You will choose 2 of the 4 questions to answer. Your answers should be thoughtful, in depth and fully explain your understanding of the information. Remember, this is your opportunity to show what you know and understand. Make sure to give examples and evidence from the textbook and readings to justify or explain your answers. Your answers should be about 150-200 each. If your answer is less than 150 words or does not fully answer the question, points will be taken off.
1. What were the major issues of the Articles of Confederation? Why was it unsuccessful at governing the United States?
2. What were the arguments for and against the Constitution? Why did the Federalists think it was necessary and why did the Anti-Federalists not support it? How did the Federalists eventually win support for the Constitution?
* Make sure your posts are in your own words. I already know what the texts say. I am not just looking for facts. I want your own insights and connections into the topic as well. Simply regurgitating facts or writing what the texts say does not demonstrate your knowledge or understanding of the topics.
THE CONSTITUTION AND THE NEW REPUBLIC
FRAMING A NEW GOVERNMENT
ADOPTION AND ADAPTATION
FEDERALISTS AND REPUBLICANS
ESTABLISHING NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY
THE DOWNFALL OF THE FEDERALISTS
1. What were the most important questions debated at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and how were they resolved?
2. What were the main tenets of the Federalist and Antifederalist arguments on ratification of the Constitution?
3. What were the origins of America’s “first party system”?
BY THE LATE 1780s, many Americans had grown dissatisfied with the Confederation. It was, they believed, ridden with factions, unable to deal effectively with economic problems, and frighteningly powerless in the face of Shays’s Rebellion. A decade earlier, Americans had deliberately avoided creating a strong national government, fearing it would encroach on the sovereignty of the individual states. Now they reconsidered.
In the summer of 1787, delegates from every state except Rhode Island gathered in Philadelphia to produce a new governing document for the country. Behind closed doors, disagreements flared over how to represent the states in a new Congress, how to treat the matter of slavery, how to balance individual rights and the common good, and perhaps above all, how to share power between the federal government and the states and mitigate against dangerous aggregations of authority.
By September, the delegates had produced a new constitution that created a much more powerful government with three independent branches. The document then came in for intense debate while the states considered ratification. “Federalists” defended the Constitution and thought it properly checked the power of the masses; “Antifederalists” argued it give too much power to the federal government and worried about the rights of citizens. In 1788, the last few states to decide voted to ratify, with assurances that amendments would be added to guarantee individual rights. But the adoption of the Constitution did not complete the creation of the republic, for although most people came to agree that the Constitution should guide American governance, they often disagreed on what that document meant.
The Confederation Congress had become so unpopular and ineffectual by the mid-1780s that it began to lead an almost waiflike existence. In 1783, its members timidly withdrew from Philadelphia to escape army veterans demanding their back pay. They took refuge for a while in Princeton, New Jersey, then moved on to Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1785 settled in New York. Delegates were often scarce. Only with great difficulty could Congress produce a quorum to ratify the treaty with Great Britain, ending the Revolutionary War.
Advocates of Reform
In the 1780s, some of the wealthiest and most powerful groups in the population began to clamor for a stronger national government. By 1786, such demands had grown so intense that even defenders of the existing system reluctantly agreed that the government needed strengthening at its weakest point—its lack of power to tax.
The most effective advocate of a stronger national government was
, a successful New York lawyer and illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant in the West Indies. Hamilton now called for a national convention to overhaul the Articles of Confederation. He found an important Page 136ally in James Madison of Virginia, who persuaded the Virginia legislature to convene an interstate conference on commercial questions. Only five states sent delegates to the meeting, which took place at Annapolis in 1786, but the conference approved a proposal by Hamilton for a convention of special delegates from all the states to meet in Philadelphia the next year.
At first there seemed little reason to believe the Philadelphia convention would attract any more delegates than had the Annapolis meeting. Then, early in 1787, the news of Shays’s Rebellion spread throughout the nation, alarming many previously apathetic leaders, including George Washington, who promptly made plans to travel to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. Washington’s support gave the meeting wide credibility.
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. These “Founding Fathers,” as they became known much later, averaged forty-four years in age and were well educated by the standards of their time. Most were wealthy property owners, and many feared what one of them called the “turbulence and follies” of democracy. Yet all retained the revolutionary suspicion of concentrated power.
The convention unanimously chose Washington to preside over its sessions and then closed it to the public and press. It then ruled that each state delegation would have a single vote and that major decisions would require not unanimity, as they did in Congress, but a simple majority. Almost all the delegates agreed that the United States needed a stronger central government. But there agreement ended.
Virginia, the most populous state, sent a well-prepared delegation to Philadelphia led by James Madison, who had devised in some detail a plan for a new “national” government. The Virginia Plan shaped the agenda of the convention from the moment Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the debate by proposing that “a national government ought to be established, consisting of a supreme Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary.” Even that brief description outlined a government very different from the Confederation. But the delegates were so committed to fundamental reform that they approved the resolution after only brief debate.
There was less agreement about the details of Madison’s
. It called for a national legislature of two houses, with states represented in both bodies in proportion to their population. Smaller states, quite predictably, raised immediate objections. William Paterson of New Jersey offered an alternative (the
New Jersey Plan
) that would retain the essence of the Confederation with its one-house legislature in which all states had equal representation. It would, however, give Congress expanded powers to tax and to regulate commerce. The convention rejected Paterson’s proposal, but supporters of the Virginia Plan now realized they would have to make concessions to the smaller states. They agreed to permit members of the upper house (what became the Senate) to be elected by state legislatures, not the general voting public.
Many questions remained unresolved. Among the most important was the question of slavery. There was no serious discussion of abolishing slavery during the convention. But other issues were debated heatedly. Would slaves be counted as part of the population in determining representation in Congress? Or would they be considered property, not entitled to representation? Delegates from the states with large slave populations wanted to have it both ways. They argued that slaves should be considered persons in determining representation but as property if the new government levied taxes on the states on the basis of Page 137population. Representatives from states where slavery had disappeared or was expected to disappear argued the opposite, that slaves should be included in calculating taxation but not representation.
The delegates bickered for weeks. By the end of June, with both temperature and tempers rising, the convention seemed in danger of collapsing. Finally, on July 2, the convention created a “grand committee,” comprised of one delegate from each state, which produced a proposal that became the basis of the “Great Compromise.” It called for a two-house legislature. In the lower House of Representatives, the states would be represented on the basis of population. Each slave would be counted as three-fifths of a free person in determining the basis for both representation and direct taxation. In the upper Senate the states would be represented equally with two members apiece. On July 16, 1787, the convention voted to accept the compromise.
In the next few weeks, the convention agreed to another important compromise. To placate southern delegates, who feared the new government would interfere with slavery, the convention agreed to bar the new government from stopping the slave trade for twenty years.
Some significant issues remained unaddressed. The
provided no definition of citizenship. Nor did it resolve the status of Native American tribes. Most important to many Americans was the absence of a list of individual rights, which would restrain the powers of the national government. 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 people contributed to the creation of the American Constitution, but the most important person in the process was
. Madison had devised the Virginia Plan, and he did most of the drafting of the Constitution itself. Madison’s most important achievement, however, was in helping resolve two important philosophical questions: the question of sovereignty and the question of limiting power. (For historians’ evolving views on the Constitution’s purpose, see “
Debating the Past: The Meaning of the Constitution.
DEBATING THE PAST
The Meaning of the Constitution
The Constitution of the United States inspired debate from the moment it was drafted. Some argue that the Constitution is a flexible document intended to evolve in response to society’s evolution. Others counter that it has a fixed meaning, rooted in the “original intent” of the framers, and that to move beyond that is to deny its value.
Historians, too, disagree about why the Constitution was written and what it meant. To some scholars, the creation of the federal system was an effort to preserve the ideals of the Revolution and to create a strong national government capable of exercising real authority. To others, the Constitution was an effort to protect the economic interests of existing elites, even at the cost of betraying the principles of the Revolution. And to still others, the Constitution was designed to protect individual freedom and to limit the power of the federal government.
The first influential exponent of the heroic view of the Constitution as the culmination of the Revolution was John Fiske, whose book The Critical Period of American History (1888) painted a grim picture of political life under the Articles of Confederation. Many problems, including economic difficulties, the weakness and ineptitude of the national government, threats from abroad, interstate jealousies, and widespread lawlessness, beset the new nation. Fiske argued that only the timely adoption of the Constitution saved the young republic from disaster.
In An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), Charles A. Beard presented a powerful challenge to Fiske’s view. According to Beard, the 1780s had been a “critical period” primarily for 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 debt—much 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.
A series of powerful challenges to Beard’s thesis emerged in the 1950s. The Constitution, many scholars now began to argue, was not an effort to preserve property but an enlightened effort to ensure stability and order. 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. Examining the debate between the Federalists and the Antifederalists, Forrest McDonald, in We the People (1958), also concluded that there was no consistent relationship between wealth and property and support for the Constitution. Instead, opinion on the new system was far more likely to reflect local and regional interests. These challenges greatly weakened Beard’s argument. Few historians any longer accept his thesis without reservation.
In the 1960s, scholars began again to revive an economic interpretation of the Constitution—one that differed from Beard’s but nevertheless emphasized social and economic factors as motives for supporting the federal system. Jackson Turner Main argued in The Anti-federalists (1961) that supporters of the Constitution were “cosmopolitan commercialists,” eager to advance the economic development of the nation; the Antifederalists, by contrast, were “agrarian localists,” fearful of centralization. Gordon Wood, in The Creation of the American Republic (1969), suggested that the debate over the state constitutions in the 1770s and 1780s reflected profound social divisions and that those same divisions helped shape the argument over the federal Constitution. The Federalists, Wood suggested, were largely traditional aristocrats who 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 existing social hierarchy. It reflected the efforts of elites to contain what they considered the excesses of democracy.
More recently, historians have continued to examine the question of “intent.” Did the framers intend a strong, centralized political system; or did they intend to create a decentralized system with a heavy emphasis on individual rights? The answer, according to Jack Rakove in Original Meanings (1996), and Revolutionaries (2010), is both—and many other things as well. The Constitution, he argues, was the result of a long and vigorous debate through which the views of many different groups found their way into the document. James Madison, generally known as the father of the Constitution, was a strong nationalist, as was Alexander Hamilton. They believed that only a powerful central government could preserve stability in a large nation, and they saw the Constitution as a way to protect order and property and defend the nation against the dangers of too much liberty. But if Madison and Hamilton feared too much liberty, they also feared too little. And that made them receptive to the demands of the Antifederalists for protections of individual rights, which culminated in the Bill of Rights. The very “middling sorts” who had exercised more and more power since 1776, scaring many conservative founders, also helped push for such citizen rights, Woody Holton argues in Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007).
The framers differed as well in their views of the proper relationship between the federal government and the state governments. Madison favored unquestioned federal supremacy, while many others, who wanted to preserve the rights of the states, saw in the federal system—and in its division of sovereignty among different levels and branches of government—a guarantee against too much national power. The Constitution is not, Rakove argues, “infinitely malleable.” But neither does it have a fixed meaning that can be an inflexible guide to how we interpret it today.
(Source: National Archives and Records Administration)
UNDERSTAND, ANALYZE, & EVALUATE
1. Is the Constitution a conservative, liberal, or radical document?
2. Did the framers consider the Constitution something “finished” (with the exception of constitutional amendments), or did they consider it a document that would evolve in response to changes in society over time?
3. Which parts of the Constitution suggest that the framers’ intent was to create a strong, centralized political system? Which parts suggest that the framers’ intent was to create a decentralized system with heavy emphasis on individual rights?
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 resolution of the problem of sovereignty made possible one of the distinctive features of the Constitution—its
, or division of powers between the national and state governments. The Constitution and the government it created were to be the “supreme law” of the land. At the same time, however, the Constitution left important powers in the hands of the states.
In addition to addressing the question of sovereignty, the writers of the Constitution resolved to spread authority over several centers of power. Drawing from the ideas of the French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, the framers endeavored to prevent any single group, or tyrannical individual, from dominating the government. The Constitution provided for a
separation of powers
within the government, managed by a system of
checks and balances
among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The forces within the Page 140government would constantly check one another. Congress would have two chambers, each constraining 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. The federal courts would be protected from both the executive and the legislature, because judges would serve for life.
The “federal” structure of the government was designed to protect the United States from the kind of despotism that Americans believed had emerged in Britain. Framers of the Constitution wanted a stronger central government, but one not too strong. Likewise, they wanted a government representative of and answerable to the popular will, but not too much so. Many of them harbored limited trust in the abilities of citizens to put the common good before their individual needs, and pointed to Shays’s Rebellion as recent evidence of popular power run amok. Thus in the new government, only the members of the House of Representatives would be elected directly by the people. Senators would be chosen by state legislatures. The president would be chosen by an electoral college, with each state promoting electors to that body however it saw fit but equal to the total number of the state’s members of Congress (Senate plus House). No requirement was written into the Constitution that these electors cast their ballots for president and vice president according to the popular will in their states, though that later became the accepted practice when states began recording a popular vote. Federal judges would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
On September 17, 1787, thirty-nine delegates signed the Constitution. It was a document that established a democratic republic governed by white people, mostly white men. The framers did not explicitly define
—the legal recognition of a person’s inclusion in a body politic through the granting of rights and privileges—but common wisdom and jurisprudence held that birth in the United States and whiteness made one a citizen. Congress made this explicit for immigrants with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which helped legalize the stream of newcomers and allowed them to become citizens—provided they were “free white person[s].”
States were left to adjudicate the particulars of citizenship and suffrage rights, but in general they reserved that status for white people and those privileges for white male property owners. New Jersey allowed propertied white women to vote, but brought its suffrage laws into line with those of the other (male suffrage only) states in 1807. A few states would extend citizenship and suffrage rights to free blacks, and free blacks in South Carolina and North Carolina petitioned their state legislature and the U.S. Congress in 1791 and 1797, respectively, for some of the protections afforded white people by the Constitution. Both met rejection, and indeed, black citizenship at the state level was not the norm. They were not, one southern official noted, “constituent members of our society.”
Thomas Jefferson worried about excluding “a whole race of men” from the natural rights he had done much to promote. But he could never accept the idea that black men and women could attain the level of knowledge and intelligence of white people, despite an intimate relationship with a black woman, Sally Hemings, who was enslaved on Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia. He lived with her after the death of his wife and fathered several of her children, yet he did not change his position on slavery. Unlike George Washington, who freed his slaves after his death, Jefferson (deeply in debt) required his heirs to sell his slaves upon his death, after liberating the Hemings family.
Jefferson did profess to believe Native Americans could be taught the ways of “civilization,” taught to live as white Americans did. And indigenous groups had at least the semblance of a legal status within the nation, through treaties that assured them of land possession. But most of these treaties did not survive for long, and native groups found Page 141themselves driven farther and farther west without very much of the protection the government had promised. Efforts to teach Anglo farming methods, whereby men did the farming and women cared for the home, clashed with Native American practices and traditions.
Thus indigenous groups, African Americans, and women enjoyed virtually none of the citizenship rights offered to the white population. It was not until 1868 that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed people of color born in the United States the status, if not yet the privileges, of citizenship. Indians were not granted birthright citizenship in the United States until the 1920s. And though some states passed woman suffrage laws in the late nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1920 that women secured ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving them the ballot throughout the nation.
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 feared that the Constitution would not be ratified under the rules of the Articles of Confederation, which required unanimous approval by the state legislatures. So the convention changed the rules, proposing that the new government would come into being when nine of the thirteen states ratified the Constitution and recommending that state conventions, not state legislatures, be called to ratify it.
Federalists and Antifederalists
The Congress in New York accepted the convention’s work and submitted it to the states for approval. All the state legislatures except Rhode Island elected delegates to ratifying conventions, most of which began meeting in early 1788. Even before the ratifying conventions convened, however, a great national debate on the new Constitution had begun.
Supporters of the Constitution had a number of advantages. Better organized than their opponents, they seized an appealing label for themselves:
—a term that opponents of centralization had once used to describe themselves—thus implying that they were less committed to a “nationalist” government than in fact they were. In addition, the Federalists had the support of not only the two most eminent men in America, Ben Franklin and George Washington, but also the ablest political philosophers of their time: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Under the joint pseudonym Publius, these three men wrote a series of essays, widely published in newspapers throughout the nation, explaining the meaning and virtues of the Constitution. The essays were later gathered together and published as a book known today as
The Federalist Papers
. In just one example, the papers defended the controversial “necessary and proper” clause of the Constitution, an important measure that gave Congress sweeping authority to make laws “necessary and proper” to executing the federal government’s authority. The states, not Congress, had been given that sort of incidental power by the outgoing Articles of Confederation.
The Federalists called their critics “
,” suggesting that their rivals had nothing to offer except opposition. But the Antifederalists, too, led by such distinguished revolutionary leaders as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, had serious arguments. They were, they believed, the defenders of the true principles of the Revolution. They believed that the Constitution would increase taxes, weaken the states, wield dictatorial powers, favor the “well-born” overPage 142 the common people, and abolish individual liberty. Antifederalists found the necessary and proper clause a particularly frightening transfer of powers not expressly “delegated” by the Constitution from the states to the federal government. But their biggest complaint was that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights. Only by enumerating the natural rights of the people, they argued, could there be any certainty that those rights would be protected.
Despite the efforts of the Antifederalists, ratification proceeded quickly during the winter of 1787–1788. The Delaware convention, the first to act, ratified the Constitution unanimously, as did the New Jersey and Georgia conventions. And in June 1788, New Hampshire, the critical ninth state, ratified the document. It was now theoretically possible for the Constitution to go into effect. But a new government could not hope to succeed without Virginia and New York, the largest states, whose conventions remained closely divided. By the end of June, first Virginia and then New York consented to the Constitution by narrow margins, and on the assumption that a bill of rights would be added in the form of amendments to the Constitution. North Carolina’s convention adjourned without taking action, waiting to see what happened with the amendments. Rhode Island, controlled by staunch opponents of centralized government, did not even consider ratification.
Completing the Structure
The first elections under the Constitution were held in the early months of 1789. There was never any 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. (
, a leading Federalist, became vice Page 143president.) After a journey from his estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia, marked by elaborate celebrations along the way, Washington was inaugurated in New York on April 30, 1789.
GEORGE WASHINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON Washington was in his first term as president in 1790 when an anonymous folk artist painted this view of his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Washington appears in uniform, along with members of his family, on the lawn. After he retired from office in 1797, Washington returned happily to his plantation and spent the two years before his death in 1799 “amusing myself in agricultural and rural pursuits.” He also played host to an endless stream of visitors from throughout the country and Europe.
(Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington)
The first Congress served in many ways as a continuation of the Constitutional Convention. Its most important task was drafting a bill of rights. By early 1789, even Madison had come to agree that some sort of bill of rights would be essential to legitimize the new government. On September 25, 1789, Congress approved twelve amendments, ten of which were ratified by the states by the end of 1791. These first ten amendments to the Constitution comprise what we know as the
Bill of Rights
. Nine of them placed limitations on the new government by forbidding it to infringe on certain fundamental rights: freedom of religion, speech, and the press, immunity from arbitrary arrest, trial by jury, and others.
The Bill of Rights had very specific terms. Provisions for the judiciary branch were more vague. The Constitution …
Presidential Profile: John Adams
Portrait of John Adams
By White House Historical Association, adapted by Newsela staff
Educated and thoughtful, John Adams was probably more remarkable as a political philosopher than as an actual politician. “People and nations are forged in the fires of adversity,” he said, doubtless thinking of his own as well as the American experience.
Early Diplomatic Years
Adams was born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1735. A Harvard-educated lawyer — he was admitted at age 16 — he identified himself early on with the patriot cause. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses and played a major role in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
During the Revolutionary War, Adams served in France and Holland in diplomatic roles, and negotiated a treaty of peace with the new United States. From 1785 to 1788 he was America’s representative to the Court of St. James’s in England. He returned to be elected vice president under George Washington. Adams’ two terms as vice president were frustrating for a man of his energy, brains and ego who wanted a more active role in government.
He complained to his wife, Abigail, “My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.”
The Adams Administration’s Challenges
When Adams became president, the war between the French and British was causing great difficulties for the United States and intense partisanship among disputing groups within the nation. Adams’ administration focused on France, where the Directory, a selection of five people from groups then ruling France, had refused to receive the American envoy and had suspended commercial relations with America.
Adams sent three commissioners to France, but word came back that the French Foreign Minister Talleyrand and the Directory had refused to discuss dealing with them. Instead, they were met by three agents of the foreign minister, who they referred to in reports not by name, but as X, Y and Z. The agents said that France would not discuss dealing with them unless they would first pay a large bribe. Adams reported the insult to Congress, and the Senate printed the correspondence, in which the Frenchmen were referred to only as “X, Y, and Z.”
The nation broke out into what Jefferson called “the XYZ fever,” increased in energy by Adams’ urging. The people cheered themselves hoarse wherever the president appeared. Never had the Federalists, Adams’ political party, been so popular.
Second President Strengthens The Military
Congress appropriated money to complete three new ships and build others, and it authorized the raising of a provisional army. It also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Act was comprised of four bills that limited the rights of immigrants and made it legal to deport them during times of war. Congress made getting citizenship a lengthier and more difficult process, and banned the publishing of negative or malicious writings against the government. The Acts were meant to frighten foreign agents out of the country and to stifle the attacks of editors opposed to Adams’ government.
President Adams did not call for a declaration of war, but hostilities began at sea. At first, American shipping was almost defenseless against the French, but by 1800 armed merchantmen and U.S. warships were clearing the sea lanes. Word came to Adams that France had no stomach for war and would receive an envoy with respect. Long negotiations ended the conflict. The talks ended what came to be called the quasi-war, a war that was never declared.
Sending a peace mission to France brought the full fury against Adams of some strongly opinionated members of his own party, the Federalists. As a result, in the presidential election of 1800, the Federalists were badly divided, while the other party, the Republicans were united and effective. Nevertheless, Adams polled only a few electoral votes less than Jefferson, who became president.
First Tenant In The White House
On Nov. 1, 1800, just before the election, Adams arrived in the new capital city to take up residence in the White House. On his second evening in its damp, unfinished rooms, he wrote his wife. “Before I end my letter, I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it,” he said. “May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof.”
After his four-year presidency ended, Adams retired to his farm in Massachusetts where he penned his famous letters to his old foe, Thomas Jefferson. It was there on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams whispered his last words: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
Jefferson had actually died at Monticello a few hours earlier.
Adapted from the Presidents of the United States of America, 18th edition, published by the White House Historical Association, 2009.
The states ratified the new Constitution of the United States in 1787, which created three branches of the federal government: Congress, the courts, and the presidency. In 1789, George Washington became the first person to hold the office of President of the United States.
Portrait of George Washington.
Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1797. Image credit:
As president and head of the executive branch, Washington was responsible for enforcing the government that the Constitution created. He and the rest of the First Federal Congress quickly realized that the Constitution did not have clear solutions to every problem they would face.
The way that Washington and the First Federal Congress handled some of the issues the country faced during his tenure as president created a precedent, or an example for how future presidents should deal with similar situations. In the next few paragraphs, we’ll take a look at some of the important questions Washington and his cabinet took on during his presidency.
Rise of the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans
During the Constitutional Convention, factions emerged almost immediately. These factions ended up forming the first two political parties in American history: the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
On one side, there were the Federalists. Generally, Federalists lived along eastern seaboard and were wealthy merchants or well-educated people who lived in the city. They supported a stronger central government and a loose interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that what the Constitution didn’t explicitly forbid, it allowed. The Federalists also supported fixing the relationship between the United States and Britain for trade reasons.
On the other side were the Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans frequently hailed from western regions and were more likely to be farmers than merchants. The Democratic-Republicans favored a weaker central government in favor of stronger state governments. They believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution: the idea that the federal government couldn’t do anything the Constitution didn’t explicitly permit. They also preferred a foreign alliance with France, as the French had supported the United States in the Revolutionary War.
Debate over the national bank
Coming out of the
, the United States was faced with the issue of a large national debt. After taking out loans from France to cover the expenses of fighting the war, the state debt totaled about $25 million. But after the Constitution brought the states under a central government, who would be responsible for the debt that the states owed? Would each individual state be responsible for paying back its debt, or would the new federal government pay?
Newly-minted Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a two-part solution: the federal government would assume the states’ debt and create a national bank. Hamilton believed a national bank would help to promote business by printing federally-backed money. There was just one problem: the Constitution said nothing about creating a national bank. However, Hamilton and his followers believed that under the “necessary and proper” clause of Article I, the Constitution gave Congress the right to create the bank to fix the debt problem.
Thomas Jefferson and his followers disagreed with Hamilton’s argument, stating that it was a misinterpretation of the necessary and proper clause. He believed that creating a national bank would be an abuse of power by the federal government.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton.
Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, painted by John Trumbull, 1806. Image credit:
After much debate between these two emerging factions—the Federalists, represented by Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, represented by Jefferson—the bill establishing the first Bank of the United States passed the House and Senate, President Washington signed the bill into law in early 1791.
The French Revolution and the Proclamation of Neutrality
The American Revolution sparked several other revolutions across the world, including the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution.
At the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the United States had just ratified its new Constitution and Bill of Rights. When French revolutionaries came to the United States asking for assistance, Washington decided to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality, guaranteeing that the United States would stay out of the war and not take anyone’s side. This was a risky decision, since France had been the United States’s major ally during the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s decision to issue a Proclamation of Neutrality was rooted in the fact that the United States was still dealing with a sizable debt after the American Revolution. With this act, along with the recommendations he made in his Farewell Address upon leaving office, Washington set a precedent for isolationism, or refraining from involvement in international affairs, that set the tone for US foreign policy over the next century.
The great debate
The publication of the U.S. Constitution in September 1787 began one of the most vigorous political campaigns in American history. Arguing over the merits and meaning of government helped to make constitutionalism a central defining characteristic of American political culture.
Although the Constitution had been drafted in private by a small group of statesmen, the result became very public. As soon as the Philadelphia Convention ended, Americans began discussing the new form of government. Less than a month later in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, an observer noted that everyone was interested in the new Constitution. In other parts of America, similar observations were made. One Virginian said it was part of the conversation “from the Governor to the doorkeeper.”
The decision of the Philadelphia Convention to have the Constitution approved at a convention in every state meant that Americans from all walks of life could join in the public debate. The Constitution was studied and analyzed section by section. Some writers saw themselves as Romans creating a new government when the rule of kings ended there thousands of years ago.
Other authors took the low road, swearing at and insulting the Constitution. One of the only surviving political cartoons was titled, “The Looking Glass for 1787.” In this cartoon, Connecticut is a wagon heavy with debt that is sinking in the mud. To the left, Federalists want taxes to pay military pensions, and to the right, Anti-Federalists, representing farmers, want no more taxes. They are pulling the wagon in opposite directions. The themes of the cartoon are about approving the Constitution and giving more power to the federal government and how best Connecticut will be saved.
Arguments for and against the Constitution were heard in taverns, town squares and in the streets. Federalists and Anti-Federalists staged mock funerals and executions to express their views of the Constitution. These spirited celebrations and protests sometimes ended in full-scale riots.
Who were the Anti-Federalists?
Anti-Federalists were never happy with their name. Elbridge Gerry, a leading Anti-Federalist, reasoned it would have been more appropriate to call to the two sides “rats” and “anti-rats!” He added, ” …they were in favor of a Federal Government, and the others were in favor of a national one.”
No group in American political history was more diverse than Anti-Federalists. The opposition to the Constitution brought together rich planters in the South, middle- class politicians in New York and Pennsylvania and back-country farmers from several different regions.
Among leading Anti-Federalist voices were plantation owner George Mason of Virginia and Gerry, a wealthy New England merchant. Mason and Gerry viewed the centralization of power as a dangerous step toward tyranny. The opposition to the Constitution in the mid-Atlantic was very different. It included weaver-turned-politician William Findley and a former shoemaker from Albany, Abraham Yates. These men feared that the Constitution threatened the democratic achievements of the Revolution and they wanted individual states, the governments closest to the people, to keep most of the power in the American system.
Finally, anti-federalism also attracted those with of a lower-class view of democracy. They wanted the voice of the people to have more control. Only the actions of the crowd taking to the streets could fulfill their ideal of democracy.
The Anti-Federalist critique of the Constitution
There was considerable diversity among the opponents of the Constitution. However, there were three core issues that defined this opposition.
1. The omission of a Bill of Rights
The absence of a Bill of Rights was an often-repeated criticism of the Constitution. Anti-Federalists felt a specific bill of rights was essential for the preservation of liberty. A fundamental statement of political and legal principles would educate citizens and make them more effective guardians of their own liberty.
2. The centralizing tendencies of the new government
The new powerful central government created by the Constitution would slowly reduce the states to insignificant players in a powerful new centralized nation state. Anti-Federalists feared that the new Constitution would create a central state similar to the one in England. The extensive powers to tax, the provision for a standing army and the weakening of the state militias would allow this new powerful government to become tyrannical.
3. The aristocratic character of the new government
The charge of aristocracy was frequently voiced by Anti-Federalists, and according to this view, the Constitution favored the interests of the wealthy over those of common people. A government with too much power would inevitably become corrupt and would place the interests of those in power over the common good.
Anti-Federalists and the historians
Throughout American history, Anti-Federalist ideas have been resurrected by groups eager to challenge the central government’s power. Historians have continuously reinterpreted the meaning of anti-federalism.
In the 1890s, Anti-Federalists were those who wanted to return to the earlier democracies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. This interpretation was challenged by conservative historians during the Cold War era in the 1950s. For these scholars, the Anti-Federalists were examples of the paranoid style of American politics, as they were backward-looking thinkers who failed to grasp the theoretical brilliance of the Constitution. This claim was later challenged by liberal historians who saw anti-federalism as a movement driven by country people who were opposed by a group of city supporters of the Constitution. The rise of the new social history centered on civil rights and foreign wars during the turbulent 1960s.
During the 20th century, anti-federalism played a central role in a number of different narratives about American history. For some, opposition to the Constitution was part of the rise of democracy. For others, it was bringing on the decline of the republic; while others saw it as a source of modern liberal individualism.
The enduring legacy of the other founders
Judges, lawyers and legal scholars have tried to discover the original understanding of the Constitution and the various provisions of the Bill of Rights. From central government control to the Second Amendment rights regarding militias and weapons, legal scholars and courts have increasingly turned to Anti-Federalist texts to support their conclusions. If the past is any guide to the future, the ideas of the Anti-Federalists are likely to continue to play a prominent role in future constitutional controversies.
Saul Cornell holds the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History, Fordham University, and is the author of “The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788–1828” (1999) and, with Jennifer Keene and Ed O’Donnell, “American Visions: A History of the American Nation” (2009).
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