American History Lecture Three
A few more tips for test-taking on multiple-choice exams:
1. Disqualify answer choices that contain language that is too sweeping, such as "everyone" or "only". Here is an example. Question: "Why was George Washington elected president?" Possible answer choice: "Because everyone wanted him. Nope, not "everyone" liked George Washington. Here is another example. Question: "Why was slavery used?" Answer: "Solely because of greed." Nope. Not "solely" (or "purely" or "only”) because of greed. Some common "sweeping" words that signal an incorrect answer choice are: everyone, always, never, only, solely, purely, all and every. When there are such broad words in an answer, it's probably not the correct answer choice.
2. Look for the answer choice that is the best fit to the question. The question is like a "lock" or "key hole," and you are looking for the answer (or the "key") that is the best fit. Matching the verb or concept behind the question with the best fitting verb or concept in the answer can help. For example, when a question asks about "exploration", the answer choice that fits the question best might contain a verb like "to find" rather than "to settle."
3. When a question completely baffles you, such as a question asking for a motive or reason for something, look to money-related answers. Historical events and politics are motivated more by money than most students realize. When you're lost and can't explain why people did something, think of how money issues would have influenced them.
4. Finally, view multiple choice questions like a puzzle. Learn to enjoy solving them. Don't let any test or question intimidate you. Multiple choice questions become much easier when you find a way to enjoy figuring out their puzzles.
- 1 Review
- 2 State Constitutions
- 3 The Articles of Confederation
- 4 The Constitutional Convention
- 5 George Washington's Presidency
- 6 Other Events of the 1790s
- 7 The Presidency of John Adams
- 8 References
To learn history well, imagine being there at certain times and places. Think of what it must have been like. Imagine it in your mind. Put yourself at the time and place of the Boston Massacre, for example. Try to see both sides of the conflict, and why people acted as they did. Why did the British soldiers shoot their guns? Because people were throwing snowballs at them, some containing rocks. Why were colonists throwing snowballs? Because they did not think the British soldiers should be there. Why were the British soldiers there? Because the King George III ordered them to be there to keep things under control. And so on. Every person in history had a motivation for doing what he did, and to learn history well it is essential to understand those motivations.
That does not mean both sides were partly right for what they did. One side may be completely wrong, but it still had a motivation to act as it did. Often the reason is either to make more money, or to gain more power (or self-glory).
Question: was the American Revolution a "conservative revolution?" It was not a typical "revolution" because it did not attempt to overthrow and replace King George III, who ruled for 60 years (including nearly 40 years after American Revolution). The American Revolution was not motivated to establish a brand new future with its own revolutionary leader, because for the first few years after the Revolution the colonies (then states) refused to have a president at all. Instead, the American Revolution was an attempt to restore natural God-given rights (such as life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) and self-governance to the colonies, a "conservative" result.
Soon after the end of the Revolution, all but two of the states adopted new constitutions. (Rhode Island and Connecticut continued to use their charters, after removing all references to Britain.)
Many colonists were fed up with kings, and their opposition to concentrating power in one person was reflected in the states' constitutions by concentrating power in the legislative branch rather than in a single executive officer like a governor. New state governors typically lacked the power to veto any legislation. Instead, a bill became law as soon as the legislature passed it, without needing the governor's signature. In many states, the governor was even elected by the legislature.
Short terms of office were also used to limit the power of governors. Some state constitutions used only one year as the term of office for governor.
The state courts lacked power too. In Pennsylvania, the general assembly could remove judges at any time for vaguely defined "misbehavior". The situation was similar in Rhode Island. When one judge decided that Rhode Island's attempts to force citizens to use paper money was unconstitutional, he (and other judges who agreed with him) were then dismissed by the legislature.
Debate: Were state constitutions right or misguided in concentrating nearly all power in the legislatures?
The Articles of Confederation
Before and during the war, the Continental Congress met repeatedly to organize war efforts and try to resolve some issues for all the colonies as needed. This Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and proposed the Articles of Confederation in 1777. The Declaration of Independence, which we honor on July 4th, first coined the name the "United States of America" as follows: the "unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America." On November 15, 1777, this name was formally given to the new country when the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. Its first Article states: "The Stile of this Confederacy shall be 'The United States of America.'" Thus it was the Articles of Confederation, not the Constitution, that first established the United States of America. The Articles of Confederation were ratified by all 13 colonies in 1781, which converted them from "colonies" into "states". But due to flaws in the Articles of Confederation, they lasted only eight (8) years, and were replaced by the Constitution in 1789.
