Out of War, a New Nation
The Civil War had a greater impact on American society and the polity than any other event in the country’s history.
It was also the most traumatic experience endured by any generation of Americans.
At least 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the war, 2 percent of the American population in 1861. If the same percentage of Americans were to be killed in a war fought today, the number of American war dead would exceed 6 million. The number of casualties suffered in a single day at the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, was four times the number of Americans killed and wounded at the Normandy beaches on D day, June 6, 1944. More Americans were killed in action that September day near Sharpsburg, Maryland, than died in combat in all the other wars fought by the United States in the 19th century combined.
How could such a conflict happen?
Why did Americans fight each other with a ferocity unmatched in the Western world during the century between the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the beginning of World War I in 1914?
The Wilmot Proviso specified slavery should be excluded in all territories won from Mexico. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233)
The origins of the American Civil War lay in the outcome of another war fought 15 years earlier: the Mexican-American War. The question whether slavery could expand into the 700,000 square miles of former Mexican territory acquired by the United States in 1848 polarized Americans and embittered political debate for the next dozen years.
In the House of Representatives, northern congressmen pushed through the Wilmot Proviso specifying that slavery should be excluded in all territories won from Mexico. In the Senate, southern strength defeated this proviso. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun introduced instead a series of resolutions affirming that slaveholders had the constitutional right to take their slave property into any United States territory they wished.
These opposing views set the terms of conflict for the next decade. When 80,000 Forty-Niners poured into California after the discovery of gold there in 1848, they organized a state government and petitioned Congress for admission to the Union as the 31st state. Because California’s new constitution banned slavery, this request met fierce resistance from southerners. They uttered threats of secession if they were denied their "right’ to take slaves into California and the other territories acquired from Mexico. The controversy in Congress grew so heated that Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi flourished a loaded revolver during a debate, and his colleague Jefferson Davis challenged an Illinois congressman to a duel. In 1850 the nation seemed held together by a thread, with war between free and slave states an alarming possibility.
Cooler heads finally prevailed, however. The Compromise of 1850 averted a violent confrontation. This series of laws admitted California as a free state, divided the remainder of the Mexican cession into the territories of New Mexico and Utah, and left to their residents the question whether or not they would have slavery. (Both territories did legalize slavery, but few slaves were taken there.) At the same time, Congress abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, ending the shameful practice of buying and selling human beings in the shadow of the Capitol.
This political cartoon captures Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi threatening Senator Thomas Hart Benton with a revolver while debating the Compromise of 1850. (Library of Congress)
But the Compromise of 1850 compensated the South with a tough new fugitive slave law that empowered Federal marshals, backed by the Army if necessary, to recover slaves who had escaped into free states.
These measures postponed but did not prevent a final showdown. The fugitive slave law angered many northerners who were compelled to watch black people—some of whom had lived in their communities for years—returned in chains to slavery. Southern anxiety grew as settlers poured into northern territories that were sure to join the Union as free states, thereby tipping the sectional balance of power against the South in Congress and the Electoral College.
In an effort to bring more slave states into the Union, southerners agitated for the purchase of Cuba from Spain and the acquisition of additional territory in Central America. Private armies of "filibusters," composed mainly of southerners, even tried to invade Cuba and Nicaragua to overthrow their governments and bring these regions into the United States as slave states.
The events that did most to divide North and South were the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the subsequent guerrilla war between pro- and anti-slavery partisans in Kansas territory. The region that became the territories of Kansas and Nebraska was part of the Louisiana Purchase, acquired by the United States from France in 1803. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise had divided this region at latitude 36° 30', with slavery permitted south of that line and prohibited north of it.
Considered by northerners to be an inviolable compact, the Missouri Compromise had lasted 34 years. But in 1854 southerners broke it by forcing Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, to agree to the repeal of the ban on slavery north of 36° 30' as the price of southern support for the formal organization of Kansas and Nebraska territories.
Douglas anticipated that his capitulation to southern pressure would "raise a hell of a storm" in the North. The storm was so powerful that it swept away many northern Democrats and gave rise to the Republican party, which pledged to keep slavery out of Kansas and all other territories.
An eloquent leader of this new party was an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who believed that "there can be no moral right in the enslaving of one man by another." Lincoln and other Republicans recognized that the United States Constitution protected slavery in the states where it already existed. But they intended to prevent its further expansion as the first step toward bringing it eventually to an end.
The interior of Fort Sumter on April 17, 1861, days after the Confederacy bombed it. (121-BA-914A)
The United States, said Lincoln at the beginning of his famous campaign against Douglas in 1858 for election to the Senate, was a house divided between slavery and freedom. "'A house divided against itself cannot stand,'" he declared. "I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." By preventing the further expansion of slavery, Lincoln hoped to "place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction."
Lincoln lost the senatorial election in 1858. But two years later, running against a Democratic party split into northern and southern factions, Lincoln won the presidency by carrying every northern state. It was the first time in more than a generation that the South had lost effective control of the national government. Southerners saw the handwriting on the wall. A growing majority of the American population lived in free states. Pro-slavery forces had little prospect of winning any future national elections. The prospects for long-term survival of slavery appeared dim. To forestall anticipated antislavery actions by the incoming Lincoln administration, seven slave states seceded during the winter of 1860–1861.
Before Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861, delegates from those seven states had met at Montgomery, Alabama, adopted a Constitution for the Confederate States of America, and formed a new government with Jefferson Davis as president.
As they seceded, these states seized most forts, arsenals, and other Federal property within their borders—with the significant exception of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
When Lincoln took his oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" the United States and its Constitution, the "united" states had already ceased to exist. When Confederate militia fired on Fort Sumter six weeks later, thereby inaugurating civil war, four more slave states seceded.
Secession and war transformed the immediate issue of the long sectional conflict from the future of slavery to the survival of the Union itself. Lincoln and most of the northern people refused to accept the constitutional legitimacy of secession. "The central idea pervading this struggle," Lincoln declared in May 1861, "is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose." Four years later, looking back over the bloody chasm of war, Lincoln said in his second inaugural address that one side in the controversy of 1861 "would make war rather than let the nation survive the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came."
The 13th amendment. (Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46)
The articles that follow focus on key aspects of the four-year conflict that not only preserved the nation, but also transformed it. The old decentralized republic in which the federal government had few direct contacts with the average citizen except through the post office became a nation that taxed people directly, created an internal revenue bureau to collect the taxes, drafted men into the Army, increased the powers of federal courts, created a national currency and a national banking system, and confiscated 3 billion dollars of personal property by emancipating the 4 million slaves. Eleven of the first 12 amendments to the Constitution had limited the powers of the national government six of the next seven, beginning with the 13th amendment in 1865, vastly increased national powers at the expense of the states.
The first three of these postwar amendments accomplished the most radical and rapid social and political change in American history: the abolition of slavery (13th) and the granting of equal citizenship (14th) and voting rights (15th) to former slaves, all within a period of five years. This transformation of more than 4 million slaves into citizens with equal rights became the central issue of the troubled 12-year Reconstruction period after the Civil War, during which the promise of equal rights was fulfilled for a brief time and then largely abandoned.
During the past half century, however, the promises of the 1860s have been revived by the civil rights movement, which reached a milestone in 2008 with the election of an African American President who took the oath of office with his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for that purpose in 1861.
The Civil War tipped the sectional balance of power in favor of the North. From the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 until 1861, slaveholders from states that joined the Confederacy had served as Presidents of the United States during 49 of the 72 years—more than two-thirds of the time. Twenty-three of the 36 Speakers of the House and 24 of the presidents pro tem of the Senate had been southerners. The Supreme Court always had a southern majority before the Civil War 20 of the 35 justices down to 1861 had been appointed from slave states.
After the war, a century passed before a resident of an ex-Confederate state was elected President. For half a century only one of the Speakers of the House and no president pro tem of the Senate came from the South, and only 5 of the 26 Supreme Court justices named during that half century were southerners.
The United States went to war in 1861 to preserve the Union it emerged from the war in 1865 having created a nation. Before 1861 the two words "United States" were generally used as a plural noun: "the United States are a republic." After 1865 the United States became a singular noun. The loose union of states became a single nation. Lincoln’s wartime speeches marked this transition. In his first inaugural address he mentioned the "Union" 20 times but the "nation" not once. In his first message to Congress on July 4, 1861, Lincoln used the word Union 32 times and nation only three times. But in his Gettysburg Address in November 1863 he did not mention the Union at all, but spoke of the nation five times to invoke a new birth of freedom and nationhood.
The Civil War resolved two fundamental, festering problems left unresolved by the American Revolution and the Constitution.
A Mathew Brady photo of Abraham Lincoln. (111-B-3658)
The first was the question whether this new republic born in a world of kings, emperors, tyrants, and oligarchs could survive. The republican experiment launched in 1776 was a fragile entity. The Founding Fathers were fearful about prospects for its survival. They were painfully aware that most republics through history had been overthrown by revolutions or had collapsed into anarchy or dictatorship. Some Americans alive in 1860 had twice seen French republics succumb to the forces of reaction. The same fate, they feared, could await them. That was why Lincoln at Gettysburg described the war as the great "testing" whether a "government of the people, by the people, for the people" would survive or "perish from the earth." It did not perish. Northern victory preserved the nation created in 1776. Since 1865 no disaffected state or region has seriously tried to secede. That question appears to have been settled.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln spoke also of a "new birth of freedom." He was referring to the other problem left unresolved by the Revolution of 1776—slavery. The Civil War settled that issue as well. Antebellum Americans had been fond of boasting that their "land of liberty" was a "beacon light of freedom" to the oppressed peoples of other lands. But as Lincoln had put it in 1854, "the monstrous injustice" of slavery deprived "our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites." With the 13th amendment, that monstrous injustice, at least, came to an end.
Before 1861 two socioeconomic and cultural systems had competed for dominance within the body politic of the United States: an agricultural society based on slavery versus an entrepreneurial capitalist society based on free labor. Although in retrospect the triumph of free-labor capitalism seems to have been inevitable, that was by no means clear for most of the antebellum era.
Not only did the institutions and ideology of the rural, agricultural, plantation South with its rigorous system of racial caste and slave labor dominate the United States government during most of that time, but the territory of the slave states also considerably exceeded that of the free states and the southern drive for further territorial expansion seemed more aggressive than that of the North. It is quite possible that if the Confederacy had prevailed in the 1860s, the United States might never have emerged as the world's largest economy and foremost democracy by the late 19th century.
Slaves picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation, undated. (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin)
The institutions and ideology of a plantation society and a slave system that had dominated half of the country before 1861 went down with a great crash in 1865 and were replaced by the institutions and ideology of free-labor entrepreneurial capitalism. For better or worse, the flames of the Civil War forged the framework of modern America.
Mark Twain remarked on this process in 1873. The "cataclysm" of the Civil War, he wrote, "uprooted institutions that were centuries old, changed the politics of a people, and wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations." Five generations have passed, and we are still measuring the consequences of that cataclysm.
James M. McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, is one of the nation's foremost Civil War historians. His book Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1989. Two other Civil War–related books, For Cause and Comrades and Tried by War, have won the prestigious Lincoln Prize. In 2008, McPherson received the Records of Achievement Award from the Foundation for the National Archives.
Congress renames the nation “United States of America”
On September 9, 1776, the Continental Congress formally declares the name of the new nation to be the “United States” of America. This replaced the term “United Colonies,” which had been in general use.
In the Congressional declaration dated September 9, 1776, the delegates wrote, “That in all continental commissions, and other instruments, where, heretofore, the words ‘United Colonies’ have been used, the stile be altered for the future to the “United States.”
A resolution by Richard Henry Lee, which had been presented to Congress on June 7 and approved on July 2, 1776, issued the resolve, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States….” As a result, John Adams thought July 2 would be celebrated as “the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” Instead, the day has been largely forgotten in favor of July 4, when Jefferson’s edited Declaration of Independence was adopted. That document also states, “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.” However, Lee began with the line, while Jefferson saved it for the middle of his closing paragraph.
By September, the Declaration of Independence had been drafted, signed, printed and sent to Great Britain. What Congress had declared to be true on paper in July was clearly the case in practice, as Patriot blood was spilled against the British on the battlefields of Boston, Montreal, Quebec and New York. Congress had created a country from a cluster of colonies and the nation’s new name reflected that reality.
23. Politics and the New Nation
Andrew Jackson, the namesake of "Jacksonian Democracy," opened the voting rolls to non-landholding white men.
The social forces that reshaped the United States in its first half century were profound. Western expansion, growing racial conflict, unprecedented economic changes linked to the early Industrial Revolution, and the development of a stronger American Protestantism in the Second Great Awakening all overlapped with one another in ways that were both complementary and contradictory.
Furthermore, these changes all had a direct impact on American political culture that attempted to make sense of how these varied impulses had transformed the country.
The changing character of American politics can be divided into two time periods separated by the War of 1812. In the early republic that preceded the war, " republicanism " had been the guiding political value. Although an unquestioned assault on the aristocratic ideal of the colonial era, republicanism also included a deep fear of the threat to public order posed by the decline of traditional values of hierarchy and inequality.
The United States still had a long way to go in 1816.
While it seems surprising today, at the start of the early republic many people, and almost all public leaders, associated democracy with anarchy. In the early national period following the War of 1812, democracy began to be championed as an unqualified key to improving the country. The formerly widespread fear of democracy was now held only by small and increasingly isolated groups in the 1820s.
John Quincy Adams had plenty of help at home in getting his political career going. He was the son of former President and First Lady John and Abigail Adams.
Although a belief in democratic principles remains at the center of American life today, the growth of democracy in the early national period was not obvious, easy, or without negative consequences. The economic boom of the early Industrial Revolution distributed wealth in shockingly unequal ways that threatened the independence of working-class Americans. Similarly, western expansion drove increased attacks on Native American communities as well as the massive expansion of slavery.
Finally, even within white households, the promise of Jacksonian Democracy could only be fully attained by husbands and sons. The changes American society underwent in the early national period, including many of its troubling problems, created a framework of modern American life that we can still recognize today.
