The New World
A few generations ago, American colonial history centered on a single narrative that flowed from Jamestown in 1607 to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Today early American history has blossomed into a braided narrative with many story lines. A starting point might be four small beginnings, far apart in space but close in time. On April 26, 1607, Capt. John Smith and his comrades founded Jamestown in Virginia. Four months later, in mid-August 1607, Capt. George Popham established a New England colony near Pemaquid in Maine. The following year, during the spring and summer of 1608, Spanish colonists, led by Capt. Martinez de Montoya, built a permanent settlement at Santa Fe in the region they called New Mexico. And on July 3, 1608, Capt. Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent colony in New France at Quebec.
The stories that began to unfold at these places shaped much of modern North America. One of the most interesting of those small beginnings was New France. For more than 30 years the central figure was the extraordinary Champlain.
Beginning with Jamestown in present-day Virginia in 1607 and ending with Georgia in 1732, Britain's establishment of 13 colonies in the modernday United States was a process that took more than 100 years to complete. The colonies were divided by national and religious differences, conflicting economic interests (notably the South's dependence on slavery) and boundary disputes - providing for little commerce and communication among them. The colonies were so disunited, in fact, that coordinating Britain's defense against France in North America was a difficult affair. This was especially poignant given that, during the 17th and 18th centuries, keeping France's power in check was a frequent struggle for Britain and other nations in the Old World.
Not unexpectedly, these conflicts spilled over to the New World. Britain's colonies did make a few modest attempts at forming confederations or unions well before the French and Indian War, (1754-63), which began as a dispute between the British and French empires over the upper Ohio River valley. The war started two years earlier than the Seven Years' War (or the European phase of the conflict). Of course, these plans did not amount to much, which was fine with the British, who saw no need to support union efforts that could prove dangerous to their power in the New World.
The Thirteen Colonies gave rise to 18 present-day states: the original 13 states (in chronological order: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island), Vermont (which had been disputed between New Hampshire and New York and which was an independent republic from 1777 to 1791), Kentucky (formerly part of Virginia until 1792), Tennessee (formerly part of North Carolina until 1796), Maine (formerly part of Massachusetts until 1820), and West Virginia (also formerly part of Virginia until 1863).
On 19 June 1754, at the outbreak of the French and Indian War, seven colonies convened at the Albany Congress in Albany New York. Originally held to reach an alliance with the Iroquois Indians, the congress considered a plan of union, the Albany Plan, that would create a Grand Council of representatives chosen by colonial assemblies under a President-General appointed by the Crown. The Council would have the power to raise armies and pay soldiers for common defense, as well as make laws and impose taxes. In the end, however, the legislatures of the participating colonies failed to support the plan.
While the French and Indian War involved troops from the colonies, Benjamin Franklin (one of the proponents of the Albany Plan) pondered during the hostilities that any union of the colonies against Britain was "not merely improbable", but also "impossible" unless they felt "the most grievous tyranny and oppression." The colonies simply failed to unite against the French and their Indian allies. Franklin's observation, however, proved to be prophetic, as time would show.
Whether they realized it or not, the residents of the 13 colonies did share some important qualities: They had common enemies and, though divided by nationality could claim a European heritage. For the most part, their language, customs, institutions, literature and ways of thought were of English origin, and the majority adhered to a form of Protestantism, except Catholic Maryland. Overall, the colonists were educated and literate. And they knew how to raise armies and organize for war.
After the end of the French and Indian War, the British government decided to keep a stand ing army in America to protect the colonies against surrounding Indians, French and Spaniards. Pontiac's war in 1763, a coordinated native attack on several British forts in Michigan, also overwhelmed an ailing British force. In April 1763, the British Parliament passed the Plantation Act (commonly known as the Revenue or Sugar Act), which reduced by half the duty on imported, foreign-produced molasses used in the colonies. A reduction, the British assumed, would enable collection of the duty to be easier and thus help support British troops in North America. The bill also enumerated which goods America could only ship to Britain and included provisions for compliance and enforcement.
The Revenue Act did not sit well with the colonists, as it was perceived to be an abuse of power. In any event, the colonies were experiencing an. economic depression brought on by the end of the war - orders for food and supplies for the British Army ended. By late 1764, nine colonial legislatures had sent messages to Britain protesting the legislation. Yet, regardless of the complaints, in March 1765, Parliament approved new legislation, the Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on stamps for commercial and legal documents. Colonial opposition began to surface by late May with the Virginia House of Burgesses taking the lead and the lower houses of eight other colonial legislatures following suit. In response to a circular letter sent by lawyer James Otis and supported by the Massachusetts Assembly in June, nine of the 13 colonies convened a Stamp Act Congress on October 1 in New York City. Before its adjournment 24 days later, the Congress issued declarations to King George III and to the British Parliament. They declared that the latter had jurisdiction over external matters such as commerce, but not internal matters such as taxes.
