(The Early Years of the Republic)

With independence achieved and a treaty of peace duly signed, the new-born United States found themselves neither united as a confederacy, nor individually well-ordered States secure against disintegration. The four years from 1783 until 1787 have been called by John Fiske, "the critical period," a phrase since generally accepted as accurately defining the period. As to dangers threatening the perpetuity of the Union, that period resembled closely the four years of civil war, three-quarters of a century afterward. Disunion was threatened not only in the South, but in Pennsylvania and New England, and on the frontier.

The chief cause lay in the absence of a central government possest of supreme authority to govern the whole. Under the Articles of Confederation Congress had no power to act on important measures affecting all the States, except by consent of nine of them. Obliged for several years to maintain an army of 10,000 men, it could not raise the money to pay them, and at one time was obliged ignominiously to leave Philadelphia in the face of soldiers in revolt for want of pay. Of credit in Europe there was almost none; an attempt to raise $300,000 in Amsterdam in 1784 utterly failed. Money became so scarce that personal property, such as cattle and sheep, also unimproved real estate, were by law made legal-tender.

Another great difficulty was the failure of the States to agree upon a common policy in commercial matters. Tariff laws of their own were made and thus they waged commercial war on one another. At one time four States—Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia, in direct violation of the Articles of Confederation, began to raise troops for their own defenses. Rhode Island, in 1786, recalled her delegates to Congress and refused to appoint others. Shay's rebellion of 1786, in western Massachusetts, was a rebellion against paying debts, and a conspicuous symptom of the discontent of the times. Europe, hearing of these disorders, believed the Union would not long keep itself together. George III thought the States would soon beg England to take them back. The whole country was on the verge of civil war.

The time had come for the old order to be changed or the Union would perish. A constitution in which full authority should be delegated to a Federal Government was seen by all wiser minds to be the only remedy. The Constitution of 1787, much lauded in subsequent years by students of State building, and notably by Gladstone, was not so much a new creation as an outgrowth of experience during the eight years of the Revolutionary War, and the four of subsequent disintegration. Much of it was drawn from systems of government that had already been set up, tried and found adequate in some of the States.

Hamilton's greatest services to the country were rendered after the new government had been organized with him as Secretary of the Treasury. He found the finances bordering on actual bankruptcy—a foreign debt of $10,000,000, a domestic debt of $29,000,000, and accrued interest amounting to $13,000,000. Our bonds had been selling for as little as 25 per cent. of par; but five years later, under his masterly reorganization, they sold at par. How Hamilton accomplished this transformation, remains one of the marvels of his genius. His master stroke in that direction was achieved when he caused the Federal Government to assume the debts of the several States. This act at once raised the credit of the whole country and cemented the States more firmly in a union. He found a source of large revenue in sales of land from the Northwest Territory, which Virginia had given up for the common good.

Washington's first administration closed in 1793. The Union then seemed complete. Two new States had been added—Vermont and Kentucky. Taxes were uncomplainingly borne. In Washington's second administration trouble arose with England over aggressions committed by her on our commerce, including the impressment of seamen seized on board our ships. Intense indignation arose throughout the country leading to proposals to cut off all intercourse with England. John Jay was sent over in order to try diplomatic persuasion, the result being a treaty so much disliked in America that Jay was burned in effigy, Hamilton stoned at a public meeting and Washington fiercely attacked. But the treaty prevailed and war with England, owing largely to Washington's strong hand and great popularity, was averted.

To the administration of John Adams belong the Alien and Sedition Laws, by which the President was empowered to banish suspected foreigners and restrictions were imposed on the freedom of the press. These became widely unpopular. The Government was declared to be a tyranny, the laws unconstitutional and Virginia and Kentucky almost rose in rebellion. It was on this issue that the Federalists were first overthrown in a Presidential election and the great era of Jeffersonian democracy was ushered in. The commercial troubles with England did not cease under Jefferson, but rather multiplied, until Jefferson was forced by public sentiment to recommend an embargo, under which no vessel, American or foreign, could leave an American port unless the President suspended the act. The effects of the embargo a year later were disappointing to the country. English and French trade had not been seriously injured, but American shipping had been crippled everywhere, our export trade almost destroyed, so that instead of $110,000,000 we sent abroad $22,000,000; farmers were threatened with ruin; New England ports ceased to perform their functions; and Virginia, unable to sell tobacco, found herself almost bankrupt. The embargo had been popular enough when imposed, but its effects finally aroused imperative demands for its discontinuance. Its chief distinction now is that it delayed for a few years a second war with England, inevitable since 1793, and finally taking place in 1812-1814.

Jefferson's administration nullified all Federalist predictions that dangers to the Union would follow it. Like many radicals, Jefferson in office was conservative. Under his administration, the country made advances, population pushed westward, and, except during the period of the embargo, commerce increased. By the purchase of Louisiana the area of the country was more than doubled; by the Lewis and Clark expedition, that vast Northwestern region was made known to the people and emigration eventually started into it, including the most distant regions on the Columbia River. In Jefferson's time came also the war with Tripoli, in which American seamen accomplished a feat which had baffled the European powers since the Middle Ages. They overthrew the corsairs of North Africa and put an end to the payment of tribute.

F. W. H.

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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman