The Constitution and the New Republic p.159-178

Chapter 6 Study Guide

After the Revolutionary War, the Americans began shaping their society to the ideals and principles of the Revolution itself. These ideals were intellectual notions, not tangible realities. They provided a visionary basis for a more nearly perfect society, but they did not automatically make such a society a reality. Therefore, the ideals had to be defined, and such definitions are born out of the frame of reference the perceptions and prejudices of a people existing at a particular historical time and place.

The ideal of building a republican society and the reality of disagreement over how to define republicanism; the ideal of a virtuous republic and the reality of disagreement over what virtue means; the ideal of literature, painting, and architecture instilling virtue, and the reality that some perceive those arts as luxuries to be avoided. Then, after dealing with educational reform, we turn to the role of women in post revolutionary America and the interaction of the ideal of equality with the reality of sexism. From this interaction there emerged a perception that denied women a legitimate power-sharing role and stressed the differences between men and women. According to this view, men and women contributed to a republican society equally but in different ways. Moreover, it was through this perception that Americans were able to resolve the conflict between the two most influential strands of republican thought. 

Concurrent with the abolition of slavery and the dramatic growth of the free black population in the North, economic, political, and societal realities were imposed on the revolutionary ideal of equality. Consequently, a  formal racist theory developed in the United States, with race replacing enslavement as the determinant of the status of blacks. In designing republican governments, the ideal called for written constitutions designed to prevent tyranny by properly distributing and limiting governmental power. At first it seemed that the ideal could be achieved by concentrating power in the hands of the legislature, but this led to the reality of weak political units. From this reality new ideas emerged, such as the concept of a balance of power among three coequal branches of government.

In the Confederation Congress, the ideal of weak central government was juxtaposed against the reality of monetary and diplomatic problems. The interaction of the two produced political impotence against which even the one accomplishment of the Congress, the Northwest Ordinances, must be judged.

This impotence, further emphasized symbolically by Shays's Rebellion, led to the Constitutional Convention and the writing of the Constitution. A new realism, evident in the debates among the delegates and in the compromises they reached, was present at this convention. But idealism was not dead. The delegates retained the ideal of the sovereignty of the people and embodied that ideal in the opening words of the document they wrote: We the people of the United States. They also accepted new ideals that had emerged from experience, and these became the keys to the Constitution. However, a new realism tempered these ideals, and that, too, is apparent in the first sentence of the Constitution: in order to form a more perfect union. This phrase suggests the delegates realization that they had not created the perfect society a realism also seen in the ratification debates.

In 1790, as Americans faced the task of putting their new government into operation, they optimistically expected a future of prosperity, expansion, national unity, and independence from Europe. In each of these areas, they experienced a measure of disappointment. Congress was able to handle the immediate problems facing the country, but as it tried to deal with the nation's financial problems, it faced the dilemma of defining the role of government in a republican society. Supporters of self-sacrificing republicanism, such as John Adams, and of economic republicanism, such as Alexander Hamilton, although seemingly at odds, became allies because of their shared belief in a strong central government. Besides, both groups were nationalist in their outlook, believing that state interests and state power should be subordinated to national interests. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams, who were Federalists, accepted this definition of the role of government.

The Republicans, under the leadership of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, emerged in opposition to this nationalist republican philosophy. Republicans took the view that the central government should have limited power, and they moved toward the democratic definition of republicanism. Believing that the elite could not speak for the masses, they opposed Hamilton's economic program and expressed a strict-constructionist view of the Constitution. Hamilton and Washington, in turn, advocated a broad interpretation of the Constitution.

The disagreement between the two groups over domestic policy soon spread to foreign policy, provoking more tension. Each group became convinced that the other was out to destroy the republic. Acting on this belief, the Federalists enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence the Republicans. The Republicans responded with an extreme states rights philosophy contained in the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. In the midst of this disunity, the Federalists split over the republic's relations with France. This split and the reaction of the country to the Alien and Sedition Acts led to Republican triumph in the election of 1800.

The American Republic: The States, 1776-1790

1768 American Philosophical Society founded in Philadelphia.

1776-80 Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense. John Adams publishes Thoughts on Government. States adopt new constitutions.

1776 Pennsylvania constitution establishes the "Pennsylvania model."
George Mason drafts the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

1780 Massachusetts constitution establishes the "Massachusetts model."

1780-1804 Northern states begin program of gradual emancipation of slaves.

1782 Bank of North America is incorporated.

1784 The Empress of China leaves New York to trade with China.

1785 Thomas Jefferson publishes Notes on the State of Virginia.

1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom guarantees religious freedom.

1790 Judith Sargeant Murray publishes "On the Equality of the Sexes."

The American Republic: The Nation, 1776-1790

1777 Congress approves John Dickinson's draft of the Articles of Confederation.

1777-81 The thirteen states take four years to ratify the Articles.

1785 The Northwest Ordinance of 1785 provides for the survey and sale of western land.

1786 Nationalists advocate a stronger central government at the Annapolis Convention.

1786-87 Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts dramatizes weaknesses of the Confederation.

1787 The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provides government and eventual statehood for western territories. The Philadelphia Convention produces a new Constitution.

1787-88 The Constitution takes effect after ratification by three-fourths (nine) of the states.

Establishing the New Nation 1789-1800

1788 George Washington is elected the first president of the United States.

1789 Washington takes office in New York City. Congress creates a cabinet with three departments. The Judiciary Act of 1789 creates the judicial branch of government. French Revolution threatens an international war in Europe and North America.

1789-90 North Carolina and Rhode Island ratify the Constitution.

1790-91 Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton issues four economic reports to Congress.

1790 Compromise moves national capital southward.

1791 The states ratify the Bill of Rights.

1792 George Washington reelected as president.

1793 Washington issues the Proclamation of Neutrality. Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin. Samuel Slater builds a spinning mill at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. France opens its empire to American trade.

1794 Westerners protest Hamilton's excise taxes in the Whiskey Rebellion.
Western Indian tribes defeated at Battle of Fallen Timbers.

1795 Jay's Treaty with England. Pinckney's Treaty with Spain. Treaty of Greenville with western Indian tribes.

1796 John Adams defeats Thomas Jefferson in presidential election.

1797 Spain opens its empire to American trade.

1798 Undeclared war with France. Congress creates Department of the Navy.
Alien and Sedition Acts target antiwar dissent. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson write the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.

1800 Jefferson defeats Adams in presidential election, the "Revolution of 1800."

Globalization: America now had to deal with politics and economics in the Atlantic world as an independent nation. As both France and England vied for hegemony, the United States wished to engage in commerce and trade while remaining neutral in political affairs.

Politics and Citizenship: This chapter focuses on the creation of the republic based on the Constitution. The intent of the founders was often changed by others in the early years, but those patterns set lasting precedents. A major development was the formation of political parties whose basic ideologies animate our political system today.

War and Diplomacy: Neither Europe nor America had unabashed confidence that the United States would last, and a major task of the new government was to show the world that the American republic was viable. Despite efforts to steer clear of European politics it proved impossible. Conflicts with both Britain and France arose during Federalist rule, and treaties with foreign nations sometimes led to conflict at home between regions. 

Digital History 

The Critical Period: America in the 1780s

The Federalist Era 1790s

The United States was the first modern nation to win independence through a successful revolution against colonial rule. It set a precedent that was followed in the 19th century by nations across Latin America and in the 20th century by nations in Asia and Africa. Like those other countries, the United States faced severe political, economic, and foreign policy problems after achieving independence. In this section you will learn about how the United States addressed those problems and established a stable political and economic system. The United States faced severe economic and foreign policy problems. A huge debt remained from the Revolution; paper money issued during and after the war was worthless; and Britain and Spain occupied territory claimed by the United States. The new nation lacked the machinery of government. It consisted of nothing more than 75 post offices, a large debt, a small number of unpaid clerks, and an army consisting of just 672 soldiers. There was no federal court system, no navy, and no system for collecting taxes. You will learn about the creation of new state governments and a new federal government based on the principles of popular sovereignty, rule of law, and legislation by elected representatives. You will also learn about the internal difficulties besetting the new republic, such as financing the war, the threat of a military coup, a hard-hitting economic depression, and popular demands for tax relief. In addition, you will read about efforts to expand freedom of religion, to increase women's educational opportunities, and to address the problem of slavery.

In 1789, it was an open question whether the Constitution was a workable plan of government. It was unclear whether the new nation could establish a strong national government, a vigorous economy, or win the respect of foreign nations. For a decade, the new nation battled threats to its existence, including serious disagreements over domestic and foreign policy and foreign interference with American shipping and commerce.

During the first 12 years under the new Constitution, the Federalists established a strong and vigorous national government. Alexander Hamilton's economic program attracted foreign investment and stimulated economic growth. The creation of political parties was an unexpected development that involved the voting population in politics. Presidents George Washington and John Adams succeeded in keeping the nation free from foreign entanglements during the nation's first crucial years. Despite bitter party battles, threats of secession, and foreign interference with American shipping and commerce, the new nation had overcome every obstacle it had faced.

Biography of America

A New System of Government (series 6)

After the War for Independence, the struggle for a new system of government begins. Professor Maier looks at the creation of the Constitution of the United States. The Republic survives a series of threats to its union, and the program ends with the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the Fourth of July, 1826. 

Lecture Outlines

Articles of Confederation

Constitutional Development

Miracle at Philadelphia 1787

The Federalist Era 1789-1801