CHAPTER 6 The Republican Experiment
In the Revolutionary era, Americans translated republican ideas into practical
governments on the local and national levels, but they divided over the relative
importance of individual liberty and social order. This chapter explains the controversies
that resulted and how those controversies shaped the governments created on the state
and national levels.
I. DEFINING REPUBLICAN CULTURE
Americans divided over the relative importance of individual liberty and social order, the
right of private property and the ideal of equality. A series of controversies resulted,
shaping the governments created during and after the war for independence.
II. LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF REVOLUTION
The American Revolution, which may seem tame in comparison with others, changed
American society in unexpected ways.
A. Social and Political Reform
Among the major reforms of American society were changes in the laws of
inheritance, more liberal voting qualifications, better representation for frontier
settlers, and separation of church and state.
B. African Americans in the New Republic
During the Revolution, African Americans demanded the natural right to be free.
The Northern states responded by gradually abolishing slavery. Abolition also
became a subject of serious debate in the South, but economic motives overcame
C. The Challenge of Women's Rights
Women also demanded the natural right of equality and contributed to the
creation of a new society by raising children in households where the republican
values of freedom and equality were daily practiced. Women became more
assertive in divorcing undesirable mates and in opening their own businesses.
Nevertheless, they were still denied their political and legal rights.
D. Postponing Full Liberty
Although the Revolution did not entirely abolish slavery or give equal rights to
women, it did introduce into American life an ideology of freedom and equality
that inspired future generations.
III. THE STATES: EXPERIMENTS IN REPUBLICANISM
The state constitutions adopted during and just after the Revolution were experiments
that provided insights and experience later used when constructing a central government.
A. Blueprints for State Government
Americans wanted written constitutions that would clearly define the rights of
the people and the limits of government power. These constitutions were
experiments that provided valuable lessons that were later used in constructing
the central government.
B. Natural Rights and the State Constitutions
The state constitutions, in different ways, guaranteed freedom of religion, speech
and the press. Governors were generally weakened, and the elected assemblies
were given most power.
C. Power to the People
Massachusetts developed a procedure for constitution making that all the other
states eventually adopted. A constitution had to be written by a convention
specially elected for that purpose and ratified by a referendum of the people.
Because it was widely believed that the early state constitutions were flawed
experiments in republican government, some Americans began to argue that a
stronger central government was necessary.
IV. STUMBLING TOWARD A NEW NATIONAL GOVERNMENT
The Americans first created a central government in order to fight the war for
independence, an effort that required a highly coordinated effort.
A. Articles of Confederacy
John Dickinson presented a plan for a strong national government in 1776, but it
failed. His proposal to give all the land beyond the Appalachians to Congress
angered states like Virginia, and the large states rejected Dickinson's proposal to
continue to give each state equal representation in Congress. After years of
debate, the Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation, which
gave the central government virtually no power to force the states to do
anything. Even so, the states regarded the Articles with suspicion.
B. Western Land: Key to the First Constitution
The main delay in ratification of the Articles was the problem regarding
ownership of the western lands. Some states such as Maryland had no claim to
land beyond their boundaries and argued that the western lands should be given
to Congress for the benefit of all Americans. Maryland delayed ratification of
the Articles until 1781, when Virginia agreed to renounce claims to the West.
Other states followed Virginia's example, and Congress wound up owning all the
land west of the Appalachian Mountains.
C. Northwest Ordinance: The Confederation's Major Achievement
The Articles dealt effectively with the western lands, traditionally an area of
little law and order. Congress provided local government and the promise of
In order to capitalize quickly on its treasure in land, Congress sold over six
million acres to large land companies. These companies, however, experienced
difficulty in attracting immigrants or in controlling the people inhabiting the
West. By 1787, Congress realized the need for closer supervision and issued the
Northwest Ordinance, providing a new government for the area north of the
Ohio River. The Ordinance created a number of territories, each headed by a
governor appointed by Congress. As the population of a territory increased, it
was to acquire the right to more self-rule and eventual statehood.
The Ordinance regulated only those lands north of the Ohio River. Congress
took almost no interest in the lands south of the Ohio, resulting in tremendous
legal confusion about who owned what. There was even an attempt to establish
a new state in the area.
V. STRENGTHENING FEDERAL AUTHORITY
The Congress established by the Articles of Confederation failed to solve America's
economic problems and failed to exert a strong foreign policy.
A. The Nationalist Critique
The new government inherited an empty treasury and had to cope with massive
economic problems, like runaway inflation and massive debts. Without the
power to tax, the Articles Congress could not cope with the situation. A group
of "nationalists," like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, tried to give Congress
the authority to collect an "impost" on imported goods. The proposal
raised immediate objections that the Congress would become too powerful. It
took the vote of just one state, Rhode Island, to kill the impost. As Congress
sank further in public esteem and failed even to pay the soldiers' wages, a group
of extreme nationalists plotted to use the army to establish a strong regime.
When Washington learned of the plan, called the Newburgh Conspiracy, he
squelched it. After a second attempt to give the Congress an impost failed, the
nationalists considered the Articles of Confederation hopelessly defective.
B. Diplomatic Humiliation
Congress presented such a weak face to the world that other nations were able to
insult the United States without fear. England, for example, kept troops on
American soil even after the peace treaty. When Spain suddenly closed New
Orleans to American commerce in 1784, Congress sent John Jay to Madrid to
negotiate a treaty that would reopen the Mississippi to Americans. Instead, Jay
signed an agreement that ignored the problem of the Mississippi in exchange for
commercial advantages benefiting the Northeast (the Jay-Gardoqui Treaty). The
people of the West and South denounced the treaty and forced Congress to
VI. "HAVE WE FOUGHT FOR THIS?"
By 1785, thoughtful Americans feared for the future of the United States and realized
that a strong central government had become a necessity. This section describes the
political ideology behind the Constitution.
A. The Genius of James Madison
The difficulties experienced by Americans in the 1780s grew in part from their
republican ideals. Because they had believed themselves to be virtuous, they had
constructed governments that placed no check on the popular will. But the
American people soon realized that they did not always behave as virtuous
republicans and that they needed a stronger government. James Madison was
especially important in recasting American political ideas away from the dogma
that only small republics could be free and democratic.
B. Constitutional Reform
During a convention held at Annapolis, Maryland, in 1786, the nationalists
agreed to meet again in Philadelphia in order to scrap the Articles of
Confederation and write a new constitution. Before the Philadelphia convention
met, a tax protest in Massachusetts turned violent (Shays' Rebellion). Although
the incident was minor, the nationalists feared it was the beginning of America's
slide into anarchy. The crisis atmosphere persuaded many Americans to support
a strong central government.
C. The Philadelphia Convention
During the spring of 1787, fifty-five delegates, representing all the states except
Rhode Island, opened proceedings. The delegates, including people like
Washington, Franklin, Hamilton and Madison, were men of wide and practical
D. Inventing a Federal Republic
Madison introduced the Virginia Plan, a proposal to create a central government
that could veto all acts of the state governments. The central government would
have two houses made up of state representatives. The larger the state, the more
representatives it would have in these houses. The chief executive would be
appointed by Congress. The small states objected to key provisions of the
Virginia Plan for fear they would lose their separate identities. They pushed
instead for the New Jersey Plan, which would have given Congress greater taxing
powers, but would have left the Articles of Confederation basically untouched.
E. Compromise Saves the Convention
The controversy over the two plans ended in compromise. The House of
Representatives would be based on population, a victory for the large states, but
each state would have two persons in the Senate, a victory for the small states.
F. Compromising with Slavery
Although the Convention produced a new Constitution, the need to compromise
permitted the slave trade to continue for another twenty years.
G. The Last Details
In the last weeks of the convention, the delegates hammered out a system of
electing the president and translated their various compromises into a written
H. We, the People
Instead of submitting its work to Congress or the state legislatures, the
convention gave the power of ratification to special conventions to be elected in
each state. As soon as nine such conventions approved the Constitution, it
would go into effect.
VII. WHOSE CONSTITUTION? STRUGGLE FOR RATIFICATION
The nationalists who wrote the Constitution now had the problem of having it adopted
in the state conventions.
A. Federalists and Antifederalists
Those opposed to the Constitution, unfairly called Antifederalists, came close to
defeating it. They distrusted any government removed from direct control of the
people and suspected that the new Constitution had been written by the rich
and powerful for their own benefit. The Federalists, however, enjoyed the
support of most of the news media of the time and were well organized. Starting
with Delaware, the ratifying conventions approved the Constitution, and by
June 1788, only North Carolina and Rhode Island had not done so.
B. Adding the Bill of Rights
The Antifederalists lost the ratification battle, but because of them, the
nationalists had to promise to add a bill of rights to the Constitution. By 1791,
the first ten amendments had been added.
VIII. CONCLUSION: SUCCESS DEPENDS ON THE PEOPLE
In the 1780s, the American people met the challenge of self-government. When they
discovered that it was dangerous to give themselves too much power, they created
governments regulated by a system of checks and balances that protected the people
The ratification of the Constitution closed an era of protest, revolution and political
experimentation. The future seemed to belong to the free people of a strong nation.
August 6, 2008