Another apparent, indirect accomplishment of this gathering was raising awareness in the colonies of their ability to come together and champion a common cause. Dr. Joseph Warren, a delegate from Massachusetts, observed "[U]ntil now the Colonies were ever at variance and foolishly jealous of each other. Now they are... united... nor will they soon forget the weight which this close union gives them."
The British government finally repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766. At the same time, however, the Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which reiterated the Parliament's right to tax the American colonies and enact laws and statutes binding them. The following year, the British enacted a new Revenue Act, which imposed import duties on lead, glass, paper, paint and tea in order to generate revenue to pay royal officials in the colonies and support British troops. These pieces of legislation were the brainchild of Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend. Lord North succeeded Townshend following the latter's death in September 1767.
The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved the Circular Letter, in February 1768, sent to the speakers of other colonial legislatures in order to "harmonize with each other" in opposing the late Townshend's proposals. The letter, prepared by Samuel Adams, rejected that the colonies had any representation in Parliament, which, in turn, derived its authority from the British constitution. Moreover, the letter argued that British subjects had the right to be taxed only with their own consent. The Virginia House of Burgesses approved a circular letter of its own calling for a "hearty union" of the colonies to take measures against British actions meant to "enslave" them. By the early winter of 1768-69, the Massachusetts Circular Letter received favorable responses from 10 colonies.
In April 1770, the British Parliament repealed the hated Townshend duties except for the one on tea; in addition, the Declaratory Act remained in force. Three years later, the Virginia House of Burgesses established a Legislative Standing Committee for Intercolonial Correspondence to communicate about further activities by Britain considered dangerous to America. Following calls from the legislatures of Virginia and Massachusetts, 12 colonies (Georgia being the one non-participant) convened a Continental Congress in Philadelphia on 5 September 1774 in response to passage of the socalled Intolerable Acts by the Parliament. Before adjourning on 26 October, the delegates issued a Declaration of Colonial Rights and Grievances, asserted the colonies' right to tax and legislate for themselves, and established the Continental Association, an agreement to boycott trade with Britain and its West Indian colonies to be enforced by committees elected throughout each colony.
Delegates reconvened in Philadelphia on 10 May 1775, just one month after armed colonists battled British troops in the towns of Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts. With open rebellion already in its midst, this second Congress moved to continue the war on behalf of all America, but did not immediately address whether the outcome should be reconciliation with Britain or total independence. Nevertheless, the Congress acted like the parliament or legislature of a united, sovereign nation. It approved raising and funding a Continental Army, appointed George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and even authorized an ill-fated invasion of present-day Canada.
Around the same time, the Congress approved sending the Olive Branch Petition to the King (he refused to receive it, and expected a swift victory), then issued the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, and rejected a Conciliatory Proposal from Lord North (now the British Prime Minister). In December, the British parliament responded to the rebellion by passing the American Prohibitory Act, which ordered that all trade with the colonies be stopped and that the colonies be placed under naval blockade.
By May 1776, six colonies had already instructed their respective Congressional delegates to support independence. A resolution by Virginia that month stated the colony's delegates will approve congressional measures to confederate the colonies "[p]rovided that the power of forming government for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each colony, be left to the respective colonial legislatures." On June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee formally offered the following motions: "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States" and that a plan of confederation be prepared and considered. This became known as the Lee Resolution, setting the constitutional wheels in motion. At first, seven colonies expressed their support, while the remaining six opposed it. Under Thomas Jefferson's leadership, a committee completed a draft of the Declaration of Independence on June 28 for the second Continental Congress; by then, all the colonies except New York had instructed their delegates to approve independence. The colonies approved Lee's motion on July 2, while the first "4th of July" marked the adoption of the Declaration itself (the straggling New York delegation did not vote in favor of independence until several days later).
During the independence debate, a five-man committee was established to draft the plan of confederation Lee motioned. On 12 July 1776, the Congress brought up for consideration, a draft of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union. Trying to bring forth a formal (or even perpetual) union between the often-divided colonies was a task in itself, and the process of formulating a suitable form of confederation exposed early rivalries between the Northern and Southern states.
For instance, there was debate on whether representation in the Congress would be defined as one vote per state or based on population and on whether to include slaves in a tax census or consider them mere property. In the end, a final agreement was reached that expenses for the federal government were to be collected based on the value of land. The Articles required that treaties be approved by at least nine states; denied the Congress the right to regulate trade (except with the Indians) and to tax (thus retaining the sovereignty of the states over that matter); granted the Congress authority over foreign relations and to declare war; did not provide for either an executive or a judiciary branch of government; allowed for amendments only with the unanimous consent of the states; and did not allow the Congress to intervene in quarrels between states or rebellions within a state. The Articles named the new nation the United States of America. The Congress finally approved the charter on 15 November 1777, but it was not until 1 March 1781 that all 13 states ratified the document after Virginia, Maryland and New York settled a territorial dispute.
