H105, American History I

Reading Guide for Week 8

Last week we saw the divisiveness and disruptiveness of a prolonged war of independence spanning the Atlantic Ocean and which was also, in part, a civil war on North America.  The preceding imperial crisis had forced political choices upon many peoples on North America — white, black, and indigenous — and the war of independence would only intensify the urgency and severity of those choices.  Colonies, communities, and families were wrenched apart, which is why some historians call the War of American Independence, the “first American Civil War.”  Across the Atlantic Ocean, Britons likewise experienced political divisions — some in favor of war, some against — though with less high stakes compared to the internal violence in the rebellious colonies.  And, of course, only half of the British North American colonies rebelled; the Canadian colonies to the north and the Caribbean colonies to the south opted to remain under the protection of the unrivalled military might of the British empire.  Many Native American nations tried to remain neutral, which alienated both the British and the rebels.  Enslaved blacks took advantage of wartime disruptions to flee in record numbers.  In 1776, few expected the war to last very long, and few expected the rebellious colonies to win the war.  But the war did last long, and the rebellious colonies did win, in 1783, after much bloodshed and destruction.

Then with military victory in 1783, what next?  Weary from eight years of warfare, “Americans” — who? — had to shift from the arduous task of destruction to the equally arduous task of reconstruction.  Hence, this week we will examine the 1780s and 1790s, a critical era of nation-building, and empire-building, in the first decades of the young United States.  The level of anxiety remained extraordinarily high as the U.S. Constitution was drafted and ratified, amid much controversy, and the first federal government became operational.  The Constitution entailed a moderately bold experiment — a seemingly fundamental reorientation and revision of government structures and political principles that had been inherited from Britain.  Crucial was not only the shape of the government but also the role of “the people”.  “We the people,” stated the Constitution, and yet what would be the ongoing role of “the people” in the new nation?  The Constitution was somewhat democratic and, at the same time, decidedly anti-democracy.  An old-fashioned “Founder” like John Adams became resentful of “democracy” by the 1790s, but he was bypassed by new social forces — politically active men like William Manning and Matthew Lyon whose activism came not from their political fame, but from their more ordinary political involvement.  It was the innumerable William Manning and Matthew Lyon types, not the handful of “Founders,” who pointed the American experiment farther away from its British inheritance and made it more democratic — albeit in very exclusionary fashion akin to that British inheritance.  The terms of exclusion under the new Constitution and the new federal government continued to demean white women, lower classes of whites, free as well as enslaved blacks, and Native Americans, at a terrible cost to such people in their everyday lives, and at a terrible cost to the fragile young nation itself.


United States Constitution (1787-1789):  This generation of the so-called Founding Fathers tried to invent a new kind of balanced government as the basis for a free and durable nation.  How would this government be different from the English system of government, which blended monarchy (Crown), aristocracy (House of Lords), and democracy (House of Commons) as its guarantee of freedom?

Bill of Rights (1789-1791):  The Bill of Rights was drafted as a compromise to assuage those Americans who felt that the Constitution granted too many powers to the federal government, without at the same time protecting the civil liberties of ordinary people.  What kinds of rights were considered especially at risk?  Individual rights, or social rights?


United States naturalization laws (1790, 1795):  Naturalization laws define who is permitted to become a citizen of a country; such laws were passed almost immediately by the new federal government of the United States.  What kinds of people were excluded from citizenship in 1790?  Where did these assumptions come from?  What additional kinds of people were excluded in 1795?  Where did these sudden new concerns came from?

John Adams appraises the people (1765, 1776, 1790):  In 1765 John Adams was a local Massachusetts lawyer; by 1790 he had devoted many years of service to the Continental Congress, and he would, of course, soon become the second President of the United States.  What happened to John Adams’s attitude towards “the people” over the years between 1765 and then 1776 and then 1790?

William Manning, “The Key of Liberty” (1799):  William Manning, a local farmer from central Massachusetts, reflected a common enough anxiety that the condition of freedom had been very rare in human history.  (Remember, we heard this voiced by the young John Adams.)  Whom did Manning blame for the many problems that were confronting the fragile young nation in the 1790s?  “The people”?