Launching a New Government
After the Constitution was ratified, the nation still had to see if it would actually work. America’s brave experiment into self-government was just that, an experiment. The nations of the world, all of which were controlled by kings, fully expected America’s self-government to fail miserably. However, this new government, one in which the people hold the true power of the government, was destined to become the world’s freest, and most powerful nation on the face of the Earth.
Once the Constitution was ratified, the people elected their first representatives under the new government. Most of the representatives elected were Federalists, who had supported the ratification of the Constitution. This meant the new government was in friendly hands. George Washington was selected by the presidential electors to be our first president. With representatives elected and in place, the government got down to business. Laws were passed setting up the nation’s court system, and passing tariffs and other taxes to raise money for the government to operate. It was important that the government quickly start taking in revenue, as the nation’s first crisis was its huge debt.
The first crisis facing the new nation was its debt. The Second Continental Congress and the states had borrowed millions of dollars to pay for supplies needed to fight England in the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was chosen to be the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. It would be Hamilton’s problem to figure out how to pay back all of the nation’s and states’ debts from the Revolutionary War.
Many people thought we could simply refuse to pay the debt. After all, the country that borrowed all that money to support the revolution was the Second Continental Congress, the Articles of Confederation government. America was now the Untied States of America under the Constitution. We could simply say we were a new country now, and not repay the debt. However, Hamilton knew that this was a bad idea. For one, the Constitution stated that all debts owed by the Articles of Confederation government would be paid back by the new government. And, more importantly, if America refused to pay its debts, then no other country would ever loan America money again, and most would refuse to trade with America, fearing that America would just change its name again to get out of payment. To be a successful nation, America had to repay the debt.
The problem was that America was flat broke. Simply stated, America owed more than it was actually worth! To solve this, Hamilton came up with a brilliant financial plan.
Hamilton’s plan to pay of America’s debt had four parts.
- Fund payment of America’s debt by selling bonds
- The national government would assume the debt of the states
- An excise tax on whiskey
- Charter a national bank
The first part of Hamilton’s plan, selling bonds to investors would quickly get the nation some money to pay back some of the money America owed. Later, the nation would have to pay back the investors that bought the bonds, but by that time, Hamilton expected the nation to be better off financially and receiving revenue from taxes.
Hamilton’s second part of the plan, assuming state debt was equally important. If the states did not pay their debts, foreign countries would assume that all America would not pay back its debts. However, this idea caused problems. The southern states had already paid back most, or all, of their debts. The south had slave labor and grew cash crops on plantations. This allowed the south to pay back the majority of its debts. The northern states, unfortunately, were unable to grow cash crops and were unable to pay back any of their debts. Hamilton’s plan to take the debts of all the states and make it federal debt would mean that the south would be paying the northern states’ debt too when they paid taxes. To southerners, this was unfair. The nation’s capital, at the time, was in New York City. Many southerners thought that the new government was showing that it only cared about the northern states, and having the capital in a northern state meant the south would never be fairly represented. To get the southern states to agree to help pay off northern debt, the Capital Compromise was made. The Capital Compromise moved the nation’s capital from New York City to Washington, D.C., on the banks of the Potomac River that separates Maryland from Virginia. The new nation’s capital would be halfway between the northern and southern states.
The third part of Hamilton’s plan called for a tax to be collected on al whiskey sales in the nation. Unfortunately, this caused problems too. Farmers in Pennsylvania could barely make a living growing crops in Pennsylvania. However, if they took their corn and used it to make whiskey, they could make enough money to feed their families. The farmers refused to pay the taxes, as they believed it only applied to big companies. But the law to tax whiskey had been passed by the Congress. If these farmers could refuse, so could anyone and the nation would fall.
The Pennsylvania farmer’s rebellion is called the Whiskey Rebellion. To put down the rebellion, President Washington led 15,000 soldiers into Pennsylvania and forced the farmers to pay their taxes. The Whiskey Rebellion was important because it showed that the government’s constitutional power to lay and collect taxes, in fact all laws passed by congress, would be upheld by the government, with force if necessary.