The Articles of Confederation is a long and detailed document, available now on the internet, which expressly includes many powers and rights that are left unsaid by the subsequent Constitution. The Articles expressly authorized the people to recall their representatives, for example.
The Articles provided for a unicameral (one body) Congress to govern the states. There was no president (imagine that!), but rather a committee formed of one representative from each state who wielded executive authority. There were no federal (national) courts (imagine that also!).
Debate: Does the United States really need an office of president?
The Articles of Confederation created a very weak national government, with the states retaining most of the power for themselves. The Articles required approval by nine (9) out of the 13 states to pass laws. Not even a simple majority vote (e.g., 7-6) was enough to pass legislation. And unanimous approval was required to amend the Articles. Those percentages were simply too high for a collection of states that were very different from each other. Now that the focus shifted after the American Revolution from gaining freedom toward building a new nation, the states had much less to agree about and they began to bicker and argue, and even tax each others' goods.
Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was given the power to declare war, raise an army and navy, make commercial treaties, borrow money, control currency, and levy assessments against the states. But Congress lacked the power to impose taxes on the people to pay for any of that. It could ask the states for money, but could not force them to pay. The power to raise an army is almost meaningless without the means to raise money to pay the army.
In sum, the Articles of Confederation created a very weak national government, too weak to accomplish what needed to be done. Several serious problems below illustrated the defects in this national government. A new convention would be needed to fix the Articles, but instead it decided to create a whole new system of government.
Foreign Policy Problems under the Articles of Confederation
"Foreign policy" is the term for how a country (in this case, the young United States) deals with other countries. The Articles of Confederation made it almost impossible for the former colonies to speak with one voice on foreign policy concerned foreign policy.
In the 1780s, before and after the Revolution, the United States was a mere baby in the world. We were far weaker in every respect than European countries. Comparing the United States to England at that time would be like comparing a child to an adult. Just obtaining respect was a struggle, and the Articles made it worse.
The federal government under the Articles did not have enough power to operate effectively in its foreign policy. After the war, the British continued to impose trade restrictions on America, and America was powerless to do anything about it. Americans continued to buy many English imports, and this caused money to drain out of America.
In the Treaty of Paris to end the Revolutionary War, America had agreed to treat Loyalists fairly and return their belongings. Congress then asked the states to do this, but several refused. The new Congress had no way to make the states obey the nation's commitment.
The British used this violation of the Treaty to justify keeping forces stationed near the Great Lakes. America had claimed the territory where the British forts stood, but lacked power to drive them out. So the British in America prospered by trading for furs with the Indians, although the territory they used belonged to the United States.
The Spanish claimed the territory west of the Mississippi and exclusive navigation of the Mississippi River, which was a key trading route for the new land acquired by the United States west of the Appalachian mountains. Spain knew that the United States was too weak to fight for its territory. The United States attempted to negotiate but nothing could be achieved without some strength.
Across the ocean in the Mediterranean, American trade was interrupted by piracy off of the Barbary Coast (modern day Tunisia). Previously, America had been protected from the pirates by England, but now America was obliged to pay its own way. The new American government had no money for bribing or fighting the pirates.
Financial Problems under the Articles of Confederation
From the beginning, the young United States also had financial troubles. Congress borrowed money from foreign countries, printed paper currency, and sold undeveloped western lands. None of these tactics was effective in improving the economy.
After the Revolutionary War, the United States was more than 35 million dollars in debt, and that number continued to grow. The money from the sale of western land was paltry. It could have paid only one-fourth of the government's expenses. There were no national taxes, and requests for money from the states were ignored. The state governments were having financial difficulties of their own.
So Congress began to print paper money, and began to issue it in large amounts. Predictably, inflation increased to the point where the paper money became worthless. (Inflation is when prices keep going up and up as the dollar loses its value.) The paper money was then avoided. People began to prefer European coins, made of gold or silver, as currency. Since there was much less of this money than there had been of the printed money, rapid deflation occurred next, causing a depression.
Some states tried similar tactics, and Rhode Island even tried to force citizens to use its paper money, which people avoided because it was losing its value over time.
Massachusetts was the only state that did not follow the trend for printed money, which makes sense because Puritans tended to take their principles seriously. But the hardship sparked Shays' Rebellion, which is discussed further below.