American History 1--HIST 2111 (OER): Chapter 6: A New Nation
On July 4, 1788, Philadelphians turned out for a &ldquogrand federal procession&rdquo in honor of the new national constitution. Workers in various trades and professions demonstrated. Blacksmiths carted around a working forge, on which they symbolically beat swords into farm tools. Potters proudly carried a sign paraphrasing from the Bible, &ldquoThe potter hath power over his clay,&rdquo linking God&rsquos power with an artisan&rsquos work and a citizen&rsquos control over the country. Christian clergymen meanwhile marched arm-in-arm with Jewish rabbis. The grand procession represented what many Americans hoped the United States would become: a diverse but cohesive, prosperous nation. 1
Over the next few years, Americans would celebrate more of these patriotic holidays. In April 1789, for example, thousands gathered in New York to see George Washington take the presidential oath of office. That November, Washington called his fellow citizens to celebrate with a day of thanksgiving, particularly for &ldquothe peaceable and rational manner&rdquo in which the government had been established. 2 Read more about The New Nation.
Legends of America
When the American Revolution was over, the new United States not only had to deal with how to govern itself but also how to deal with Native Americans as the nation pushed westward. During this time, there were many decisions that were made that dealt with policies to keep the peace between white settlers and the Native Americans as well as dealing with other issues such as the practice of slavery and social reforms.
Mission San Diego, California 1848
1775 – Forced to labor in the mission fields and to worship according to the missionaries’ teachings, the Indians at San Diego, California rebelled against the Spanish, burning every building and killing most of the inhabitants, including the mission’s head priest. Thanks to a Spanish sharpshooter, the Indians were finally driven off and the Spanish retained control of their outpost.
1776 – On May 25, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved that it was “highly expedient to engage Indians in service of the United Colonies,” and authorized recruiting 2,000 paid auxiliaries. The program was a dismal failure, as virtually every tribe refused to fight for the colonists.
July 21, 1776 – Cherokee Indians attacked a settlement in western North Carolina. Militia forces retaliated by destroying a nearby Cherokee village.
Arikara Warrior by Karl Bodmer
1772-1780 – Eighty percent of the Arikara died of smallpox, measles, etc.
1776-1794 – Chickamauga Wars – A series of conflicts that were a continuation of the Cherokee struggle against white encroachment. Led by Dragging Canoe, who was called the Chickamauga by colonials, the Cherokee fought white settlers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
1781 – Smallpox wiped out more than half the Piegan Blackfoot.
1782 – On March 8, 1782, Captain David Williamson and about 90 volunteer militiamen slaughtered 62 adults and 34 children of the neutral, pacifist, and Christian Delaware people at Gnadenhutten, Ohio in retaliation for raids by other Indian tribes.
April 21, 1782 – The Presidio, overlooking San Francisco, was erected by the Spanish to subdue Indians interfering with mail transmissions along El Camino Real.
1785-1795 – Old Northwest War – Fighting occurred in Ohio and Indiana. Following two humiliating defeats at the hands of native warriors, the Americans won a decisive victory under “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
July 13, 1786 – The Northwest Ordinance was enacted, stating “the utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians… in their property, rights, and liberty they shall never be disturbed.”
1787 – First federal treaty enacted with the Delaware Indians.
1789 – The Indian Commerce Clause of the Constitution is added stating “The Congress shall have Power… to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes.” This clause is generally seen as the principal basis for the federal government’s broad power over Indians.
Indian agents, who were appointed as the federal government’s liaison with tribes, fell under the jurisdiction of the War Department. The Indian agents were empowered to negotiate treaties with the tribes.
1790 – The Indian Trade and Intercourse Act is passed, placing nearly all interaction between Indians and non-Indians under federal, rather than state control, established the boundaries of Indian country, protected Indian lands against non-Indian aggression, subjected trading with Indians to federal regulation, and stipulated that injuries against Indians by non-Indians was a federal crime. The conduct of Indians among themselves, while in Indian country, was left entirely to the tribes.
A military battle occurred between the US Army and Shawnee. The army, some 1,500 strong, invaded Shawnee territory, in what is now western Ohio. The Americans were defeated in 1791 after suffering 900 casualties, 600 of whom died.
March 1, 1790 – The first U.S. Census count included slaves and free African-Americans, but Indians were not included.
George Washington in military uniform, by Rembrandt Peale.
1792 – On November 6, George Washington, in his fourth annual address to Congress, expressed dissatisfaction that “Indian hostilities” had not stopped in the young country’s frontier, north of the Ohio River.
Pre-1795 – Trading begins between Native Americans and French and Spanish merchants from St. Louis, Missouri.
1795 – The Treaty of Greenville marked the end of an undeclared and multi-tribal war begun in the late 1770s and led by the Shawnee who fought to resist American expansion into Ohio. In 1795, over a thousand Indian delegates ceded two-thirds of present-day Ohio, part of Indiana, and the sites where the modern cities of Detroit, Toledo, and Chicago are currently situated. The Indians, in return, were promised a permanent boundary between their lands and American territory.
1802 – Federal law prohibits the sale of liquor to Indians.
1803 – The Louisiana Purchase adds to the United States French territory from the Gulf of Mexico to the Northwest.
The Lewis and Clark expedition begins its exploration of the West.
Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition of 1804-06
1804 to 1806 – Lewis and Clark expedition with Sacagawea. Under the direction of President Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark charted the western territory with the help of Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian.
1804 – The Sioux meet the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Trading posts begin to be established in the west.
Fur trading becomes an important part of Oglala life.
Oglala and other Lakota tribes expand their region of influence and control to cover most of the current regions known as North and South Dakota, westward to the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and south to the Platte River in Nebraska.
On March 26, 1804 the U.S. government gave first official notice to Indians to move west of the Mississippi River.
1808 – The Osage, a Sioux, sign the Osage Treaty ceding their lands in what is now Missouri and Arkansas to the U. S.
1808 to 1812 – Tecumseh, Chief of the Shawnee, and his brother, known as The Prophet, founded Prophetstown for the settlement of other Indian peoples who believed that signing treaties with the US government would culminate in the loss of the Indian way of life. Tecumseh also organized a defensive confederacy of Indian tribes of the Northwestern frontier who shared the common goal of making the Ohio River the permanent boundary between the United States and Indian land.
1809 – On February 8, Russians who built a blockhouse on the Hoh River (Olympic Penninsula, Washington) were taken captive by Hoh Indians and were held as slaves for two years.
On February 8, 1809, Russians who built a blockhouse on the Hoh River (Olympic Penninsula, Washington) were taken captive by Hoh Indians and were held as slaves for two years.
1810 – The Treaty of Fort Wayne brought the Delaware, Potawatomi, Miami, and Eel River Miami nations together to cede three million acres of their land along the Wabash River to the United States.
Nicholas Biddle of the Lewis and Clark expedition noted that among the Minitaree Indians the effeminate boys were raised as females. Upon reaching puberty, the boys were then married to older men. The French called them Birdashes.
1811 – On August 31, Fort Okanogan was established at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers Indians met the Astorians with pledges of friendship and gifts of beaver.
On November 7, 1811, Shawnee leader Tecumseh’s dream of a pan-Indian confederation was squashed when his brother Tenskwatawa led an attack against Indiana Territory militia forces in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa was defeated.
1813 to 1814 – The Creek War was instigated by General Andrew Jackson who sought to end Creek resistance to ceding their land to the US government. The Creek Nation was defeated and at the Treaty of Fort Jackson and lost 14 million acres or two-thirds of their tribal lands.
1815 – Blacks and Creek Indians captured Fort Blount, Florida from Seminole and used it as a haven for escaped slaves and as a base for attacks on slave owners. An American army detachment eventually recaptured the fort.
On July 27, 1815, the Seminole Wars began.
1817 – Congress passed the Indian Country Crimes Act which provided for federal jurisdiction over crimes between non-Indians and Indians and maintained exclusive tribal jurisdiction of all Indian crimes.
1820 – By this year, more than 20,000 Indians lived in virtual slavery in the California missions.
1821 – South Carolina settlers and their Cherokee allies attack and defeat the Yamassee.
The U.S. government began moving what it called the “Five Civilized Tribes” of southeast America (Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw) to lands west of the Mississippi River.
1823 – Johnson v. McIntosh Supreme Court decision – This case involved the validity of land sold by tribal chiefs to private persons in 1773 and 1775. The Court held that that Indian tribes had no power to grant lands to anyone other than the federal government.
1824 – The Indian Office federal agency was established by the Secretary of War and operated under the administration of the War Department. The Office becomes the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1849.
1825 – Creek Chief William McIntosh signs treaty ceding Creek lands to the U.S. and agrees to vacate by 1826 other Creek repudiate the treaty and kill him.
1827 – Creek Indians sign a second treaty ceding lands in western Georgia.
Sequoyah by Charles Bird King, 1828
1828 – Elias Boudinot and Sequoyah begin publishing the Cherokee Phoenix, the first American newspaper published in a Native American language.
1829 – Creek Indians receive orders to relocate across the Mississippi River.
1830 – On April 7, President Andrew Jackson submitted a bill to Congress calling for the removal of tribes in the east to lands west of the Mississippi. On May 28th, the Indian Removal Act was passed, and from 1830 to 1840 thousands of Native Americans were forcibly removed.
On September 15, 1830, the Choctaw sign a treaty exchanging 8 million acres of land east of the Mississippi for land in Oklahoma.
On December 22, 1830, the State of Georgia made it unlawful for Cherokee to meet in council unless it is for the purpose of giving land to whites.
1831 – Black Hawk of the Sac and Fox tribes agrees to move west of Mississippi River.
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia – The Cherokee Nation sued the State of Georgia for passing laws and enacting policies that not only limited their sovereignty, but which were forbidden in the Constitution. The Court’s decision proclaimed that Indians were neither US citizens, nor independent nations, but rather were “domestic dependent nations.”
Seminole Indians in Miami, Keystone View Co., 1926.
On December 25, 1831, a force of Black Seminole Indians defeated U.S. troops at Okeechobee during the Second Seminole War.
1832 – On August 2, 1832, some 150 Sac and Fox men, women and children, under a flag of truce, were massacred at Bad Axe River by the Illinois militia.
1833 – On January 12, a law was passed making it unlawful for any Indian to remain within the boundaries of the state of Florida.
1834 – The Indian Intercourse Act was passed and Congress created Indian Territory in the west that included the land area in all of present-day Kansas, most of Oklahoma, and parts of what later became Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming.
1835 – Treaty of New Echota – A portion of the Cherokee nation agreed to give up Cherokee lands in the Southeast in exchange for land in and removal to Indian Territory. A larger group of the Cherokee did not accept the terms of this treaty and refused to move westward.
1835-42 – The Second Seminole War is the most terrible of three wars between the US government and the Seminole people and was also one of the longest and most expensive wars in which the US army was ever engaged.
1836 – In five groups, over 14,000 Creek Indians were forcibly removed by the US Army from Alabama to Oklahoma.
1837 – Two-thirds of the 6,000 Blackfoot died of smallpox.
Trail of Tears painting by Robert Lindneux
1838 – Trail of Tears – Despite the Supreme Court’s rulings in 1831 and 1832 that the Cherokee had a right to stay on their lands, President Jackson sent federal troops to forcibly remove almost 16,000 Cherokee who had refused to move westward. In May, American soldiers herded most into camps where they remained imprisoned throughout the summer and where at least 1,500 perished. The remainder began an 800-mile forced march to Oklahoma that fall. In all some, 4,000 Cherokee died during the removal process.
On January 30, 1838, Seminole leader Osceola died from complications of malaria at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. He led a valiant fight against the removal of his people to Indian Territory, but eventually, the Seminole were forcibly relocated.
1841 – Forty-eight wagons arrive in Sacramento, California by way of the Oregon Trail, one of the earliest large groups to make this journey.
1847 – Thomas H. Hardy, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis, Missouri warns of trouble from declining buffalo herds.
1849 – The U.S. Government purchases Fort Laramie, Wyoming from the American Fur Company and begins to bring in troops.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs s transferred from the War Department to the newly-created Department of the Interior.
Physician services were extended to Indians with the establishment of a corps of civilian field employees.
January 24, 1849 – James Marshall discovers gold near Sutter’s Fort, California. News of the find begins the California Gold Rush of 1849 which displaces many Native Americans.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated March 2020.
Western Migration 1785-1820
During the years following the American Revolutionary War, many families began settling back to a normal life and reflecting upon the days of conflict. Settlement was discouraged beyond the Appalachian Mountains prior to the war, but now that independence was achieved, the original nation boundaries were beginning to expand in an overwhelming way. Genealogists and historians alike struggle with the research of these early migration routes. Documents pertaining to these roads are rare including maps displaying the exact location of the trails. The first western migration occurred between the years of 1785 and 1820, this in accordance to population records of the National Archives. The fascinating facts are attributed to the pioneers who traveled the routes and why they ventured to these new territories.
They Traveled by Land and By Water to Reach Their New Western Home
The reasons why families traveled west of the Appalachian Mountains varies from one cabin to another. A number of families decided to move west prior to the Revolutionary War to seek peace or to restrain from fighting in the war. Nevertheless, early trails allowed these families to enter present day Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. After the war, the settlers migrated due to the freedom they acquired from the war. They also migrated due to the vast amounts of land that was readily available. Many sought small settlements with no courthouses, no law and less neighbors. Some of the settlers were seeking a new start with no debt or perhaps changing their name and forgetting the events of the past. Understanding these reasons allows us to experience the migration in a different format. Money was extremely scarce after the war and many families were unable to pay the taxes due. Commodities such as coffee, tea, salt and sugar were expensive and prices for livestock, tobacco and other items were down for several years following the war.
For the researchers of these trails, where do you begin to document the facts? The recordkeeping varies with each territory and each new state as new land grants are distributed through the areas. The trails were the Wilderness Trail or Cumberland Gap Road and the National Road. Other Indian trails were known to be followed especially through the Appalachian Mountains and into Tennessee. Land grants were designed in six different categories, Purchase, Military, Pre-Emption, Surveyor, Commission and Legislative. The individual states began records in accordance to statehood. With this being said, your journey now begins with research first taking place on the history of the area in question in order to pinpoint the documents location on your ancestor.
