Revolutionary Legacies, 1789-1803 (Chapter 9)

With the revolution won and the new Constitution ratified, Americans settled into the long struggle to define themselves and their society. This chapter surveys the competing political visions in the new nation, the difficulties for African Americans in a country that allowed slavery, and the efforts to define just what the legacies of the Revolutionary war were.

The Revolution spawned a number of new groups that would challenge colonial ideas about race, gender, wealth, and standing in the community. White settlers were compared to Indians in the Northwest Territory (the violent cycle of raids and retaliation between the two groups prompted one US official to deem the settlers “white savages.”) In New England and the Upper South, free people of color endeavored to assert their rights. Throughout the colonies some white women maintained a degree of political engagement (New Jersey briefly granted wealthy women the right to vote). Artisans (tradesmen, aka “mechanics”) sought to wield political clout. “White savages,” free blacks, women voters, and artisan-politicians all revealed the both the social tensions mounting in the new republic and the promise it offered to these same groups.

The new nation’s definition of egalitarianism encompassed only white men. The white men who exercised political power were uniformly the elite (wealthy). For non-elites after the Revolution, black and white, freedom brought with it financial insecurity.

In 1790 the first US census tallied 4 million people, 750,000 of whom were African-Americans. German-born people accounted for 1/3 of all Pennsylvanians and almost 1/5 of all New York residents were Dutch. Numbers of Northerners and Southerners were about equal. Ethnic and regional differences were less critical to the new, developing two-party political system than was the split between the elite interests of urban merchants and rural planters. Policy differences between these wealthy, propertied white men—a strong federal government versus states rights and local authority—did not account for all the domestic turmoil that rocked the republic in it early years. The Revolution removed the economic restrictions of the British crown and thereby offered some new economic opportunities. On the other hand, many artisans and small farmers struggled under a burden of debt and new federal taxes. For them, the Revolution was a betrayal of their vision of America.

Opponents of slavery kept alive the rhetoric and ideals of the Revolution. Between 1782 and 1792 approximately 10,000 Virginia slaves gained their freedom through manumission. In 1800, Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith in Richmond, plotted a rebellion to seize the city. His actions gave voice to the revolutionary principles articulated in the American Revolution of 1776 and the Haitian Revolution of 1791. Prosser’s plans to kill all whites except abolitionists failed when a thunderstorm postponed the planned uprising and informants betrayed him. Though what became known as Gabriel’s Rebellion had failed, Prosser’s principles and plans had a profound effect and were of immense historical importance.

Free blacks in the North faced variable conditions. Massachusetts permitted black men to vote and to marry anyone they chose. Other northern and mid-Atlantic states limited African-Americans’ right to vote, serve on juries, or serve in the militia. Some municipal authorities restricted economic opportunities by refusing to grant licenses for certain trades to black people. Federal law denied African-Americans jobs in the postal service. During this period many black artisans were pushed out of their professions and into menial labor and domestic service. Many African-American men, enslaved and free, worked as sailors. During this period several black churches were founded and several African-American festivals were celebrated.

The Virginian George Washington assumed the presidency in 1789. To this day he is the only president to have been elected unanimously by the Electoral College. Neither the ratification of the Constitution nor Washington’s election silenced the continuing debates over civil liberties and the nature of the national government. In 1791 the states ratified the Bill of Rights—these amendments to the Constitution were intended to protect white men from the power of government.

By the late 1790s, the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton (Washington’s secretary of the of the treasury) and Thomas Jefferson (Washington’s secretary of state) had produced a two-party system.

Federalists: Hamilton advocated a strong central government that would promote commerce and manufacturing. (anti-French Revolution)

Democratic-Republicans (Anti-Federalists): Jefferson advocated states’ rights and an economic system based on small, independent farmers. (pro-French Revolution)

In 1794 farmers and grain distillers in southwestern Pennsylvania refused to pay federal tax on whiskey and attacked officials collecting the tax. This uprising became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Like Boston’s Stamp Act rioters of a generation earlier, Pennsylvania farmers (who grew grain and distilled it into whiskey for sale) attacked officials collecting the whiskey tax. To subdue the rebellion, Washington gathered 13,000 men from state militias and sent them to the four most resistant counties in 1794. Another uprising in rural Pennsylvania in 1799 violently reaffirmed popular opposition to federal taxes. Like Shays’ Rebellion of 1786, the Whiskey Rebellion was but one instance of the widespread discontent among small farmers and landowners whose debts and financial instability were magnified by federal fiscal policies. In some Pennsylvania counties between 1782 and 1792, as many as 43 % of all taxable landowners were in danger of losing their property to creditors. To protest federal tax collection, Pennsylvania farmers blocked roads leading to their communities. Between 1787 and 1795 sixty-cases of road obstruction throughout the state were recorded.

In 1797 Federalist John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson became the second US president. He faced difficulties on both the international and domestic front. France was seizing hundreds of American merchant vessels. At home, rural discontent, Democratic-Republican leadership, the proliferation of newspapers voicing their concerns prompted the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. These laws made it more difficult for immigrants to become resident aliens (Congress had instituted a “white person” prerequisite for naturalization in 1790), gave the president power to deport or imprison aliens, and branded as traitors anyone, US citizens included, who “unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure of the US government.” Though the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional (they violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech), the Federalist-dominated Supreme court upheld them. See page 300 for more recent examples of the government limitations on civil liberties.

In 1801 Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams to become the third US president. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, sought to justify slavery and to develop a rationale to exclude nonwhite men from politics. His Notes on the State of Virginia was the first public American expression of what became known in the 19th century as biological racism. In other words, whereas Jefferson’s contemporaries argued that African-Americans were disadvantaged by the external conditions and circumstances of slavery, Jefferson (some of whose children were African-American), argued that racial inequality was the product of inborn (biological) differences rather than the product of unequal circumstances.

Exceptional People:
See page 318 for examples of economically and politically active African-American and Native American women.
See page 311 for reference to white Indians and page 321 for reference to white slaves.

Shifting Economies:
1793 Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin (to remove seeds from cotton) created a cotton economy based on slave labor that undergirded the development of the southern plantation system and the northern industrial system. (As Karl Marx put, without slavery there is no cotton, without cotton there is no industry.) The north at this time had all the ingredients for an industrial revolution: water power from rivers, a faltering agricultural economy that would soon be eclipsed by western farmers, and dense population of laborers and consumers, and capital from successful merchants (and others who made money directly and indirectly from southern slavery: banks, insurance companies, shippers, agricultural equipment manufacturers, and textile producers, etc.) Still, during the end of the 18th century, most manufacturing still took place in individual households. In other words, families still made most of their own stuff (like cloths, cheese, leather, soap, candles) rather than bought it.