Early years of the republic
Main article: History of the United States (1789–1849)
Confederation and Constitution
In the 1780s the national government was able to settle the issue of the western territories, which were ceded by the states to Congress and became territories; with the migration of settlers to the Northwest, soon they became states. Nationalists worried that the new nation was too fragile to withstand an international war, or even internal revolts such as the Shays’ Rebellion of 1786 in Massachusetts. Nationalists – most of them war veterans – organized in every state and convinced Congress to call the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. The delegates from every state wrote a new Constitution that created a much more powerful and efficient central government, one with a strong president, and powers of taxation. The new government reflected the prevailing republican ideals of guarantees of individual liberty and of constraining the power of government through a system of separation of powers.
The Congress was given authority to ban the international slave trade after 20 years (which it did in 1807). A compromise gave the South Congressional apportionment out of proportion to its free population by allowing it to include three-fifths of the number of slaves in each state’s total population. This provision increased the political power of southern representatives in Congress, especially as slavery was extended into the Deep South through removal of Native Americans and transportation of slaves by an extensive domestic trade.
To assuage the Anti-Federalists who feared a too-powerful national government, the nation adopted the United States Bill of Rights in 1791. Comprising the first ten amendments of the Constitution, it guaranteed individual liberties such as freedom of speech and religious practice, jury trials, and stated that citizens and states had reserved rights (which were not specified).
The new Chief Executive
George Washington – a renowned hero of the American Revolutionary War, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention – became the first President of the United States under the new Constitution in 1789. The national capital moved from New York to Philadelphia and finally settled in Washington DC in 1800.
The major accomplishments of the Washington Administration were creating a strong national government that was recognized without question by all Americans. His government, following the vigorous leadership of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, assumed the debts of the states (the debt holders received federal bonds), created the Bank of the United States to stabilize the financial system, and set up a uniform system of tariffs (taxes on imports) and other taxes to pay off the debt and provide a financial infrastructure. To support his programs Hamilton created a new political party – the first in the world based on voters – the Federalist Party.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison formed an opposition Republican Party (usually called the Democratic-Republican Party by political scientists). Hamilton and Washington presented the country in 1794 with the Jay Treaty that reestablished good relations with Britain. The Jeffersonians vehemently protested, and the voters aligned behind one party or the other, thus setting up the First Party System. Federalists promoted business, financial and commercial interests and wanted more trade with Britain. Republicans accused the Federalists of plans to establish a monarchy, turn the rich into a ruling class, and making the United States a pawn of the British. The treaty passed, but politics became intensely heated.
The Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when western settlers protested against a federal tax on liquor, was the first serious test of the federal government. Washington called out the state militia and personally led an army, as the insurgents melted away and the power of the national government was firmly established.
Washington refused to serve more than two terms – setting a precedent – and in his famous farewell address, he extolled the benefits of federal government and importance of ethics and morality while warning against foreign alliances and the formation of political parties.
John Adams, a Federalist, defeated Jefferson in the 1796 election. War loomed with France and the Federalists used the opportunity to try to silence the Republicans with the Alien and Sedition Acts, build up a large army with Hamilton at the head, and prepare for a French invasion. However, the Federalists became divided after Adams sent a successful peace mission to France that ended the Quasi-War of 1798.
During the first two decades after the Revolutionary War, there were dramatic changes in the status of slavery among the states and an increase in the number of freed blacks. Inspired by revolutionary ideals of the equality of men and influenced by their lesser economic reliance on slavery, northern states abolished slavery. Some had gradual emancipation schemes.
States of the Upper South made manumission easier, resulting in an increase in the proportion of free blacks in the Upper South (as a percentage of the total non-white population) from less than one percent in 1792 to more than 10 percent by 1810. By that date, a total of 13.5 percent of all blacks in the United States were free. After that date, with the demand for slaves on the rise because of the Deep South’s expanding cotton cultivation, the number of manumissions declined sharply; and an internal U.S. slave trade became an important source of wealth for many planters and traders.
Main article: Slavery in the United States
Jeffersonian Republican Era
Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams for the presidency in the 1800 election. Jefferson’s major achievement as president was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which provided U.S. settlers with vast potential for expansion west of the Mississippi River.
Jefferson, a scientist himself, supported expeditions to explore and map the new domain, most notably the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Jefferson believed deeply in republicanism and argued it should be based on the independent yeoman farmer and planter; he distrusted cities, factories and banks. He also distrusted the federal government and judges, and tried to weaken the judiciary. However he met his match in John Marshall, a Federalist from Virginia. Although the Constitution specified a Supreme Court, its functions were vague until Marshall, the Chief Justice (1801–35), defined them, especially the power to overturn acts of Congress or states that violated the Constitution, first enunciated in 1803 in Marbury v. Madison.
