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Though the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" has been repeated ad infinitum (endlessly) in classrooms and probably memorized by most school children, its noble sounding aim actually reflects deep contradictions if one turns to the context in which it was written.
Author Thomas Jefferson was himself a slaveowner, who wouldn't have been capable of penning such eloquent lines had he not enjoyed the leisure time for his own education and intellectual development that was afforded to him because he didn't have to toil in his own fields. He prevented his slaves from learning how to read and write, for he feared that if they could do so, they might find a means of escaping their "subjection." Though hundreds of Virginia planters enlisted their slaves in the Continental Army, affording them the opportunity to fight for their freedom as well as for the nation's, Jefferson didn't do so, and in fact, remained silent on the question of emancipating slaves.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1789), Jefferson espoused deeply racist sentiments, calling into question the intellect and imagination of Black people and complaining of their "strong disagreeable odor." He'd literally grown up with the institution—his first memory was of being carried on a pillow as an infant by a family slave.
In an understandably shocking turn of events that suggest just how conflicted the man truly was, recent DNA evidence has also proven that he was the father of at least one child with Sally Hemings, one of his 200 slaves. Yet he never freed Sally or most of his other slaves, having died deeply in debt as a result of his epicurean lifestyle, in which he'd enjoyed purchasing, among other things, a vast library and large amounts of wine.
He did, however, manumit Sally's children upon his death, and he let Sally run away with her—well, possibly their—daughter Beverly, aged 23, when Jefferson was nearing the end of his life in 1821 or 1822.
Even more paradoxically, Jefferson was opposed to slavery, at least in theory. He penned an attack on the British for their promotion of the slave trade in his draft of the Declaration of Independence, but it was censored by the Continental Congress. He proposed (unsuccessfully) to exclude slavery from all U.S. western territories after the year 1800. But when the slaves of Saint Domingue (modern-day Haiti) successfully liberated themselves in 1800 under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture (also spelled Louverture), Jefferson was horrified and secured an embargo against any trade with the country while he was president.
He espoused the concept of African colonization for Blacks because he didn't think that Blacks and whites could ever coexist in equality as citizens. It was his fear of a "horrific race war" that he cited as justification for avoiding the issue of immediate emancipation as the topic came to the forefront during the state constitutional conventions of the 1770s.
Though the promise of Jefferson's beautiful language in the Declaration of Independence still infuses the United States with the promise of hope for thousands of immigrants across the world, Jefferson's own life experience serves as an excellent example of the difficulties involved in trying to make noble theories into real-life practices.
In November 1775, Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation promising freedom for all Virginia slaves and servants who left their masters and were willing to bear arms against the white colonists in the Revolution. In the next few weeks, five or six hundred slaves responded. Up to 20% of all enslaved African Americans sought their freedom behind British lines.
Some historians like Maya Jasanoff have argued that, compared with the United States, "the British empire looked like a good bet if you were an enslaved Black or a Native American."
While this may have been true, we shouldn't exaggerate the British commitment to equality and freedom. England did abolish slavery in 1833, a good 30 years before the United States would. Yet its priority during the Revolutionary War years was clearly to defeat the colonists, not to erase or reverse a colonial policy that had tolerated and in fact actively facilitated the slave institution, which had proven so profitable to the mother country.
Nonetheless, 20,000 to 100,000 slaves ran away during the American Revolution. Scholars are still debating the exact figure, as evidence for this remains understandably scarce and incomplete. 3,000 of them—Black men, women, and children—were evacuated from New York along with other British loyalists between April and November 1783.
And so, they became what Professor Cassandra Pybus called a "diaspora within a diaspora," a people torn from their native Africa and brought in chains to America, then forced to relocate again to the far-flung corners of the vast British empire. Most went to Nova Scotia and England, but many traveled to Jamaica, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, and the unregulated territory of the Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras (present-day Guyana and Belize). Professor Pybus has traced at least a few dozen refugees who made it as far as Germany.
Caught up in the patriotic fervor of the Revolution, American women pitched in by participating in the boycotts of British goods like tea, wigs, and clothing. They sewed homespun garments for their families and worked to make their homesteads self-sufficient. They melted down their pots and pans to produce more bullets for the Continental Army. They formed groups like the Daughters of Liberty to make clothing and knit items for the soldiers.
Mercy Otis Warren and Esther DeBerdt Reed published essays representing female support for the war effort. Women of metropolitan areas raised hundreds of thousands in Continental currency by printing and distributing essays about the cause and the need for help, and by asking for donations from private citizens. Traditional female roles also took on additional significance during wartime, as women became the figures responsible for raising a new generation of virtuous republican citizens.