Research the history of the area in question to determine how & where records were kept
Statehood dates for the original 13 colonies are listed below. Each link will take you directly to the individual state archives website. Pennsylvania-1787, New Jersey-1787, Delaware-1787, Maryland-1788, Virginia-1788, South Carolina-1788, Georgia-1788, New York-1788, Massachusetts-1788, Connecticut-1788, New Hampshire-1788, North Carolina-1789 and Rhode Island-1790. By 1791, these states were well settled and processing their own method of recordkeeping in accordance to the new nation’s guidelines.
Tennessee gained statehood in the year of 1796, but land grants were issued in North Carolina until 1806. During the war, North Carolina controlled the lands of Tennessee and protected them from the British Army. In doing so, North Carolina proclaimed documentation and recordkeeping for the lands until the year of 1806. Statehood date does not prove that records were kept and processed in that particular state. To understand how Ohio lands were distributed, read the Complete Guide of Ohio Lands. Ohio gained statehood during the year of 1803. Kentucky became a state in 1792 and Indiana in 1816. Illinois became a state in 1818 and Alabama in 1819.
Early Kentucky land records can be found in Virginia prior to 1792. Learning the early colony boundaries will enable you to distinguish the correct boundaries during your ancestor’s arrival to the area. For many war veterans who received land from the Northwest Territory, later learned that the land they held was also held under another name. Many judges rendered final decisions on these disputes from early land records. War veterans were entitled to free land in the new territory. This was approved in order to induce settlement in these areas. But, due to boundary lines and other state’s involvement, these lands were given to one person and sold to another. The free lands encouraged thousands of pioneer families to travel the routes and settle on the western frontier. Eventually, the new state boundaries were formed for Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois which then proved population percentage. This enabled the territories to become states as they grew.
The best method to tracking your early ancestor’s western migration is to create a timeline that proves your ancestor’s location for each year. Then follow the tax list records for the missing years. Each year, taxes were paid and this list will show you location and amount of tax paid. Check each year for your ancestor and if you still are unable to locate them, check wills/probates for their possible death in these areas. Once you have determined the location, you can track backwards to the available routes during that time from point of origin to final destination. This is a time consuming task but it is well worth the journey.
To fully understand the depth of research involved with each state as it became settled would require a segment on each one. This is a goal of Piedmont Trails as we move forward to this summer. The updates on individual state links can be viewed on the United States Genealogy Research page. Also for more information on the migration trails, we have added a new page, Early Migration Routes. Piedmont Trails will be adding more and more details involving research links, maps and more to this site as time allows. The records involving early settlement can be confusing, but the journey is well worth the time and effort. This allows you to discover your ancestor with a totally different approach. The main objective is to enjoy your research and don’t be bombarded with information that is not relevant to your criteria. Majority of the families who traveled west during the years of 1785 to 1820 were enjoying their freedom to wander and settle in new lands. The hope that dwelled within them carried on mile after mile. Carrying only what they needed along the trail, they moved slowly towards the setting sun. Once they arrived, the home was declared and building started immediately. Some families lived the remainder of their lives there while others moved further west to new frontiers. Our ancestors left an amazing trail to follow. Enjoy your journey to the past !!
The United States Constitution
In May 1787, 55 men from twelve states met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. At the outset, however, Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph presented a plan prepared by James Madison for the design of an entirely new national government. The proposed plan would lead to a four-month process of argument, debate, compromise, and the development of the Constitution of the United States.
On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the new Constitution was read to the 42 delegates still at the convention. Of the 42 men present, 39 affixed their signatures to the document and notified the Confederation Congress that their work was finished. The Congress, in turn, submitted the document to the states for ratification, where more argument, debate, and compromise would take place. The state of Delaware was the first to ratify the Constitution. On June 21, 1788, just nine months after the state ratification process had begun, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, and the Constitution went into effect.
In the two centuries since its ratification, many changes have been made to the Constitution. However, the basic premises on which the Constitution was framed--the protection of individual rights and liberties, limited government with separation of powers and checks and balances, the federal system, and judicial review--remain at the heart of the "living" document.
Native American History Timeline
Years before Christopher Columbus stepped foot on what would come to be known as the Americas, the expansive territory was inhabited by Native Americans. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, as more explorers sought to colonize their land, Native Americans responded in various stages, from cooperation to indignation to revolt.
After siding with the French in numerous battles during the French and Indian War and eventually being forcibly removed from their homes under Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, Native American populations were diminished in size and territory by the end of the 19th century.
Below are events that shaped Native Americans’ tumultuous history following the arrival of foreign settlers.
1492: Christopher Columbus lands on a Caribbean Island after three months of traveling. Believing at first that he had reached the East Indies, he describes the natives he meets as “Indians.” On his first day, he orders six natives to be seized as servants.
April 1513: Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon lands on continental North America in Florida and makes contact with Native Americans.
February 1521: Ponce de Leon departs on another voyage to Florida from San Juan to start a colony. Months after landing, Ponce de Leon is attacked by local Native Americans and fatally wounded.
May 1539: Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto lands in Florida to conquer the region. He explores the South under the guidance of Native Americans who had been captured along the way.
October 1540: De Soto and the Spaniards plan to rendezvous with ships in Alabama when they’re attacked by Native Americans. Hundreds of Native Americans are killed in the ensuing battle.
C. 1595: Pocahontas is born, daughter of Chief Powhatan.
1607: Pocahontas’ brother kidnaps Captain John Smith from the Jamestown colony. Smith later writes that after being threatened by Chief Powhatan, he was saved by Pocahontas. This scenario is debated by historians.
1613: Pocahontas is captured by Captain Samuel Argall in the first Anglo-Powhatan War. While captive, she learns to speak English, converts to Christianity and is given the name “Rebecca.”
1622: The Powhatan Confederacy nearly wipes out Jamestown colony.
1680: A revolt of Pueblo Native Americans in New Mexico threatens Spanish rule over New Mexico.
1754: The French and Indian War begins, pitting the two groups against English settlements in the North.
May 15, 1756: The Seven Years’ War between the British and the French begins, with Native American alliances aiding the French.
May 7, 1763 : Ottawa Chief Pontiac leads Native American forces into battle against the British in Detroit. The British retaliate by attacking Pontiac’s warriors in Detroit on July 31, in what is known as the Battle of Bloody Run. Pontiac and company successfully fend them off, but there are several casualties on both sides.
1785: The Treaty of Hopewell is signed in Georgia, protecting Cherokee Native Americans in the United States and sectioning off their land.
1788/89: Sacagawea is born.
1791: The Treaty of Holston is signed, in which the Cherokee give up all their land outside of the borders previously established.
August 20, 1794: The Battle of Timbers, the last major battle over Northwest territory between Native Americans and the United States following the Revolutionary War, commences and results in U.S. victory.
November 2, 1804 - Native American Sacagawea, while 6 months pregnant, meets explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their exploration of the territory of the Louisiana Purchase. The explorers realize her value as a translator
April 7, 1805 - Sacagawea, along with her baby and husband Toussaint Charbonneau, join Lewis and Clark on their voyage.
November 1811: U.S. forces attack Native American War Chief Tecumsehਊnd his younger brother Lalawethika. Their community at the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers is destroyed.
