Governing the New Nation

After eight years of war preceded by more than a decade of political uncertainty and crisis, the United States had won its independence. With peace, it faced the challenge of working out the most effective and practical means of governing itself and the proper relationship between the national government and the states, a task that had begun while the war was still being fought.

New state governments. The colonial governments collapsed when the war broke out. The royal governors fled, and in eleven of the thirteen states, revolutionary conventions took it upon themselves to write new constitutions. Almost all provided for a strong two‐house legislature that, in most of the states, could elect the state's governor. A general distrust of executive authority made for weak governors; frequently, they might serve only a one‐year term, could not veto laws, and were not free to make appointments without the approval of the legislature. Property qualifications for both voting and holding an office were the rule, meaning the franchise was limited to a portion of each state's white males. The new state governments were not democratic in the modern sense because “democracy” in the eighteenth century was associated with mob rule, something that was feared just as much as oppressive monarchy. On the other hand, many of the states included a bill of rights in their constitution to protect basic liberties.

The Articles of Confederation. The first national government was created through the Articles of Confederation, a document adopted by the Second Continental Congress in November 1777. It went into effect when ratified by all the states in March 1781. During the intervening period, the business of government and the conducting of war were carried out by the Continental Congress. The delay in moving from a provisional to a permanent government was caused by a dispute among the states over western lands. Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia claimed their western boundaries were the Mississippi River, which was disputed by other states. Maryland in particular feared the potential size and power of New York and Virginia and did not ratify the Articles until 1781, when the claims were relinquished.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the national government consisted of a unicameral (one‐house) legislature, often called the Confederation Congress. There was no national executive or judiciary. Delegates to Congress were appointed by the state legislatures, and each state had one vote, regardless of the number of its delegates. Nine votes were needed to pass a law, or ordinance, as it was called then. Amending the Articles required a unanimous vote. Congress had the power to declare war, develop foreign policy, coin money, regulate Native‐American affairs in the territories, run the post office, borrow money, and appoint officers to the army and navy. Quite significantly, all powers not specifically given to Congress belonged to the states.

The Articles had several weaknesses. Congress could not tax the states; when funds were needed for whatever purpose, it could ask the states for money but could not compel them to pay. Nor could Congress regulate interstate or foreign trade, and the states, in fact, had the right to impose their own duties on imports, which played havoc with commerce. And although Congress could declare war, it had no authority to raise an army on its own; it had to requisition troops from the states.

Finance and Shays's Rebellion. When the war ended, the United States was $160 million in debt. To meet the need for a national currency, Congress printed paper money backed by European loans. More money was printed than the value of the loans, however, and its worth plunged while inflation shot up. The problem of paying off its debts plagued the new nation. Army officers even threatened to mutiny unless they were given their back pay.

Inflation was also a serious problem for the states, which printed their own money. High taxes along with the refusal of creditors to accept paper money led to an increasing number of farm foreclosures, triggering social unrest. Daniel Shays, a captain during the American Revolution and a farmer who had fallen on hard times himself, led two thousand men on a campaign to shut down courthouses (where foreclosure documents were issued) in several Massachusetts counties. Concern mounted when Shays marched on Springfield, the site of an arsenal, but the farmers and veterans that joined him were easily dispersed by the militia. Shays's Rebellion caused the Massachusetts legislature to reduce taxes and exempt personal items, such as household goods and tools, from seizure in a foreclosure.

Achievements of the Confederation Congress. Despite its political and economic shortcomings, the Confederation Congress achieved some notable successes, especially in the administration of western lands. The Ordinance of 1785 created a basic system for surveying land. Surveys established townships of six square miles and divided them into thirty‐six sections of 640 acres. In turn, each section was divided into half sections (320 acres) or quarter sections (160 acres). The government calculated that a family of four could live independently on a 160‐acre farm, a concept that endured well into the twentieth century. One of the thirty‐six sections in each township was reserved to be a source of income for public education.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the Northwest Territory (eventually the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan) and outlined the process by which almost all territories have become states. When a territory was organized, Congress first appointed a territorial governor and judges. When five thousand adult males lived in the territory, a territorial legislature was elected and a temporary constitution written. When the total population reached sixty thousand, a state constitution was prepared, and the territorial residents petitioned Congress for admission to the union as a state.

Frontier and foreign policy problems. The Northwest Ordinance pledged that Native Americans' land and property would not be taken without their consent. In fact, the treaties by which the United States acquired Indian lands were often negotiated under duress. U.S. commissioners, for example, refused to recognize the Six Nations and insisted on dealing with individual Iroquois tribes. Most of the tribes repudiated the treaties and openly resisted the expansion of settlements. By 1786, fighting was common along the Ohio River frontier, involving the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandotte, and Miami tribes, and had broken out in Georgia with the Creek. Spain added to the problems in the southeast by encouraging the Creek. Alexander Mc‐Gillivray, the Creek leader, won some concessions by playing one country against the other. The inability of the Confederation Congress to maintain peace on the frontier added to calls for a stronger national government.

As its reward for joining with France against Great Britain, Spain regained East and West Florida, which it had lost to the British after the Seven Years' War. The Spanish claimed that the boundary of West Florida extended to the Mississippi River, so it was able to close the port of New Orleans to American shipping in 1784. The shutdown was a severe blow to farmers in the trans‐Appalachian territory. Lacking roads across the mountains, they could get their crops to market only by traveling down the Mississippi. The attempt to work out the problem through the Jay‐Gardoqui Treaty, which would have denied the United States navigation rights on the lower Mississippi for twenty‐five years but opened Spanish markets to East Coast merchants, failed completely. Pressure from southern and western farmers made it unlikely that Congress would have ratified the agreement. The issue was not resolved until 1789 when access to New Orleans was finally achieved.