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The New Nation (1783 – 1815)

The New Nation (1783 – 1815)


Editor’s Note (1): This entry was composed of content from the Library of Congress: Teachers>Classroom Materials>Presentations and Activities>Time Line.

Editor’s Note (2): The history of creating the government of the new nation is not an important subject for the Social Welfare History Project; however, this abbreviated version is designed to help readers put subsequent matters into a context.  For additional information of documents related to this topic, search American Memory  in the Library of Congress using such key words as confederationConfederation CongressArticles of Confederation, Land Ordinance of 1785, Northwest Ordinance of 1787Treaty of Paris (1783).


At the successful conclusion of the Revolutionary War with Great Britain in 1783, an American could look back and reflect on the truly revolutionary events that had occurred in the preceding three decades. In that period American colonists had first helped the British win a global struggle with France. Soon, however, troubles surfaced as Britain began to assert tighter control of its North American colonies. Eventually, these troubles led to a struggle in which American colonists severed their colonial ties with Great Britain. Meanwhile, Americans began to experiment with new forms of self-government. This movement occurred in both the Continental Congress during the Revolution and at the local and state levels.

After winning their independence, Americans continued to experiment with how to govern themselves under the Articles of Confederation. Over time, some influential groups–and these by no means reflected the sentiments of all Americans–found the Confederation government inadequate. Representatives of these groups came together in Philadelphia to explore the creation of yet another, newer form of government. The result was a new constitution. Not all Americans embraced this new Constitution, however, and ratification of the document produced many disagreements. Even so, the Constitution was ratified, and with a new constitution in place, Americans once again turned to George Washington for leadership, this time as President of the new republic.

George Washington's Inauguration
George Washington’s Inauguration

Although Washington proved to be personally popular and respected, conflict over the proper functions and locus of governmental power dominated his two terms as president. These disputes soon led to the formation of factions and then political parties that were deeply divided over the nature and purposes of the federal government, over foreign affairs, and over the very future of the new nation. Events during the single term of John Adams, our second president, made these divisions even worse and they continued into the presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Thomas Jefferson President - March 4, 1801 - March 4, 1809
Thomas Jefferson
President – March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809


Even so, President Jefferson nearly doubled the size of the new nation by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase also led Jefferson to form the Lewis and Clark expedition to discover just what was contained in the new land. Jefferson’s successor as President, James Madison (1809-1817)–one of authors of the constitution–led the new nation through another war with Great Britain. This, of course, was the unpopular War of 1812. This war ended in 1815 and if nothing else it convinced Britain that the United States was on the map to stay. Meanwhile, Americans began to develop a culture and way of life that was truly their own and no longer that of mere colonials.

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to create a plan for a central government. The committee quickly wrote the Articles of Confederation, which created a loose alliance of the states. While the Articles were drafted quickly, ratification of them was delayed until 1781. The primary sticking point concerned disagreements about how to deal with the western lands claimed by several states. The states without such claims argued that the western lands should be owned by the national government. The states with land claims were reluctant to give up their claims. When Virginia finally gave up most of its claims to western lands, the Articles of Confederation were adopted.

The Articles of Confederation created a union of sovereign states. An assembly of delegates acted on behalf of the states they represented. Because the smaller states feared the domination of the larger ones, each state had one vote in the Confederation Congress, regardless of its size or population. Any act of Congress required the votes of nine of the thirteen states to pass.

Congress claimed the following powers: to make war and peace; conduct foreign affairs; request men and money from the states; coin and borrow money; regulate Indian affairs; and settle disputes among the states. Enforcing laws, regulating commerce, administering justice, and levying taxes were powers reserved to the states. Representatives were forbidden to serve in Congress more than three years to avoid formation of a political elite. Even with these limits on its powers, the Confederation Congress achieved some remarkable successes during its short life.

The Constitution of the United States

imgresIn May 1787, 55 men from twelve states met in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. At the outset, however, Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph presented a plan prepared by James Madison for the design of an entirely new national government. The proposed plan would lead to a four-month process of argument, debate, compromise, and the development of the Constitution of the United States.

On September 17, 1787, the final draft of the new Constitution was read to the 42 delegates still at the convention. Of the 42 men present, 39 affixed their signatures to the document and notified the Confederation Congress that their work was finished. The Congress, in turn, submitted the document to the states for ratification, where more argument, debate, and compromise would take place. The state of Delaware was the first to ratify the Constitution. On June 21, 1788, just nine months after the state ratification process had begun, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, and the Constitution went into effect.

In the two centuries since its ratification, many changes have been made to the Constitution. However, the basic premises on which theimages-1 Constitution was framed–the protection of individual rights and liberties, limited government with separation of powers and checks and balances, the federal system, and judicial review–remain at the heart of the “living” document.

Government Policy Towards Native Americans

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to develop a plan for a central government. Shortly thereafter, the Articles of Confederation were written and a union of states, called the United States of America, came into being.

Under the Articles of Confederation, the newly developed central government was required to share power with the states. Among the powers given over to the central government were making war and peace, conducting diplomatic relations, requisitioning men and money from the states, coining and borrowing money, and regulating Indian affairs. The states were responsible for enforcing laws, regulating commerce, administering justice, and levying taxes.

During the mid 1780s, the Confederation Congress was particularly attentive to problems in the Northwest Territory, an area of land located between the thirteen states and the Mississippi River. Thousands of settlers had moved into the area by 1780. However, they were not the first settlers. Living on the land were numerous nations of Native Americans. The Congress spent a good deal of time and effort developing policies to keep peace between the white settlers and the Native Americans. Treaties, the appointment of government agents and superintendents to serve as intermediaries between Native Americans and the government, and raising and arming troops to put down insurrections, are examples of strategies the Confederation Congress used to maintain peace, meet the needs of the Native Americans, and open the area for further settlement.

Source:  Library of Congress>Teachers>Classroom Materials>Presentations and Activities>Time Line.

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