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UWBTS — Chapter 4


Chapter 4 – Thirteen Free and Independent States Join in a Constitution; George Washington Presides Over the New Common Government; Alexander Hamilton Has an Agenda and Thomas Jefferson Disagrees, 1783-1800

By Clyde N. Wilson of S. C., Ph.D., S.I.S.H.


The Constitution

In 1783 Great Britain gave up its war to retain control of the 13 States and granted a treaty that recognized the former colonies as “free, sovereign, and independent States.”  Britain also acknowledged the States’ rights to the land that they claimed, up to the Mississippi river border of the Spanish Empire.  This latter benefit to Americans came largely because VA had sent George Rogers Clark out to defeat British occupation of the territory above the Ohio River and Southerners had already planted settlements in Kentucky (KY) and Tennessee (TN).

During the Revolution the colonies joined in a constitution called the Articles of Confederation, under which a Continental Congress was empowered to handle certain common matters.  In this Congress, as in the Constitutional Convention later, each State had one vote, whatever number of delegates it chose to send.  (Bet you didn’t know that.)   Ordinary actions required a majority of the States voting affirmative.  Important matters required unanimity.

The Continental Congress formed a Continental Army under Washington that provided a core of military power, though it must be remembered that a great deal of war was carried on by State forces.  It started a small navy and sent its ablest men as representatives to European governments.  Britain’s hereditary enemy France came in on the side of the Americans.

The Congress had no source of revenue except what it asked the States to contribute.  It had trouble paying the soldiers and suppliers of its army and its paper promises had little market value.  At the end of the war there was a large outstanding debt, no standard money for business, potentially hostile European empires on every side, and some quarreling among the States about boundaries, currency, and trade.  Historians who dub this “the Critical Period” and say that everything was falling apart are guilty of exaggeration.  However, many people felt the need for “a more perfect Union,” that could act effectively in the common interest.  The Congress asked the States to send delegates to a convention, meeting in Philadelphia in1787, to draft amendments to the Articles.

This was by no means a universally popular move.  Rhode Island (RI) did not send delegates and several prominent men like Patrick Henry mistrusted what was going on and refused to go.  When the delegates met, advocates of a strong central government took the initiative and proposed a whole new instrument rather than amendments to the Articles.  The centralizers’ specific plans met major opposition and less extreme proposals were considered.    A major compromise was reached when it was agreed to have a two-house legislature.  In the Senate the States would be equal.  In the House of Representatives they would be weighted according to population.  There were brilliant discussions on many matters of government, although these were not known to the public until forty years later when the proceedings of the Philadelphia Convention and of the State ratifying conventions were published.  This has allowed politicians, judges, and historians to claim that the Constitution is a more centralist document than it was intended to be.

One compromise caused considerable North/South friction later on.  In determining representation in the House, it was agreed to use three-fifths of the bonded African-American population.  This did not mean, as was later claimed, that a black man was considered 3/5ths of a man.  There were still slaves in the North.  Women, children, men without property, and many others were counted for representation but could not vote anywhere or exercise full citizenship rights.  Property qualifications for voting disfranchised half the white men in some States.   The 3/5ths rule was also to be used for taxes and could be considered a Southern concession.

Many later people, including one silly Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, like to pretend that the Philadelphia Constitution was a “miracle” delivered by saintly Founding Fathers – that it created liberty for Americans and promulgated freedom for all mankind.  Nonsense!  Americans were already free with their freedoms protected by State constitutions.  The men who wrote the Constitution were not saints, they were learned but also experienced and practical men, who disagreed on numerous points.   When issued from the Convention, the Constitution was nothing more than a piece of paper.  It had no validity until it was ratified by the sovereign peoples of each State.  It could go into effect when nine States had ratified – among those nine States. The ratifying States were thus potentially seceding from the Articles and from the States that did not ratify.

There was a great deal of learned discussion for and against the Constitution that is worthy of study by every American.  Ratification was far from universally popular.  Smaller States concerned about defense ratified quickly.  Coastal business areas were for the Constitution.  Suspicion and opposition occurred in independent-minded back country regions.  Some New Englanders feared that a central government might interfere with their unique religion and way of life.  Many thoughtful people everywhere said that they had just fought to be free of remote rulers and did not want to set up another bunch.  Many Southerners felt that Northern business would use a central government for its own profit rather than mutual benefit.  North Carolina (NC) rejected the Constitution the first time and there was a very close vote in several States.  The change of a few votes in three States would have defeated the Constitution.

Finally, all the States agreed to join together and give the new Constitution a try.  They did not regard the government established as eternal and unlimited, but as an experiment.  Alexander Hamilton, the strongest proponent of a powerful central government, stated clearly that, of course, the new Federal Government would never be able to coerce a State against its will.

In ratifying, a number of States demanded amendments.  These were proposed in the first Congress and quickly approved by the States.  These first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.   Read these Constitutional provisions:  as is clear from its language, the Bill of Rights was intended to restrain the Federal Government, which was viewed as the chief danger to the freedom and rights of American citizens.   Since the War Between the States (WBTS), the Bill of Rights has been interpreted as empowering the Feds to overrule State laws.  Strange!

Hamilton and Jefferson

The 12 years from ratification of the Constitution to Jefferson’s election as President in 1800 contain much of interest.  Population, economic productivity, Western settlement, and culture flourished without any significant immigrant input (see chapter’s 6, 7 and 8).  Space allows us only to consider things relative to the WBTS.  These things were economic/political and cultural.  Southerners entered the new government with open minds and a cooperative spirit.  After a while they discovered that there was a highly organized party determined to force through measures profitable to the wealthy of the Northeast.  This was essentially the program of Alexander Hamilton – a national debt with interest-collecting bondholders, a “national” bank, various business subsidies, and the Constitution stretched as far as possible to make the Federal Government supreme over the States and the people.  Hamilton had been close to Washington during the war, was brilliant, and had married into one of the wealthiest families of New York State. At the Constitutional Convention he had advocated a British-style monarchy and left in disgust when his proposal got no support.  As the first Secretary of the Treasury he made use of his post to initiate his agenda and form supporters into what became the Federalist Party.

Gradually an opposition party developed which came to be called Republican.  (No relation to the later “Republican Party” of Lincoln, which was its exact opposite.)    Thomas Jefferson became the leader of this party, which was based on the agricultural South and the less financialized areas of the North.  When Hamilton levied a tax on Western farmers to make them obey the heavy hand of the Federal Government, he caused “the Whisky Rebellion.”  He led soldiers into western PA and arrested people, but they were all freed by juries.

As Washington left the Presidency in 1797 he urged Americans to observe two rules:  avoid dividing into political parties and avoid “entangling alliances” with foreign countries.  The first principle was already abandoned when he spoke.  And 20th century Americans would discard the second.  In the 1790s and the years immediately after, Americans could not ignore involvement in the 20 years of war between the great powers Britain and France that followed the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon.  American trade was with Europe and with many nearby European colonies, and imperial British power in Canada seemed threatening.  This situation was to lead the U.S. into the War of 1812.

The forces released by the French Revolution created conflicting and heated opinions among Americans which added to the fire already started by Hamilton’s agenda.  While Jefferson lived at ease among his 300 bonded African Americans, the Federalist John Adams fortified his house and armed his servants in fear that an American mob might imitate their French counterparts and attack the privileged.  Federalists wanted Federal officials to be regarded with awe, the upper classes be kowtowed to, and majority rule held within tight limits by the executive and courts.  As President, Adams rode about in a coach with white horses and insisted on being addressed as “Your Excellency.”  When Jefferson became President in 1801 he got rid of all that and lived casually like any Virginia gentleman.  He exemplified “republican simplicity” to later generations.

The Federalist Congress in order to quash opposition passed “Alien and Sedition Acts.”   The “Sedition Act” punished people for criticizing President Adams.  A number of newspaper editors were imprisoned or fined.  This was clearly in violation of the recently passed First Amendment.  How was it justified?  The Federalists claimed, falsely, that English Common Law was part of the Constitution and therefore they could punish “sedition.”  They had already been filling the Federal bench with judges devoted to centralization and to assertion of unelected judicial power.  These, with lifetime tenure, were to continue to promote Hamiltonian philosophy long after it had been repudiated at the polls.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were too much.  Jefferson and Madison began to respond to demands to form political opposition.  On a “botanical research” trip to Pennsylvania and New York they happened to meet with people who were organizing against Federalist rule.  Politics became hot.  Jeffersonians accused Federalists of working to establish a monarchy, and Federalists likened Jefferson to the Jacobins who were merrily cutting off heads in France.