The fourth part of Hamilton’s financial plan was to charter a Bank of the United States. The National Bank would serve several purposes. It would serve as a depository for federal funds and receive tax revenues paid by the people. Once this money was deposited, it could then be loaned to government for internal projects such as building roads, loan money to businessmen to build factories, farmers to buy government land, and other economic incentives to grow the nation’s economy. The National Bank could also issue a sound paper dollar, backed by gold and silver deposited in the bank. This would tie the paper dollars to specie, gold or silver, that would keep the value of the dollar from going up or down in value.
Congress approved Hamilton’s financial plan. But there was fierce opposition to the plan. Madison and Jefferson believed that a National Bank would only benefit the rich as rich people could invest in the bank and make money from the interest people paid on their loans. Thomas Jefferson, also, believed that a National Bank was unconstitutional. The debate over the constitutionality of the National Bank would divide the nation into two very different viewpoints, and our nation’s first two political parties.
Hamilton vs. Jefferson
The Birth of Political Parties in America
Bitter arguments over the National Bank, in fact what government could, or could not do under the Constitution led to the nation’s first political parties. Jefferson was a strict constructionist. Strict Constructionists believe that the Constitution only allows government to do what is specifically written in the Constitution, and nothing more. Hamilton was a loose constructionist. Jefferson argued that Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution that lists the powers of the congress did not include chartering a National Bank. Furthermore, he argued that Amendment X of the Constitution reserves all powers not specifically reserved for the federal government to the states, so government could not charter a National Bank.
Loose Constructionists believed that the Constitution allows government to “stretch” and government to take on new powers not specifically listed in the Constitution. Hamilton stated that Article I, Section 8, Clause 18 (called the Elastic Clause) of the Constitution stated that Congress had the power to “make all laws necessary and proper for carrying out into execution” the other powers it had. In effect, since government had the power to borrow money, regulate commerce, and coin money, certainly it had the power to charter a bank to do this.
Hamilton and Jefferson differed on many other things as well. These differences and the supporters that agreed with them formed the first political parties. Hamilton represented the Federalist Party. The Federalist Party favored a strong federal government with a loose interpretation of the Constitution. They wanted American to have an industrial based economy like England had, and regulations to aid businessmen. Jefferson represented the views of the Democratic-Republican Party. The Democratic-Republican Party wanted a limited, or weak federal government, which allowed the state’s to have more power, and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party favored an agrarian, or agriculturally based economy and a laissez-faire capitalistic system with very few regulations that would limit economic growth.
Through Washington’s two terms as president, people chose sides and joined on of the two parties. The nation was prosperous, and American had many natural resources and arable land for growing crops. Yet, the divide between the two parties set in motion political debates that would rage for the ages.
Problems with Europe, Again!
What American needed more than anything was time to grow in peace. A whole nation was being built from scratch, and it did not need trouble from outside its borders to deal with too. Yet, American would not be allowed a time of peace in which to grow.
During Washington’s first presidential administration, the French Revolution swept through France. French citizens overthrew the French king and tried to install a republic as America had done. Frenchmen such as the Marquis de Lafayette, who had helped America fight England, asked for help. But, Washington refused. Washington knew America was too weak to get involved in European affairs. The revolution in France soon turned into a dictatorship. Men like Lafayette again urged Washington for assistance. Washington again refused. Washington issued the American Proclamation of Neutrality. America would not get involved in European troubles, as it needed time to grow. America would remain neutral.
France soon declared war on England again. War between England and France drew Americans into Europe’s wars. England ignored America’s neutral status. America sold goods to France. To hurt France’s economy, England captured and sank American merchant ships on route to France. England also impressed, or forced, American sailors into the British Navy to fight France against their will.
In an effort to stop England from abusing our merchant ships, Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty. England signed Jay’s Treaty in 1794. According to the treaty, England was to stop harassing American ships, pay damages for the shipping they had destroyed, remove their troops from American soil that they had not done after the American Revolution, and stop impressing American sailors into the British Navy. Though England signed Jay’s Treaty, they never lived up to their end of the bargain. Many Americans begged their government to go to war against England for failing to live up to the treaty, but America was weak, and war was not approved.