June 18, 1812: President James Madison signs a declaration of war against Britain, beginning the war between U.S. forces and the British, French and Native Americans over independence and territory expansion.
March 27, 1814: Andrew Jackson, along with U.S. forces and Native American allies attack Creek Indians who opposed American expansion and encroachment of their territory in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. The Creeks cede more than 20 million acres of land after their loss.
May 28, 1830: President Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which gives plots of land west of the Mississippi River to Native American tribes in exchange for land that is taken from them.
1836: The last of the Creek Native Americans leave their land for Oklahoma as part of the Indian removal process. Of the 15,000 Creeks who make the voyage to Oklahoma, more than 3,500 don’t survive.
1838: With only 2,000 Cherokees having left their land in Georgia to cross the Mississippi River, President Martin Van Buren enlists General Winfield Scott and 7,000 troops to speed up the process by holding them at gunpoint and marching them 1,200 miles. More than 5,000 Cherokee die as a result of the journey. The series of relocations of Native American tribes and their hardships and deaths during the journey would become known as the Trail of Tears.
1851: Congress passes the Indian Appropriations Act, creating the Indian reservation system. Native Americans aren’t allowed to leave their reservations without permission.
October 1860: A group of Apache Native Americans attack and kidnap a white American, resulting in the U.S. military falsely accusing the Native American leader of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, Cochise. Cochise and the Apache increase raids on white Americans for a decade afterwards.
November 29, 1864: 650 Colorado volunteer forces attack Cheyenne and Arapaho encampments along Sand Creek, killing and mutilating more than 150 American Indians during what would become known as the Sandy Creek Massacre.
1873:razy Horsencounters General George Armstrong Custer for the first time.
1874: Gold discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills drives U.S. troops to ignore a treaty and invade the territory.
June 25, 1876: In the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as 𠇌uster’s Last Stand,” Lieutenant Colonel George Custer’s troops fight Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, along Little Bighorn River. Custer and his troops are defeated and killed, increasing tensions between Native Americans and white Americans.
October 6, 1879: The first students attend Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the country’s first off-reservation boarding school. The school, created by Civil War veteran Richard Henry Pratt, is designed to assimilate Native American students.
The Beginning of a Nation
Detail of Washington Delivering His Inaugural Address, April 1789 (Library of Congress)
Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the July 23, 1976, issue of National Review .
O! Ye unborn Inhabitants of America! Should this Page escape its destin’d Conflagration at the Year’s End, and these Alphabetical Letters remain legible — when your Eyes behold the Sun after he has rolled the Seasons round for two or three Centuries more, you will know that in Anno Domini 1758, we dream’d of your times.
S o the Boston philomath Nathaniel Ames wrote in his almanac almost two decades before Congress declared the 13 colonies independence from Britain. It had been a century and a half since Captain Newport established at Jamestown the first permanent English foothold almost as long since Ames’s New England forebears established their “city upon a hill” along Massachusetts Bay. Now, in the mid-eighteenth century, England’s American colonists began to share a sense of special destiny that would later be woven into the fabric of a new American nationalism.
Without this awakening consciousness of the uniqueness of the American experience, the colonists could never have transcended their traditional loyalty to the “English nation.” Their commitment crossed colonial boundaries to embrace the American continent. It is this cultural phenomenon — the emergence after 1750 of a new American self-consciousness — that underlay the American Revolution begun in 1763 and consummated in 1789.
We are commemorating on July 4 of this year the Bicentennial of one event in that tremendous transformation. Independence, however, did not then and there create the American nation. Independence alone, without the existence of a continental political structure, could not have fulfilled the vision Ames articulated 18 years before. It was one thing for a South Carolinian, for example, to feel a sense of common destiny with a citizen of New York. It was quite another for the Carolinian and the New Yorker to come together under a single national government. Separation from Great Britain was one step in the morphology of the Revolution. But the “real revolution,” to use John Adams’ term, consisted in the creation of the United States of America out of 13 highly individualistic English colonies.
The juridical origins of our federal democratic republic go back to the 1760s, when the 13 separate colonial representative assemblies were each making insistent demands for legislative autonomy. Such demands by 13 “little parliaments” in the American woods conflicted with the British Parliament’s declaration of imperial legislative supremacy. We see a groping towards federalism in the colonists’ tentative thought that Parliament might legislate on external affairs (trade, for example), while the assemblies would legislate autonomously on internal affairs (taxation, for example).
That formula — clearly enunciated in 1767 by John Dickinson — failed. It represented a half-way house that satisfied neither Parliament nor, ultimately, the colonists themselves. The former clung to its declaration of legislative supremacy “in all cases whatsoever”: the latter, 13 distinct political societies with a growing sense of a common American identity, had gone too far along the road to self-government. The colonies and England came to blows when the assemblies at last denied that Parliament had any right to legislate for them at all.
For seven years, in fact, from the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774 to the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781, the colonies-become-states operated as independent commonwealths cooperating with each other in pursuit of a common cause. They were a sort of United Nations without benefit of charter.
Following Lexington, several members of the Continental Congress pointed to the lack of a written legal agreement for joint action by the states. Even before the Great Declaration, Benjamin Franklin had startled the members of Congress with his suggestion for articles of confederation. A resolution for such an instrument was eventually coupled with the resolution for independence. In consequence, articles of confederation, fittingly written by the same John Dickinson who had suggested federalism within the Empire, were brought forward within the week following the act of separation.
It took almost a year and a half, however, for Congress to agree on a draft to be transmitted to the states. Understandably, Congress was busy with other matters at that time, including keeping out of reach of the ever-threatening Redcoats. (Indeed, when Congress was not fleeing from the British army, it was avoiding another invasion: the hundreds of European volunteers pursuing commissions and glory in the American service.) Not only did Congress have ultimate responsibility for the military conduct of the war, including raising and paying armies, it had also to obtain foreign aid, attempt to uphold the public credit, and — above all — maintain American independence in the face of the most discouraging odds. Historians have unfairly maligned this Congress, which did, after all, see the states through to victory in a very doubtful contest.
Congress finally submitted the Articles of Confederation to the states on November 15, 1777. Ratification was to be by unanimous consent, a consent not forthcoming for another four years.
The chief stumbling block to agreement was the enormous western landholdings of some of the states. Virginia claimed the grandest domains of all, a domain based on the sea-to-sea charter originally granted her by a king whose successors she now disdained.
The so-called landless states, led by Maryland, refused to ratify the articles until the others ceded their western claims to the general government. New York and Connecticut (excepting the three-million-acre Western Reserve) soon complied. The English southern campaign that began with the occupation of Charleston in 1780 helped convince Virginia to cooperate. (In January 1781, the month of Virginia’s acquiescence, traitor Benedict Arnold led a Redcoat raid on Richmond, the new capitol.) Virginia’s cession, which included a federal guarantee of the previous land claims of her citizens, led to Maryland’s ratification of the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781. At last, only eight months before Yorktown, the United States had a constitution.
