influence and invigorate the national government; some even envisioned a form of military dictatorship and flirted briefly (in 1783, in the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy) with a direct challenge to Congress, until George Washington intervened and blocked the potential rebellion.

American manufacturersthe artisans and "mechanics"wanted to replace the varying state tariffs with a uniformly high national duty. Merchants and shippers wanted to replace the thirteen different (and largely ineffective) state commercial policies with a single, national one. Land speculators wanted the "Indian menace" finally removed from their Western tracts. Creditors wanted to stop the states from issuing paper money. Investors in Confederation securities wanted the Confederation debt made good and the value of their securities enhanced. Large property owners in general looked for protection from the threat of mobs, a threat that seemed particularly menacing in light of such episodes as Shays's Rebellion.

By 1786, such demands had grown so powerful that the issue was no longer whether the Confederation should be changed but how drastic the changes should be. Even the defenders of the existing system reluctantly came to agree that the government needed strengthening at its weakest pointits lack of power to tax. The failure of Congress to approve Robert Morris's continental impost discouraged those who believed that such strengthening could occur within the present system.

The most resourceful of the reformers was the political genius, New York lawyer, one-time military aide to General Washington, and illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant in the West IndiesAlexander Hamilton. From the beginning, Hamilton had been dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation. He now saw little to be gained by piecemeal amendments, and he called for a national convention to overhaul the entire document. To this end, he took advantage of a movement for interstate cooperation that began in 1785 when a group of Marylanders and Virginians met in Alexandria to settle differences between the two states.

One of the Virginians, James Madison, was as eager as Hamilton to see a stronger government. He induced the Virginia legislature to invite all the states to send delegates to a larger conference on commercial questions. This group met at Annapolis in 1786, but representatives from only five states appeared. Nevertheless, the delegates adopted a report drafted by Hamilton (who was representing New York) recommending that Congress call a convention of special delegates from all the states to gather in Philadelphia the next year and consider ways to "render the constitution of the Federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union/'

At that moment, in 1786, there seemed little possibility that the Philadelphia convention would be any better attended or would accomplish any more than the meeting at Annapolis. Supporters of the idea believed that only by winning the support of George Washington could they hope to prevail. For a time, however, Washington showed little interest in joining the cause. Although he was one of the wealthiest men in the country, he was suffering from a common planter's malady: a temporary shortage of cash. So he was reluctant to undertake the trouble and expense of an extended visit to Philadelphia.

But then, early in 1787, the news of Shays's Re-bellion spread throughout the nation, news that seemed to augur other, more dangerous insurrections elsewhere. Thomas Jefferson, then the American .minister in Paris, was not alarmed. "I hold," he confided in a letter to James Madison, "that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." At Mount Vernon, however, Washington took the news less calmly. ''There are combustibles in every State which a spark might set fire to," he exclaimed. "I feel infinitely more than I can express for the disorders which have arisen. Good God!" Some suggested that Washington make himself a military dictator; he refused even to consider the possibility. But after Congress issued its calls for a constitutional convention, he borrowed money for the journey and, in May, left Mount Vernon for Philadelphia.

A Divided Convention

Fifty-five men, representing all the states except Rhode Island, attended one or more sessions of the convention that sat in the Philadelphia State House from May to September 1787. They constituted a remarkable, collection of talent, but they were far from the godlike creatures that later generations would at times describe. These "Founding Fathers," as they were to become known, were on the whole relatively young men. Many of them were in their twenties and thirties, and only one (Benjamin Franklin, then eighty-one years old) was genuinely aged. The aver-age age was forty-four. They were rnen of practical experience in business, plantation management, and politics. And they were well educated by the standards of their time; more than a third were college graduates. Most represented the great property interests of the country and, as such, feared what one of them called the "turbulence and follies" of democracy.

The convention's first decision (after unanimously choosing Washington to preside over its sessions) was to coriduct its business in complete secrecy. There would be no official transcript of its deliberations; there would be no reports to the press. (In fact, if James Madison had not kept a private diary chronicling the proceedings, historians would know little about what happened in Philadelphia.) The second decision, of great importance, was that each state delegation would have a single vote (as in the Confederation Congress); but major decisions would not require unanimity, as they did in Congress, just a simple majority.

Almost all the delegates agreed that the United States needed a stronger central government. There were great differences of opinion, however, as to how much stronger the government should be, what specific powers it should have, and what its structure should be. There were differences, in particular, over how power should be divided among the large and small states and over how economic interests in different sections of the country should be protected.

Among the states, Virginia was then much the largest in populationmore than twice as large as New York, more than four times as large as New Jersey, more than ten times as large as Delaware. Among the delegations at Philadelphia, the Virginians were also the best prepared for the work of the convention. And among the Virginians, James Madison (thirty-six years old) was the most important intellect. Even before the convention met, he had devised in some detail a plan for a new "national" government. The Virginians controlled the agenda from the moment the convention began.

Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the deliberations by proposing that "a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary." For all its vagueness, this was a drastic proposal. It called for the creation of a government very different from the existing confederation. It is an indication of how committed the delegates were to fundamental reform that they approved this resolution after only perfunctory debate. That opened the way for Randolph to introduce the details of Madison's plan. The Virginia Plan (as it came to be known) proposed the abandonment of the Articles of Confederation and the creation of a wholly new government; it also proposed giving the larger influence within that new government to the richer and more populous states. It called for a national legislature consisting of two houses. In the lower house, the states would be represented in proportion to their population; thus the largest state (Virginia) would have about ten times as many representatives as the smallest (Delaware). Members of the upper house were to be elected by the lower house; thus some of the smaller states might at times have no members at all in the upper house.

The proposal aroused immediate opposition among delegates from Delaware, New Jersey, and other small states. But the opponents were at first uncertain how to proceed. For a while, some argued that Congress had called the convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation, " and that the states in commissioning their "deputies" had authorized them to do no more than revise the Articles. They challenged the convention's authority to consider such drastic changes. Eventually, however, William Paterson of New Jersey submitted a substantive alternative to the Virginia Plan, a proposal for a "federal" as opposed to a "national" government. The New Jersey Plan envisioned what was in effect simply a revision and strengthening of the Articles. It preserved the existing one-house legislature, in which each state had equal representation; but it gave the legislature expanded powers to tax and to regulate commerce. After a spirited debate, the majority of the delegates voted to table Paterson's proposal.

The Virginia Plan remained the basis for discussion. But its supporters now realized they would have to make concessions to the small states if the convention was ever to reach a general agreement. They soon conceded an important point by agreeing to permit the members of the upper house to be elected by the state legislatures rather than by the lower house of the national legislature. Thus each state would be sure of always having at least one member in the upper house. There remained, however, the question of how many members each state should have.

Questions also remained about the number of representatives each state should have in the lower house. If the number was to depend on population, were slaves to be counted as part of the population? Were slaves, in other words, to be considered persons or property? The delegates from the states with large and apparently permanent slave populations especially those from South Carolinawanted to have it both ways. They argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation (although they never considered permitting slaves to vote). But they wanted slaves to be considered property if the new government were to levy taxes on each state on the basis of population. Representatives from states where slavery had disappeared or was expected to disappear argued that slaves should be included in calculating taxation but not representation. No one argued seriously for turning the slaves into citizens.

Differences Compromised

The delegates bickered for weeks. By the end of June, as both temperature and tempers rose to uncomfortable heights, the convention seemed in danger of collapsing. Benjamin Franklin, who remained a calm voice of conciliation through the summer, warned that if they failed, the delegates would "become a reproach and by-word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing governments by human wisdom, and leave it to chance, war and conquest." Partly because of Franklin's soothing presence, the delegates refused to give up. Finally, on July 2, the convention agreed to create a "grand committee," with a single delegate from each state (and with Franklin as chairman), to resolve the disagreements. The comrnittee returned with a proposal that became the basis of the "Great Compromise" and that finally resolved the difficult problem of representation. The committee proposed a legislature in which the states would be represented in the lower house on the basis of population, with each slave, counted as three-fifths of a free person in determining the basis for both representation and direct taxation. The three-fifths formula was based on the specious assumption that a slave was three-fifths as productive as a free worker and thus contributed only three-fifths as much wealth to the state.) And the committee proposed that in the upper house, the states should be represented equally with two members apiece. The proposal broke the deadlock. On July 16, 1787, the convention voted to accept it.

In the ensuing weeks, while several committees worked on the details of various parts of the emerging constitution, the convention as a whole agreed to other important compromises on the issue of tariffs and trade regulations and on the most explosive issue of all: slavery. The representatives of the Southern states feared that the power to regulate trade, if granted to the national government, might lead to export duties on their crops, commercial agreements (as in the recent Jay-Gardoqui treaty) that would sacrifice the interests of rice and tobacco growers, and interference with the slave trade. The South Carolinians proposed that a two-thirds vote in the legislature be required not only to approve commercial treaties but also to pass commercial laws. Although the convention rejected that proposal, it made some important concessions to the Southerners. The new legislature would not be permitted to tax exports; it would be forbidden to impose a duty of more than $10 a head on imported slaves; and it would have no authority to stop the slave trade for twenty years. To those delegates who viewed the continued existence of slavery as an affront to the principles of the new nation, this was a large and difficult concession. They agreed to it because they feared that without it the Constitution would fail.

Other differences of opinion the convention was unable to harmonize, and it disposed of them by evasion or omissionleaving important questions alive that would surface again in later years. One such question was whether the new courts or some special agency should be empowered to review and disallow acts of the legislature. The proposal for a "council of revision," a part of the original Virginia Plan, was dropped, and no provision was added to confer the power of judicial review explicitly on the courts. There was no bill of rights, restraining the powers of the national government in the way that bills of rights restrained the state governments. Madison opposed the idea, arguing that specifying rights that were reserved to the people would, in effect, limit those rights. Others, however, feared that without such protections the national government might abuse its new authority.

The Constitution of 1787

Many minds contributed to the creation of the American Constitution, and its terms were the result of many compromises. But the man who made the single greatest contribution to the new concept of government embodied in the document was James Madison, the most creative political thinker of his generation. It had been Madison who devised the Virginia Plan, from which the final document ultimately emerged. And it was Madison who did most of the drafting of the Constitution itself. But Madison's most important achievement was in helping to resolve two important philosophical questions that had served as obstacles to the creation of an effective national government: the question of sovereignty and the question of limiting power.

The question of sovereignty had been one of the chief sources of friction between the American colonies and Great Britain. England had argued that sovereignty could not, by definition, be divided, that it must reside in a single place; and in British eyes, that place had been Parliament, where the authority of king, Lords, and Commons meshed to produce a stable center of power. Thus the colonial assemblies could have no independent power, because that would imply a division of sovereigntyin British eyes, a logical impossibility. Americans themselves were not entirely comfortable with the idea of divided sovereignty, and their reservations had helped shape their first attempts to form a union. Under the Articles of Confederation, virtually all sovereignty resided in the individual states. Congress was simply a creature of the states, with no real sovereignty of its own (and thus without sufficient authority to fulfill its expected functions).

The creation of the federal Constitution had required at the start a resolution of questions associated with sovereignty. How could a national government exercise sovereignty concurrently with state governments? Where did ultimate sovereignty lie? The answer, Madison and his contemporaries decided, was that all power, at all levels of government, flowed ultimately from the people. Thus neither the federal government nor the state governments were truly sovereign. All of them derived their authority from below. The opening phrase of the Constitution (devised by Robert Morris) was "We the people of the United States of America"an expression of the belief that the new government derived its power not from the states but from the public at large. The logical obstacle to the distribution of authority among different branches or different levels of government was thus removed.

The resolution of the problem of sovereignty made possible one of the distinctive features of the Constitutionits distribution of powers between the national and state governments. It was, Madison wrote at the time, "in strictness, neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both." It had many features that were clearly national. The Constitution and the government it created were to be the "supreme law" of the land; no state would have the authority to defy it. The federal government was to have broad powers, including the power to tax, to regulate commerce, to control the currency, and to pass such laws as would be "necessary and proper" for carrying out its other responsibilities. Gone was the stipulation of the Articles that "each State shall retain every power, jurisdiction, and right not expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled." On the other hand, the Constitution was "federal" in creating a government that accepted the existence of separate states and left certain important powers in their hands.

In addition to solving the question of sovereignty, the Constitution produced a distinctive solution to a* problem that was particularly troubling to Americans: the problem of concentrated authority. Nothing so frightened the leaders of the new nation as the prospect of creating a tyrannical government. Nothing was so important to them as avoiding the problems that had, they believed, turned England into a despotic state. Indeed, that fear had been one of the chief obstacles to the creation of a national government at all.

Drawing from the ideas of the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, most Americans had long believed that the best way, perhaps the only way, to avoid tyranny was to keep government close to the people. That meant, according to Montesquieu, that a republic must remain confined to a relatively small area; a large nation would breed corruption and despotism because the rulers would be so distant from most of the people that there would be no way to control them. In the new American nation, these assumptions had led to the belief that the individual states must remain sovereign and that a strong national government would be dangerous.

Madison, however, helped break the grip of these assumptions by arguing that a large republic would be less, not more likely to produce tyranny, because it would contain so many different factions that no single group would ever be able to dominate it. (In this, he drew fromamong other sourcesthe Scottish philosopher David Hume.) This idea of many centers of power "checking each other" and preventing any single, despotic authority from emerging not only made possible the idea of a large republic. It also helped shape the internal structure of the federal government. The Constitution's most distinctive feature was its "separation of powers" within the government, its creation of "checks and balances" among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. (Here again, the new idea of sovereignty was crucial. Since ultimate authority resided in the people, there need be no single, ultimate center of authority within the government.)

It was a system designed to prevent any one person, any one faction, any one element of government from exercising excessive power. The array of forces within the government would constantly compete with (and often frustrate) one another. Congress would have two chambersthe Senate and the House of Representatives, each with members elected in a different way and for different termseach checking the other, since both would have to agree before any law could be passed. The president would have the power to veto acts of Congress; and the executive's independence from the legislature would be assured by the special process by which a president would be elected. Electors would be chosen in whatever way the separate states might designate, and the sole duty of this electoral college would be to cast votes for president and vice president. If no one received an electoral majority, then the final selection among the leading candidates would be up to the House of Representatives, with each state casting a single vote. The federal courts would be protected from both the executive and the legislature. Justices would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but once in office they would serve for life.

The "federal" structure of the government, which divided power between the states and the nation, and the system of "checks and balances," which divided power among various elements within the national government itself, was designed to protect the United States from the kind of despotism that Americans believed had emerged in England. But it was also designed to protect the nation against another kind of despotism, perhaps more menacing: the tyranny of the people. Fear of the "mob," of an "excess of democracy" was at least as important to the framers as fear of a single tyrant. Shays's Rebellion had been only one example, they believed, of what could happen if a nation did not defend itself against the unchecked exercise of popular will. Thus in the new government, only the members of the House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people. Senators, the president, federal judgesall would be insulated in varying degrees from the public.

But in Madison's view, at least, the new system provided an even more fundamental protection against unrestrained popular will. The competition among the many factions within the federal system would permit no faction to attain genuine dominance. Real authority, Madison believed, would come to be lodged in a small group of particularly talented and virtuous people, who would look out for the interests of society as a whole.

The Constitution did not satisfy everyone. Edmund Randolph, the governor of Virginia and the man who had originally introduced the Virginia Plan, was so unhappy about how far the final version had departed from the initial proposal that he refused to sign the document. Several delegates from the smaller states also withheld their approval. Most members of the convention, however, were willing to overlook their reservations. On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution, doubtless sharing the feelings that Benjamin Franklin expressed at the end: "Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best."

Adoption and Adaptation

The delegates at Philadelphia had greatly exceeded their instructions from Congress and the states. Instead of making simple revisions in the Articles of Confederation, they had produced a plan for a completely different form of government. They had reason to doubt, therefore, whether the Constitution would ever be ratified under the procedures laid down in the Articles of Confederation, which required unanimous approval of any alterations in the Articles by the state legislatures. So the convention changed the rules. The Constitution specified that the new government would come into existence among the ratifying states when only nine of the thirteen had ratified. It recommended to Congress that the Constitution be submitted to state conventions, called specifically to consider the document, rather than to the legislatures of the states.