Not many women made the leap from participation in the war effort to a complete defiance of all things traditional. Several women of New Jersey did vote, more than a century before the 19th Amendment. Those who passed the property and residence requirements took advantage of the inadvertently gender-neutral language of the New Jersey Constitution to cast ballots in the state during the first three decades after the state constitution was drafted. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband John, our second president, on the contradiction between the war's fight for liberty and equality, despite the male leader's insistence "upon retaining an absolute power over all wives."
Abigail's comments were perceptive—for all of its language about equality and liberty, the new ideology of republicanism paradoxically hardened the gender distinction between men and women. This was partly because the independent judgment of the average citizen in a republican system was based on his or her economic self-sufficiency.
Clearly, women suffered a disadvantage in this sense, as the free market spread apace with the new system of government and left women in charge of home and children, with few if any alternatives to domestic—and usually unpaid—labor. Just as the reason and self-discipline of the manly republican citizen was being championed, women were increasingly cast in an emotional, dependent, and apolitical role.
Martin v. Commonwealth, an 1804 to 1805 case in the Massachusetts State Supreme Court, offers one of the most revealing examples of the new and oftentimes contradictory republican ideology, which maintained the principal elements of patriarchy even as it endeavored to bring about a new democratic system for white men of all classes.
Plaintiff James Martin sued the state for restitution of his property, despite the fact that it had been claimed by the government because his parents were Loyalists who fled during the conflict. The property had passed down to Martin through his maternal grandfather, who tied it to his mother through a common practice in English common law.
Because the property was tied to Martin's mother, Anna, and not his father, the justices were faced with a dilemma: if they decided that Massachusetts could keep the property because Anna Martin had committed treason against the newly independent United States, they would have implicitly acknowledged her status as "an autonomous citizen with her own responsibilities."
During this period, the old monarchical system was being replaced by a new and more private sort of patriarchy. Along with the spread of suffrage to increasingly diverse class ranks, men became the masters of their households just as they were supposed to be the masters of their own destiny in a republican system. The judges, reflecting this transition, unanimously deferred to a common law understanding of marriage in which a woman is a feme covert, or "covered woman," someone subject to her husband.
As a feme covert, a woman possesses neither the free will to desert nor the capacity to commit treason, an act which would require service and comfort to the enemy. In this sense, women have no more political relationship to the state than an alien.
Attorney General James Sullivan and Solicitor General Daniel Davis, representing the government, made an unprecedented argument envisioning woman's "civic capacity" within a marriage in which both partners could be "independent moral actors." The Justices rejected this notion and took the property from Massachusetts, rewarding it back to Martin. Though unsuccessful, the state's position introduced the possibility of a radical break from the past and "a reconstruction of the relationship of women to real property," claiming for women "the obligations of citizenship."
Yet as it stood in the early-19th century and for some time thereafter, the justice system would rather return land to traitorous families than acknowledge a woman's capacity to act on her own behalf. This demonstrates how—from the very beginning of the United States—deeply ingrained ideas about gender differences and the different capabilities of men and women shaped various aspects of our culture, our society, and even our legal system.
Independence wasn't simply an abstract concept derived from Enlightenment-era philosophers and their theories about the nature of humans. One of its most potent supports came the same year as the Declaration itself, when the Scottish "Father of Modern Economics," Adam Smith, published his enormously influential An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.
The book—known since as The Wealth of Nations—was a work of economic theory with myriad real-world implications. In other words, the American Revolution was as much about the right to trade freely and acquire goods like sugar, tea, and paper in the competitive marketplace as it was about Lockean concepts of social contracts and the inherent rights of man.
Smith's 1776 work anticipated this economic aspect of the Revolution—it attacked the British policy of mercantilism as a "manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind," on the grounds that legislation like the Navigation Acts of the 1660s had ensured a favorable trade balance for England at the expense of the colonists, who couldn't therefore maximize their production, efficiency, and profits. By anchoring the free market to loftier concepts like the inalienable rights of mankind, Smith proposed a kind of declaration of independence for the economy itself—independence, that is, from government controls or regulations.
Such ideas carried a unique effectiveness when circulated amongst the colonists, who'd been suffering from a currency shortage as a direct result of the trade imbalance. When they tried to print paper currency to make everyday purchases, British creditors and merchants complained because of the paper's rapid depreciation, so Parliament, in London, forbade paper money in the colonies.