There were, fittingly, 13 Articles of Confederation. The fifth of these authorized what Congress had been doing all along: each state would be represented by no fewer than two nor more than seven delegates, their salaries to be paid by the states voting in Congress would be by state, not by head. The ninth, which is the longest article, laid out Congress’ powers, which were few: to declare war, to adjudicate interstate disputes, to coin money each power required the agreement of nine states. Amendments to the Articles required unanimous consent. In a burst of optimism, Article Eleven offered a place in the American Confederacy to Canada, an offer which the ungrateful Canadians declined. (Article Eleven was more modest than Franklin’s earlier, rejected federal plan, which included the British West Indies and Ireland as well as Canada.)
But even with the long-postponed ratification of our first constitution, the particularistic Spirit of ‘76 remained in the ascendant. The Articles of Confederation were ratified by the states, not by the people. “The said states,” according to Article Three, “hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other.” The Revolution had yet to be consummated. A governmental structure capable of giving political expression to American national feeling had yet to be created.
Every student of history remembers being taught somewhere, sometime, of the “weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.” And from a nationalist point of view, they were weak. The Congress under the Articles could neither tax nor regulate trade. The states, as well as the Congress, could coin money (an important attribute of sovereignty). The general government’s slight authority was over states, not individuals. There was no executive branch, no federal judiciary. The states remained supreme.
A depression in the mid-1780s exacerbated the financial chaos: agrarianized state legislatures issued legal tender bills of credit and legislated postponement of private debts. Rhode Island (conservatives labeled her “Rogue Island”) presented a picture of eager debtors waving inflated Rhode Island dollars as they closed o’er the landscape frantic creditors who hurled themselves across state lines or into Narragansett Bay to avoid receiving payment in worthless currency. With no central regulatory authority, states vied with one another in a kind of commercial warfare New Jersey, for example, placed a prohibitive tax on the Sandy Hook lighthouse in retaliation for New York’s tariff, which discriminated against both New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s commerce. True, by 1787, most states had come to reciprocity agreements with one another. But who could say when and where commercial warfare would break out anew among the potentially proliferating states of the confederation?
I n foreign affairs, the Congress unsuccessfully attempted to cope with Spain’s monopolization of the lower Mississippi. Negotiations only succeeded in stirring up regional animosities when northern representatives seemed ready to sacrifice the Mississippi for commercial relations with the Spanish West Indies. Here lies the origin of the two-thirds rule for ratification of treaties, intended to prevent one region from sacrificing the interests of another.
The United States were in conflict with Britain over her retention of military forts on American soil along the Great Lakes, and over compensation to loyalists, pre-war debts, the West Indian trade, and commercial relations in general. Proud John Adams’s ministry to the Court of St. James provided constant humiliation. Where, wondered the haughty Britons, were the other 12 ministers? Queen of the seas, Britain seemed to countenance the pirating activities of the North African corsairs. These preyed upon American merchantmen who either payed tribute or showed forged British passes. (Wise Ben Franklin quipped that if the corsairs did not exist, Britain would invent them.)
An emphasis upon the domestic and foreign difficulties of the nation under the Articles should not blind us to the solid achievements of the period. Slavery, for example, was abolished north of the Mason-Dixon line. The precedent-shattering Northwest Ordinance set a liberal pattern for westward expansion. Church and state were separated in Virginia. Industry and commerce discovered new opportunities outside the British Empire, included an astonishing trade with the Far East beginning in 1784. (One staple of this trade was the New England root ginseng, which optimistic Chinese believed would restore virility to the aged.) Such commercial initiative led to Captain Robert Gray’s establishment of the American claim to the watershed of the Columbia River.
I t was in the 1780s, too, that Hector St. John de Crevecouer set down on paper the essential configuration of a new American ideology. In Letters from an American Farmer, first published in 1782, the transplanted Frenchman described a system of values that would long remain characteristic of American nationalism. “What, then,” asked Crevecour, “is the American, this new man?”
He is neither European nor the descendant of a European hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country…. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new modes of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…. Here individual of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world…. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labor his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest can it want a stronger allurement?…. The American is a new man who acts upon new principles he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.
Here in striking combination are the themes of the melting pot, the mission or America, work justly rewarded, patriotism, equality, and individualism. Crevecouer was not blind to his adopted country’s faults. He particularly condemned slavery and whites’ treatment of Native Americans. But his Letters, like Nathaniela Ames’s apostrophe to generations unborn, is eloquent testimony to the emergence of an American ethos.
Despite solid achievements, and notwithstanding Crevecouer’s hymn of praise, the Confederacy’s problems both at home and abroad were real enough. The movement for the creation of a truly national government began, in fact, before the ink was dry on the 13 Articles. Sparked mainly by public creditors and abetted by discontented army officers, the movement was weakened by the coming of peace and the local jealousies of the states. Rogue Island alone, for example, prevented the passage of a constitutional amendment by which the Congress could have enacted uniform a uniform impost throughout the nation. Lack of funds, therefore, remained a crucial congressional weakness.
Mt. Vernon was the appropriate setting for a renewed effort at strengthening the central government. In the presence of the living symbol of the nation, commissioners from Maryland and Virginia met to consider interstate commercial problems. Among these was the disposition of Chesapeake Bay’s oysters so it was that the Constitution would rise, like Venus, from a sea shell.
An amicable settlement of various problems (including the disposition of the oysters) encouraged the commissioners to make more ambitious efforts to strengthen the central government. During September 1786, delegates from five states met at Annapolis. Convinced that a radical revision of the Articles of Confederation was essential, these delegates, Madison and Hamilton in the vanguard, issued a call to the Congress for a convention of the states. Its purpose would be “to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”
Persuasive as this call may have been, captain Daniel Shays in western Massachusetts unwittingly presented reluctant congressmen with an even more compelling motive for shoring up the government. The postwar depression wreaked economic havoc among New England’s yeoman farmers. The rebellion that Shays led in the winter of 1786-87 focused first upon the courts, which Shays and his men forced to disband. Dispossession had become endemic in the debt-ridden western counties. Closing the forts frustrated foreclosure proceedings moreover, for Shay’s enraged agrarians, the courts were a tangible symbol of the eastern moneyed interest and of a government unresponsive to their needs.
Shay’s attack upon property rights was frightening enough, but when he and his men went after the federal arsenal at Springfield, it seemed that the social order was on the verge of collapse. Massachusetts, after all, possessed the first state constitution to be ratified by the people. Shays appeared to be testing the survival of republican government based on consent. Great was the establishment’s relief when General Lincoln easily dispersed the rebels. Relief became dismay, however, when the frightened Massachusetts legislature enacted some of the rebels’ demands into law.
“I feel, my dear General Knox,” wrote Washington to his old companion in arms, “infinitely more than I can express to you, for the disorders which have arisen in these States. Good God! Who, besides a Tory, could have foreseen, or a Briton predicted them?” Sharing Washington’s sentiments, a Shays-traumatized Congress, on February 21, 1787, asked the states to send delegates to a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.
This is no place for the historiographical battle over the motives of the 55 men who met in Philadelphia during the simmering summer of 1787. More than half a century ago, Charles Beard called them conspirators against a prevailing order that had failed adequately to represent their property interests: the Philadelphia Convention was our Revolution’s Thermidor.