Keep in mind that conflicts over money were as important throughout history as it is today in families. Whether or not money is the root of all evil, it is the root of many conflicts in history and shapes the course of human events. For example, there has always been constant conflict between people who owe money (debtors) and people who save or lend money (creditors). Farmers are often debtors and they have always had conflicts with banks, which lend them money.
In colonial America, people who could not pay their debts went to jail, and this was known as "debtor's prison." The entire colony of Georgia was founded by people who had been in debtor's prison in England. Founding Father Robert Morris, who paid for George Washington's troops during the American Revolution, ended up in debtor's prison for four years and died a few years after his release. Debtor's prison was not abolished in federal law until 1833 and by most of the states soon afterwards. But even today some Americans can be imprisoned for failure to make payments that are ordered by courts.
Debate: Is Debtor's Prison Wrong?
The Land Ordinance and The Northwest Ordinance
Two of Congress's attempts to make money by selling land west of the Appalachians were the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. An "ordinance" is a new law, often one that concerns the regulation of land. These two ordinances were the only major laws enacted under the Articles of Confederation, and they can show up in a question or two about American History.
The Land Ordinance of 1785 provided for surveying and dividing territories west of the colonies into towns 6 miles square, and selling 640 acre chunks at public auctions for a minimum of $1 per acre. Almost no one wanted to pay so much money in order to obtain much land, so these chunks were often bought and divided by investors, and then sold to farmers.
The Northwest Ordinance established a way to create no less than three and no more than five new states. It established a three-stage process based on population for new states to be created and join the Confederation of colonies. It also specified what type of government the new territories and states must have, a requirement that would later become part of the U.S. Constitution.
When a new territory in the "northwest" had less than 5000 adult free (non-slave) males, it was to be ruled by a governor, a secretary, and three judges appointed by Congress. When the population exceeded 5000, then they could elect a legislature (assembly) that could send a nonvoting person to Congress. A territory was required to have at least 60,000 free men living in it before it could apply for statehood. A republican form of government was required in order for a territory to become a new state. Slavery was prohibited north of the Ohio River (which means it was prohibited virtually everywhere in the Northwest Territory).
The Northwest Ordinance was the first to protect private property against the taking of property by government without just compensation, which later became part of the U.S. Constitution in the Fifth Amendment. This protection of private property by the Northwest Ordinance was one of several individual rights that the Ordinance protected which subsequently become part of the Bill of Rights, including religious freedom, a right to a writ of habeas corpus (which enables anyone imprisoned to demand a hearing to challenge his imprisonment) and trial by jury (keep in mind that the U.S. Constitution did not exist yet). In addition, the ordinance encouraged public education, but public schools would not become widespread in their modern form until the 1900s.
The Northwest Ordinance was a huge success, establishing how new states could be created in a peaceful and orderly manner. It also put foreign countries, particularly England and France, on notice that the United States owned this territory and would be settling it.
The Northwest Ordinance was passed in the summer of 1787, while the Constitutional Convention was meeting in Philadelphia. When the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution, the Ordinance was passed again under the new Constitution.
The following new territories became new states due to the success of the Northwest Ordinance (with their date of statehood in parentheses): Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), Wisconsin (1848), and Minnesota (1858).
Shays' Rebellion was an armed revolt in Massachusetts that lasted six months, from August 1786 until February 1787, demonstrating how weak and inadequate the national government was under the Articles of Confederation. The cause of the revolt was, of course, money. It was an armed uprising of farmers in Massachusetts who were burdened with high debt. This was the first of many future clashes between Americans who owed money (debtors) and those who lent money (creditors). The farmers were angry that they had to pay back their loans in "specie" (gold or silver) rather than in cheaper paper money. Every state other than Massachusetts had issued paper money, and the sudden inflation that had occurred in other states was helpful to farmers by decreasing the burden of their loans and increasing the prices of their agricultural products in the stores. Little did the farmers know that the paper money in other states would soon become worthless and lead to a depression.
The farmers lost their farms when they could not pay back their loans (banks would take ownership of the farms and auction them off). By losing their property, farmers also lost their right to vote, because at the time only property owners could vote. The farmers took to violence to help themselves. Specifically, they seized the town courthouse to prevent any additional court-ordered seizures of their farms. The Massachusetts governor sent in the militia but there were more farmers in the rebellion than there were in the militia sent by the governor. Daniel Shays then led 1200 men to Springfield to capture the federal arsenal, but by then there were enough state militiamen to protect it and defeat Shays. Shays fled to the Vermont area. Everyone was panicked by this uprising, and a newly elected Massachusetts legislature subsequently enacted some debt relief for the farmers.