Americans felt that their interests and well-being had been subordinated to the interests of the British. During the century of salutary neglect from about 1660 onward, when it turned out that the English government wasn't really enforcing the Navigation Acts, the colonists had learned to subvert or blatantly disregard Parliament. Then Britain reversed course and sought to mandate strict controls and extra taxes on the colonies after the French and Indian War. All of the government's lax policies up until 1763 had enabled the colonists to enjoy an economic freedom that they took for granted by the time it was torn away from them.
As subjects of the crown, the colonists did benefit from the protection provided by British troops. Those who made ship parts received generous bounties from England, despite the fact that they were competing with British ship-makers. Virginia tobacco planters held a monopoly over their market in England. Yet Americans remained heavily dependent on British creditors and agents, and they felt, fairly, that their economic freedoms were constrained under the mercantilist system.
And so, when Americans began to revolt and declare their independence, economic tactics took a prominent place in their rebellion. They passed non-consumption and non-exportation acts against the British to deny the mother country the benefits that it had been so controversially and strenuously demanding right up until the outbreak of the Revolution. Colonial women took the time and effort out of their already packed schedules to produce clothing from "homespun," rather than the vogue imported fashions from Europe. Merchants, lawyers, printers, and others suffered the financial and professional burden of boycotting the printed matter and legal documents included in the Stamp Act.
A classic example of economic protest occurred on December 16th, 1773, the night that a group of colonists disguised as Native Americans boarded three ships in Boston Harbor and threw some 300 chests of tea into the water. The Boston Tea Party was a demonstration of public protest against the notion that Britain had the right to tax the colonies.
Tories (or "Loyalists"), colonists who remained loyal to the British crown, made up at least one-fifth of the U.S. population in 1776. Before Tom Paine published his enormously influential pamphlet, Common Sense, in the very beginning of that year, Tories may well have numbered even more. Among the approximately 80% of colonists who weren't staunchly loyal to the Mother Country, how many were really prepared to make the radical break with England and declare independence?
Though we may never know the answer to that question, it's clear that the American Revolution couldn't become truly revolutionary until it became a battle for a new government and an end to colonialism. In order for this to happen, the colonists needed to be persuaded that independence was the right aim, that their cause was just, and that now was the time to do it.
Paine and his radical ideas came along at exactly the right time: his stirring call for liberty—Paine was the first to advocate a complete break with England—persuaded a great many Americans who had, up until that time, thought of themselves as loyal, if disgruntled, subjects of the king. In his pamphlet, Paine associated the corrupt monarchy with the despised taxation policy. He convinced most of his readers to become proponents of the world's first republican government.
(Even if it was a government of and for white men.)
Paine was a master of transforming the complicated philosophical and scientific principles of the Enlightenment—individuality, reason, and liberty—into plain words that the masses could comprehend and rally around. In explaining the urgency and importance of the situation, Paine wrote, "The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz. [namely,] the time of forming itself into a government. Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves."
Over 150,000 copies of his pamphlet were circulating within three months of its publication.
The pamphlet began by describing the origins of English government, including its constitution and the establishment of a hereditary monarchy. It went on to summarize the current situation in America and to make the case for independence. Paine embraced republican ideology, arguing that the republican form of government would be devoted, by design, to the interests of the public good, while the despotic monarchy of British rule would always benefit one person: the sovereign. By the standards of the day, Paine's complete rejection of monarchy was truly radical.
Clergymen Charles Inglis and Samuel Seabury, among others, published rebuttals to Common Sense, warning that if Paine's ideas were to persuade a majority, then all property would become "unhinged," the old British Constitution would be completely undermined, and everyone would be forced to denounce the king to whom so many had cherished their loyalty and devotion.
Inglis sought to incite fear in his audience by warning of the "torrents of blood" that would be spilled in such a revolution, of the thousands who'd lose everything and be reduced to "beggary and wretchedness," and of the likelihood that the ultimate result would be only the replacement of a king for an "individual despot."
Inglis wasn't wrong: the Revolution did spill torrents of blood, and when it ended, many wanted to enshrine George Washington as something like a new king. If not for Washington's unique character and restraint, the country might well have become accustomed to entrusting a strong charismatic leader with a lifetime in office.
After all, only a quarter century later in France, Napoleon's takeover demonstrated that individual despots could, indeed, capitalize upon the power vacuum created in the midst of social upheaval and revolution to install dictatorship.