It seems clear today, however, particularly in the light of exhaustive research into the ideology of the Founders, that the Philadelphians meant not to subvert the Revolution, but to secure it. They believed, of course, in the sanctity of property in the eighteenth century, property rights were thought to provide the essential foundation of human rights. The Founders did not see, as some see today, any incompatibility between the rights of property and the rights of man. The Constitution, Beard to the contrary, is a political, not an economic document. The Founders’ art consisted in the creation of a national institutional framework consonant with the Revolutionary commitment to local self-government. They turned a “league of friendship” into a “more perfect union,” to be ratified not by the states, but by the people.
The late Catherine Drinker Bowen denominated the Founders’ success in forming a truly national government the “Miracle at Philadelphia.” A century earlier, the historian von Holst had found it necessary to utilize a similarly heavenly metaphor in describing the work of the Constitutional Convention. The Founders, he commented, had ventured to outdo the mystery of the Trinity by endeavoring to make 13 one, while leaving the one 13. John Marshall, in 1821, put the matter in a decidedly more sober, not to say earthly manner. “America,” he said, “has chosen to be, in many respects, and to many purposes, a nation.”
The Constitution at last created a national government that gave adequate effect to the Americans’ increasing self-consciousness as a united people. It left to interpretation the precise juridical balance between state and nation, a problem which would remain at the base of American politics through the Civil War, and which, in fact, is with us still. Yet, the Constitution itself remains above the battle. South and North warred over its meaning, but the universal veneration of the national charter survived even that holocaust.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution define the American nation. As we enter the third century of independence, however, it is well to recall that we are in the fourth century of American history. It is to the colonial period we must look for the roots of republicanism and federalism. While the colonies were becoming mature societies — and their representative assemblies, fully developed organs of self-government — England recognized them only as overseas corporations dependent on her sovereign authority. Denied self-government within the Empire, the colonies, many of them reluctantly, declared their independence — a declaration they made good within eight years of war. The final act of the drama consisted in their coalescing into a nation.
It seems appropriate to give George Washington the last word. As he assumed the executive office for which the new Constitution provided, he remarked upon the “providential agency” that seemed to accompany every step by which the United States “have advanced to the character of an independent nation,” including “the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government.” In this First Inaugural Address by the First President of the United States, Washington quietly announced the completion of the American Revolution and the beginning of the national period of American history.
After the Revolution, the Nation Faces a Weak Political System
Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I'm Doug Johnson with Richard Rael.
This week in our series, we begin the story of a document that defined a nation: the United States Constitution.
The thirteen American colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776. But they had to win their independence in a long war that followed. During that war, the colonies were united by an agreement called the Articles of Confederation.
The Union was a loose one. The Articles of Confederation did not organize a central government. They did not create courts or decide laws. They did not provide an executive to carry out the laws. All the Articles of Confederation did was to create a Congress. But it was a Congress with little power. It could only advise the separate thirteen states and ask them to do some things. It could not pass laws for the Union of states.
The weakness of this system became clear soon after the war for independence ended.
British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. A messenger brought the Congress news of the victory. The Congress had no money. It could not even pay the messenger. So money had to be collected from each member of the Congress.
Even before the war ended, three men called for a change in the loose confederation of states. They urged formation of a strong central government. Those three men were George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison.
George Washington commanded America's troops during the revolution. He opposed the Articles of Confederation because they provided little support for his army. His soldiers often had no clothes or shoes or food. They had no medicines or blankets or bullets.
During the war, Washington wrote many angry letters about the military situation. In one letter, he said: "Our sick soldiers are naked. Our healthy soldiers are naked. Our soldiers who have been captured by the British are naked!"
General Washington's letters produced little action. The thirteen separate states refused to listen when he told them the war was a war of all the states. He learned they were more interested in themselves than in what his soldiers needed.
After the war, there was much social, political, and economic disorder. General Washington saw once again that there was no hope for the United States under the Articles of Confederation. He wrote to a friend: "I do not believe we can exist as a nation unless there is a central government which will rule all the nation, just as a state government rules each state."
Alexander Hamilton agreed. He was a young lawyer and an assistant to General Washington during the revolution. Even before the war ended, Hamilton called for a convention of the thirteen states to create a central government. He expressed his opinion in letters, speeches, and newspaper stories.
Finally, there was James Madison. He saw the picture clearly. It was an unhappy picture.
There were thirteen governments. And each tried to help itself at the cost of the others. Nine states had their own navy. Each had its own army. The states used these forces to protect themselves from each other.
For example, the state of Virginia passed a law which said it could seize ships that did not pay taxes to the state. Virginia did not mean ships from England and Spain. It meant ships from Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.
James Madison often said most of the new nation's political problems grew out of such commercial problems.
In the 1780s, many people in America and Europe believed the United States was on the road to anarchy.
One sign was the money system. There was no national money. Many Americans thought of money as the pounds and shillings of the British system. There was an American dollar. But it did not have the same value everywhere. In New York, the dollar was worth eight shillings. In South Carolina, it was worth more than thirty-two shillings.
This situation was bad enough. Yet there also were all kinds of other coins used as money: French crowns, Spanish doubloons, European ducats.
In 1786, representatives from Maryland and Virginia met to discuss opening land for new settlements along the Potomac River. The Potomac formed the border between those two states.
The representatives agreed that the issue of settling new land was too big for just two states to decide. "Why not invite Delaware and Pennsylvania to help?" someone asked. Someone else said all the states should be invited. Then they could discuss all the problems that were giving the new nation so much trouble.
The idea was accepted. And a convention was set for Annapolis, Maryland.
The convention opened as planned. It was not much of a meeting. Representatives came from only five states. Four other states had chosen representatives, but they did not come. The remaining four states did not even choose representatives.
The men who did meet at Annapolis, however, agreed it was a beginning. They agreed, too, that a larger convention should be called. They appointed the representative from New York, Alexander Hamilton, to put the agreement in writing.
So Hamilton sent a message to the legislature of each state. He called for a convention in Philadelphia in May of the next year, 1787. The purpose of the convention, he said, would be to write a constitution for the United States.
Many people believed the convention would not succeed without George Washington. But General Washington did not want to go. He suffered from rheumatism. His mother and sister were sick. He needed to take care of business at his farm, Mount Vernon. And he already said he was not interested in public office. How would it look if -- as expected -- he was elected president of the convention?
George Washington was the most famous man in America. Suppose only a few states sent representatives to the convention? Suppose it failed? Would he look foolish?
Two close friends -- James Madison and Edmund Randolph -- urged General Washington to go to Philadelphia. He trusted them. So he said he would go as one of the representatives of Virginia. From that moment, it was clear the convention would be an important event. If George Washington would be there, it had to be important.
The first man to arrive in Philadelphia for the convention was James Madison. Madison was thirty-five years old. He was short and was losing his hair. He was not a good speaker. But he always knew what he wanted to say. He had read everything that had been published in English about governments, from the governments of ancient Greece to those of his own time.
Madison believed the United States needed a strong central government. He believed the governments of the thirteen states should be second to the central government.
Madison knew he should not push his ideas too quickly, however. Many representatives at the convention were afraid of a strong central government. They did not trust central governments with too much power. So Madison planned his work quietly. He came to the convention with hundreds of books and papers. He was prepared to answer any question about government that any other representative might ask him.