This terrifying incident convinced many that a new national government was necessary. In particular, this rebellion impressed upon George Washington himself that a stronger national government was needed to maintain law and order. Later, when George Washington was president, he personally led a national army to easily put down a future revolt in Pennsylvania (the Whiskey Rebellion).
The Constitutional Convention
Economic concerns sparked the first serious call for a national convention to improve the Articles of Confederation. In September 1786, nine (9) states accepted Virginia's call for a national convention on the issue of interstate commerce, which was trade between the states. Under the Articles of Confederation, each state could impose taxes ("tariffs") on goods or merchandise shipped to it from another state, and these "tariff wars" disrupted the free market and impeded economic progress. Only five (5) states attended this "Annapolis Convention," so it was a failure. But it did something that proved to be historic: it called for another constitutional convention to be held in Philadelphia.
The next convention -- the famous "Constitutional Convention" -- convened in the summer of 1787 (May through September) in Philadelphia to strengthen the national government by modifying the Articles of Confederation. Notice that its original goal was to fix the Articles of Confederation, not to replace them, but once at the convention the Founding Fathers decided to replace the Articles altogether. This Convention became one of the most important events in the entire history of mankind.
Every state sent representatives except Rhode Island. Some pretend that Rhode Island's "separation of church and state" laid the foundation of the Constitution, but Rhode Island didn't even show up at the Constitutional Convention!
In total, 55 delegates attended from twelve states. The highest attendance and participation at the Constitutional Convention came from large states, particularly Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and South Carolina.
Key participants in the Constitutional Convention were James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson did not attend because they were overseas in diplomatic missions; Adams was in England and Jefferson was in France. Remember the alliances suggested by their diplomatic efforts: Adams (and all of New England) was allied with England, while Jefferson (and much of Virginia) was allied with France.
George Washington reluctantly agreed to attend the convention, and was elected to preside. In another display of his remarkable self-restraint, Washington did not speak on the issues, because he wanted to remain impartial as the Chairman.
Benjamin Franklin was the oldest attendee, at 82. He had to be carried to the meetings in a chair and wrote out his remarks so that others could speak for him. Nevertheless, his presence at the Convention was inspiring.
James Madison took copious notes during the deliberations and was a tireless worker. All of his proposals were rejected, but he received the misnomer of "Father of the Constitution" because most of the information of the proceedings comes from his notes.
The delegates to the Constitutional Convention were bright, dedicated, and spiritual men. This was a very special event.
The delegates decided that secrecy should govern their deliberations, without any news leaking to reporters and the public. This secrecy benefited the Convention because the delegates could speak freely and try different ideas without fearing that their actions would be misunderstood by the public. Everyone was ordered to destroy their notes after the convention. James Madison, however, kept his and they were released when he died fifty years later, providing most of our detailed knowledge about it today.
Debate: Should deliberations to change the government proceed in secrecy, without public scrutiny?
The Constitutional Convention was governed by strict rules. For example, "Every member rising to speak, shall address the President; and whilst he shall be speaking, none shall pass between them or hold discourse with another, or read a book, pamphlet or paper." There were no teleprompters then! Nothing was to be considered final until the entire Constitution had been written. Each state received one vote.
While most delegates agreed that stronger central government was necessary, they were uncertain how they could accomplish this without creating too much centralized power. Their fear of the corruption that power brings reflects the Christian beginnings of our nation. Christianity teaches that humans are sinful and prone to corruption. Very few other religions teach that.
As the Constitutional Convention began, the delegates agreed that the Articles of Confederation had not created a functional government. Congress was in shambles, and attendance in Congress was so sporadic that between October 1785 and April 1786 it had the minimum required attendance to conduct business (a "quorum") on only three days. The stated purpose of the Constitutional Convention was to "render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union."
Those words left the Convention somewhat open in terms of its goal. Delegates had a choice. First, they could amend the Articles, but this would be very difficult because unanimous approval from the states was required. Instead, they could draft a new constitution. Some questioned whether the Convention had authority to do this, but consensus was that a new constitution was the only choice.
The attendees thereby did not limit their actions to fixing the Articles of Confederation. This same debate rages today by calls for a constitutional convention. There is no way to limit what a constitutional convention does. This debate over whether a constitutional convention can be limited to a particular issue (e.g., requiring a balanced budget by the national government) continues today, with many saying that there is never a way to limit a constitutional convention. The only real protection from a convention exceeding its scope is that its proposal must still be ratified by the states.