Paine's first issue of The American Crisis—published in December 1776 just as George Washington and his soldiers retreated across the Delaware River to the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge—began with the stirring words:
"These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Washington had this piece read aloud to his cold and starving soldiers.
Paine himself later returned to Europe, where he participated in the French Revolution, but narrowly escaped the guillotine himself in the resulting Terror. His subsequent writings against organized religion made him the object of scorn and ridicule in America, where he went back to live in 1802 and where—four years later—he was denied the right to vote by former Tories who controlled the local elections in New Rochelle, New York.
They claimed that his service in the French Revolution had invalidated his American citizenship. He died three years later.
America's Founders derived inspiration for their revolutionary political project from a variety of sources from the contemporary to the ancient, from the scientific to the philosophical.
These Americans were extraordinarily well-read men, and the following is merely a sampling of the sophisticated, controversial, and celebrated thinkers whose works filled their bookshelves and whose ideas filled their heads.
John Locke's often referred to as the "intellectual godfather" of the Revolution. And there's no question that his ideas had a profound influence on the movement for independence, as philosophers call Locke's school of thought "liberalism."
But in recent years, some historians have decided that liberalism was given too much credit for influencing American independence, and that republican ideology was equally important to colonial thought, if not more so. In fact, liberalism and republicanism were both important strands of thought that often intertwined in the minds of 18th-century Americans.
John Locke wrote amidst the rise of joint stock companies (when certain companies received monopolistic privileges from the crown) and the Glorious Revolution in England (when the forces of the crown and Parliament battled for domination of the English government). Locke supported the Whig faction that vied for Parliamentary supremacy, so he and many others had to flee England when the Stuart dynasty reclaimed control of government in 1660, but he returned 28 years later when William of Orange and his wife Mary waged a successful coup against Mary's own father, King James II.
Locke's theories on exploitation—which he was finally free to publish after 1688—were therefore intrinsically connected to his late-17th-century context. His arguments concerning the natural rights of man were most eloquently expounded in his 1680 work, Second Treatise on Government (or Two Treatises on Government), a book that Thomas Jefferson read at least three times. In this text, the English philosopher argued that people are born equal with certain natural rights—they can give up some of these rights to leave the state of nature and enter into a society, but there's a trade-off. That is, they receive the protection of that society's government, which enforces the laws.
The state's therefore beholden to its citizens, who live by its rules so that their lives, liberties, and property will be protected. If the government fails to live up to its end of the bargain, the people can abolish it in favor of a better one that functions in their best interest.
Locke, in turn, had derived inspiration for his theories from the work of scientific empiricism, most famously embodied by Isaac Newton, who'd propounded the notion of natural laws in the field of science in his 1687 work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (known familiarly as the Principia). If natural laws governed the universe, why not the field of human relations, too? Humans were therefore born in a state of nature and enjoyed certain natural—Jefferson would call them "inalienable"—rights that no government could take away from them.
This all sounds pretty good on paper, especially since Locke and his contemporaries tended to speak of liberty in universal terms. It doesn't sound so good when you write about freedom only for white adult males, though.
Locke was one of the first intellectuals to defend women's property rights and even thought that they should have the ability to divorce. He also condemned slavery as a "vile and miserable estate of man." Yet for all of his progressivism, Locke was nonetheless a product of his times. He was an investor in the Royal African Company, which engaged in slave trading. He also helped draft the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1669, which founded the colony of Carolina and allowed for slavery, guaranteeing slaveowners "absolute power and authority" over their human property.
For men like Locke, it was easier to exclude slaves and other minorities from civil society than to try and address the contradiction to his idealized form of government that they embodied. Locke's expansive language in regard to natural rights and human equality nonetheless created a foundation for disfranchised groups to seek redress in the future.
Though Locke was Jefferson's preferred philosopher, the concept of "self-evident" truths in the Declaration of Independence derived more from the theory of Scottish philosopher David Hume, a friend of Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin who'd distinguished between "synthetic" and "analytic" truths.
The former described matters of fact, while the latter—what came to be known as the "self-evident" truths—existed by virtue of reason. It was Franklin who changed Jefferson's language from "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable" to "we hold these truths to be self-evident."
The change reflected a statement grounded in reason, rooted in the principles of the scientific revolution, rather than the notion that the equality of all men was an article of religious faith.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Geneva-born son of a clockmaker, became one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment—as well as one of its best-selling novelists. His definitive 1762 work, The Social Contract, was so controversial that it—along with Emile, a tract on education—was immediately banned in Paris and forced him to flee France.
Rousseau's views on religion, expressed in both tracts, proved too controversial for French readers. He said that Christianity had been responsible for "the most violent of earthly despotisms" and that—though it instills a respect for the law and a public devotion to the state—religion is nonetheless based on "lies and error."
Rousseau's political philosophy proved far more influential and long-lasting than his ideas about religion. He spoke of the process by which people selflessly agree to enter into a social contract, committing themselves to a common good and making sacrifices for the community to realize their full potential as rational and moral human beings. Despite the fact that the concept of a social contract dated back to the Late Middle Ages, when the Italian merchant republics appeared, Rousseau managed to get himself banned by formulating his ideas with an ample dose of inflammatory ideology.
Aside from his outspokenness on the subject of religion, Rousseau was different because he characterized the social contract as a voluntary union, not an act of submission on the part of society's weak members. It was a contract between equals, between people who all sought to exercise self-government. It wasn't an agreement between the weak and the powerful. If anyone in a given contract was degraded or harmed, Rousseau considered the contract null and void, regardless of whether the oppressed people had entered into it voluntarily or not.
Why, you might ask? Because to Rousseau, you might relinquish your property, but you can't give up your freedom or your life, because those are the essential elements of your humanity.
Rousseau had previously written well-received and popularly accessible discourses on inequality and political economy, but in The Social Contract, his most controversial and least readable of tracts, he looked toward the future, rather than his previous tactic of providing the historical origins and context of social ills. He famously declared that "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."
Taken literally, this doesn't make much sense—babies are, after all, quite dependent creatures—but Rousseau was speaking theoretically, and his assertion dovetails with the philosophy of John Locke. Both Locke and Rousseau argued that humans are born free into a state of nature. They therefore disagreed with Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary of Locke who had a quite pessimistic view of the state of nature—he thought it was savage, solitary, brutish, and short.
A more recent New Yorker article refers to this as "a long-running debate about the fundamentals of human nature. [...] Were humans savage but for the constructs of civil society (Thomas Hobbes)? Or were they civil but for the corruptions of society (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)?"blank">John Adams similarly recast that idea in his Thoughts on Government, where he wrote that the purpose of government was the "greatest quantity of human happiness."
The Founders may not have come up with all of their ideas or even their language entirely on their own, but they were fantastic readers who knew where to look for inspiration and how to channel these centuries of sophisticated thought into the boilerplate for revolution and a new form of government.
The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most iconic document in American history, has been described as the embodiment of "revolutionary genius and rhetorical grace." That is, its style and quality of writing did justice to its pivotal historical substance.
Thomas Jefferson's Declaration announced a break with the English empire, thereby voicing the frustrations, concerns, fury, and aspirations of four-fifths of the American population and formally disavowing an allegiance to the British government that had lasted for more than 150 years of North American colonization. At the time, the drafting of the declaration didn't seem to the Continental Congress delegates to be nearly so monumental a task—Jefferson was chairman of the committee only because he was from Virginia, the colony that had proposed the resolution. Because his fellow committee members were busy with other work that they considered more important at the time, Jefferson wrote the Declaration in solitude.
Significantly, when the break came, it took the form of a series of grievances—not against Parliament or the government ministers, but the king: the embodiment of the British state.
This was a constitutional method in keeping with the precedent set by the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, when Dutch leaders William and Mary overtook the throne from James II and established a precedent that British kings are subject to Parliament and not above the law. By attacking the monarchy, Jefferson sought to demonstrate that the American people would become citizens of their own country, rather than subjects.
Actually, the Continental Congress omitted Jefferson's criticisms of the British people themselves. His original draft had charged them with allowing their king and Parliament to send over English soldiers and foreign mercenaries to invade and destroy the colonists, and lamented that, "We might have been a free and great people together."
Jefferson thought that Englishmen and Americans had every reason to band together as one people who'd lived under "one common king" and who had multiple kinship ties. He felt betrayed by what he viewed as the British people's refusal to recognize the justness of the American cause. The Congress, however, agreed that its grievances were principally with the king, so they eliminated this section, the second-to-last in the document.
The Declaration charged the King with 21 grievances. They included the predictable charge of taxation without representation and the popularly-resented mandate that colonists must provide quarter for English troops.
Several involved his usurpation of the laws and alteration of colonial governments. Others were economic; George III was said to have cut off American trade "with all parts of the world." The most dramatic charges involved the very lives and welfare of the colonists, saying, "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people."
The fact that the Declaration charged the king directly with such acts is a clear indication of his symbolic significance. Though he had never set foot on North American shores, King George was held responsible for the actions of his government and the outcome of his policies.
