From Many, One(1787-1797). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

From Many, One(1787-1797). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Treaty of Paris and the end of the Revolution.

Government of territories by the Northwest Ordinance.

Creation and ratification of the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights.

Hamilton vs. Jefferson.

 For all intents and purposes, the Battle of Yorktown ended the American Revolution. Yet triumph here did not mean total victory for the Americans. Sir Henry Clinton still occupied key cities, and Britain continued to skirmish in this hemisphere with France and Spain. But Yorktown marked the end of Britain’s will to fight its colonies, and it put America’s treaty negotiators, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) and John Jay (1745-1829), in a strong bargaining position. They understood that Britain was anxious to pry America free of the French sphere of influence; therefore, they correctly calculated that the British negotiators would be inclined to hammer out generous peace terms. Jay and Franklin obtained not only British recognition of American independence, but also the cession of the vast region from the Appalachians to the Mississippi River as part of the United States.

The treaty also made navigation of the Mississippi free to all signatories (France, Spain, and Holland), restored Florida to Spain and Senegal to France, and granted to the United States valuable fishing rights off Newfoundland. The definitive Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, and ratified by the Continental Congress on January 14, 1784.

Rope of Sand. Drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation became the first constitution of the United States. As the document was conceived by John Dickinson (1732-1808) in 1776, it provided for a strong national government. But the states clamored for more rights—especially the power of taxation—and Dickinson’s document was watered down by revision and amendment. Instead of a nation, the Articles created a “firm league of friendship” among 13 sovereign states. The Articles provided for a permanent national Congress, consisting of two to seven delegates from each state (yet each state was given one vote, regardless of its size or population), but did not establish an executive or judicial branch. Congress was charged with conducting foreign relations, declaring war, making peace, maintaining an army and navy, and so on, yet it was essentially powerless, since it was wholly at the mercy of the states. Congress could issue directives and pass laws, but it could not enforce them. The states either chose to comply or not. Miraculously, the Articles held the states together during the Revolution, but it soon became clear that the Articles had created no union, but what various lawmakers called “a rope of sand.”

Northwest Ordinance. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress enacted at least one momentous piece of legislation. The Northwest Ordinance (July 13, 1787) spelled out how territories and states were to be formed from the western lands won in the Revolution. What was then called the Northwest—the vast region bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and by the Great Lakes—was to be divided into three to five territories. Congress was empowered to appoint a governor, a secretary, and three judges to govern each territory. When the adult male population of a territory reached 5,000, elections would be held to form a territorial legislature and to send a nonvoting representative to Congress. When the territorial adult male population reached 60,000, a territory could write a constitution and apply for statehood. Whereas Britain had refused to make its American colonies full members of a national commonwealth, the Articles ensured that the frontier regions would never be mere colonies of the Tidewater, but equal partners in a common enterprise.

Of equal importance, the Ordinance was the first national stand against slavery. The law prohibited slavery in the territories and also guaranteed in them such basic rights as trial by jury and freedom of religion.

We the People… Despite the boldness of the Northwest Ordinance, the weakness of Congress under the Articles of Confederation was demonstrated almost daily. For example, the federal government could do nothing to help Massachusetts, which was faced with its own minor insurrection when a farmer named Daniel Shays led an attack on the state judicial system. Nor could the government intervene when Rhode Island issued a mountain of absolutely worthless paper money. In 1786, a convention was held in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss problems of interstate commerce. The delegates soon recognized that these issues were only part of a much larger issue that could be addressed by nothing less than a revision of the Articles. The Annapolis delegates called for a constitutional convention, which met in Philadelphia in May 1787. The task of revision grew into a project of building anew. By the end of May, the delegates agreed that what was required was a genuine national government, not a mere hopeful confederation of states.

Constitutional Convention. Fifty-five delegates convened in Philadelphia and elected George Washington as president of the convention. just as Washington had held the Continental Army together during the long trial of revolution, so now he managed the disputatious delegates with dignity and fairness.

The Virginia Plan. While some delegates held out for a simple revision of the Articles of Confederation, the Virginia delegation, led by Edmund Randolph, introduced the Virginia Plan, which proposed the creation of a central federal government consisting of a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and a judicial branch. The executive was to be elected by the members of the legislature, who, in turn, were elected by the citizens. The Virginia Plan further specified that representation in the bicameral legislature would be proportionate to state population—a provision that worried and angered representatives of the smaller states.

The New Jersey Plan. As debate raged over the Virginia Plan, William Paterson of New Jersey introduced a plan labeled with the name of his state. The New Jersey Plan retained most of the Articles of Confederation, and it gave all the states equal representation in the legislature, but it added a separate and independent Supreme Court. Now the debate became even more lengthy, tangled, and heated.

Connecticut Compromise. At last, Roger Sherman, delegate from Connecticut, proposed a compromise between the two plans. This so-called Great Compromise called for a bicameral legislature; however, the “upper house” of this body, the Senate, would provide each state with equal representation, whereas representation in the “lower house,” the House of Representatives, would provide representation proportionate to each state’s population. Moreover, the chief executive—the president—would not be elected by the representatives in the legislature, but by an Electoral College.

Three-Fifths of a Person. Any number of additional compromises remained to be made, but the stickiest involved apportioning representation in the House of Representatives. The more representatives a state could claim, the more influential it would be in the federal government. If representation was to be proportional to population, the South wanted its slaves counted as population. The North objected, arguing that the slaves should be excluded entirely from the calculation.

A peculiar-sounding solution was reached. Embodied in the Constitution as Article 1, Section 2, the “Three-Fifths Compromise” manages delicately to avoid the word slave altogether: “Representation and direct taxes will be apportioned among the several states according to respective numbers determined by adding to the whole number of free persons including those bound to service for a set number of years and excluding Indians not taxed three-fifths of all other persons.” For purposes of levying taxes and apportioning representatives, slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person.

Federalist Papers. With the compromises in place, William Johnson (secretary of the Convention), Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Rufus King, and Gouverneur Morris wrote the actual Constitution document, the product of three and a half months of debate. When 38 of the 55 Convention delegates approved the document, it was sent to Congress, Which submitted it to the states for ratification.

Thus began an uphill battle. Those who supported the proposed Constitution were called Federalists those opposed, Anti-Federalists. Although Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey instantly ratified the document, a total of nine states had to ratify in order for the Constitution to become law. The process was hotly contested in many states and nowhere more so than in the key states of Virginia and New York. To convince New York voters to ratify, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay collaborated on a series of essays collectively called The Federalist Papers, published during 1787-88 in various New York newspapers under the name “Publius.”

The Federalist Papers is a brilliant defense of the Constitution. The tenth essay penetrated to the very heart of the principal Anti-Federalist argument that the nation was simply too big to be regulated by a central government. Madison argued that precisely because the nation was so large, it would be most effectively governed by a strong central government, which would prevent any single special interest from taking control. Essays 15 through 22 deftly analyzed the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

Virginia ratified the Constitution by a close vote of 89 to 79, but only after the framers promised to add a “Bill of Rights” to satisfy the Anti-Federalist argument that the Constitution failed to address the rights of individuals. In the meantime, The Federalist Papers tipped the balance in New York—though just barely. The vote was 30 to 27.

Father of His Country. When New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1788, the document became law, but it was not put into effect officially until March 4, 1789. The next month, the U.S. Senate convened to count ballots cast by members of the Electoral. College for the first president of the United States. The result surprised no one. George Washington had been unanimously elected, and John Adams became his vice president. It was, in fact, with the understanding that Washington would be elected that the framers of the Constitution entrusted so much power to the chief executive. Washington had amply demonstrated not only a genius for leadership in commanding the Continental Army, but his skill as a statesman in presiding over the Constitutional Convention. Equally important, Washington had made manifest the character of a true republican. Too often, revolutions are followed by new tyrants and tyrannies. It was clear to Congress and the people of the United States that Washington was no tyrant.

The new president was inaugurated in New York City on April 30, 1789. Even with a Constitution in place, it was up to Washington to create much of the American government and in particular to shape the office of president. He quickly created key executive departments, naming Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Samuel Osgood as head of the Post Office, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General.