Debate: Was it proper for the delegates to go beyond their authority to amend the Articles of Confederation, and instead propose a new constitution?
Dangers aside, the delegates proceeded to write a new constitution. They divided themselves into various committees to make the overall task more manageable. But what form of government would be sufficiently effective without being corrupted by power? Two plans attempted to answer this question.
The first was submitted by Edmund Randolph and was called the Virginia Plan, or the "Large States Plan," because it was favored by the larger states. Our three branches of government -- legislative, executive, and judicial -- originated in the Virginia Plan. Unlike the Articles of Confederation, this plan gave government the power to directly enforce laws. The Virginia Plan assigned delegates to both houses of Congress (a "bicameral" legislature) based on a state's population, and the legislature selected the chief executive (president) and the judges under this Plan. The Virginia Plan contributed much to the finished Constitution, although Edmund Randolph himself refused to sign it in the end.
In June 1787, William Paterson next proposed the New Jersey Plan, which was more favorable to the small states and which departed less from the Articles of Confederation. This plan was favored by small states because each state was represented equally in Congress. This allowed small states to have an equal amount of power. The Virginia plan, in contrast, would have allowed large states much more power than small ones because representation in Congress was based on population.
This conflict between the big and small states may have been the most difficult to resolve in the entire Convention. For weeks there was no progress. Then Benjamin Franklin proposed that each day be opened by prayer. He said, "In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. - Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.... And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance? I have lived, Sir a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probably that an empire can rise without His aid?" But the delegates felt a minister was needed for that, and they could not afford to hire one!
After many weeks of arguments, a compromise was reached. In July 1787, Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman proposed the Connecticut Plan, in which representation in the House would be proportional to population, and representation in the Senate would be 1 vote per state. This became the Great Compromise or the Connecticut Compromise, and it resolved that Congress would have one house with equal representation and one house with representation based on population. This compromise became part of the Constitution (with the change that there would be two votes per state), and today we have both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
This compromise also reflected the spirit of the Constitutional Convention. Disagreements arose on a myriad of issues. Again and again, the delegates compromised, gradually formulating the Constitution that we still use today.
A dispute arose between the North and the South over whether slaves should be counted in determining how many congressmen a State could have in the House of Representatives. Representation was in proportion to population, but the North opposed counting slaves because that would give the South more power than if slaves were not counted. The "Three-Fifths Compromise" counted slaves as three-fifths of a free man for the purpose of determining how many representatives a State would have in the House of Representatives (Art. I, Section 2, Paragraph 3):
- "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."
And there was one additional compromise required for slavery: the new Congress could not ban the importation of slavery for 20 years, until 1808.
The Constitution was written through the use of the following committees, which illustrates how to organize a large group of people in order to accomplish a good result:
- Rules Committee, appointed May 25 in order to set rules for the convention, including Alexander Hamilton and Charles Pinkney
- First Committee of Eleven (delegates), appointed July 2 in order to resolve the issue of equal representation in the Senate, including George Mason and William Paterson
- Committee of Detail, appointed July 24 in order to draft the Constitution on terms agreed to by the Convention, including Edmund Randolph and James Wilson
- Second Committee of Eleven, appointed August 25 in order to consider issues of uniform duties and fees, including George Mason and Roger Sherman
- Third Committee of Eleven, appointed August 31 in order to address "tabled" and unresolved issues, including James Madison and Roger Sherman
- Committee of Style and Arrangement, appointed September 8 in order to revise the style and arrangement of the Constitution, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison
After all the compromises and hard work of the committees, most (but not all) of the delegates at the Convention agreed to the final version of the Constitution; 39 (out of the original 55) signed it on Sept. 17, 1787 (now honored as "Constitution Day"). Next it was sent to the states for ratification, and then the "fun" began. There was bitter opposition by the Anti-Federalists who did not like the idea of a powerful new central government.
At the time, nearly every country in the world was a monarchy. The new American government was the first of its kind.
The Constitution divides government into three separate branches that check and balance each other. If one branch grabs too much power, then the other two can work to stop it.
The Articles of the Constitution are as follows:
- Congress (the legislative branch) is established in Article I of the Constitution. The Executive Branch (led by the President) carries out the laws as provided in Article II. The Judicial Branch (including the Supreme Court), established in Article III, interprets the laws.