The grievances listed in the Declaration included many instances in which the colonies had attempted to cooperate with the King, only to meet with intransigence and tyranny. By forsaking his principal responsibility to look after the "lives and properties" of his subjects, Jefferson argued, King George III had relinquished his monarchical authority and had instead become a tyrant undeserving of either allegiance or respect. By contrast, as Jefferson wrote, a new American government would be founded upon the consent of the people, and it would be based on a contract between the governed and their elected representatives.
56 white men signed the Declaration of Independence.
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Elbridge Gerry each became vice president. Adams and Jefferson later became the second and third Presidents of the United States. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress and one of Boston's most prominent merchants, had the best signature.
Tories, as they were pejoratively called by the majority of Americans who supported independence, were a diverse lot who ran the gamut from wealthy merchants to tavern keepers, carpenters, farmers, bakers, blacksmiths, hairdressers, and clergymen.
Most Loyalist (or Tory) families were headed by white, property-owning men who had trans-Atlantic cultural and personal ties to the mother country, who stood to benefit financially from America's connection to the empire, and who believed that they already enjoyed the rights and liberties granted them under the British Constitution.
They feared that a republican government, without the ultimate authority of the king at the epicenter, would devolve into anarchy.
By setting aside their old royal charters—or, in the case of Connecticut and Rhode Island, deleting any references to the crown—all of the colonies established their own separate governments in the years following the Declaration of Independence.
The citizens elected special conventions to write state constitutions, which were developed through a process of debate and experimentation. Their central priorities were to establish a more democratic system than before, to limit the powers of government to protect against tyranny, and to make elected leaders accountable to the voting public. State officials were usually elected annually under the new systems, rather than every two or three years under the British. The governments were larger and more representative. Most state assemblymen in the North were farmers, artisans, doctors, lawyers, or other professionals. In the South, most were planters.
The composition of these new governments differed from state to state, as we all know from the state tensions that turned into the Civil War later on.
The constitutions of Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Vermont represented the most radical manifestations of the revolutionary sentiment. In Pennsylvania, artisans, radical leaders, and western farmers pushed through a unicameral legislature with debates open to the public, under the premise that society had a single common interest that should be represented in governmental affairs. There was no governor in the new Pennsylvania government, and all property requirements—in order to vote—for white, taxpaying males over 21 were abolished. The conservatives barely managed to fend off a proposal for the redistribution of property (from the rich to the poor).
In the ensuing decades, most state problems that arose—particularly fiscal issues—were attributed to the radicals, and the conservatives grew proportionally in strength and number. In 1790, they prevailed, and a more conservative constitution was enacted for the state.
All 13 states ratified the Articles of Confederation in the spring of 1781, thereby commencing the first independent republican form of government the modern world had ever known.
The U.S. Congress had been operating as a collective substitute for the king, not merely a legislative body. Congress governed foreign affairs, coinage, questions of war and peace, disputes between states, Native American affairs, the postal service, and the western territories. Because of widespread distrust of centralized authority in the wake of a revolution against the abuses of a king, the national government of the Articles of Confederation was purposefully crafted with few powers of enforcement or oversight.
In practice, however, Congress' weaknesses quickly became a problem.
Without the ability to levy taxes, Congress could do little to mop up the fiscal mess caused by rapid inflation and depleted revenues of wartime. The phrase "not worth a Continental" indicated the extent of the currency problem—Continental dollars were synonymous with worthlessness. Each year, the Confederation ran a deficit in operating expenses, and the national debt more than doubled to $28 million. That hovers around $500 million in today's dollars. Of course, that might not seem like such a huge problem today—when we're hovering around $20 trillion in debt—but this was still a big deal back then.
The Confederation government could neither regulate interstate nor foreign commerce, and therefore, it was an even weaker government than the English Parliament. A flourishing black market trade undercut American craftsmen at home and only added to the money drain, since none of the underground revenues paid U.S. duties and therefore, they didn't benefit the national treasury, and American manufacturers sold less as a result of the competition.
There was no head of government and no judicial branch to decide cases—all 13 states had to unanimously approve any amendments to the Articles and any measures that levied tariffs on imports. At least nine of the states had to approve any measures dealing with coinage, war, treaties, the army, or the navy.
The result? Gridlock and ineffectiveness.
Even before domestic unrest revealed the ongoing problems and weaknesses under the Confederation government, the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783 threatened to unravel republican government itself.
Because the Confederation Congress was notorious for delayed payments to soldiers, officers at Washington's army encampment at Newburgh, New York, began to grow justifiably suspicious that the government would prove unable to come through on payment of their bounties and life pensions. They formed a delegation and traveled to Philadelphia with a petition for redress. While there, they became embroiled with a few frustrated congressmen and some public creditors in a plan to threaten Congress and the public with a coup d'état unless changes were made to strengthen the power of government so that it would finally deliver on its promises to the military.
Several Founding Fathers, including Robert Morris—the so-called "financier of the American Revolution" and a signer of the Declaration of Independence—and New York Congressman Alexander Hamilton supported the plan. Hamilton tried to persuade his old commander, General Washington, to join them.
It was Washington's exceptional restraint and devotion to duty that thwarted the whole thing. Though he sympathized with the necessity to expand congressional powers, Washington found the prospect of a coup both dangerous and dishonorable. He confronted the conspirators directly and convinced them to denounce the plot. Historians still debate whether the conspirators were really prepared to mount a coup d'état.
Regardless, they represented the low morale of the entire army, who suspected that their guaranteed pensions wouldn't continue past the war and who remained under-supplied and underfed. Men were becoming desperate for a strong government that could provide for their needs and preserve national independence and integrity.
Three months later came the revolt of the rank-and-file men.
Several hundred disgruntled Pennsylvania militia members and Continental soldiers marched from Lancaster to Philadelphia in June 1783 to demand the back pay they were owed. They picked up reinforcements in Philadelphia and demonstrated in front of Independence Hall, where the Confederation Congress assembled. State authorities failed to provide a guard for Congress, for they feared that the guard would only join the ranks of the mutiny.
After three days of hostile protests, Congress fled to Princeton, New Jersey. There, the shaken legislators agreed to compensate the soldiers for three months' worth of pay, and furloughed them until they could be formally discharged. The crisis had subsided by the fall, but not without a serious blow to congressional authority.
The powerlessness of the central government under the Articles of Confederation was amply demonstrated by the public outcry that erupted from multiple points throughout the colonies, most notably in western Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, there was an unusual dearth of paper currency and an excess of taxation. Most other states, by contrast, had too much currency and it wasn't worth anything. The state was undergoing a depression by 1785—British banks had glutted the market and then suddenly called in their American loans. American merchants in turn tried to collect debts owed them by the people of the state, who had been borrowing from one another just to pay their taxes and get by.
This unstable pyramid of loans was collapsing. The conservatives who had control of the state levied heavy poll and land taxes to pay off the war debt. Those who couldn't afford to pay—mostly farmers and the poor—were sent to debtor's prisons. Towns petitioned the legislature for a change, as they despised the debtor's jails and defended their inmates as "good inhabitants" of their local areas. But the legislature turned a deaf ear to their pleas, and adjourned in 1786 without providing any relief.
By the end of January 1787, the situation for many in Massachusetts had become desperate, and popular Revolutionary War Captain and poor farmer Daniel Shays led an attack of some 1,200 frustrated farmers on the state arsenal at Springfield. Shays and his followers wanted a more flexible money policy, the right to postpone tax payments until the depression lifted, and laws that would allow them to use corn and wheat as money. They believed themselves Patriots, acting in the spirit of the Revolution by attempting to close the courts to prevent land seizures against their bankrupt neighbors and themselves. They employed the symbols of the Revolution in their effort, from liberty trees to liberty poles.
Nonetheless, an unsympathetic state governor dispatched another Revolutionary War veteran, General Benjamin Lincoln, at the head of an armed force of 4,400 men to suppress the rebellion. The militia killed four of Shays' men and forced the rest to retreat. More than 1,000 were eventually arrested.
Yet the next election put more sympathetic state legislators in office and the state stopped direct taxes and lowered court fees the very next year. The legislature also pardoned Shays and the other members of his rebellion.
Writing from his diplomatic post in Paris, Thomas Jefferson approved of the revolt, famously telling a friend, "A little rebellion now and then is a good thing," because "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Such sentiments alarmed and infuriated many of his contemporaries, including Abigail Adams, who refused to correspond with Jefferson for a month after hearing of those comments.
The uprising in Massachusetts bolstered a growing clamor for a stronger national government. Shays' Rebellion suggested to Virginia's James Madison that excessive liberty might prove just as dangerous as concentrated authority—unchecked power in either case could prove injurious to private property rights and the stability of the new nation. Madison invited delegates from every state to convene at Annapolis in 1786 to discuss the problems that had resulted from the current system of government. Only five states actually sent delegates to Madison's Convention, and neither the New England states, nor the Carolinas, nor Georgia were in attendance.