War of 1812
Americans were increasingly angry at the British violation of American ships’ neutral rights in order to hurt France, the impressment (seizure) of 10,000 American sailors needed by the Royal Navy to fight Napoleon, and British support for hostile Indians attacking American settlers in the Midwest. They may also have desired to annex all or part of British North America. Despite strong opposition from the Northeast, especially from Federalists who did not want to disrupt trade with Britain, Congress declared war in June 18, 1812.
The war was frustrating for both sides. Both sides tried to invade the other and were repulsed. The American high command remained incompetent until the last year. The American militia proved ineffective because the soldiers were reluctant to leave home and efforts to invade Canada repeatedly failed. The British blockade ruined American commerce, bankrupted the Treasury, and further angered New Englanders, who smuggled supplies to Britain. The Americans under General William Henry Harrison finally gained naval control of Lake Erie and defeated the Indians under Tecumseh in Canada, while Andrew Jackson ended the Indian threat in the Southeast. The Indian threat to expansion into the Midwest was permanently ended. The British invaded and occupied much of Maine.
The British raided and burned Washington, but were repelled at Baltimore in 1814 – where the “Star Spangled Banner” was written to celebrate the American success. In upstate New York a major British invasion of New York State was turned back. Finally in early 1815 Andrew Jackson decisively defeated a major British invasion at the Battle of New Orleans, making him the most famous war hero.
With Napoleon (apparently) gone, the causes of the war had evaporated and both sides agreed to a peace that left the prewar boundaries intact. Americans claimed victory in February 18, 1815 as news came almost simultaneously of Jackson’s victory of New Orleans and the peace treaty that left the prewar boundaries in place. Americans swelled with pride at success in the “second war of independence”; the naysayers of the antiwar Federalist Party were put to shame and it never recovered. The Indians were the big losers; they never gained the independent nationhood Britain had promised and no longer posed a serious threat as settlers poured into the Midwest.
Era of Good Feelings
As strong opponents of the war, the Federalists held the Hartford Convention in 1814 that hinted at disunion. National euphoria after the victory at New Orleans ruined the prestige of the Federalists and they no longer played a significant role. President Madison and most Republicans realized they were foolish to let the Bank of the United States close down, for its absence greatly hindered the financing of the war. So, with the assistance of foreign bankers, they chartered the Second Bank of the United States in 1816.
The Republicans also imposed tariffs designed to protect the infant industries that had been created when Britain was blockading the U.S. With the collapse of the Federalists as a party, the adoption of many Federalist principles by the Republicans, and the systematic policy of President James Monroe in his two terms (1817–25) to downplay partisanship, the nation entered an Era of Good Feelings, with far less partisanship than before (or after), and closed out the First Party System.
The Monroe Doctrine, expressed in 1823, proclaimed the United States’ opinion that European powers should no longer colonize or interfere in the Americas. This was a defining moment in the foreign policy of the United States. The Monroe Doctrine was adopted in response to American and British fears over Russian and French expansion into the Western Hemisphere.
In 1832, President Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, ran for a second term under the slogan “Jackson and no bank” and didn’t renew the charter of the Second Bank of the United States of America. Jackson was convinced that central banking was used by the elite to take advantage of the average American.
Main article: Era of Good Feelings
In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to negotiate treaties that exchanged Native American tribal lands in the eastern states for lands west of the Mississippi River. Its goal was primarily to remove Native Americans, including the Five Civilized Tribes, from the American Southeast; they occupied land that settlers wanted. Jacksonian Democrats demanded the forcible removal of native populations who refused to acknowledge state laws to reservations in the West; Whigs and religious leaders opposed the move as inhumane. Thousands of deaths resulted from the relocations, as seen in the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Many of the Seminole Indians in Florida refused to move west; they fought the Army for years in the Seminole Wars.
Second Party System
After the First Party System of Federalists and Republicans withered away in the 1820s, the stage was set for the emergence of a new party system based on very well organized local parties that appealed for the votes of (almost) all adult white men. The former Jeffersonian party split into factions. They split over the choice of a successor to President James Monroe, and the party faction that supported many of the old Jeffersonian principles, led by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, became the Democratic Party. As Norton explains the transformation in 1828:
- Jacksonians believed the people’s will had finally prevailed. Through a lavishly financed coalition of state parties, political leaders, and newspaper editors, a popular movement had elected the president. The Democrats became the nation’s first well-organized national party…and tight party organization became the hallmark of nineteenth-century American politics.
