Module Seven- The Young Republic

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Topic Seven: The Young Republic
A New Republic
In this topic, we need to discuss the creation the United States of America. In reality, winning the
Revolution was the easy part. Creating a working government, a state, from the ground up, was the
really difficult part. The questions and arguments that the founders encountered are still relevant
today. What are the benefits of a Republic vs. a Democracy? How do we balance state vs. federal
power? What should the nature of government be, and should it be large or small? What exactly is
the role of government, at all levels? And who are “the people”? Were the framers of the Constitution
“the people” or even representative of the people? How are the rights of the minority balanced vs.
the will of the majority (again, back to the question of a republic vs. a democracy, which are not the
same thing)?
The founding fathers, in creating a new state, faced several contradictions, and they were well
aware this. First, the Revolution was a successful attempt to overthrow “big government” and was
presented to everyday Americans as such. Yet to govern a country the size of the United States, a
large central government was necessary, even in 1783. To be a world power, you would have to
have an even larger federal government. The United Stated wouldn’t face that problem in the late
18th century, but…
Furthermore, Revolutionary documents stated that “all men are created equal”, yet all of the
founding fathers were rich and white and male. There seemed to be an inconsistency between the
Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
So the founders of our country had to create a strong central government, yet limit the powers of
that government so it wouldn’t become a tyranny. They had to juxtapose the powers of the former
individual colonies, now states, with the power of the new federal government. They had to ensure
that a republican form of government would remain the rule of law (Article IV, Section 4).
Americans, everyday Americans, came out of the Revolution with a sense that they had a special
destiny that needed to be preserved. Citizens subscribed to public morality and a civic sense of duty.
After all, it was what led them to rebel against Britain in the first place. But there was a sense that
what they could create was something new, something special. And so, in the new United States, no
aristocracy was allowed, no law of primogeniture or entail was allowed. Even today, the
appearance of equality is important to Americans, even when inequality is apparent. Voting
requirements were lowered, or even abolished. Since the majority of white males could vote, these
laws were mostly symbolic. Suffrage was not expanded to women, African-Americans, or the very
poor however.
Westward migration changed voting patterns too. As more people moved west and the frontier
expanded, state capitals moved away from the east coast into the interior of states to make it easier
for new state representatives to travel to their legislatures. The frontier representatives also signified
a shift away from the wealthy elite of the eastern seaboard counties.
There was a concerted effort to keep the affairs of religion and government separate. This was as
much to keep government out of religion, as to keep religion out of government. Also, the close ties
between the British aristocracy and the state religion, Anglicanism, made the founding fathers wary
of establishing an official state religion in the United States.
This was a revolution for white males. Although the northern states moved to outlaw slavery, the
southern states kept their “peculiar” institution. And in 1793, the cotton gin made cotton the premier
crop of the South, and ensured the continuation of slavery. The status of women didn’t change after
the Revolution either. Although they had a special status as “republican” mothers, women were not
allowed political, economic or legal power.
The Articles of Confederation
The first government of the United States operated under the Articles of Confederation, which was
ratified in November 1777. The Articles created a loose collection of 13 independent states, with a
weak central government. A unicameral Congress was elected annually, with each state having only
one vote. Amending the Articles required a unanimous vote. Congress had no economic power
whatsoever; that was given over to the states. There was no executive officeholder.
The Articles of Confederation did pass one piece of legislation that was important to the future of the
United States. The Land Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 determined how future territories would
become states. Not only did these laws survey western land, but they established that future states
would become equal to the original thirteen, not colonies thereof. Furthermore, money from public
land sales was set aside for public education.
As important as the issue of western land management was, the failures of the Articles of
Confederation were huge. The central government was massively in debt. It couldn’t raise revenue,
couldn’t regulate the economy, it couldn’t force the states to pay its voluntary dues to the treasury. In
foreign policy, the United States was helpless to evict the British from the Northwest Territory, and
to negotiate with the Spanish over the closing of the port of New Orleans to American farmers.
Obviously something had to be done.
The Constitution
When delegates arrived in Philadelphia in May of 1787 for a Constitutional Convention, their intent
was to rework the Articles of Confederation. As they locked the doors behind them, they decided to
completely start over. By the way, the delegates didn’t tell anyone about their decision, and to
protect themselves from outside influence, kept their deliberations secret throughout the four months
they worked in their conference room. They debated, ran through ideas, and eventually drafted a
framework for the government we still operate under today. The writers of the Constitution decided
that as soon as nine states ratified this new document, this new government, it would be
implemented.