In 1798 the Kentucky legislature passed resolutions written by Jefferson that stated unequivocally that the Federal Government was not supreme but the agent of the States with powers specifically delegated in the Constitution and no others.  When federal officials exceeded their powers, as in the Sedition Act, the sovereign State could “interpose” between their people and federal usurpation.  Madison wrote similar resolutions passed by Virginia the next year.  These statements formed the background to Jefferson’s election in 1800.  For long after “the Principles of ‘98” were watchwords of Jefferson’s party and the succeeding Democrats.

The controversies of the 1790s were quite fierce but they differed considerably from the sectional conflict engendered later by the Republican Party.  The Federalists were patriots who had a genuine vision of how America could become strong and prosperous.  Their vision of a strong government and economy has mostly come to pass today.  They did not engage in disguising their agenda with demagogic diversions like the later Whig and Republican parties that pursued the same policies (see Chapter 15).  Unlike the Republican Party they sought support throughout the Union and did not condemn the Southern Culture as something to be annihilated.

Cultural Conflict

Many Americans hoped to develop an art and literature that was “American,” not imitative of Europe.  This took various forms.  Unfortunately, one form was a product of New England’s Puritan arrogance of superior virtue and wisdom, although the theology was now post-Puritan.  (The Adamses and many other New Englanders became Unitarians.)  New Englanders viciously opposed the Louisiana Purchase and other territorial growth and threatened secession.  During the War of 1812 they came close to treason.  They were losing power, relatively, as the West, largely Southern, grew.  The Connecticut poet William Cullen Bryant condemned the Louisiana territory as a swamp only useful for Jefferson’s strange scientific pastimes.  Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, later touted to be a great spokesman for “Union,” said:  “What do we want with this vast and worthless area, of this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds, of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs; to what use could we ever hope to put these great deserts, or those endless mountain ranges?”

Conscious of their loss of status, New Englanders began a campaign to take over American culture.  In 1789 Jedidiah Morse from Connecticut published the first American geography book. He portrayed New Englanders as educated, pious, and industrious people, and the rest of Americans mainly as lazy, backward, and immoral.  When Noah Webster, also from Connecticut, published his first “American” dictionary he took the same tack:  New Englanders spoke and wrote the best and purest English of any people in the world.  Historians joined in to portray the War of Independence as a New England achievement with the contributions of other regions denigrated.   The message in all this was that New Englanders were the true and real “Americans” and everybody else was marginal.  Two years before he was elected President, Jefferson wrote a friend about the economic and cultural imperialism coming from the North:  “It is true we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut, and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and substance.” At first many Northerners disdained this Yankee ethnocentrism as much as did Southerners.  But in time it succeeded, spreading across New York State, Pennsylvaina and the upper Midwest.  At first, New Englanders had no anti-slavery feelings.  One of the leading lights of their early literature, Timothy Dwight, wrote a long poem about how well-treated African American bonded people were in New England compared to other States.

The drive for cultural dominance would be joined in the North in the 1830s by abolitionism.  Then in the 1850s, the growth of industry and finance across the North would create a new and powerful Hamiltonian fervour for government promotion of private profits.  Together, these elements created a new and revolutionary sectional party – the Republicans.


When he became President in 1801, Jefferson encouraged a damping down of political antagonism.  It was not immediately successful, but as the “Virginia Dynasty” of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe matured, politics eventually became less fiery. The time of Monroe (1819-1825) was often referred to as “The Era of Good Feelings.”  Ambitious politicians, however, made certain good feelings would not last.  When the War Between the States came, many people on both sides saw in the conflict of Hamilton and Jefferson an early hint of the great crisis.

Suggestion for Class Discussion

Contrast the above description of American history in the period of 1783—1801 with the way it is presented in most textbooks.

Recommended Reading

  • A Better Guide than Reason, (pub. 1977); Original Intentions, (pub. 1993); and Founding Fathers, (pub. 1994), all by M. E. Bradford.
  • The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, by Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., pub. 1944.
  • From Union to Empire, (pub. 2003), and Defending Dixie, (pub. 2006), both by Clyde N. Wilson.
  • Nullification: A Constitutional History, 1776—1833, by W. Kirk Wood, pub. 2008.