Opposing factions led by Henry Clay helped form the Whig Party. The Democratic Party had a small but decisive advantage over the Whigs until the 1850s, when the Whigs fell apart over the issue of slavery.
Behind the platforms issued by state and national parties stood a widely shared political outlook that characterized the Democrats:
- The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed the central government as the enemy of individual liberty. The 1824 “corrupt bargain” had strengthened their suspicion of Washington politics….Jacksonians feared the concentration of economic and political power. They believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual–the artisan and the ordinary farmer–by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency, which they distrusted. Their definition of the proper role of government tended to be negative, and Jackson’s political power was largely expressed in negative acts. He exercised the veto more than all previous presidents combined. Jackson and his supporters also opposed reform as a movement. Reformers eager to turn their programs into legislation called for a more active government. But Democrats tended to oppose programs like educational reform mid the establishment of a public education system. They believed, for instance, that public schools restricted individual liberty by interfering with parental responsibility and undermined freedom of religion by replacing church schools. Nor did Jackson share reformers’ humanitarian concerns. He had no sympathy for American Indians, initiating the removal of the Cherokees along the Trail of Tears.
Second Great Awakening
The Second Great Awakening was a Protestant revival movement that affected the entire nation during the early 19th century and led to rapid church growth. The movement began around 1790, gained momentum by 1800, and, after 1820 membership rose rapidly among Baptist and Methodist congregations, whose preachers led the movement. It was past its peak by the 1840s.
It enrolled millions of new members in existing evangelical denominations and led to the formation of new denominations. Many converts believed that the Awakening heralded a new millennial age. The Second Great Awakening stimulated the establishment of many reform movements – including abolitionism and temperance designed to remove the evils of society before the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Main article: Second Great Awakening
After 1840 the growing abolitionist movement redefined itself as a crusade against the sin of slave ownership. It mobilized support (especially among religious women in the Northeast affected by the Second Great Awakening). William Lloyd Garrison published the most influential of the many anti-slavery newspapers, The Liberator, while Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave, began writing for that newspaper around 1840 and started his own abolitionist newspaper North Star in 1847. The great majority of anti-slavery activists, such as Abraham Lincoln, rejected Garrison’s theology and held that slavery was an unfortunate social evil, not a sin.
Main article: Abolitionism in the United States
Westward expansion and Manifest Destiny
The American colonies and the new nation grew very rapidly in population and area, as pioneers pushed the frontier of settlement west. The process finally ended around 1890-1912 as the last major farmlands and ranch lands were settled. Native American tribes in some places resisted militarily, but they were overwhelmed by settlers and the army and after 1830 were relocated to reservations in the west. The highly influential “Frontier Thesis” argues that the frontier shaped the national character, with its boldness, violence, innovation, individualism, and democracy.
Recent historians have emphasized the multicultural nature of the frontier. Enormous popular attention in the media focuses on the “Wild West” of the second half of the 19th century. As defined by Hine and Faragher, “frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states”. They explain, “It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America.”
Through wars and treaties, establishment of law and order, building farms, ranches, and towns, marking trails and digging mines, and pulling in great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast fulfilling the dreams of Manifest Destiny. As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the west in fiction and film took firm hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike. America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image. “No other nation,” says David Murdoch, “has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.”
From the early 1830s to 1869, the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by over 300,000 settlers. ’49ers (in the California Gold Rush), ranchers, farmers, and entrepreneurs and their families headed to California, Oregon, and other points in the far west. Wagon-trains took five or six months on foot; after 1869, the trip took 6 days by rail.
Manifest Destiny was the belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent. This concept was born out of “A sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example… generated by the potentialities of a new earth for building a new heaven.” Manifest Destiny was rejected by modernizers, especially the Whigs like Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln who wanted to build cities and factories – not more farms. However Democrats strongly favored expansion, and they won the key election of 1844. After a bitter debate in Congress the Republic of Texas was annexed in 1845, which Mexico had warned meant war. War broke out in 1846, with the homefront polarized as Whigs opposed and Democrats supported the war. The U.S. army, using regulars and large numbers of volunteers, won the Mexican-American War (1846–48). The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo made peace; Mexico recognized the annexation of Texas and ceded its claims in the Southwest (especially California and New Mexico). The Hispanic residents were given full citizenship and the Mexican Indians became American Indians. Simultaneously gold was discovered, pulling over 100,000 men to northern California in a matter of months in the California Gold Rush. Not only did the then president James K. Polk expand America’s border to the Republic of Texas and a fraction of Mexico but he also annexed the north western frontier known as the Oregon Country, which was renamed the Oregon Territory.
Main article: American frontier