In the first of a three part series Colm McInerney traces the rise of America from a Colony through to a Superpower.
That these United Colonies are, and of Right, ought to be free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connexion between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved-
Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, 1776
In 1775 the thirteen British colonies in North America had a population of 2.5 million. Through the War of Independence from 1776 to 1783 they won their independence from the British Empire. The colonists sought to forge a new country, the United States of America. They had rejected the British monarchy, signed a Declaration of Independence promising basic rights to citizens, and now had to decide on how best to govern their new country.
The British system of government balanced monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The Americans believed in republicanism, in which the people, not Parliament, were sovereign. Eighteenth century intellectuals repeatedly told the world that a republic could only exist in a small territory, as it required consent from the people, and the more people, the more inhomogeneous they became in their views.1 But the Americans who signed the Declaration of Independence and had fought in the war were determined to establish a functioning republic. The main dividing issue was just how strong the central government should be. The Constitution was ratified in 1788. It created the separation of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the national government, and division of powers between the individual states and the nation. Its system of checks and balances made it very difficult for the government to become tyrannical. The relationship between state and national powers, vaguely drawn, would come back to haunt the country. But for now the United States had a new Constitution, a new government, and an enormous landscape to shape as it saw fit.
The First Two-Party System: Federalists v. Republicans, 1789-1801
Citizens by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism
President George Washington’s Farewell Address, 17962
George Washington became America’s first president in 1789. After his re-election in 1793, a group of Americans began seeking change through electoral politics. Traditional political theory regarded opposition in a republic as illegitimate, but this view would change as time passed. The opposition leaders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, felt that the government favoured wealthy commercial interests at the expense of agriculture and that the United States was at the risk of being ruled by a corrupt, aristocratic government. Jefferson, Madison, and their followers in Congress began calling themselves Republicans. Washington retired from office in 1797, and in his Farewell Address, outlined two principles that would guide American policy well into the twentieth century: to maintain commercial but not political ties to other nations and to enter no permanent alliances.
The presidential election of 1796 was the first that was seriously contested. Congressmen increasingly voted in groups rather than as individuals. Although not yet political parties in the modern sense, the Federalists (who had drafted the Constitution) and Republicans were the two dominant groups in Congress. Because the Constitution provided no way to express support for one person for president and another for vice president, the electors simply voted for two people. The man with the highest total became president; the second highest, vice president. Thus the Federalist John Adams was elected president but his vice president was a Republican, Thomas Jefferson. By this time the United States and France had drifted into a quasi-war, fought at sea between the United States Navy and French vessels seeking to capture American merchant vessels. In a bid to censor Republican criticism of their foreign policy, the government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts which limited such things as free speech. In response Republicans in Virginia and Kentucky passed resolutions contending that the people speaking through their states had a legitimate right to judge the constitutionality of federal government actions. This raised the question: how far could the states go in opposing the national government? As the United States evolved, this thorny issue would come more and more to the fore.
From Jefferson to the Missouri Compromise
I believe this… the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern
– President Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 18013
A settlement was reached with France in 1800. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, was elected president the following year. He disliked Hamilton’s mercantilist theories and favoured a more passive federal policy. In November the government moved from Philadelphia to Washington in the District of Columbia, formed out of Maryland and Virginia. The government thus was based in no one state. The Alien and Sedition Acts were allowed to expire. In the case of Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court established its great power to judge the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. That same year the Louisiana Purchase saw America buy 827,000 square miles of land from France for $15 million, doubling the size of the United States and opening the trans-Mississippi West for American settlement. Jefferson stormed to re-election in 1804, winning fifteen of the seventeen states with his running mate. The Republicans had begun to campaign directly to voters and build up a grass-roots following, leaving the Federalists lagging behind. Jefferson followed Washington’s example and renounced a third term. For the first time the Republican nomination was contested, with James Madison winning both it and the subsequent presidential election of 1808.
The Napoleonic Wars continued to affect the United States however. Britain and France’s commercial war with each other hit American trade hard. British navy ships routinely stopped American merchant vessels and seized any alleged British runaways on board. At the same time, in the West, the British encouraged Native Americans to remain on lands claimed by the American government. By 1812 America and Britain were at war. The land war centred on the American-Canadian border, as Canada was part of the British Empire, the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and the Louisiana and Mississippi territories. After defeating Napoleon in April 1814, the British intensified their land campaign in America. Washington D.C. was occupied and set ablaze. However, stalemate between the two forces occurred here. Indian resistance in the South was defeated by Andrew Jackson, and Jackson then successfully defended New Orleans from British attack. The Treaty of Ghent was signed as both parties sought peace.