- Article IV of the Constitution outlines the relationship between the federal (national) government and the states.
- Article V outlines the procedures for amending the Constitution. Contrary to the Articles of Confederation, unanimous consent of the states is not required to amend the Constitution.
- Article VI declares the Constitution to be the supreme Law of the Land.
- Article VII establishes the procedure for ratifying the Constitution.
The Constitution itself (before passage of the Bill of Rights adding the first ten amendments) contains several important protections of individual rights, including a right to a jury trial and a prohibition on any bill of attainder, which was a practice in England whereby the legislature would punish an individual by expressly and specifically naming him in legislation. Under the Constitution, only courts can punish individual citizens.
Every state except Rhode Island held a ratifying convention to consider adopting it. Many small states ratified the Constitution quickly (the first state to ratify it was Delaware), because they liked the idea of having equal representation in the Senate. But bigger states, such as Virginia and New York, were more reluctant to give up their power to a national government.
The debate over ratification in the large states pitted the Federalists (for example, Alexander Hamilton) against the Anti-Federalists (for example, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, George Mason, and John Hancock). Federalists supported the ratification of the Constitution. The Anti-Federalists opposed it, primarily because it lacked the Bill of Rights.
Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the Constitution, but did so only after the Anti-Federalists Samuel Adams and John Hancock negotiated a compromise (the "Massachusetts Compromise") guaranteeing that the new Congress would immediately consider amendments to establish a Bill of Rights. Subsequently the remaining states also ratified it, many with the understanding that the Bill of Rights would be added to it.
To persuade New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay anonymously wrote the Federalist papers, which were a series of editorials that ran in a prominent New York newspaper. The most famous of these is Madison's Federalist No. 10: "Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction." Madison's insight was that a new United States of America, with its large size and separation of powers, could actually guard against tyranny and evil factions better than individual colonies could. The Federalist papers set forth the arguments -- like a debater's handbook -- to be used by supporters of the Constitution to obtain ratification in Virginia and New York, and the many other states that had not yet ratified. Later, the Federalist papers became a reference source for judges to use in interpreting what the Constitution means.
When the ninth state (New Hampshire) ratified the new Constitution on June 21, 1788, the Constitution became law of the land. Shortly afterward, the large states of New York and Virginia also ratified it.
The final two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, still opposed the Constitution and did not ratify it until George Washington began serving as president. North Carolina ratified it in 1789. Rhode Island, also known for its "separation of church and state," wanted to hold onto its power to tax imports which the Constitution would take away from it. Rhode Island did not ratify the Constitution until the other 12 states threatened to boycott it. Rhode Island ratified it in 1790.
The first ten amendments -- the Bill of Rights -- were passed by the first Congress in 1789 and ratified by all the states by 1791. New Jersey was the first to ratify the Bill of Rights.
Debate: Is homeschooling protected by the Bill of Rights? Should it be?
Debate: Did Rhode Island tax its importation of slaves, and was its desire to continue to profit from importing slaves a reason why it long refused to ratify the Constitution?
George Washington's Presidency
George Washington was so popular and respected that he probably could have become king. Even if Washington did not become king, he could have ruled as president for the rest of his life. But his greatness was, like Jesus, to decline power that was available to him in order to advance a greater good. Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789 and voluntarily gave up power in 1797 at the age of 65 - seven years younger than the 2008 presidential candidate John McCain. Washington set an unwritten tradition of a maximum of two terms for presidents, which was followed by every president until the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. After Roosevelt broke the rule by being elected four times to president, the two-term tradition was enshrined in the Constitution as an amendment in 1951.
An example of Washington's greatness was his handling of "Citizen" Edmond Genet (pronounced "zhe–nay"), who was sent by France to the United States just after the French Revolution. France felt that the United States owed it assistance after how France provided so much help to Americans to win the Revolutionary War. But Washington wanted to stay out of foreign conflicts. Ignoring Washington's wishes, Genet went around America stirring up pro-French sentiment with impassioned speeches. Genet even sent out private American citizens to attack British shipping (called "privateers," but acting like pirates). Washington told Genet to stop this, but he refused. Washington told France to recall him. But the French Revolution had become uncontrollable, with senseless violence and executions. "Citizen Genet," as he was known, reasonably feared the guillotine if he returned to France. He then begged Washington to grant him asylum in this country. Despite Washington's enormous and justified irritation, he granted Genet's wishes. Genet later married the daughter of the governor of New York, and became an ordinary farmer!