Washington left office after two terms as president. When he left, Washington left the nation with a message. In George Washington’s Farewell Address, he warned the nation two things, not to start political parties that he feared would divide the nation, and not to get involved in European affairs that would only drag us into their problems, and their wars. Unfortunately, neither was something the nation could avoid.
When John Adams became the nation’s second president, he too tried to solve the brewing crisis at sea. France, too, sank U.S. merchant ship to traveling to England to try to hurt England’s economy. If England would not honor its treaties, maybe France would. Adams sent ambassadors to France to make a treaty with the French. There, the French officials demanded a $250,000 bribe to even talk to the American ambassadors! The ambassadors were outraged! They sent a letter to President Adams, but did not name the French officials, knowing that other people might read the letter. Called the XYZ Affair, after the French officials being called X, Y, and Z, the disrespect shown to America inflamed the nation. Now, half of America wanted war with France!
Alien and Sedition Acts
President Adams faced hardship at home from the failures of Jay’s Treaty and the XYZ Affair. People constantly barraged him to go to war with France or England. Adams also was concerned that foreigners in America could be spies for the French or English. So, in 1798, Adams had Congress pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Alien Act limited foreign immigration to the United States, and limited their rights under the Constitution. The Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize the government. In effect, the Alien and Sedition Acts stripped Americans of their rights under the Bill of Rights, taking away; for example, Americans’ right to free speech.
Many Americans believed, and rightly so, that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. Madison and Jefferson fought against Adams’ laws. Madison and Jefferson had the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions passed in those states. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions urged the states to declare the Alien and Sedition Acts unconstitutional, and that the states would not obey these laws. This begins the idea of state’s rights, the idea that a state can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. However, states do not have this right under the Constitution. Only the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional.
Trouble with England and France continued to be a problem for Adams, and the next president, Jefferson. It would not be solved until the War of 1812.
3rd President of the Untied States
In 1800, President Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams and became the third president of the Untied States. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party had defeated the Federalists. But, the nation was divided. Jefferson tried to unite the nation in his inaugural address, and quickly got down to business undoing everything the Federalists had accomplished.
In 1803, John Marshal, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, decided one of
That same year, 1803, President Jefferson accomplished his most important achievement in office by buying the Louisiana Purchase from France. France had lost all of its North American possessions in the French and Indian War. However, Spain was an empire in decline, and the new dictator of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was marching his armies across Europe. Napoleon forced Spain to give up all their land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Napoleon, who wanted to rule the world, hoped to colonize this area, and from it, try to dominate all of North America. However, events did not unfold as Napoleon wanted.
Jefferson had long wanted to gain the important trading city of New Orleans on the banks of the Mississippi River where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Settlers living near rivers in the west shipped their goods on barges down the river to trade. If France cut off access to New Orleans, these settlers would be helpless and could not trade or sell their goods. America needed New Orleans!
Jefferson sent word to Napoleon that America wanted to buy New Orleans for two million dollars. The message he got back was surprising. Napoleon offered to sell the entire Louisiana Purchase for only 15 million dollars! Napoleons’ dreams of world conquest had been dashed. The important naval base he had in Haiti had been taken away in a slave revolt led by the slave Toussant L’Overture, and England, with her huge navy, had just declared war on France again. Napoleon needed cash to fight the British more than he needed the Louisiana Purchase.
Jefferson was worried that he needed to take up Napoleon’s offer quick before someone else bought the land. However, Jefferson was worried, too, because he was a strict constructionist and the Constitution did not include any provisions to buy new lands. Still, it was too good of an offer to refuse. He quickly asked Congress to raise the money and purchased the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States.
No one knew what the Louisiana Purchase held. To discover what he had just bought, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. The main goal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, called the Corps of Discovery, were to find an all water route to the Pacific Ocean for the purpose of trade, and to quickly get settlers out to the new lands. Also, the expedition was to establish a claim on the Oregon territory. The Oregon territory was then claimed by Russia, England, and Spain, but if Lewis and Clark explored it, America could claim it too. They were also supposed to make maps of their route for future settlers to follow, and to take samples of the plants and animals they found there, hoping for something that America could sell for profit. Along the way, the expedition was to try to establish friendly relations with Indian tribes, so as to make it easier for future settlers.
The expedition traveled along the Missouri River into the west. Along the way, they met Sacagawea. Sacagawea was an Indian girl who acted as a translator to the expedition. She interpreted the Indian languages into French, that Lewis and Clark also spoke. When Sacagawea reached her homelands, she introduced the expedition to her brother who had become chief of her tribe. The chief traded with the expedition, giving them horses and showing them the route across the Rocky Mountains. From there, the expedition followed the mighty Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, allowing America to lay claim to the Oregon territory.
Though the Lewis and Clark Expedition did not find an all water route to the Pacific, it is still considered one of America’s most successful scientific expeditions of all time. It explored the Louisiana Purchase and laid claim to the Oregon territory. The expedition brought back maps of the territory, and made it easier for settlers to travel west.
The War of 1812
Trouble with France and England came to a head in 1812. America had long been suffering French and British attacks on her merchant ships. From 1793 to 1812, 1400 ships had been captured or destroyed, 500 by France, and 900 by England. Finally, enough was enough. President Jefferson had tried to use trade as a weapon. He cut off all trading with Europe, trying to hurt their economy, until they agreed to leave America alone. However, this actually hurt Americans more than it hurt either France or England. Americans needed to sell their products to Europe even more than Europe needed those products. The embargo failed.
Americans wanted war. Many wanted war with France for the XYZ Affair, and for their continual sinking of U.S. merchant ships. However, the War Hawks, westerners who wanted war with England, such as Henry Clay thought that America should declare war against England.
There were several reasons War Hawks wanted war with England. First, of course, was England’s continual attacking of U.S. merchant ships and the impressments of U.S. sailors into the British Navy against their will. But, there were more than enough other reasons. England had still not removed all of its forts and troops from America, as they were supposed to have done after they lost the American Revolution. Some Americans wanted to take Canada away from England. That would have opened up more land to American settlers and free America from British threats of attack from the north. But what angered most War Hawks most was that the British were paying Native American Indians to attack American settlements in the Northwest Territory. The English would bay a bounty, or fee, for every scalp the Indians brought to the British forts to prove they had killed an American.
President Madison, elected in 1809 tried for three years to stay out of a war with England. But, by 1812, it was too late. Madison urged Congress to declare war, and they did. Ironically, the war need not have ever begun. England had agreed two weeks earlier to cease their attacks on U.S. ships. But, because of the slow mail of the time, the letter did not arrive until Congress had already declared war.
The war started out well for America. England was too busy fighting the French to send many soldiers to fight in America, and made do with what few they still had in Canada. Those soldiers, however, could easily attack across the Great Lakes into America. England already had a large navy on the Great Lakes, and had just taken the city of Detroit. To defend the Great Lakes, America sent Oliver Hazard Perry to the Great Lakes. There, he was to build ships, and strike the British fleet. Perry built his ships and sailed to meet the British fleet just as it came to attack him. The fighting was brutal. At one point, Perry’s ship was demolished. He and several men rowed to another ship in a row boat, and there, took command of the battle and destroyed most of the British ships. The remaining British fled.
Perry’s actions opened up the Great Lakes to the Americans. The Americans then sent forces to Detroit to retake the city, but the British fled before troops arrived. The American Army followed the British into Canada, and there, attacked and burned to the ground the British city of Thames in the Battle of Thames. At the Battle of Thames, the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed. Tecumseh had been responsible for uniting the Indians against American settlers. His death would free the Northwest Territory from threats of Indian attacks for future settlers.
However, the last years of the war went badly for America. Once England had defeated France, they could turn their complete military might to crushing America. England sent its huge navy to blockade the American coast, cutting of our trade and supplies. England’s plan to attack America was three-fold. First, they would attack south from Canada, trying to take the major cites, second they would invade the east coast and destroy the nation’s capital. Third, England would attack New Orleans and cut off the western settlers’ trade route through New Orleans.
England’s attempt to strike from Canada failed. American troops were able to meet them there and stop them. However, this victory would be costly for America. It drew the majority of our fighting force to the Canadian border, and left the Atlantic coast virtually undefended.
England’s attempt to take Washington, D.C. was more successful. British troops landed on the east coast and drove, virtually unopposed, to Washington, D.C. Government workers and civilians fled in panic. President Monroe and the congress fled to avoid capture. Madison’s wife, Dolly Madison, stayed behind to salvage important government documents and George Washington’s painting from the British. She left just as British troops got to the White House. The British were angry at the American’s burning of their city of Thames in Canada. In retribution, the British set fire to Washington, D.C. Flames leapt about the city, destroying all that they touched. Miraculously, a hurricane struck Washington, D.C. at this time. Wind driven rain put out most of the fires, sparing some of the city. Strong winds scattered the British fleet, and drove British troops to the ground. Rain swelled creeks and rivers, killing some British troops, and scattering others. It took time for the British to reassemble their forces. This was time Americans needed to gather their own troops.
As the British forces left Washington, D.C., they headed for the cities of the North, intending to burn them to the ground as well. Outside the city of Baltimore, only one, small fort stood in their way, Fort McHenry. Should Fort McHenry fall, Baltimore, and the cities of the North were open for destruction. Dozens of British ships sailed to Fort McHenry with the intent of blasting it to rubble.
At the Battle of Fort McHenry, a Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key rode on one of the British ships. He had gone to the British to try to get the British to release their American prisoners, but ended up a prisoner himself. From a British ship at sea, Key watched the battle. The commander of Fort McHenry was flying an enormous American flag over the fort. To Key on board the British ship, it was a sign of hope. If the sun came up and the American flag was no longer there, the fort had fallen, and nothing stood between Baltimore and the British. But, if the sun arose and the flag still flew, the fort had held.
Throughout the night, the British fired upon the fort. British cannons and mortars lobbed shells into the fort. Rockets lit up the sky as they descended into the fort, only to light up the sky again with their horrible explosions. Throughout the night, Key watched the battle and awaited the dawn. When the sun arose, the flag still flew! Tattered by cannon shot and singed by the rockets, it still flew. Fort McHenry had held. Frustrated, the British bypassed Baltimore and headed north. Francis Scott Key was so moved; he sat down and wrote a poem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Later, that poem was put to music, and in 1931, the song became America’s national anthem.
The Battle of New Orleans
In the south, the British fleet moved on New Orleans. Dozens of ships and 7,500 soldiers were to attack New Orleans. To defend the city, General Andrew Jackson had only a handful of soldiers. Jackson quickly gathered up Louisianan’s to defend the city. Along the banks of the Mississippi River, Jackson’s troops dug a trench and piled the dirt in front of them to fight behind. As the British troops approached, outnumbering Jackson’s troops two to one, the Americans opened fire. Caught in the open, the British troops were mowed down. The British lost over 2,000 men. Jackson’s forces suffered only 71 casualties. The victory was a huge win for America and made Jackson a hero. Ironically, the war had already ended two weeks earlier. England had tired of fighting the war and loosing money and men in America had signed the Treaty of Ghent that officially ended the war. However, once again, the slow mail from England to the United States delayed the letter.
The War of 1812 is sometimes called the Second American Revolution. Again, America had fought England. And again, America had won. Though the war had no clear winner as no lands changed hands, and both England and the United States did not live up to their treaties, America remained independent and the country rejoiced.
The War of 1812 did have some important consequences, however. American’s were proud of their nation. A wave of patriotism, love of country, spread across the nation. For the first time, Americans thought that America would survive, and prosper. This patriotic feeling would unite the nation to work together. Secondly, the War of 1812 broke the back of Indian resistance to American settlement of the Northwest Territory. With Tecumseh dead, no Indian leader stepped up to try to unite the tribes. Americans could now settle the Northwest Territory without fear of Indian attacks. Thirdly, the War of 1812 led to an increase in America industry. During the war, America had been cut off from European factories. Without access to manufactured goods from Europe, Americans built their own factories. This led to the Industrial Revolution in America.