Federalists and Antifederalists

The Congress in New York was completely overshadowed by the events in Philadelphia, and it passively accepted the convention's work and submitted it to the states for approval. All the state legislatures (with the exception of Rhode Island) elected delegates to ratifying conventions, most of which had begun meeting by early 1788. Even before the ratifying conventions adjourned, however, a great national debate on the new Constitution had begunin the legislatures, in mass meetings, in the columns of newspapers, and in the daily conversations of many men and women. The debate was intense, but it was generally peaceful and deliberative. Occasionally, however, passions rose to the point that opposing factions came to blows. In at least one placeAlbany, New Yorksuch clashes resulted in injuries and death.

Although the preamble made reference to "We the people," the whole people of the United States did not become involved in the ratification process. Most women and blacks and some unpropertied white males had no voice at all in the process. And approximately three-fourths of the adult white males eligible to vote for delegates to the ratifying conventions failed to do so, mainly because of indifference. Of those who did vote, a large majority apparently favored ratification; but because the Constitution was such a complex document, embodying so many different ideas, its real standing among the people at large remained in doubt.

The friends of the Constitution had a number of advantages. They were the better-organized group, and they had the weight of fame and superior leadership on their side. They could point to the support of the two most eminent men in America, Franklin and Washington. (Washington, for example, had declared that the nation faced a choice between the Constitution and disunion.) And they seized control of an appealing label for themselves: "Federalists" the term that opponents of centralization had once used to described themselvesthus implying that they were less commited to a "nationalist" government than in fact they were. They called their critics "Antifederalists" and implied in the process that the opposition stood for nothing constructive, that it stood for chaos itself. The Constitution's opponents protested the name, and tried to call themselves "Federal Republicans" instead. But the pejorative "Antifederalist" label stuck.

The Federalists also had the support of the ablest political philosophers of their time: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. And those three men, under the joint pseudonym "Publius," wrote a series of essayswidely published in newspapers throughout the nationexplaining the meaning and virtues of the Constitution. The essays were later issued as a book, and they are known today as The Federalist Papers. They constitute the single most authoritative commentary on the Constitution and perhaps the greatest American contribution to political theory.

The opponents of ratification produced no comparable writings, no "Antifederalist Papers." They tried to make a vigorous case for themselves in speeches, pamphlets, and newspaper propaganda; but much of the press simply ignored them. Perhaps inevitably, the Antifederalists resorted mainly to negative argument. They insisted that the Constitution was illegalas indeed it was if judged by the terms of the Articles of Confederation. The new government, they claimed, would increase taxes, obliterate the states, wield dictatorial powers, favor the "well born" over the common people, and put an end to individual liberty. Above all, they protested, the Constitution lacked a bill of rights.

The Antifederalist concern about inclusion of a bill of rights revealed one of the most important sources of their opposition to the new Constitution: a basic mistrust of human nature and of the capacity of human beings to wield power. (They have, on occasion, been described as "men of little faith.") They echoed the early Revolutionary fears of corruption and tyranny, and they argued that any government that centralized authority in the hands of the powerful would inevitably produce despotism. The Federalists shared many of these fears, but they believed that the Constitution provided ample protection against tyranny. The Antifederalists did not. The idea of a bill of rights, therefore, reflected a belief that no government could be trusted not to infringe on the liberties of its citizens; only by enumerating the natural rights of the people could there be any certainty that those rights would be protected.

Despite the efforts of the Antifederalists, ratification proceeded reasonably smoothly during the winter of 1787-1788. The Delaware convention was the first to act and ratified the Constitution unanimously, as did New Jersey and Georgia. In the larger states of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, the Antifederalists put up a more determined struggle but lost in the final vote. New Hampshire ratified the document in June 1788the ninth state to do so. It was now theoretically possible for the Constitution to go into effect.

Ratification of the Constitution






December 1787



December 1787


New Jersey

December 1787



January 1788



January 1788



February 1788



April 1788


South Carolina

May 1788


New Hampshire

June 1788



June 1788


New York

July 1788


North Carolina

November 1789


Rhode Island

May 1790


A new government could not hope to succeed, however, without the participation of Virginia and New York, whose conventions remained closely divided. But by the end of June, Virginia and then New York had consented to the Constitution by narrow margins. The New York convention yielded to expediencyeven some of the most staunchly Antifederalist delegates feared that the state's commercial interests would suffer if, once the other states gathered under the "New Roof," New York were to remain outside. Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York all ratified, on the assumptionalthough not on the express conditionthat certain desired amendments would be added to the Constitution, above all a bill of rights. Deciding to wait and see what became of these hopes for amendment, the North Carolina convention adjourned without taking action. Rhode Island did not even call a convention to consider ratification.

Completing the Structure

The first elections under the Constitution were held in the early months of 1789, and the results showed that the new government was to be in the hands of its friends. Few of the newly elected congressmen and senators had been committed Antifederalists; almost all had favored ratification, and many had served as delegates to the Philadelphia convention.

There was never any real doubt about who would be the first president. George Washington had presided at the Constitutional Convention, and many who had favored ratification did so only because they expected him to preside over the new government as well. Washington received the votes of all the presidential electors, whom the states, either by legislative action or by popular election, had named. John Adams, a leading Federalist (although he had not been a member of the convention, being the American minister to London at the time), received the next highest number of electoral votes and became vice president.

Congressmen were so slow to reach New York (which was, for the time being, to remain the national capital) that not until April was a quorum on hand to make an official count of the electoral vote and send a messenger to notify General Washington of his election. After a journey from Mount Vernon marked by elaborate celebrations along the way, Washington was inaugurated on April 30.

The responsibilities facing the first president and the first Congress were in some ways greater than those facing any president or Congress to follow. The leaders of the new government had the Constitution as a guide, but it provided only a general plan and left many questions unanswered. What, for example, should be the rules of the two houses of Congress for the conduct of their business? What code of etiquette should govern the relations between the president on the one hand and Congress and the people on the other? Should the chief executive have a lofty title, such as "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties"? (John Adams believed that he should.) What was the true meaning of the many ambiguous phrases in the Constitution? In answering these and other questions, Washington and his colleagues knew they were setting precedents that, in many cases, would give lasting direction to the development of the new government.

Thus the first Congress served in many ways almost as a continuation of the Constitutional Convention, as it acted to fill various gaps in the Constitution. Most conspicuous was the drafting of a bill of rights, which proponents of the Constitution had promised in order to conciliate the Antifederalists. By early 1789, even Madison had come to agree that some sort of bill of rights would be essential to legitimize the new government in the eyes of its opponents. Dozens of amendments had been proposed in the state ratifying conventions, and Congress (led by Madison, a member of the House of Representatives) undertook the task of sifting through them, reducing them to a manageable number, and sending them to the states for ratification. They approved twelve amendments on September 25, 1789; ten of them were ratified by the states by the end of 1791. (Thus what we know as the Bill of Rights is, in legal terms, simply the first ten amendments to the Constitution.)

Nine of those amendments placed limitations on Congress by forbidding it to infringe on certain basic rights: freedom of religion, speech, and the press; immunity from arbitrary arrest; trial by jury; and others. The Tenth Amendment reserved to the states all powers except those specifically withheld from them or delegated to the federal government.

In regard to the structure of the federal courts, the Constitution had only this to say: "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." Thus the convention had left to Congress the number of Supreme Court judges to be appointed and the kinds of lower courts to be organized. In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress provided for a Supreme Court of six members, with a chief justice and five associate justices; for thirteen district courts with one judge apiece; and for three circuit courts of appeal, each to consist of one of the district judges sitting with two of the Supreme Court justices. In the same act, Congress gave the Supreme Court the power to make the final decision in cases involving the constitutionality of state laws. If the Constitution was in fact to be the "supreme law of the land," the various state courts could not be left to decide for themselves whether the state legislatures were violating that supreme law.

As for executive departments, the Constitution referred indirectly to them but did not specify what or how many there should be. The first Congress created three such departmentsstate, treasury, and warand also established the offices of the attorney general and postmaster general. In appointing department heads and other high officials, Washington selected men who were generally well disposed toward the Constitution and who as a group would provide a balanced representation of the different sections of the country. To the office of secretary of the treasury he appointed Alexander Hamilton of New York, who at age thirty-two was an acknowledged expert in public finance. For secretary of war he chose a Massachusetts Federalist, General Henry Knox. As attorney general he named Edmund Randolph of Virginia, sponsor of the plan on which the Constitution had been based. As secretary of state he chose another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who had been away from the country as minister to France (and thus, like Adams, had not been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention).

From time to time, Washington called on these four men for advice, usually as individuals; but the department heads did not yet operate as a "cabinet." Washington assumed at first that the Senate would serve as an advisory council, since according to the Constitution the Senate was to give its advice and consent for the appointment of high officials and for the ratification of treaties. With only twenty-two members in the beginning, the Senate was small enough so that Washington could expect to consult personally with it. He changed his mind, however, after he took the draft of a treaty to the senators for their advice. They demanded that he leave the document for them to inspect and change at their leisure; Washington refused and resolved never again to submit a treaty to the senators until its negotiation had been completed. Thus he set a precedent in treaty making that his successors have generally followed.

Federalists and Republicans

The resolution of these initial issues stopped far short, however, of resolving the disagreements about the nature of the new government. On the contrary, for the first twelve years under the Constitution, American politics was characterized by a level of acrimony seldom matched in any period since. The framers of the Constitution had dealt with many disagreements not by solving them but by papering them over with a series of vague compromises; as a result, the disagreements survived to plague the new government. At the heart of the controversies of the 1790s was the same basic difference in philosophy that had lain at the heart of the debate over the Constitution. On one side stood a powerful group that believed America required a strong, national government: that the country's mission was to become a genuine nation-state, with centralized authority, a complex commercial economy, and a proud standing in world affairs. On the other side stood another groupa minority at first, but gaining strength during the decadethat envisioned a far more modest central government. It would be stronger than that under the Confederation, to be sure; but it would remain a far weaker instrument than the European equivalents. Moreover, American society should not, this group believed, aspire to be highly commercial or urban. It should remain predominantly rural and agrarian. The cen-tralizers became known as the Federalists and gravitated to the leadership of Alexander Hamilton. Their opponents acquired the name Republicans and gathered under the leadership of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton and the Federalists

Control of the new government lay from the beginning largely in the hands of the Federalists. It remained there for twelve years. One reason was George Washington, who had always envisioned a strong national government and who during his eight years as president did little to hamper the efforts of those attempting to consolidate its power. Yet Washington's role in enacting the Federalist program was in many respects a passive one, a result of his concept of the office he held. The president, Washington believed, should not be directly involved in political controversies. He should be an almost Olympian figure, above the fraya symbol of American nationhood. Washington thus avoided any personal involvement in the deliberations of Congress; he made few efforts to mediate among contending factions; he remained aloof.

As a result, the dominant figure in his administration became his talented secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, a man who exerted more influence than anyone else on domestic and foreign policy both during his term of office and, to an almost equal extent, after his resignation in 1794. Of all the leading men of his time, Hamilton was one of the most aristocratic in personal tastes and political philosophy ironically, perhaps, since his own origins had been exceedingly humble. Far from embracing republican ideals of the virtue of the people, he believed that a stable and effective government required an elite ruling class; authority should be lodged in the hands of the "enlightened few." As a result, he hoped to adapt the British system of rule by the king and the aristocracy as closely as possible to the United States. The alternative, he was certain, would be continuing disorder.

The new government could best be strengthened, Hamilton believed, by attracting the support of the wealthy. And the best way to do that was to give them a stake in its success. Thus Hamilton first proposed that the existing public debt be "funded," that the miscellaneous, uncertain, depreciated certificates of indebtedness that the old Congress had issued during and since the Revolutionmany of them now in the possession of wealthy speculatorsbe called in and exchanged for uniform, interest-bearing bonds, payable at definite dates. Next, he recommended that the Revolutionary state debts be "assumed," taken over by the United States, his object being to cause state as well as federal bondholders to look to the central government for eventual payment. Hamilton did not, in other words, envision paying off and thus eliminating the debt. He wanted instead to create a large and permanent national debt, new bonds being issued as old ones were paid off. The result, he believed, would be that creditorsthe wealthy classes most likely to lend money to the governmentwould have a permanent stake in seeing the government survive.

Hamilton also planned the establishment of a national bank. At the time, there were only a few banks in the country, located principally in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. A new, national bank would serve several purposes. It would provide loans and currency to businesses. It would give the government a safe place for the deposit of federal funds. It would facilitate the collection of taxes and the disbursement of the government's expenditures. It would keep up the price of government bonds through judicious bond purchases. The bank was to be chartered by the federal government, was to have a monopoly of the government's own banking business, and was to be controlled by directors of whom one-fifth would be appointed by the government.

The funding and assumption of the debts, together with the payment of regular interest on them, would cost a great deal of money, and so Hamilton had to find adequate sources of revenue. He thought the government should depend mainly on two kinds of taxes (in addition to the receipts to be anticipated from the sales of public land). One of these was an excise to be paid by distillers of alcoholic liquors. This tax would hit most heavily the whiskey distillers of the back country, especially in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolinasmall farmers who converted part of their corn and rye crop into whiskey.

The other tax on which Hamilton planned to rely was the tariff on imports. Such a tax would not only raise revenue but would also protect and encourage American manufacturing by raising the price of competing manufactured goods brought in from abroad. One of the first acts of the new Congress, in 1789, was the passage of a tariff law; but the level of duties under this law was extremely low. Hamilton advocated a higher and more decidedly protective tariff. In his famous "Report on Manufactures" of 1791, he laid out a grand scheme for stimulating the growth of industry in the United States and glowingly described the advantages that such growth would bring to the nation. Factories, he said, would make the nation more nearly self-sufficient in wartime, would increase prosperity by creating a home market for the produce of the farms, and would make possible the fuller utilization of all kinds of labor.

The Federalists, in short, offered more than a vision of how to ensure the stability of the new government. They offered a vision of the sort of nation America should becomea nation with a wealthy, enlightened ruling class; one possessing a vigorous, independent commercial economy with a thriving industrial sector; a country able to play a prominent role in world economic affairs.

Enacting the Federalist Program

Hamilton faced fervent opposition to many aspects of his program, and from 1789 to 1792 he and his supporters found themselves involved in continuous and often bitter debates. In the end, however, he won passage of almost all the measures he proposed.

Very few members of Congress objected to Hamilton's plan for funding the national debt; they agreed that the government must make its credit good. But many did oppose his proposal to fund the debt at par, that is, to exchange new bonds for old certificates of indebtedness on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The old certificates had been issued to merchants and farmers in payment for war supplies during the Revolution, or to officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary army in payment for their services. Many of these holders had been forced to sell their bonds during the hard times of the 1780s to speculators, who had bought them at a fraction of their face value.

Thus while almost everyone agreed that the government should pay what it owed, there was wide disagreement over whom it should pay the money to. Many congressmen believed that the original holders deserved some consideration, and James Madison, now a representative from Virginia, argued for a plan by which the new bonds would be divided between the original purchasers and the speculators. But the friends of Hamilton insisted that such a plan was impracticable and that the honor of the government required a literal fulfillment of its earlier promises to pay. Congress finally passed the funding bill in the form that Hamilton desired.

His proposal that the federal government assume the state debts encountered even greater difficulty. Its opponents had a strong case, for if the federal government took over the state debts, the people of one state would have to pay federal taxes for servicing the debts of other states. Some states' debts were much larger than others; Massachusetts, for example, owed far more money than did Virginia. Naturally, Virginia's representatives in Congress balked at the assumption bill. Only by striking a bargain with the Virginians were Hamilton and his supporters able to win passage of the bill.

The deal involved the location of the national capital. The Virginians wanted to create a new capital near them in the South. Hamilton met with Thomas Jefferson (after Jefferson's return from France) and agreed over dinner to provide Northern support for placing the capital in the South in exchange for Virginia's votes for the assumption bill. The capital had moved from New York back to Philadelphia in 1790. But the new bargain called for the construction of a new capital city on the banks of the Potomac River, on land to be selected by Washington himself. The government would move its operations by the beginning of the new century.

The thorny issue of assumption was thus settled reasonably easily. It was Hamilton's bank bill that sparked the first of many debates over the proper interpretation of the Constitution. Hamilton, of course, argued that establishment of a national bank was compatible with the intent of the Constitution, even though the document did not explicitly authorize it. But Madison, Jefferson, Randolph, and others argued that the Constitution should be construed in a strict sense and that Congress should exercise no powers that the document had not clearly assigned it. Both the House and the Senate finally agreed to Hamilton's bill; and although Washington initially displayed some uncertainty about its legality, he finally signed it. The Bank of the United States began operations in 1791, under a charter that granted it the right to continue for twenty years. Hamilton also had his way with the excise tax, although protests from farmers later forced revisions to reduce the burden on the smaller distillers. He failed to win passage of a tariff as highly protective as he had hoped for, but the tariff law of 1792 did raise the rates somewhat.

Once enacted, Hamilton's program had many of the effects he had intended and won the support of influential segments of the population. Public credit was quickly restored; the bonds of the United States were soon selling at home and abroad at prices even above their par value. Speculators (among them many members of Congress) reaped large profits as a result. Merchants in the seaports profited from the tariffs and benefited from the new banking system.

Others, however, found the Hamilton program less appealing. Small farmers in particular, who formed the vast majority of the population, complained that they had to bear a disproportionate burden of taxation. Not only did they owe property taxes to their state governments, but they bore the brunt of the excise tax and, indirectly, of the tariff. A feeling grew that the Federalist program served the interests not of the people but of small, wealthy elites. Out of this feeling an organized political opposition arose.

The Republican Opposition

The Constitution had made no reference to political parties, and the omission had been no oversight. Most of the framersand George Washington in particularbelieved that organized parties were evil and should be avoided. It was inevitable that men would disagree on particular issues, but most believed that such disagreements need not lead to the formation of permanent factions. "The public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties," Madison had written in The Federalist Papers (in Number 10, perhaps the most influential of all the essays), "and . . . measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority."

Yet not many years had passed after the ratification of the Constitution before Madison and others became convinced that Hamilton and his followers had become just such an "interested and overbearing majority." Not only had the Federalists enacted a program that many of these leaders opposed. More ominously, Hamilton himself had, in their eyes, worked to establish a national network of influence that embodied all the worst features of a party. The Federalists had used their control over appointments and the awarding of government franchises, and all the other powers of their offices, to reward their supporters and win additional allies. They had encouraged the formation of local associationslargely aristocratic in natureto strengthen their standing in local communities. They were doing many of the same things, their opponents believed, that the corrupt British governments of the early eighteenth century had done.

Because the Federalists appeared to their critics to be creating such a menacing and tyrannical structure of power, there was no alternative but to organize a vigorous opposition. And the result was the emergence of an alternative political party: the Republicans. By the late 1790s, the Republicans were going to even greater lengths than the Federalists to create an apparatus of partisan influence. In every state they had formed committees, societies, and caucuses; Republican groups were corresponding with one another across state lines; they were banding together to influence state and local elections. And they were justifying their actions by claiming that they and they alone represented the true interests of the nation that they were fighting to defend the people against a corrupt conspiracy by the Federalists. Just as Hamilton believed that the network of supporters he was creating represented the only legitimate interest group in the nation, so the Republicans believed that their party organization represented the best interests of the people. Neither side was willing to admit that it was acting as a party; nor would either concede the right of the other to exist.

From the beginning, the preeminent figures among the Republicans were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Indeed, the two men were such intimate collaborators with such similar political philosophies that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the contributions of one from those of the other. But Jefferson, as the more magnetic personality of the two, gradually emerged as the most prominent spokesman for the Republicans.

Jefferson, himself a farmer, believed that farmers were God's chosen people and that an ideal republic would consist of sturdy citizens, each tilling his own soil. He was an aristocrat by birth, but he had faith in the good intentions of the ordinary farmer-citizens and believed that they could, if properly educated, be trusted to govern themselves through the election of able and qualified men. Urban people, by contrast, posed a danger to the republic; Jefferson feared city mobs as "sores upon the body politic." Thus he opposed the development of extensive manufactures because they would lead to the growth of cities packed with propertyless workers. Jefferson envisioned, in short, a decentralized society, dominated by small property owners engaged largely in agrarian activities. He did not scorn commercial activity; farmers would, he assumed, market their crops through national and even international trade. Nor did he oppose industrial activity; Americans should, he believed, develop a certain amount of manufacturing capacity. But Jefferson did believe that the nation should avoid a highly urbanized, industrial economy and that the abundance of land in America was the society's greatest economic resource.

As a member of President Washington's official circle, Jefferson differed so strongly with his colleague Hamilton on particular issues such as the Bank that he soon offered to resign. But Washington, eager to preserve at least the appearance of national unity, persuaded him to remain as secretary of state. Although the two secretaries continued to serve the same president, they worked increasingly against each other. Each began to organize a following in Congress as well as in the country at large.

On the surface, the debate between the Federalists and the Republicans mirrored the earlier battle between Federalists and Antifederalists. In fact, however, the Republicans attracted support from some of those who had been most fervent in their support of the Constitutionamong them Madison. The new Republicans did not denounce the Constitution. On the contrary, they professed to be its special friends and champions and accused their opponents of violating it.

Although both parties had supporters in all parts of the country and among all classes, there were regional and economic differences. The Federalists were most numerous in the commercial centers of the Northeast and in such Southern seaports as Charleston; the Republicans were most numerous in the rural areas of the South and the West. The factions differed in their social philosophies as wellas their reactions to the progress of the French Revolution suggest. As that revolution grew increasingly radical in the 1790s, with its attacks on organized religion, the overthrow of the monarchy, and eventually the guillotining of the king and queen, the Federalists watched in horror. The Republicans, in contrast, applauded the democratic, antiaristocratic spirit they believed the French Revolution embodied. Some even imitated the French radicals (the Jacobins) by cutting their hair short, wearing pantaloons, and addressing one another as "Citizen" and "Citizeness."

When the time came for the nation's second presidential election in 1792, both Jefferson and Hamilton urged Washington to run for a second term. The president would have preferred to retire to his plantation at Mount Vernon, but he agreed to serve for another four years. Almost all Americans viewed Washington as a figure above the partisan battle, and as long as he was president the factional dispute remained relatively contained. But Washington was, in reality, far more in sympathy with the Federalists than with the Republicans. And during his presidency, Hamilton managed to remain the dominant figure in government. Indeed, he once referred to Washington as "an aegis very necessary to me."

Asserting National Sovereignty

The Federalists consolidated their positionand attracted wide public support for the new national governmentby dealing effectively with two problems that the old Confederation had been unable fully to resolve. They helped stabilize the Western frontier, and they improved America's position in world affairs.

Securing the Frontier

Despite its success in winning passage of the Northwest Ordinance, the old Congress had been largely unable to tie the outlying Western areas of the country firmly to the government. Farmers in western Massachusetts had risen in revolt; settlers in Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee had toyed with the idea of separating from the Union. At first, the new government under the Constitution faced similar problems.

In 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania raised a major challenge to federal authority when they refused to pay a whiskey excise tax and began terrorizing the tax collectors (much as colonists had done throughout America at the time of the Stamp Act.) But the federal government did not leave settlement of the so-called Whiskey Rebellion to the authorities of Pennsylvania as Congress had left Shays's Rebellion to the authorities of Massachusetts. At Hamilton's urging, Washington took drastic steps. He called out the militias of three states; he raised an army of nearly 15,000, a larger force than he had commanded against the British during most of the Revolution; and he personally accompanied the army into Pennsylvania. At the approach of the militiamen, the farmers around Pittsburgh, where the rebellion centered, either ran for cover or stayed home and claimed to be law-abiding citizens. The rebellion quickly collapsed.

The federal government won the allegiance of the whiskey rebels through intimidation. It won the loyalties of other frontiersmen by accepting new states as members of the Union. The last of the original thirteen colonies joined the union once the Bill of Rights had been appended to the Constitution North Carolina in 1789 and Rhode Island in 1790. Then Vermont, which had had its own state government since the Revolution, was accepted as the fourteenth state in 1791 after New York and New Hampshire finally agreed to give up their claims to sovereignty over it. Next came Kentucky, in 1792, when Virginia gave up its claim to that region. When North Carolina finally ceded its Western lands to the Union, Tennessee achieved territorial status and in 1796 became a state.