Another example of George Washington's leadership was his handling of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. Farmers in western Pennsylvania protested a 7-cent per gallon tax on corn whiskey. These farmers refused to pay the tax, retaliated against farmers who did pay it, and even attacked U.S. marshals and revenue agents. Washington told the Pennsylvania governor to end the rebellion, but he refused. Washington himself then raised an army from neighboring states and personally risked his own life to ride out as the soldiers' leader to quell the rebellion. The farmers gave up without bloodshed. Several were caught, tried and convicted for their rebellion. What did Washington do next? He pardoned them. The successful suppression of this rebellion established the power of the federal government in the eyes of the people, and let people know that they should not challenge the President of the United States.
The first major legislative accomplishment of the "Washington Administration" (the name given to the government under a particular president) was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established federal court system. (Later, in the first major ruling of the Supreme Court in 1803, the Court declared a small portion of this Act unconstitutional in Marbury v. Madison.)
In 1790, George Washington's top aide and the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, gave a report on public credit to Congress. Hamilton urged Congress to create a national bank run by a private board of directors. Thomas Jefferson, who was a rival of Hamilton, opposed establishing a national bank, arguing that it was not authorized by the Constitution. But Hamilton persuaded Washington based on the "necessary and proper" clause (implied powers) of the Constitution. Accordingly, in 1791 Hamilton was successful in persuading Congress to establish the First Bank of the United States, pursuant to the Bank Act.
Hamilton had other achievements with Washington's support. In the "compromise of 1790," Hamilton arranged for the South to agree to the federal assumption of state debts in exchange for the North agreeing to a southern location for the new capital (the District of Columbia). In 1791, Hamilton laid out a plan for government encouragement of industry. But this plan was not as successful as Hamilton's other efforts.
In 1793, President Washington issued "Washington's Neutrality Proclamation," which established the neutrality of the United States in the French Revolution, despite our alliance with France. This was consistent with Washington's view that the United States should not entangle itself in foreign matters.
In 1794 and 1795, President Washington averted a second war with Britain over conflicts concerning shipping and the Northwest Territory. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Jay (one of the three authors of the Federalist papers) persuaded the British to leave the Northwest posts, but Jay accepted continuing humiliation of United States shipping due to British naval supremacy. This weak treaty ("Jay's Treaty") angered many Americans.
There were also conflicts between Congress and the President. Due to the American outrage at this unpopular treaty, Congress demanded that President Washington provide papers relating to Jay's Treaty so everyone could see how this happened. But Washington refused, and established the principle of "Executive Privilege" of President: the President does not take orders from Congress and does not have to produce executive-type documents to it. Being George Washington and having suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, he was not going to be challenged by anyone now!
Debate: Should the President be required to turn documents over to Congress?
A treaty that was more successful than Jay's Treaty was Pinckney's Treaty in 1795, whereby Spain gave the United States the right to navigate the Mississippi River, and Spain accepted a border between the United States and Spanish Florida (remember, Florida was not an English settlement and was not part of the United States then).
In 1796, Washington was up for reelection to a third term of the presidency. But he then did something that no leader of a revolution has ever done: he gave up his power for the good of others. He left by publishing one of the greatest documents in all of American history: Washington's Farewell Address. Written by Alexander Hamilton, this Farewell Address urged Americans to stay out of conflicts in Europe, in part to avoid the divisive effects such conflicts have on Americans (e.g., some rooted for England and others for France). Washington also reminded Americans that morality is the foundation of a prosperous society: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
Several other important things happened during the presidency (the Administration) of George Washington. The Bill of Rights passed in 1791 to limit the federal government. In addition, during this time an intense rivalry grew between Alexander Hamilton, who favored a strong national government, and Thomas Jefferson, who favored states' rights.
Debate: compare the views of Alexander Hamilton (who felt the federal government should have whatever powers are not denied to it, by virtue of the "elastic" or "necessary and proper" clause of the Constitution) to the views of Thomas Jefferson (who felt the federal government should have only the powers expressly given it). Which one was right?
Other Events of the 1790s
Two other events of the 1790s were significant, though unrelated to President Washington or Congress. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which is a mechanical way to separate cotton from its thorny branch and seeds. The cotton gin enabled a machine to do the work of 50 men, and greatly increased cotton production by the South. It turned the South into a powerful economic force and made it the primary source of cotton production in the entire world. By the time of the Civil War, the South thought it was invincible due to its ability to produce cotton ("King Cotton"), and how the entire world depended on the South for this basic ingredient of so many things at the time.