Washington became the model for the presidency, and the chief quality he introduced into the office was restraint. He avoided conflict with Congress, believing it was not the chief executive’s duty to propose legislation. He also opposed the formation of political parties—although, by the time of his second term, two opposing parties had, indeed, been formed: the conservative Federalists, headed by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, and the more liberal Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson. In a measure of Washington’s steadfast refusal to become a post-revolutionary tyrant, he declined to stand for a third term of office. The two-term presidency thereafter became an inviolate tradition until the twin crises of the Depression and World War II prompted the nation to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt to a third and a fourth term. (Although the nation was grateful to FDR, it also approved the 22nd amendment to the Constitution on February 26, 1951, restricting future presidents to no more than two elected terms.) Washington not only created the office of president, he signed key treaties with England and Spain and approved the creation of a national bank. He also proclaimed neutrality in what would become a long series of wars between England and France, and he successfully quelled a spasm of internal rebellion. More than anything else, this able executive possessed a character that helped establish the United States among the other nations of the world. The classical Romans reserved one title for their greatest leaders—Pater Patriae, Father of His Country—and almost immediately, a grateful nation accorded this epithet to George Washington.

Glorious Afterthought: The Bill of Rights. The framers of the Constitution had no desire to deny individual rights, but they believed it unnecessary to provide a special, separate guarantee of those rights because the Constitution states that the government is one of “enumerated powers” only. That is, the government can take no action or assume any authority except those explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This assumption, however, was not a sufficient safeguard for the Anti-Federalists—those who feared too strong a central government. In 1789, Congress began to consider amending the new Constitution to guarantee, in specific terms, a set of inalienable individual rights. James Madison spearheaded the effort, carefully examining, weighing, and synthesizing the rights already included in several state constitutions, especially the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been adopted in 1776.

Ultimately ratified on December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights is a set of the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

The first protects freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right of popular assembly for the purpose of petition for redress of grievances.

The second amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, and the third severely limits the quartering of soldiers in private homes.

The fourth amendment forbids unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to be specific (not blanket documents) and to be issued only upon probable cause.

The fifth amendment mandates grand jury indictments in major criminal prosecutions, prohibits “double jeopardy” (being tried more than once on the same charge), and guarantees that no one need testify against himself or herself. The amendment also forbids taking private property for public use without just compensation and prohibits deprivation of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

The sixth amendment guarantees a speedy public trial by jury. It specifies that the accused shall be fully informed of the accusation, shall be confronted with the witnesses against him or her, shall have the power to subpoena witnesses for his or her defense, and shall have, access to legal counsel.

The seventh amendment guarantees jury trials in civil cases, and the eighth prohibits excessive bail, unreasonable fines, and “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The ninth and tenth amendments are special: The ninth explicitly provides that the enumeration of rights in the Constitution does not deny others retained by the people. The tenth expresses the “doctrine of reserved powers”: all powers not delegated to the United States are reserved to the states or the people.

Distilled within the Bill of Rights is what most people would consider the very essence of all that is most valuable in the idea of the United States of America.

Secretary Hamilton. Among the most influential members of Washington’s cabinet was Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. He not only developed a strong financial program for the infant nation but also used finance to unify the United States and to elevate federal authority over that of the states. He proposed a plan whereby the federal government would assume all debts incurred by the several states during the Revolution and pay them at par value rather than at the reduced rates some states had already negotiated on their own. Hamilton reasoned that this policy would demonstrate the nation’s financial responsibility and ultimately improve its standing among other nations and its ability to conduct commerce. Even more important, the plan would demonstrate to the world that the federal government, not the individual states, was the responsible contracting party in all international commerce and foreign affairs. Despite great resistance from the Southern states, Hamilton’s plan was enacted by Congress.

Equally controversial was Hamilton’s proposal to create the Bank of the United States. Fearing that this plan would concentrate far too much-power in the central government, Thomas Jefferson led the opposition against the proposal within Washington’s cabinet. He argued that the bank was unconstitutional, because the tenth amendment granted to the states and the people rights and powers not explicitly given to the United States. If this provision was breached by the creation of the bank, what other powers would the federal government usurp?

Jefferson’s view of the Constitution became known as “strict construction.” Hamilton, in contrast, supported the constitutional view that became known as “loose construction,” arguing in support of it the doctrine of “implied powers.” Hamilton declared that the framers of the Constitution could not possibly have anticipated all eventualities and contingencies; therefore, it is impossible to list all the powers the federal government may assume. In the case of the Bank of the United States, Hamilton held, the Constitution does grant the federal government the power to tax, and taxation implies the creation of a place to keep the revenue collected—namely, a bank.

The disagreement between Jefferson and Hamilton formed the foundation of the American two-party political system, with either party more or less defined and distinguished by its view of the nature of the federal government. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party believed in a restrained central government that allowed a great measure of power to individuals and states; Hamilton’s Federalist party stood for a relatively powerful and active central government, which claimed for itself the lion’s share of authority. The dynamic, shifting balance between these two poles of opinion has defined the lively American political scene ever since the days of the first president. Over the years, the running dialogue has sometimes erupted into ugly argument and even terrible violence—as in the Civil War. Yet the two-party system has also insured a government and society that is never stagnant and always open to change and challenge.

The Least You Need to Know

The key to the Constitution is a strong central government that is itself governed by a system of checks and balances.

 In addition to the nation’s first president, George Washington, the defining personalities of the early republic were Thomas Jefferson (who favored the forces of liberal democracy) and Alexander Hamilton (who favored a powerful central government).

Word for the Day. The eagle on the Great Seal of the United States of America holds in its beak a ribbon on which the Latin motto e pluribus unum is inscribed. The words mean “from many, one” and express the formidable nature of the task that faced the founding fathers: to forge a single nation from several states and many individuals. The motto was chosen by a committee appointed by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and was officially adopted on June 20, 1782. The phrase is a quotation from “Moretum” by the Roman poet Vergil (70-19 B.C.) but was borrowed more immediately from Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular British periodical on whose cover the phrase had appeared for many years.

Main Event. In August 1786, armed mobs of beleaguered farmers began forcing the closure of courts in Massachusetts’s frontier counties. A charismatic Revolutionary War veteran, Daniel Shays (ca. 1747-1825), emerged as the leader of what came to be called Shays’s Rebellion. It was not until January 25, 1787, that a state militia force was able to disperse rebels in Springfield.

Word for the Day. Bicameral literally means “two-chambered” and refers to a type of legislature consisting of two groups of representatives. In the case of the British Parliament, the two houses are the House of Lords and the House of Commons; in the case of the U.S. Congress, they are the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Word for the Day. The framers of the Constitution wanted to avoid election of the president directly by the people. As ultimately provided in the Constitution, each state has as many electors as it has senators and representatives combined. Together, the electors constitute the Electoral College. Originally, the electors were voted into office by the state legislatures. This evolved into election by the people. (Today, we may believe that, every fourth November, we are voting for a president, but actually, we are voting for electors pledged to cast their votes for a particular candidate.)

Stats. Of the 85 Federalist essays, most scholars agree that Hamilton wrote 52, Madison 28, and Jay 5.

Real Life. George Washington (1732-99) was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to a prosperous planter. After his father died in 1743, he was raised by his half-brother Lawrence at Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s Potomac River plantation. Washington became a surveyor—a powerful profession in colonial America—and helped lay out Belhaven, Virginia (now Alexandria). Following the death of his half-brother, Washington inherited Mount Vernon.

He left that beloved home to serve in the French and Indian War, returning afterward to Mount Vernon and service in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.

Washington made a happy—and opportune—marriage to a young and wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis and by 1769 was a prominent leader of Virginia’s opposition to Britain’s oppressive colonial policies. During 1774-75, Washington was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress, and in June 17 75 was unanimously chosen as commander in chief of the Continental forces, which he led brilliantly.

After the war, Washington headed the Virginia delegation to the Constitutional Convention and was unanimously elected presiding officer. Upon ratification of the Constitution, he was unanimously elected president in 1789 and was reelected in 1792. In March 1797, when Washington left office, he left a well-established government and a stable financial system.

Unfortunately, the Father of His Country had little time to enjoy retirement at his beloved Mount Vernon. In mid-December 1799, he fell ill with acute laryngitis, which rapidly worsened. He died on December 14.

Main Event. In 1791, Congress levied a federal tax on corn liquor. In frontier Pennsylvania, farmers distilled whiskey to use up surplus corn, and the product became for them a form of currency. Farmers protested and often refused to pay the tax. In 1794, President Washington sent collectors, who were met by armed resistance in what constituted the first serious test of the new U.S. government’s ability to enforce a federal law. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton advised the president to call out the militia. In a bold exercise of federal authority, Washington did just that, and the Whiskey Rebellion collapsed.

A Union victory, McClellan lost more troops than Lee: 12,000 troops versus 10,000.


Handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form…


"We soon fell into a conversation about old army times … Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting."


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