The time between the American Revolution and the time when they set up their government. It was a very tough time in the young nation’s history. Before the American’s formal Independence, there was a long, hard fought war for Independence. The Battle of Lexington Concord was the first spark in a long, tumultuous war for Independence. The shadow governments sent the militia to surround the British at Boston.
The Second Continental Congress, soon to be the government of the new America, met and began to centralize the war effort from Philadelphia. From there, the congress unanimously appointed George Washington as the leader of the Continental Army.The loyalists, who supported Britain, were kept under close watch by a group called the Committee of Safety.
During the winter of 1775 to 1776, the Continental Army tried to capture Quebec.The presence of the British in Nova Scotia stopped them from trying to capture that territory as well. The army only took a fort at Ticonderoga and proceeded to drag a cannon to the outskirts of Boston. The British evacuated the city on March 17, 1776.
On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia, voted unanimously to declare the independence “of the thirteen United States of America.” Two days later, on July 4, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The drafting of the Declaration was the responsibility of a Committee of Five, which included, among others, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; it was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the others and the Continental Congress as a whole. It said that “all men are created equal” with “certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, and that “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, as well as listing the main colonial grievances against the British in Europe. July 4 would then be celebrated as the birthday of the United States from then until the present day.
The British returned in force in August 1776, landing in New York and defeating the fledgling Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island in one of the largest battle of the war. They quickly took control of New York City and nearly captured General Washington and his army. The British made the city their main political and military base of operations in North America, holding New York until late 1783. Patriot evacuation and British military occupation made the city the destination for Loyalist refugees, and a main point of Washington’s spy network The British soon took New Jersey, and American chances looked horrible; Thomas Paine proclaimed “these are the times that try men’s souls”. But Washington struck back in a surprise attack, crossing the icy Delaware River into New Jersey and defeated British armies at Trenton and Princeton, thereby regaining New Jersey. The victories gave an important boost to Patriots at a time when morale was dying in the winter, and have become iconic images of the war.
In early 1777, a grand British kill plan, the Saratoga Campaign, was concocted in London. The plan called for two British armies to converge on Albany, New York from the north and south, dividing the colonies in two and separating New England from the rest. Failed communications and very poor planning resulted in the army coming from Canada, commanded by General John Burgoyne, slowing down in dense forest north of Albany. Meanwhile, the British Army that was supposed to advance up the Hudson River to meet Burgoyne went instead to Philadelphia, in a weak attempt to end the war by capturing the American capital city. Burgoyne’s army was overwhelmed at Saratoga by a swarming of local militia, spearheaded by a specialist group of American militia. The battle showed the British, who had until then considered the colonials a ragtag mob that could easily be dispersed, that the Americans had the strength and determination to fight on.
With the British in control of most northern coastal cities and Patriot forces in control of the uncharted and uncivilized areas in the coastal towns, the British attempted to force a result by a campaign to take the southern states. With limited regular troops at their disposal, the British commanders realized that success depended on a large-scale movement to arm the Loyalists.
In late December 1778, the British had captured Savannah. In 1780 they launched a fresh invasion and took Charleston as well. A very key victory at the Battle of Camden meant that the invaders soon controlled most of Georgia and South Carolina. They had a lot of the south at their disposal. The British set up a network of forts inland, hoping the Loyalists would rally to the flag. Not enough Loyalists showed up, however, and the British had to move out. They fought their way north into North Carolina and Virginia, with a severely weakened army. Behind them, much of the territory they left dissolved into a chaotic run and gun war, as the bands of Loyalists, one by one, were overwhelmed by the patriots.
The capture of Yorktown ended with the surrender of a British army, ending most of the fighting
The British army under Lord Cornwallis moved to Yorktown, Virginia where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. When that fleet was defeated by a French fleet, however, they were trapped, and were surrounded by a much stronger and bigger force of Americans and French under Washington’s command. On October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered.
News of the defeat effectively ended the fighting in America, although the naval war continued. Support for the conflict had never been strong in Britain, where many sympathized with the rebels, but now it reached a new low. King George III personally wanted to fight on, but he lost control of the government, and had to agree to a peace treaty.
Long negotiations between the British, Americans, and French resulted in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which provided generous boundaries for the United States; it included nearly all land east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada, except British Florida, which was awarded to Spain. Controlling a vast region nearly as large as Western Europe, the western territories contained a few thousand American pioneers and tens of thousands of Indians, most of whom had been allied to the British but were now abandoned by London.