Also in 1793, the new U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision named Chisholm v. Georgia. It allowed, for the first time, a lawsuit to be filed against a state in the new federal courts by a citizen of a different state. This outraged the states and was considered an "activist" decision by the Supreme Court, because it subjected a state to the judicial power of the new national government. Within two years Congress passed and more than 3/4 of the states ratified the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution specifically to overturn this decision. This illustrated a type of "check and balance" on Supreme Court power: the power of the People to amend the Constitution to overturn a bad Supreme Court decision. Including the Bill of Rights, there have been a total of 27 amendments to the Constitution, a few of which were motivated by a desire to overturn a bad Supreme Court decision. Notice that Congress cannot overrule the Supreme Court if the Court bases its decision in the Constitution itself; an amendment to the Constitution is then the only way to overrule a Supreme Court decision that is based in the Constitution.
The Presidency of John Adams
John Adams, born to a prosperous farmer in Massachusetts, became the second President of the United States after George Washington, who was a "tough act to follow" (i.e., no one could be as respected as Washington was). John Adams was elected President as the Federalist Party's candidate in 1796, and served from 1797-1801.
He served only one term (four years) and his presidency was a failure due primarily to foreign policy humiliations. The problem was that no one in Europe respected this new country called the United States, and Adams had to deal with that lack of respect. For example, in 1798 there was the "XYZ Affair," in which American diplomats went to France to demand an end to French attacks on American ships. Instead of being received in a dignified manner, three French agents (referred to anonymously as "XYZ") demanded that a bribe be given to them or else the American request would not even be considered. News of this demand for a bribe reached the United States and it was humiliating to the young country.
Adams had been a successful attorney, and had courageously obtained "not guilty" verdicts at the trial of the British soldiers who fired upon colonists in the Boston Massacre. But like many trial attorneys, Adams was combative in personal discussions also. He loved to argue all the time. That personality does not make for a good President.
In particular, Adams did not handle the criticism of him well. Recall that he was from Puritan Massachusetts, where it was customary to exclude or even execute someone who challenged authority. Adams' reaction to unfavorable statements about him was to sign the Alien & Sedition Acts, which made it a crime to criticize him!
The political party known as the "Federalist Party," which Adams led, wanted to censor and weaken the opposition party, known as the "Democratic-Republican Party." The Alien & Sedition Acts were designed to weaken the Democratic-Republican Party, which had Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as its leaders. The Alien Act gave the President the power to expel aliens (immigrants) from the country, and the Sedition Act made it a crime to impede any law or utter criticism of high government officials like Adams. By today's standards, the Sedition Act was blatantly unconstitutional under the First Amendment protection of free speech.
Jefferson and Madison responded to the Alien & Sedition Acts by drafting strong state resolutions (Kentucky and Virginia, respectively) to "nullify" or declare the Alien & Sedition Acts unconstitutional. Jefferson and Madison viewed the Acts primarily as an attack on their Democratic-Republican Party by Adams' Federalist Party. Jefferson and Madison invoked state sovereignty, claiming that a state does not have to obey an unconstitutional federal law. This unintentionally provided a basis for states in the South later to try to "nullify" other federal laws, leading to the Civil War.
Debate: Can a State nullify an Act of Congress? Can a State secede (withdraw) from the United States?
The Adams Administration then went from bad to worse. From 1798 through 1800, there was an undeclared naval war with France, which was the result of the United States aligning itself with France's enemy, England, on the high seas. Specifically, the United States accepted British naval protection, and that resulted in conflicts with the French. (England and France were enemies throughout the 1700s and 1800s).
One final act by President Adams angered his political opponents further. There was a five-month delay between the presidential election and the swearing in of a new President (the gap is only about two months now). After Thomas Jefferson crushed Adams in the election of 1800, Adams appointed a bunch of "midnight judges" just before Adams was replaced by Jefferson. Jefferson was so angry by this "lame duck" action (something done by a politician after he is defeated but just before he is replaced in office by the winner) that Jefferson blocked the payment of salaries to these new judges for their work. This led to the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), where the Supreme Court held in Jefferson's favor by declaring a federal law to be unconstitutional. This was the first time the new Supreme Court declared an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional and thereby void.
- U.S. Const., Article One, section 8, clause 18: "The Congress shall have Power - To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof."