NEW BEGINNINGS: The 1780s (Chapter 8)

Victory over the British did nothing to eliminate the many internal conflicts afflicting the new nation. Foreign policy concerns, debtor/creditor conflicts, and trade wars brought the confederated states to the brink of ruin. In the face of all this, delegates from the states met in Philadelphia to craft a new plan of government.

 

More Deadly than War: the Smallpox Epidemic

Between 1775 and 1782 – the exact years of the Revolutionary War – a smallpox epidemic devastated broad sections of the population North America.

Hundreds of the enslaved Virginias who joined the British army and Governor Dunmore at the start of the war to escape slavery were affected. Continental soldiers were affected as well as British soldiers, especially in cities like Boston, Quebec, and Charleston. The Spanish-speaking settlers of Spanish, African, and Indian ancestry who founded the village called Our Lady of the Angels (today, Los Angeles) were plagued by the smallpox epidemic as well. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, the smallpox virus took more than 130,000 North American lives, a substantially larger number than those who lost their lives on the battlefields during the Revolution (25,000). The North Americans who suffered the most losses as a result of the epidemic were Native Americans.

 

Postwar Problems

After the Revolutionary War, the lives of many North Americans had been profoundly disrupted if not destroyed by an eight year long war and smallpox epidemic. With the aid of France (and Spain), the Continental army and militias had defeated Britain, the world’s greatest superpower at that time. With Britain's defeat, America become the first colony to successfully challenge its colonial master and become an independent nation (Haiti would be the second). While the Treaty of Paris signaled an enormous victory of profound historical importance – the symbolic triumph of freedom and democracy – the reality of post revolutionary North American society was very problematic.

At the start of the American Revolution, African Americans composed 1/5 (20%) of the American population (the largest proportion in American history, today the 36 million Americans who listed themselves as Black on the US census represent 13% of the entire population). After the revolution, many African Americans had escaped from servitude (see website on black loyalists), won their freedom through military service, or been freed by masters who saw a conflict between slavery and the Revolution’s rhetoric of equality. But half a million people remained legally enslaved. After the Revolution, slavery was no longer legal in the northern states. In 1785 New Yorkers John Jay and Alexander Hamilton joined like-minded citizens to form a Society for the Promotion of the Manumission of Slaves; Quakers in Pennsylvania had long called for an end to slavery and abolitionist sentiment led by black and white intellectuals and religious leaders grew in some quarters (see the Narrative of Equiano or the case of Elizabeth Freeman on p. 281). The Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery north of the Ohio River. Still, without ever using the words “slavery” or “slave” the US Constitution protected the institution of slavery. The framers of the Constitution also approved provisions protecting the slave trade for the next twenty years and denying protection to fugitive slaves. Appallingly, slave-holding southern delegates prevailed in both maintaining the legality of regarding enslaved persons as personal property as well as gained even more political power though the notorious three-fifths clause.
White veterans of the Continental Army were extremely frustrated in the face of the government’s failure to give them their pay and at times seemed on the brink of a military coup (see p. 258 & 260).

Whereas some wealthy whites increased their fortunes through war speculation (taking advantage of the difficulties of a wartime economy, like stocking up on rare goods and selling them dear), many non-elite whites suffered under the wartime and post-war economies. The majority of citizens, faced with rising debts and economic downturn, resented the heavy taxes needed to pay interest on debts to wealthy speculators. In 1786-1787 Shays Rebellion broke out when large numbers of farmers and small property owners were unable to pay their debts and taxes in the hard currency demanded by the government and merchants.

In 1783, as the Continental army was demobilized, army officers established the Society of the Cincinnati (named for the Roman general Cincinnatus). Only officers could join and membership was hereditary. The Cincinnati exerted a good deal of political pressure. Critics were concerned that the organization was meant to plant the seeds of a self-perpetuating elite ruling class or aristocracy.

After the Revolution, the Confederation’s Continental (national) Congress in Philadelphia had a restless army to pay, a weak government to reform, and tremendous war debts to confront. They imposed taxes to pay off war bonds purchased by wealthy speculators; veterans and farmers protested that Congress was gouging the many to enrich the few. When representatives of “the many” pressured state governments to provide debt relief and issue paper money, wealthy creditors reacted forcefully. Like-minded men maneuvered to create a new, much stronger central government that could support their economic interests and override state-level economic measures that favored the common people.

Sidestepping the existing government (established by the Articles of Confederation drafted by the Continental Congress in 1777 and ratified in 1781), the elite members of Congress drafted a new constitution at a closed convention in Philadelphia in 1787, which they managed to get ratified in 1788. There was no public discussion or official record of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention (which was preceded by a secret meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati). “The 55 delegates had much in common. All were white, male, and well educated, and many already knew one another. Theses members of the national elite included 34 lawyers, 30 public creditors, and 27 members of the Society of the Cincinnati. More than a quarter of the participants owned slaves….all seemed to agree that the contagion of liberty had spread too far” (Jones p. 277-278).

 

From English Colonists to Americans: A New National Culture

In spite the many regional, class, and ideological differences and the conflicting interests that separated Americans, many sought to create a new shared national culture and identity in the wake of the Revolution. Citizens were no longer Englishmen in America; now they were Americans (formerly a term reserved exclusively for Indians). Many Americans strove to match that which they admired about European culture while rejecting and separating themselves from those aspects of European (English) culture against which they had fought.

Just as the French would do after the French Revolution, Americans changed public names (of streets, counties, colleges) that referenced the old regime or its royalty. For example, Dunmore County, Virginia (named for the British appointed governor, Lord Dunmore) was renamed Shenandoah (based on an Indian name). Boston’s King Street became State Street. Whereas the British, who had contested Spain’s claims to North America, downplayed the significance of Christopher Columbus, Americans now saw the word Columbia as a symbol of their break from Britain. In 1786, South Carolina named their new state capital Columbia. Five years later, in 1789, supporters of the proposed national capital christened it the District of Columbia. New York City’s King’s College became Columbia College (later Columbia University). Noah Webster established the American language in his American Spelling Book in 1783 and his American Dictionary first published in 1828. Plough became plow, theatre became theater, colour became color, etc.

 

Geographic Expansion

After Pontiac’s Rebellion, the Proclamation Line of 1763 had dammed up colonial expansion for two decades. After the Revolutionary War, Americans migrated westward by the thousands. In the decade after the war, woodsman Daniel Boone worked as a surveyor for migrants in the trans-Appalachian region of Virginia that became Kentucky in 1792. However, Native Americans in both the “Old Southwest” and “Old Northwest” were an “obstacle” to American settlement. American delegations drafted treaties with Native American nations, asserting the right of the new US government to Indian lands. “The Congress of the recently established confederation government instructed these negotiators to deal with the Native Americans as dependents rather than equals, calling them children rather than brothers. The treaty makers even took hostages to force the Indians to accept their terms. Ordinary Americans sealed these claims with a surge of migration into western Pennsylvania and beyond” (Jones p. 267).

The Land Ordinance of 1785 (the basis of which was drawn up by Thomas Jefferson before he replaced Benjamin Franklin as the American minister to France) called for surveyors to layout townships in grids. The legislation was meant to help systemize and organize how land would be legally claimed by individuals.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 determined how land north of the Ohio River would be governed and prohibited slavery there (as well as fugitive slaves). The ordinance increased property requirements for citizens who wanted to vote or hold office. Most members of Congress feared the prospect of democratic governance and local control in the Old Northwest so they provided for the appointment of territorial officials. These changes benefited eastern land speculators most, some whom were members of Congress.

 

American Citizenship

Despite the elite's efforts to limit the political power of non-elites, American citizens were given substantial rights and privileges that were legally protected in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Notwithstanding the elite compromises that helped to produce the Constitution and how it has been interpreted in the past, the US Constitution is the most enduring and most successful constitution in history. Remarkably, with the ratification of the Constitution, property ownership was no longer a universal voting requirement. States varied on whether religion, race, or gender could determine eligibility. Non-elite men who were white and Christian enjoyed rights historically reserved for the elite. Most African-Americans, Native Americans, and women of all ethnic backgrounds were excluded from these citizenship rights.