When the delegates emerged in September of 1787, there was much anger. After all, they were
supposed to fix the Articles of Confederation, not draft a whole new government. And the battle for
ratification was not easy. There was much opposition to the Constitution; Virginia ratified it by ten
votes, New York by only two. New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution in June of
1788, and immediately a presidential election was held. George Washington was unanimously
elected the first president of the United States.
The Constitution of the United States has held for over two hundred years. In some ways, it is a
“living document”, in that it was meant to be interpreted and interpretable. Although it was meant to
address the failures of the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution was not without weaknesses
itself, the most important of which was the failure to address the institution of slavery. Or maybe it
was the failure of the founders themselves, and not the document, that caused a civil war less than a
century after the founding of the United States.
The First Administration: George
Washington
The Constitution was/is really only the barest framework of government. The first Congress and
President had to work out the details of this new government, all from scratch. How would the
president be addressed? At what rate would the national tariff rate be set at? How would the federal
court system be set up? Congress quickly set to work.
Five cabinet departments were created by Congress to round out the executive
branch: Departments of State, Treasury, War, the Attorney General’s Office and
the Postmaster General. The men appointed by President Washington for these posts were, in
order, Thomas Jefferson (State), Alexander Hamilton (Treasury), Henry Knox (War), Edmund
Randolph (Attorney General), and Samuel Osborne (Postmaster General).
The Judiciary Act of 1789 was passed which created the Federal Court system. The Supreme
Court, the highest court of the land, was formed with a chief justice and associate justices. John
Jay was our first chief justice. In addition, 12 federal district courts and 3 circuit courts were created.
Federal judges were appointed and served for life, a fact that disturbed Thomas Jefferson. He felt it
gave them too much power.
The Tariff of 1789 was passed, which raised import duties. The Bill of Rights was also approved,
in order to quell suspicions that the federal government would take away the rights of the people.
Once more, the Constitution only provided an outline for government. It was up to these first leaders
to set precedent and procedure for the future. And so, President Washington created the role of a
president who would not be just a figurehead for the United States. Instead, the president played,
and still plays, an active role in the executive branch. Washington directed his cabinet members,
worked with Congress, made foreign policy, and provided the guide for future presidents. He gave
the first farewell address after two terms as president.
Washington also had to contend with two cabinet member who had competing visions of the future
of United States, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton saw a future United States
with a strong central government, modeled after the British system in which American merchants
carried U.S. manufactured goods all over the world. With a strong national economy that included a
central bank, the United States could maintain a standing army and a federal bureaucracy. On the
other hand, Thomas Jefferson believed in an agrarian democracy, with power kept closer to the
people. Jefferson feared that a standing army could “suppress the liberties of the people”. He
wanted the United States to support the French in their new revolution. Historians sometimes make
the argument that Hamilton represented northern, urban, mercantile/trade interests and Jefferson
represented southern, rural, agrarian interests: a foreshadowing of the Civil War.
The largest problem that the new country faced was the economy. Secretary of the Treasury
Alexander Hamilton calculated that the U.S. owed $54 million to its creditors. He designed a plan
that not only solved the debt problem of the U.S. (in a way), but allowed the country to borrow even
MORE money.
Hamilton proposed that Congress pass legislation called Funding and Assumption. In Funding
and Assumption, the United States promised to pay off its debts fully, i.e. it would be funded. How?
Treasury would issue new bonds that would earn interest, say 4%, which bond holders would collect.
Old bonds could be traded in for new bonds. The government wouldn’t pay the principal, only the
interest, on these bonds. In addition, the bonds could be used as security for private loans.
Assumption said that the federal government would assume the foreign debt of state governments
and pay them off, again through the issue of bonds. This would tie investors to the federal
government, not the states.
There was debate in Congress over Hamilton’s proposal. One, it would benefit the wealthy. Two, it
seemed to reward states who had already paid off their debts. And three, it would increase the
power of the federal government (you would have to put treasury officials all over the United States
to sell bonds). Opposition came especially from James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. A deal was
brokered however, to put the new nation’s capital in the south, on the Potomac River, and Madison
got the southern votes needed for Funding and Assumption to pass through Congress. Overnight,
the United States’ credit rating went from dismal to sound, and the economy turned around.
Hamilton then asked Congress to create a central bank, the Bank of the United States. This bank
would hold government money, collect taxes, issue currency, and issue bonds. Again, Madison and
Jefferson opposed Hamilton, saying that the Constitution did not give the government the power to
create a bank. Hamilton responded with the “Doctrine of Implied Powers”. Since the Constitution
gave the federal government the power to regulate the economy, it had the power to create a
financial institution. Washington signed the bank bill, and the Bank of the United States was
chartered for twenty years.
Hamilton issued a third recommendation to Congress, the Report on Manufacturing. The Secretary
of the Treasury asked Congress to pass high tariffs to protect American industry, to stimulate the
growth of manufacturing with grants and subsidies and to finance internal improvements such as
transportation systems to aid in commerce. Thomas Jefferson attacked Hamilton’s plan on moral
grounds. Since commerce and industry depend on cities, Jefferson proclaimed that all immorality
and vice occurred in cities. In reality, an industrial United States was opposite of Jefferson’s vision of
an agrarian country. Following Jefferson’s warning, Congress ignored Hamilton’s recommendations
and the United States remained primarily agricultural for the next seventy years.
The political battles between Hamilton and Jefferson led to the creation of the first two political
parties in the United States. The Federalists, led by Hamilton, believed that the Republicans, led
by Jefferson, would ally the country with the French and their topsy-turvy revolution. The
Republicans (NOT the same party as today) believed that the Federalists wanted to recreate the
aristocratic British system here in the United States. The biggest conflict between the two parties
was not over the economy, however, but over foreign policy.
In 1789, the French Revolution started. It soon involved the other nations of Europe, who declared
war on the new French government. Since the French had helped the United States during its own
revolution, by treaty, the U.S. was bound to ally with the French. On the other hand, you could make
the legal case that that government (the French monarchy) had been overthrown. The Federalists
took the side of Britain and the Republicans took the side of France, even though the official U.S.
position was one of neutrality.
The British Navy, however, was stopping American merchant ships and seizing cargo headed for
France. Furthermore, the British refused to vacate forts in the Northwest Territory and move to
Canada. Chief Justice John Jay was sent to London to negotiate a deal with the British government.
The treaty he came home with however, aptly named Jay’s Treaty, was not very favorable to the
Americans. The British would leave the Northwest Territory and pay for American ships. They would
also let the Americans trade with British colonies. The British rejected the American stance on
neutral rights however. Jay’s Treaty was ratified by the Senate only because President Washington
pressured them to do so.
George Washington retired after two terms of office. While his
Presidency remained in living memory, no one would dare serve more than two terms. He reminded
Americans of the legend of Cincinnatus (Google it). His Farewell Address was not spoken but
printed in newspapers. Since he warned of the dangers of making treaties with foreign nations, it set
the foreign policy of Isolationism for almost one hundred years.
The Second Administration: John
Adams
John Adams was elected the second president of the United States by three electoral votes.
Because of backstage shenanigans by Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson was his vicepresident. Adams was handicapped by the fact that his VP was from a different political party, he
was at odds with the leader of his own party and he kept much of Washington’s cabinet out of
respect for the retired leader, and they had more loyalty to Hamilton than they did for Adams.
The crisis of Adams' entire administration was what was happening in Europe. Although the United
States had declared its neutrality, and had an ocean separating it from that warring continent,
Adams found himself in a “Quasi-War” with the French. The French were unhappy with Jay’s Treaty,
and they themselves started seizing American ships. When Adams sent negotiators to France, the
foreign minister Talleyrand refused to meet with Americans. Instead, three emissaries were sent and
they demanded bribes and a loan from the Americans. Incensed, the Americans went home. The
whole episode was known as the XYZ Affair, since the three French emissaries were simply named
as Mr. X, Mr. Y and Mr. Z in the official report to Congress.
The XYZ Affair provoked a desire for war in the United States, but President Adams refused to ask
Congress for a declaration. Since the Federalists controlled Congress, they did authorize a standing
army. In addition, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed. These acts raised the probationary
period before immigrants could become citizens, gave the president the power to deport or arrest
suspicious foreign citizens and made it a criminal act to speak out against the government.
The Republicans bitterly denounced the Quasi-War and the Alien and Sedition Acts. Madison and
Jefferson wrote the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves, which said that the states must protect the
rights of the people against the power of the federal government. The Virginia and Kentucky
Resolves also asked if state legislatures had the power to overturn a federal law. Although it was
political grandstanding at the time, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolves later became one of the
center points of the states’ rights arguments of the South.
John Adams lost the Election of 1800 to Thomas Jefferson. Did he lose because of the Alien and
Sedition Acts? Or did he lose because in September of 1800 the Treaty of Mortefontaine was
signed with the French, ending the Quasi-War? Either way, when Jefferson was inaugurated in
1801, it was a smooth process between one political party to another, and has been ever since.
During his lame duck months, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 and Adams appointed
several federal judges to the bench, the so-called “midnight appointments”. The most important of
these was Chief Justice John Marshall.
What, in your opinion, was the most difficult obstacle the Americans faced in building a
nation?
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