Lacking a quorum, the Convention was a failure, but New York delegate Alexander Hamilton proposed another convention in Philadelphia to consider the necessary steps for rendering the federal government adequate to the task of governing the Union. Delegates from every state but Rhode Island began arriving in Philadelphia the next spring.
The 1786 Annapolis Convention was a necessary first step toward addressing the problems and shortcomings in the Confederation government. Several states had already begun to recognize that there were multiple problems to address, from economic policy to regulation of interstate and international commerce to the lack of federal authority or effectiveness. Many of these concerns were further dramatized by Shays' Rebellion, which took place between Annapolis (in September 1786) and the Philadelphia convention (in May 1787). By the spring of 1787, concerns were sufficiently widespread to as to produce delegations from almost every state but the smallest, Rhode Island, which was always fearful of consolidated power.
Leaders recognized the need for a new centralized structure, but the "critical period" when the first U.S. government was in effect, from 1781 to 1788, was hardly a total wash.
The Congress of the Confederation, as it was known, served as an important precursor to the federal government that would take shape under the Constitution. It provided ample evidence for which federal powers must be strengthened to facilitate an effective governing body, and it set a few important precedents for the young nation. The Confederation government successfully concluded the Treaty of Paris that formally ended the war in 1783; it set the standard for land distribution in the western territories and the process of establishing governments in those regions; and it created the first executive departments.
The agencies of Foreign Affairs, War, and Finance provided some guidance for their later reincarnations as government departments after 1787.
Deism, a nonsectarian faith, which existed in a few subtle variations, was shared by Thomas Paine, many if not most of the Founding Fathers, and most European intellectuals of the late-18th century. Deism essentially held that God set the world in motion and then got out of the way—that is, God abstained from human affairs.
This concept was popularized in the colleges of the period and in the all-male Masonic lodges, and this was a complicated dynamic; many of the period's leaders considered religion a source of morality and several invoked religious—but notably little if any sectarian—terminology in their public speeches and state papers.
Though religion has played an important role throughout U.S. History, the nation's Founders by and large expressed many reservations about it, particularly Christianity. Obviously, this has to be understood in context. These men were breaking from an Old World monarchy that was inextricably intertwined with its state church. European monarchies across the continent assumed the same standard model of governmental power closely aligned with an established faith, and had done so for centuries.
The Founders feared what George Washington called "the horrors of spiritual tyranny," as they guarded against all forms of tyranny. And so, they erected a form of government that incorporated religious liberty, so that Christians, members of other faiths, and non-believers alike could fully participate as American citizens. This new system required a degree of intellectual radicalism to conceive, let alone enact. And religious freedom had never before been enacted on such a large scale.
When Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, the members shortened its overall length by a fourth, but they added two references to God. Jefferson was openly anticlerical. He said, "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests." He considered religion "a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle."
None of this is to suggest that these men were anti-religion. Many of them thought that organized faith helped to foster virtue among the citizens of the young country. But they never reached a consensus among themselves as to exactly what role religion ought to play in public life, especially when it didn't seem to factor much into their private lives.
Thomas Paine, one of the most influential and popular authors during the Revolution, went on to publish the controversial book The Age of Reason, a critique of organized religion that he completed in 1796. Many Americans who'd celebrated him as a Patriot during the war subsequently denounced him as an atheist. Former President of the Continental Congress Elias Boudinot, a descendant of French Huguenots persecuted for their Protestant faith, wrote The Age of Revelation as a rebuttal to Paine's book.
Yet any impromptu quiz of history students would quickly reveal which of the two names is more recognizable today.
Paine wasn't without a sense of faith—he wrote that everywhere nature manifested the existence of God—but as he argued, "my own mind is my own church." He thought that Christianity had abandoned a preexisting and self-evident "natural theology" and replaced it with a bunch of superstition.
Though that didn't apparently suffice for the many American critics of Paine, the fact remained that the United States had been established as a secular government. Even John Adams, a Unitarian and the son of a New England deacon, signed his name to a 1797 treaty that declared "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion." Adams was quite devout, and like other Unitarians, he didn't believe in the Trinity, predestination, or the divinity of Christ.
When he ran against Thomas Jefferson for president in 1800, and the members of his Federalist Party attempted to make a political issue out of Jefferson's religious convictions, a frustrated Adams asked, "What has that to do with the public?"blank">First Amendment to the Constitution that followed three years later.