How did this new government form? The critical time right after the war shaped the nation for 200 years to come. How did this happen?
During the 1780s, the nation was a loose confederation of 13 states and was beset with a wide array of foreign and domestic problems. The states engaged in small scale trade wars against each other, and they had difficulty suppressing loyalist unrest, such as Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts. The treasury was empty and there was no way to pay the war debts. There was no national executive authority. The world was at peace and the economy flourished. America, however, was going to struggle for many years. Some historians depict a bleak challenging time for the new nation. Merrill Jensen and others say the term “Critical Period” is exaggerated, and that it was also a time of economic growth and political maturation.
The Treaty of Paris left the United States independent and at peace but with a very weak government structure. The Second Continental Congress had drawn up Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777, to centralize its own status. These described a permanent confederation, but given to the Congress—the only federal institution—little power to fund itself or to ensure that its policies were enforced. There was no president and no judiciary.
Although historians mostly agree that the Articles were too weak to hold the rapidly growing nation together, they do give Congress credit for resolving the unrest between the states over ownership of the western lands. The states voluntarily turned over their lands to national control, due to lack of funding. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance created territorial government, set up policies for the admission of new states, the division of land into practical pieces, and set aside land in each township for public use, ensuring they complied to their Constitution. This system represented a welcome and fresh change from colonization, as in Europe, and provided the foundation for the rest of American continental expansion through the 19th Century.
By 1783, with the end of the British blocking the seaports, the new nation was regaining its prosperity. However, trade deals were restricted by the mercantilist policies of the European leaders. Before the war, the Americans had shipped food and other goods to the British colonies in the Caribbean Islands, but now these ports were closed, since only British ships could trade there. France and Spain had similar policies for their territories. The former policies put in restrictions on imports of New England fish and Chesapeake tobacco. New Orleans was closed by the Spanish, slowing settlement of the Western Lands, although it didn’t stop people in the West from coming from the west in great numbers. At the same time, American manufacturers faced tough competition from British products which were suddenly available again, without colonial help. The failure of the Congress to cash in the currency or the public debts from the war, or to regulate trade and financial connections among the states aggravated a grim situation. In 1786–87, Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Massachusetts against the state court system, threatened the stability of state government and the Congress was powerless to help.
The Continental Congress did have power to print paper money like the European Nations; it printed so much that its value dived until the phrase “not worth a continental” was used for some worthless item. Congress could not impose taxes and could only make requisitions upon the states, which did not respond generously enough to help. Less than a million and a half dollars came into the national bank between 1781 and 1784, although the states had been asked for two million in 1783 alone. In 1785, Alexander Hamilton issued a stressed statement that the Treasury had received absolutely no taxes from New York for the year, hurting an already bad situation.
States handled their debts with varying levels of success. The South for the most part refused to pay its debts off, which damaged local banks, but Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia fared well due to their production of cash crops,which are crops that sold well, such as cotton and tobacco. South Carolina would have done the same except for a series of crop failures, another bump in the road for the young nation. Maryland suffered from financial chaos and political fighting hidden from the national eye. New York and Pennsylvania did well, although the latter also suffered from political fights. New Jersey, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Connecticut struggled. Massachusetts was in a state of virtual civil war and suffered from high taxes and the decline of its turbulent economy. Rhode Island alone among the New England states prospered and mostly because of its notorious harboring of pirates and smugglers, who helped, illegally.
When Adams went to London in 1785 as the first representative of the United States, he found it impossible to secure a treaty for unrestricted trade. Demands were made for favors and there was no guarantee that individual states would agree to a treaty, because of the democratic government. Adams stated it was necessary for the states to yield the power of passing navigation laws to Congress, or that the states themselves pass revenge acts against Great Britain. Congress had already requested and failed to get power over navigation laws. Meanwhile, each state acted individually against Great Britain to no effect. When other New England states closed their ports to British shipping, Connecticut hastened to profit by opening its ports.
By 1787 Congress was unable to protect manufacturing and shipping. State legislatures were unable or unwilling to resist attacks upon private contracts and public credit. Land speculators expected no rise in values when the government could not defend its borders nor protect its border population.
The idea of a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation grew in favor. Alexander Hamilton realized while serving as Washington’s top aide that a strong central government was necessary to avoid foreign intervention and allay the frustrations due to an ineffective Congress. Hamilton led a group of like-minded nationalists, won Washington’s endorsement, and started the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to petition Congress to call a constitutional convention to meet in Philadelphia to remedy the long-term crisis.