Well before the Revolutionary War formally ended by the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783 (in fact, even before the states concluded the ratification process), opposition to the Articles of Confederation took shape. The men behind this movement opposed the control of the states over fiscal/monetary policy and the treaty process by the Congress. In April 1783, the Congress passed a five percent levy on imports to help pay the national government's debt. Although nine states initially approved the levy, the reluctance of New York and Pennsylvania made approval by all 13 states impossible.
A second instance involved negotiations towards a commercial treaty between the United States and Spain recognizing the latter's closing of the lower Mississippi River to American navigation in 1784. New York and the New England states supported the treaty, but the Southern states did not, thus preventing final approval by the Congress.
In time, even members of the Congress began to recognize that they should have the power to tax in order to meet that body's financial obligations. Leaders like Jefferson and fellow Virginian James Madison also believed Congress should claim authority to regulate commerce with other nations by virtue of its power to make treaties. In response to a proposal by Madison, the Virginia House of Delegates moved in January 1786 to consider a "uniform system" of commercial regulations. To that effect, a convention met in Annapolis, Maryland from September 11 to 14 of that year with delegates from New York, New Jersey Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia in attendance. The delegates agreed to call on all the states to meet on the second Monday in May 1787 "to take into consideration the situation of the United States" and consider further provisions necessary to make the Articles of Confederation "adequate to the exigencies of the Union[.]"
The Congress approved a resolution in February 1787 to meet in Philadelphia on the same date recommended at the Annapolis convention "for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation[.]" The Constitutional Convention opened in Philadelphia on May 14, but did not secure quorum until May 25. Of the 13 states, Rhode Island was the only one not participating, much to the chagrin of the other states. Although revising the Articles of Confederation was the stated goal of the Convention, the delegates determined by the end of June that an entire new document to replace the Articles had to be drafted in order to establish a stronger central government. On September 17, after almost four months of constant debate and much compromise, 39 of the 56 delegates signed the Constitution.
Some signers, such as Franklin and New York's Alexander Hamilton, were not completely satisfied with the charter, but lent their support nevertheless because it was the best document the delegates could produce. Three days later, the Congress received the Constitution and simply referred it to the states without recommendation.
The opponents of the Constitution (or "anti-Federalists") feared that, should it be ratified, the new charter would establish a despotic or masked aristocracy. They feared a consolidated government with the powers of a national government at the expense of sovereignty and rights of the states (especially regarding control of militias and taxation). They argued, as well, that the Constitution was unnecessary, as the states were prosperous and at peace, and the United States government under the Articles of Confederation was "strong and vigorous" according to Virginia's Patrick Henry. It was evident then that neither approval of the Constitution by the Convention nor its referral by the Congress necessarily meant that the charter would enjoy easy ratification by the states.
The "Federalists", or supporters of the Constitution were especially concerned with New York, a critical state whose discussions might influence other states in voting for or against the Constitution. Just one month after the Convention adjourned, the Federalists took action.
Using the collective pseudonym "Publius", Hamilton, Madison and Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay wrote 85 letters explaining and defending the Constitution. New York City newspapers published these letters, called the Federalist Papers, between October 1787 and August 1788. In the end, what may be the most thorough commentary on the Constitution was used mainly as an aid for ratification debates in New York as well as Virginia.
The authors of the Federalist Papers had no illusions about the federal government under the Articles of Confederation, which they considered "deficient and inadequate". Publius argued that the proposed Constitution provided for a national government that would ensure safety against foreign and domestic enemies, while divided, quarreling confederacies would not. Likewise, the charter granted the federal government the authority to regulate commerce and conduct foreign policy on behalf of the states while maintaining the states' authority to raise their own revenues, except on imports and exports.
Ratification conventions held in Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia approved the Constitution unanimously. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maryland ratified by comfortable margins, while results were much closer in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. By the time the Constitution went into effect on 4 March 1789, North Carolina and Rhode Island remained out of the new "more perfect Union". North Carolina voted against ratification in August 1788, yet reversed its decision in November 1789. Rhode Island, the only state not to send delegates to the Constitutional Convention, did not approve the charter until late May 1790, and by the narrowest margin.
A mere 23 years after the Constitution became "the supreme law of the land", the young Union (with Madison as President no less) found itself in armed conflict with Britain. Despite the fact that the War of 1812 was not universally popular in America (with the New England states opposing it and the Southern states in support), this conflict managed to inspire a new spirit of nationalism. However, even with the expansionistic interlude of the subsequent Mexican War, the persistent issue of slavery and the ongoing feuding between the agrarian South and the industrial North led to a four-year Civil War that almost broke apart the United States for good.
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