In the more remote areas of the Northwest and the Southwest, meanwhile, the government had to contend with Indians and their European allies, British and Spanish, in order to get a firm grasp on all the territory belonging to the United States. In the Southwest, four tribesthe Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, and Chickasawscontinued to resist the expansion of white settlement into their lands. The mixed-blood Creek chieftain Alexander McGillivray, who had fought with the British during the Revolution, led the Indian resistance to the advance of frontiersmen into the lower Mississippi Valley and received support and encouragement from Spain. In 1790, Washington tried to buy peace with the Southwestern Indians; he invited McGillivray to New York and agreed to pay him $100,000 in exchange for a cessation of hostilities. Other Indians, however, continued to accept subsidies from the Spaniards and to raid American settlements along the border. Finally, in 1793-1794, white Tennesseans called up the militia and invaded Indian country, crushing the native resistance for a time.

In the Northwest, the federal government risked a conflict with Great Britain by sending three armed expeditions into the Ohio country to crush Indian resistance. General Anthony Wayne, a careful and effective commander (despite his nickname "Mad Anthony"), led 4,000 men into the region, moved cautiously toward the Maumee River, and built forts as he went. The British officials in Canada, who were providing the Indians with supplies, themselves ordered the construction of a fort about twenty miles from the mouth of the river, well within the boundary of the United States. Near the British fort, at a place where trees had been blown over by a windstorm, Wayne in the summer of 1794 met and decisively defeated the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The British garrison prudently kept out of the fight. The following summer, the Indians agreed in the Treaty of Greenville to abandon most of what later became the state of Ohio.

Maintaining Neutrality

Not until 1791 did Great Britain send a minister to the United States, and then only because Madison and the Republicans were threatening to place special trade restrictions on British ships. That was only one symbol of the difficulty the new government had in establishing its legitimacy in the eyes of the British.

A crisis in Anglo-American relations emerged in 1793 when the French revolutionary government, after executing King Louis XVI, went to war with Great Britain and its allies. The new federal government was uncertain how to respond. Should the United States recognize the radical government of France by accepting a diplomatic representative from it? Was the United States obligated by the alliance of 1778 to go to war on the side of France? Washington (responding to advice from both Hamilton and Jefferson) recognized the French government and issued a proclamation in 1793 announcing the determination of the United States to remain at peace and (although it did not use the word) neutral. A year later, Congress passed a neutrality act forbidding American citizens to participate in the war and prohibiting the use of American soil as a base of operations for either side.

The first challenge to American neutrality came from France, when its first diplomatic representative, the youthful and brash Edmond Genet, arrived in America. Instead of landing at Philadelphia and presenting himself immediately to the president, Genet disembarked at Charleston. There he made plans for using American ports to outfit French warships, issued letters of marque and reprisal authorizing American shipowners to serve as French privateers, and commissioned the aging George Rogers Clark to undertake an overland expedition against the possessions of Spain, an ally of Great Britain and an enemy of France. In all of this, Genet was brazenly ignoring Washington's proclamation and flagrantly violating the Neutrality Act. His conduct infuriated Washington (who provided "Citizen Genet," as he was known, with an icy reception in Philadelphia) and the Federalists; it also embarrassed all but the most ardent Francophiles among the Republicans. At last, Washington demanded that the French government recall him; but by then Genet's party, the Girondins, was out of power in France and the still more extreme Jacobins were in control, so it would not have been safe for him to return. The president granted him political asylum in the United States, and he settled with his American wife on a Long Island farm. The neutrality policy had survived its first great test. A second challenge, an even greater one, came from Great Britain. Early in 1794, the Royal Navy began seizing hundreds of American ships engaged in trade in the French West Indies. At the news of the seizures, opinion in the United States became as strongly anti-British as it had recently been anti-French. Anti-British feeling rose still higher at the report that the governor general of Canada had delivered a warlike speech to the Indians on the Northwestern frontier. Hamilton was deeply concerned. War would mean an end to imports from England, and most of the revenue for maintaining his financial system came from duties on those imports.

Jay's Treaty

Hamilton and the other Federalists believed, therefore, that this was no time for ordinary diplomacy. They could not, they knew, rely on the State Department in their quest for a settlement with Britain. Jefferson had resigned as secretary of state in 1793 to devote more time to his political activities; but his successor, Edmund Randolph, was even more ardently pro-French than Jefferson had been. Hence the Federalists persuaded Washington to name a special commissioner to England: the staunch New York Federalist, former secretary for foreign affairs under the old Confederation, and current chief justice of the Supreme Court, John Jay. Jay was instructed to secure compensation for the recent British assaults on American shipping, to demand withdrawal of British forces from the frontier posts, and to negotiate a commercial treaty that would not violate America's existing treaty with France, signed at the time of the alliance in 1778.

Jay negotiated a long and complex treaty in 1794, and in the process he yielded more to Great Britain and obtained less for the United States than he had been instructed to do. But there was much to be said for the agreement. By settling the conflict with Britain, it gave the United States valuable time for peaceful development. It also provided for undisputed American sovereignty over the entire Northwest; and it produced a reasonably satisfactory commercial re-

lationship with a nation whose trade was important to the United States. Nevertheless, when the terms were published, the treaty was bitterly denounced and Jay himself was burned in effigy in various parts of the country. The Republicans condemned the treaty virtually unanimously as a surrender to Britain and an assault on France. Even some Federalists were outraged. Opponents of the treaty went to extraordinary lengths to defeat it in the Senate; French agents aided them and cheered them on. The American minister to France, James Monroe, and even the secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, cooperated closely with the French in a desperate attempt to prevent ratification. But in the end the Senate, after making some amendments, consented to what was by then known as Jay's Treaty.

The treaty led directly to a settlement of America's important conflict with Spain. Fearing a joint Anglo-American challenge to Spanish possessions in North America, the Spanish government was now eager to appease the United States. Thus when Thomas Pinckney arrived in Spain as a special negotiator, he had no difficulty in gaining nearly everything that the United States had sought from the Spaniards for more than a decade. Under Pinckney's Treaty (signed in 1795), Spain recognized the right of Americans to navigate the Mississippi to its mouth and to deposit goods at New Orleans for reloading on ocean-going ships; agreed to fix the northern boundary of Florida where Americans always had insisted it should be, along the 31st parallel; and required Spanish authorities to prevent the Indians in Florida from raiding across the border.

The Downfall of the Federalists

The Federalists' impressive triumphs did not ensure their continued dominance in the national government. On the contrary, success seemed to produce problems of its ownproblems that eventually led to their downfall.

Since almost everyone in the 1790s agreed that there was no place in a stable republic for an organized opposition, the emergence of the Republicans as powerful contenders for popular favor seemed to the Federalists a grave threat to national stability. When, beginning in the late 1790s, major international perils confronted the government as well, the temptation to move forcefully against the opposition became too great to resist. Facing what they believed was a stark choice between respecting individual liberties and preserving stability, the Federalists chose stability. The result was political disaster. After 1796, the Federalists never won another election. The popular respect for the institutions of the federal government, which they had worked so hard to produce among the people, survived. But the Federalists themselves gradually vanished as a meaningful political force.

The Election of 1796

As the time approached for the election of 1796, some friends of Washington urged him to run again. Already twice elected without a single vote cast against him in the electoral college, he could be counted on to hold the Federalist party together and carry it to a third great victory. But Washington, weary of the burdens of the office and disgusted with the partisan abuse that was now being heaped on him, was determined to retire to Mount Vernon. With Hamilton's assistance, he composed a long letter to the American people and had it published in a Philadelphia newspaper. The letter became known as Washington's "Farewell Address." Its reference to the "insidious wiles of foreign influence" was not just a warning against international entanglements; it was a denunciation of those Republicans who had been conspiring with the French to frustrate the Federalist diplomatic program.

There was no doubt that Jefferson would be the candidate of the Republicans in 1796, and he chose as his running mate the New York Republican leader, Aaron Burr. The Federalists faced a more difficult choice. Hamilton, the very personification of Federalism, was not "available" because his forthright views had created too many enemies. John Jay was too closely identified with his unpopular treaty. And Thomas Pinckney, although his treaty had been enthusiastically received, had the handicap of being a South Carolinian at a time when party leaders thought the next candidate should be a Northerner. John Adams, who as vice president was directly associated with none of the Federalist measures, finally received the party's nomination for president at a caucus of the Federalists in Congress; Pinckney received the nomination for vice president.

The Federalists were still clearly the dominant party, and there was little doubt of their ability to win a majority of the presidential electors. But without Washington to mediate, they fell victim to fierce factional rivalries that almost led to their undoing. Hamilton and many other Federalists (especially in the South) were not reconciled to Adams's candidacy and continued to prefer Pinckney. And when, as expected, the Federalists elected a majority of the presidential electors, some of these Pinckney supporters declined to vote for Adams; he managed to defeat Jefferson by only three electoral votes. Because a still larger number of Adams's supporters declined to vote for Pinckney, Jefferson finished second in the balloting and became vice president. (The Constitution provided for the candidate receiving the second highest number of electoral votes to become vice presidenthence the awkward result of men from different parties serving in the nation's two highest offices. The Twelfth Amendment, adopted in 1804, reformed the electoral system to prevent such situations.)

Adams assumed the presidency, therefore, under inauspicious circumstances. He presided over a divided party, which faced a strong and resourceful Republican opposition committed to its extinction. And Adams himself was not the dominant figure in his own party; Hamilton remained the most influential Federalist, and Adams was never able to challenge him effectively. The new president was one of the country's most accomplished and talented statesman, but he had few skills as a politician. Austere, rigid, aloof, he showed no ability to conciliate differences, to solicit support, or to inspire enthusiasm. He was a man of enormous, indeed intimidating rectitude; and he seemed to assume that his own virtue and the correctness of his positions would alone be enough to sustain him. He was wrong.

The Quasi War with France

American relations with Great Britain and Spain improved as a result of Jay's and Pinckney's treaties. But the nation's relations with France, now under the government of the Directory, went from bad to worse. French vessels captured American ships on the high seas and at times imprisoned the crews. And when the South Carolina Federalist Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, brother of Thomas Pinckney, arrived in France to replace Monroe, the Directory refused to receive him as the official representative of the United States.

Some of the president's advisers, in particular Secretary of State Timothy Pickering (a rigid New Englander who detested France) favored war. Most (including Hamilton) recommended attempting to reach a peaceful settlement. Adams chose conciliation, and he appointed a bipartisan commission consisting of Charles Pinckney, the recently rejected minister; John Marshall, a Virginia Federalist, later chief justice of the Supreme Court; and Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts Republican but a personal friend of the presidentto negotiate with the Directory. When the three Americans arrived in France in 1797, three agents of the Directory's foreign minister, Prince Talleyrand, demanded a loan for France and a bribe for French officials before any negotiations could begin. Pinckney delivered the commission's response in a succinct and angry phrase: "No! No! Not a sixpence!"

When Adams received the commissioners' report, he sent a message to Congress in which he urged readiness for war, denounced the French for their insulting treatment of the United States, and vowed he would not appoint another minister to France until he knew the minister would be "received, respected and honored as the representative of a great, free, powerful and independent nation." The Republicans asked for proof of the president's charge that the United States had been insulted. And Adams responded by turning the commissioners' report over to Congress, after deleting the names of the three French agents and designating them only as Messrs. X, Y, and Z. When the report was published, the "XYZ Affair" provoked an even greater reaction than Adams had expected. There was widespread popular outrage at France's actions and strong popular support for the Federalists* response. For nearly two years, 1798 and 1799, the United States found itself engaged in an undeclared war with France.

Adams quickly persuaded Congress to cut off all trade with France, abrogate the treaties of 1778, and authorize public and private vessels of the United States to capture French armed ships on the high seas. In 1798, Congress created a Department of the Navy and appropriated money for the construction of new warships. The navy soon won a number of duels with French vessels and captured a total of eighty-five ships, including armed merchantmen.

The United States had not only abandoned neutrality in the war between Britain and France. It was now cooperating so closely with the British as to be virtually a cobelligerent. Adams declined an English offer to lend ships to the United States, preferring that the nation build up a navy of its own. But the British did provide the American navy with shot and shell, furnished officers to help with the training and direction of American crews, and offered signaling information so that British and American ships could communicate readily with one another.

The French, taking notice of all this, finally began to see the wisdom of an accommodation with the Americans. Adams sent a new three-man commission to Paris in 1800; and the new French government (headed now by "first consul" Napoleon Bonaparte) agreed to a treaty with the United States that canceled the old agreement of 1778 and established new commercial arrangements. Federalists in the Senate objected that the agreement failed to provide compensation for American maritime losses at the hands of the French, and they delayed ratification until after Adams had left office. But the "quasi war" nevertheless came to a reasonably peaceful end, and the United States at last freed itself from the entanglements and embarrassments of its "perpetual" alliance with France.

Repression and Protest

The outbreak of hostilities in 1798 had given the Federalists an advantage over the political opposition, and in the congressional elections of that year they increased their majorities in both houses. But their newfound popularity seemed to go to their heads, and they began to consider new ways to weaken and silence the Republicans. Their pretext was the supposed necessity of protecting the nation from dangerous foreign and subversive influences in the midst of the undeclared war. The result was two of the most repressive pieces of legislation in American history: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Alien Act was aimed at those critics of the administration who were foreign by birth (many of them Irish and French). It placed new obstacles in the way of foreigners who wished to become American citizens, and it strengthened the president's hand in dealing with aliens. Even more ominous was the Sedition Act, which empowered the government to prosecute those who engaged in sedition against the government. In theory, only libelous or treasonous activities were subject to prosecution. But the law had the capacity to become a potent vehicle for stifling any opposition. The Republicans responded to the new laws with anger and dismay, interpreting them as part of a Federalist campaign to destroy them. The Alien and Sedition Acts became, as a result, the spark that finally ignited the political passions that had been building for nearly a decade.

John Adams signed the new laws, but he was reasonably cautious in implementing them. He did not act to deport any aliens, as he was empowered to do; and he prevented the government from launching a massive crusade against the opposition. Nevertheless, the legislation did have a significant repressive effect, enough to justify the fears of the Republicans that they were tyrannical in intent. The Alien Act, together with the Naturalization Act passed at approximately the same time, discouraged immigration and encouraged some foreigners already in the country to leave. And the administration made use of the Sedition Act to arrest several dozen men; ten were convicted. Most of those prosecuted were Republican newspaper editors whose only crime had been to criticize the Federalists in government.

The Republicans faced an important question as they attempted to decide how to oppose these laws, which they considered clear violations of the Constitution. What agency of government should decide the question of constitutionality? The Supreme Court had never attempted to invalidate an act of Congress; and the Republican leaders Jefferson and Madison concluded that the state legislatures should decide. They ably expressed their view in two sets of resolutions in 1798-1799, one written (anonymously) by Jefferson and adopted by the Kentucky legislature (1798, 1799) and the other drafted by Madison and approved by the Virginia legislature (1798). The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, as they were known, used the arguments of John Locke, which had become so familiar during the pre-Revolutionary crisis.

They asserted that the federal government had been formed by a "compact" or contract among the states. It was a limited government, possessing only certain delegated powers. Whenever it exercised any additional and undelegated powers, its acts were "unauthoritative, void, and of no force." The parties to the contract, the states, must decide for themselves when and whether the central government exceeded its powers. And "nullification" by the states was the "rightful remedy" whenever the general government went too far.

The Republicans failed to win wide support for their efforts on behalf of nullification; only Virginia and Kentucky voted to declare the congressional statutes void. They did, however, succeed in elevating their dispute with the Federalists to the level of a national crisis. By the late 1790s, the entire nation was as deeply and bitterly politicized as it would ever be in its history. The partisan divisions reached into every community. Friends and families became bitterly divided. State legislatures at times resembled battlegrounds; loud and angry debates were almost constant, and on several occasions there were rowdy fistfights and brawls in the legislative chambers. Even the United States Congress was plagued with violent disagreements. In one celebrated incident in the chamber of the House of Representatives, Matthew Lyon, a Republican from Vermont, responded to an insult from Roger Griswold, a Federalist from Massachusetts, by spitting in Griswold's eye. Griswold attacked Lyon with his cane, Lyon fought back with a pair of fire tongs, and soon the two men were engaged in a wrestling match on the floor. Such incidents were not only embarrassing to Congress; they served as a disturbing reminder to the public at large of the rancor and instability that had afflicted the nation under the Articles of Confederation. By 1800, it seemed as though the nation was on the verge of dissolving into chaos.

The "Revolution" of 1800

In this troubled atmosphere, Americans went about the task of electing a president in the fall of 1800. The presidential candidates were the same as four years earlier: Jefferson was the Republican nominee, with Aaron Burr again his running mate; Adams campaigned for reelection as a Federalist, with Charles Pinckney as the party's candidate for vice president. The campaign of that year was probably the ugliest in American history. Adams and Jefferson themselves displayed reasonable dignity; but their supporters showed no such restraint. (It was during this campaign, for example, that the story of Jefferson's alleged romantic involvement with a black slave woman was first widely aireda story the truth of which scholars continue to debate.) In addition to personal invective, each side argued strenuously that its opponents threatened the very existence of the republic. The Federalists accused Jefferson of being a dangerous radical and his followers of being wild men who, if they should come to power, would bring on a reign of terror comparable to that of the French Revolution at its worst. The Republicans pictured Adams as a tyrant conspiring to become king; and they accused the Federalists of plotting to subvert human liberty and impose slavery on the people accusations that mirrored the anti-British propaganda of the pre-Revolutionary years.

The election was close, and the crucial contest was in New York. There, Aaron Burr mobilized an organization of revolutionary war veterans, the Tammany Society, to serve as a Republican political machine. And through Tammany's efforts, the party carried the city by a large majority, and with it the state. Jefferson was, apparently, elected.

But an unexpected complication soon jeopardized the Republican victory. The Constitution called for each elector to "vote by ballot for two persons." The normal practice was for an elector to cast one vote for his party's presidential candidate and another for the vice presidential candidate. To avoid a tie, the Republicans had intended for one elector to refrain from voting for Burr. But the plan went awry. When the votes were counted, Jefferson and Burr each had 73. No candidate had a majority, andin accordance with the Constitutionthe House of Representatives was now empowered to choose between the two top candidates, between Jefferson and Burr. Each state delegation would cast a single vote.

The Federalists controlled a majority of the states' votes in the existing Congress (the new Congress, elected in 1800, did not convene until after the inauguration of the president), and they had the privilege of deciding which of their opponents was to be the next president. Some hoped to use the situation to salvage the election for the Federalists; others wanted to strike a bargain with Burr and elect him. The House met in February 1801 to resolve the election and balloted again and again without mustering a majority for either Jefferson or Burr. Finally, a week before the inauguration, several leading Federalists concluded that Burr (whom many suspected of having engineered the deadlock in the first place) was too unreliable to trust with the presidency. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson was elected.

As a result of the election of 1800, the Republicans captured not only the presidency but a majority of the seats in both houses of the next Congress as well. The only branch of the government left in Federalist hands was the judiciary, and Adams and his fellow partisans during their last months in office took steps to make their hold on the courts secure. By the Judiciary Act of 1801, passed by the lame duck Congress, the Federalists reduced the number of Supreme Court justiceships by one but at the same time greatly increased the number of federal judge-ships as a whole. The act created a separate system of circuit courts of appeal, standing between the federal district courts and the Supreme Court, to replace the old circuit courts on which district judges and Supreme Court justices had served together; and it called for the creation often new district judgeships.

Adams quickly appointed Federalists to the newly created positions. Indeed, some claimed that he stayed up until midnight on his last day in office, March 3, 1801, to complete the signing of the judges' commissions; these officeholders became known as the "midnight appointments." Since federal judges held office for life, the Federalists assumed that Jefferson would be powerless as president to remove Adam's appointees.

Despite these last Federalist efforts, the Republicans viewed their victory as almost complete. The nation had, they believed, been saved from tyranny. A new era could now begin, one in which the true principles on which America had been founded would once again govern the land. The exuberance with which the victors viewed the futureand the importance they ascribed to the defeat of the Federalists was clearly revealed by the phrase Jefferson himself later used to describe his election. He called it the "Revolution of 1800." It remained to be seen how revolutionary it would really be.


The Background of the Constitution

The debate among historians about the motives of those who framed the American Constitution mirrors in many ways the debate about the causes of the American Revolution. To some, the creation of the federal system was an effort to preserve the ideals of the Revolution by eliminating the disorder and contention that threatened the new nation. To others, supporters of the Constitution appear to have been men attempting to protect their own economic interests, even at the cost of betraying the principles of the Revolution.

The first and most influential exponent of the former view was John Fiske, whose book The Critical Period of American History (1888) painted a grim picture of political life under the Articles of Confederation. The nation was, Fiske argued, reeling under the impact of a business depression, the weakness and ineptitude of the national government, the threats to American territory from Great Britain and Spain, the inability of either the Congress or the state governments to make good their debts, the interstate jealousies and barriers to trade, the widespread use of inflation-producing paper money, and the lawlessness that culminated in Shays's Rebellion. Only the timely adoption of the Constitution, Fiske claimed, saved the young republic from disaster.

Fiske's view met with little dissent until 1913, when Charles A. Beard, published a powerful challenge to it in An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. According to Beard, the 1780s had been a "critical period" not for the nation as a whole but for certain conservative business interests who feared that the decentralized political structure of the republic imperiled their financial position. Such men, he claimed, wanted a government able to promote industry and trade, protect private property, and perhaps most of all, make good the public debtmuch of which was owed to them. The Constitution was, Beard claimed, "an economic document drawn with superb skill by men whose property interests were immediately at stake" and who won its ratification over the opposition of a majority of the people. Were it not for their impatience and determination, he argued in a later book (1927), the Articles of Confederation might have formed a perfectly satisfactory, permanent form of government. The Beard view of the Constitution influenced more than a generation of historians. As late as the 1950s, for example, Merrill Jensen argued in The New Nation (1950) that the 1780s were not years of chaos and despair, but a time of hopeful striving and that only the economic interests of a small group of wealthy men can account for the creation of the Constitution.

But the 1950s also produced a series of powerful and persuasive challenges to the Beard thesis. Robert E. Brown, for example, argued in 1956 that "absolutely no correlation" could be shown between the wealth of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and their position on the Constitution. Forrest McDonald, in We the People (1958), looked beyond the convention itself to the debate between the Federalists and the Antifederal-ists and concluded similarly that there was no consistent relationship between wealth and property on the one hand and support for the Constitution on the other. Instead, opinion on the new system was far more likely to reflect local and regional interests. Areas suffering social and economic distress were likely to support the Constitution; states that were stable and prosperous were likely to oppose it. There was no intercolonial class of monied interests operating in concert to produce the Constitution.

The cumulative effect of these attacks has been virtually to destroy Beard's argument; hardly any historians any longer accept his thesis without reservation. By the 1960s, however, a new group of scholars was beginning to revive an economic interpretation of the Constitutionone that differed from Beard's in important ways but that nevertheless emphasized social and economic factors as motives for supporting the federal system. Jackson Turner Main argued, in The Antifederalists (1961), that supporters of the Constitution, while not perhaps the united creditor class that Beard described, were nevertheless economically distinct from critics of the document. The Federalists, he argued, were "cosmopolitan commercialists," eager to advance the economic development of the nation; the Antifederalists, by contrast, were "agrarian localists," fearful of centralization. Gordon Wood's important study, The Creation of the American Republic (1969), de-emphasized economic grievances but nevertheless suggested that profound social divisions found reflection in the debate over the state constitutions in the 1770s and 1780s; and that those same divisions helped shape the argument over the federal Constitution. The Federalists, he suggested, were largely traditional aristocrats. They had become deeply concerned by the instability of life under the Articles of Confederation and were particularly alarmed by the decline in popular deference toward social elites. The creation of the Constitution was part of a larger search to create a legitimate political leadership based on the existent social hierarchy; it reflected the efforts of elites to contain what they considered the excesses of democracy.

Other historians have stressed not so much class divisions or economic interests as regional or generational differences. H. James Henderson argued in 1974, in Party Politics in the Continental Congress, that the debate over the Constitution was part of a larger argument over the integration of different regions into a single nation. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick contended in a 1961 article ("The Founding Fathers," Political Science Quarterly) that the Federalists tended to be younger men than the Antifederalists and saw the development of a strong, united nation as the key to their own future. Pauline Maier, in The Old Revolutionaries (1980), offered portraits of early leaders of the resistance to Britain toward the end of their lives and argued that their passage from the scene made it possible for new ideas about the nature of the Revolutionideas that found reflection in the Constitutionto emerge among the leaders of the next generation.



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