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A Virginia planter, surveyor, and land speculator, he sought a commission in the British Army before the Revolution, but in the 1770s, he became an early advocate for separation from Great Britain. During the war, he became synonymous with the cause of independence.
By the end of the Revolution, Washington was the most revered person in America. His support for the Constitution drafted at Philadelphia in 1787 was crucial to the ratification of the new government. Virtually everyone assumed that he would be the nation's first president.
By the end of his presidency, his reputation was scarred by the sectional and philosophical divisions that emerged during the 1790s. But at his death in 1799, he still enjoyed a unique status in American public life.
John Adams (1735–1826) was the second President of the United States.
A Massachusetts lawyer, Adams gained prominence during the controversy surrounding the Stamp Act (1765) as a brilliant defender of American rights under British law. As a member of the Continental Congress, he sat on the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, he served as a commissioner to France. At the war's end, he was appointed to the American delegation to Paris that negotiated the treaty ending the war with Britain.
As president, Adams resolved to continue Washington's policy of international neutrality. To that end, he negotiated a treaty with France in 1800. But caught in the crossfire between the pro-French Republican Party of Jefferson and the pro-British elements within his own Federalist Party, Adams failed to win reelection.
While historians have applauded the pursuit of neutrality that cost Adams his political life, they have criticized his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which passed at the height of partisan tension in 1798.
Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) was the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Born in the West Indies, he came to America at age 18. He formed an artillery company at the beginning of the Revolution, earned Washington's respect during the unsuccessful defense of New York City, and subsequently served on Washington's staff until 1781.
A nationalist, and leading voice for governmental reform during the Critical Period, Hamilton wrote 51 of the Federalist Papers during the debate over ratification.
As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton continued to pursue his goal of strengthening the national government. His economic proposals restored public credit and added stability to the American monetary system. He also encouraged Washington to pursue a conciliatory commercial policy with Britain and to respond to western tax protesters with force.
To James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other critics of the Washington administration, Hamilton was the principal villain. But to most Federalists, he was a national hero. When Hamilton was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, his funeral procession packed the streets of New York.
During the Revolution, he was elected Governor of Virginia and, after the war, he was appointed minister to France. While in France, he associated with many of that country's most progressive intellectuals and observed the beginning of the French Revolution. He served as George Washington's Secretary of State until 1793 and was elected vice president in 1796 and president in 1801.
Like James Madison, Jefferson grew disillusioned with the Hamiltonian orientation of Washington's administration. When elected vice president in 1796, he spurned President John Adams' invitation to play a meaningful role in the administration and prepared, instead, his 1800 campaign for the presidency.
Adams' signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts provided Jefferson with an important campaign issue. Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions condemning these acts and advancing a theory of states' rights that would resurface in the nullification crisis of the 1830s.
James Madison (1751–1836) was the principal architect of the United States Constitution and the fourth President of the United States.
During the Revolution, he helped draft Virginia's state constitution and served in the Continental Congress. In the years immediately following the war, he grew convinced that domestic and international disasters would follow unless the national government was reformed, and therefore, joined those calling for a Constitutional Convention. He teamed with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to publish the Federalist Papers.
With the ratification of the Constitution, he was widely recognized as the document's most brilliant and influential theoretician. When the new government gathered in New York in 1789, he was among Washington's confidants. His advocacy of a bill of rights during Congress' first term was designed largely to defang critics of the Constitution still hoping to secure its alteration.
But Hamilton's funding proposals convinced Madison that the new government was steering off course. The expanded national power and Hamilton's vision of an assertive federal government—one that used its powers to mobilize national resources and pursue a broad legislative agenda—conflicted with Madison's vision of a federal government strong enough to check state power, and he was too divided by internal divisions to be an energetic legislative force.
John Jay (1745–1829) was the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and an American diplomat to Spain and Great Britain.
He played a critical role in the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris, urging American diplomats to pursue talks with Britain independent of France. Jay is best known for the treaty he negotiated with Great Britain in 1794 and ratified in 1795.
While many historians have concluded that the Jay Treaty of 1795 benefited American commerce and eased Anglo-American naval tensions, many of Jay's contemporaries protested its regional biases and its overly conciliatory character. Debate over the treaty in Congress and throughout the nation contributed to the crystallization of political divisions. Some historians argue that it was the most important factor in the formation of the America's first party system.
John Baker Holroyd, the first Earl of Sheffield (1735–1821) was a member of British Parliament and one of the most influential shapers of British trade policy between 1783 and 1821.
Arguing that America's naval weakness and its dependence on British markets left it unable to refuse commercial terms dictated by London, Sheffield encouraged the package of trade restrictions against American commerce embodied in the British Order in Council of July 1783. Among these restrictions, the closure of the British West Indies to American goods had the greatest effect on the American economy. These islands had provided lucrative markets for farmers and merchants from New England and the middle states.
Sheffield's policies inhibited American commercial growth in the two decades after the Revolution, but Britain's war with France and the resulting opportunities for American shippers as neutral carriers limited the impact of these policies after 1800.
Sheffield's policies led to the politically controversial Jay Treaty and contributed to the maritime tension between the United States and Great Britain that culminated in the War of 1812. His death in 1821 coincided with the emergence of the more flexible British trade policies that led to the improvement of Anglo-American relations by the end of the decade.