Congress, meeting in New York, called on each state to send their representatives to a Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia. While the known purpose of the convention was to fix the Articles of Confederation, many representatives, including James Madison and George Washington, wanted to use it to create a new constitution for the United States. The Convention met in May 1787 and the delegates immediately selected Washington to lead them. Madison soon proved the main and strongest force behind the Convention, concocting the agreements necessary to create a government that was both strong and acceptable to all of the states. The Constitution, proposed by the Convention, called for a federal government—limited in power but independent of and superior to the states—within its assigned role able to tax and armed with both Executive and Judicial branches as well as a two house legislature, a breakthrough in leadership systems. The national legislature—or Congress—hoped for by the Convention voiced the key compromise of the Convention between the small states which wanted to keep the power they had under the one state/one vote Congress of the Articles of Confederation and the large states which wanted the weight of their larger populations and wealth to have a proper share of power. The upper House—the Senate—would represent the states equally, while the House of Representatives would be elected from districts of generally equal population.
The Constitution itself called for ratification by state conventions specially elected for the purpose, and the Confederation Congress recommended the Constitution to the states, asking that annexing conventions be called.
Several of the smaller states, led by Delaware, embraced the Constitution with little qualms. But in the most populous two states, New York and Virginia, the matter became one of problems. Virginia had been the first prospering British colony in North America, had a large population, and its political leadership had played large and influential roles in the Revolution. New York was as well large and heavily populated; with the best situated and sited port on the coast, the state was essential for the success of the United States. Local New York politics were tightly controlled by a church-based elite led by Governor George Clinton, and local political leaders did not want to share their power with the national politicians. The New York ratification convention became the focus for a struggle over the wisdom of adopting the new and improved Constitution.
Those who advocated the Constitution took the name Federalists and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most vocal Federalists were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays published in New York newspapers, under the pseudonym “Publius”. The papers became key documents for the new United States and have often been cited by jurists. These were written to sway the closely divided New York legislature, which did not want to budge.
Opponents of the plan for stronger government, the Anti-Federalists, feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as greedy and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Anti-federalist writers included Patrick Henry and George Mason, who demanded a Bill of Rights in the Constitution, which came later.
The Federalists gained a great deal of status and advantage from the approval of George Washington, who had led the Constitutional Convention. Thomas Jefferson, serving as Minister to France at the time, had qualms about the proposed Constitution. He resolved to remain neutral in the debate and to accept either outcome.
Promises of a Bill of Rights from Madison secured ratification in Virginia, while in New York, the Clintons, who controlled New York politics, found themselves outsmarted as Hamilton secured ratification by a 30–27 vote. North Carolina and Rhode Island eventually signed on to make it unanimous among the 13 new states.
The old Confederation Congress now set elections to the new Congress as well as the first presidential election. The electoral college unanimously chose Washington as first President; John Adams became the first Vice President. New York was decided as the national capital; they were sworn in on April 1789 at Federal Hall.
Under the leadership of Madison, the first Congress set up all the necessary government departments, and followed through on the Federalist pledge of a Bill of Rights.The new government at first had no political parties, surprisingly. Alexander Hamilton in 1790–92 created a national network of allies of the government that became the Federalist party; it controlled the national government until 1801.
However, there continued to be a strong support in favor of states’ rights and a limited federal government. This became the platform of a new party, the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, which took on the role of opposition to the Federalists. Jefferson and Madison were its founders and leaders. The Democratic-Republicans strongly opposed Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States, fearing it would make the government corrupt. American foreign policy was dominated by the spur of the French Revolutionary Wars between Britain and France. The Republicans supported France, encouraging the French Revolution as a force for democracy, while the Washington administration favored continued peace and commerce with Britain, signing the Jay Treaty much to the shock and opposition of Democratic-Republicans, who accused Hamilton and the Federalists of supporting Monarchy and tyranny. John Adams took over for Washington as President in 1797 and continued the policies of his administration. The Jeffersonian Republicans took control of the Federal government in 1801 and the Federalists never returned to power.
The Government set here, and made small changes and slowly evolved into present day. The Continental Congress made the foundation of our current political system today. Led by brave men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the 13 colonies successfully broke away from their mother country, Great Britain, and set up a truly revolutionary form of government that still stands to this day. This inspired many European nations to adopt a constitution and limit the government. It improved the common man’s lot to this day.