During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British colonies in America had been largely left to their own devices by the crown; it was called salutary neglect. The colonies were thus largely self-governing; half the white men in America could vote, compared to one percent in Britain. They developed their own political identities and systems which were in many ways separate from those in Britain. This new ideology was a decidedly republican political viewpoint, which rejected royalty, aristocracy, and corruption and called for sovereignty of the people and emphasized civic duty. On 1763 with British victory in the French and Indian War, this period of isolation came to an end with the Stamp Act of 1765. The British government began to impose taxes in a way that deliberately provoked the Americans, who complained that they were alien to the unwritten English Constitution because Americans were not represented in parliament. Parliament said the Americans were "virtually" represented and had no grounds for complaint. From the Stamp Act of 1765 onward, disputes with London escalated. By 1772 the colonists began the transfer of political legitimacy to their own hands and started to form shadow governments built on committees of correspondence that coordinated protest and resistance. They called the First Continental Congress in 1774 to inaugurate a trade boycott against Britain. Thirteen colonies were represented at the Congress. The other British colonies were under tight British control and did not rebel.
When resistance in Boston culminated in the Boston Tea Party in 1773 with the dumping of taxed tea shipments into the harbor, London imposed the Intolerable Acts on the colony of Massachusetts, ended self-government, and sent in the Army to take control. The Patriots in Massachusetts and the other colonies readied their militias and prepared to fight.
On April 19, 1775, the royal military governor sent a detachment of troops to seize gunpowder and arrest local leaders in Concord. At Lexington, Massachusetts, shots broke out with the Lexington militia, leaving eight colonists dead. The British failed to find their targets in Concord, and as they retreated back to Boston, the British came under continuous assault by upwards of 3800 militia who had prepared an ambush. The Battle of Lexington and Concord ignited the American Revolutionary War. As news spread, local shadow governments (called "committees of correspondence") in each of the 13 colonies drove out royal officials and sent militiamen to Boston to besiege the British there.
The Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of armed clashes in April. With all thirteen colonies represented, it immediately began to organize itself as a central government with control over the army and diplomacy and instructed the colonies to write constitutions for themselves as states. On June 1775, George Washington, a charismatic Virginia political leader with combat experience was unanimously appointed commander of a newly organized Continental Army. He took command in Boston and sent for artillery to barrage the British. In every state, a minority professed loyalty to the King, but nowhere did they have power. These Loyalists were kept under close watch by standing Committees of Safety created by the Provincial Congresses. The unwritten rule was such people could remain silent, but vocal or financial or military support for the King would not be tolerated. The estates of outspoken Loyalists were seized; they fled to British-controlled territory, especially New York City.
During the winter of 1775–76, an attempt by the Patriots to capture Quebec failed, and the buildup of British forces at Halifax, Nova Scotia, precluded that colony from joining the 13 colonies. The Americans were able to capture a British fort at Ticonderoga, New York, and to drag its cannon over the snow to the outskirts of Boston. The appearance of troops and a cannon on Dorchester Heights outside Boston led the British Army to evacuate the city on March 17, 1776.
On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia, voted unanimously to declare the independence "of the thirteen United States of America." Two days later, on July 4, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The drafting of the Declaration was the responsibility of a Committee of Five, which included, among others, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin; it was drafted by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the others and the Congress as a whole. It contended that "all men are created equal" with "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", and that "to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed", as well as listing the main colonial grievances against the crown. July 4 would subsequently be celebrated as the birthday of the United States.
The British returned in force in August 1776, landing in New York and defeating the fledgling Continental Army at the Battle of Long Island in one of the largest engagements of the war. They quickly seized New York City and nearly captured General Washington and his army. The British made the city their main political and military base of operations in North America, holding it until late 1783. Patriot evacuation and British military occupation made the city the destination for Loyalist refugees, and a focal point of Washington's intelligence network. The British soon seized New Jersey, and American fortunes looked dim; Thomas Paine proclaimed "these are the times that try men's souls". But Washington struck back in a surprise attack, crossing the icy Delaware River into New Jersey and defeated British armies at Trenton and Princeton, thereby regaining New Jersey. The victories gave an important boost to Patriots at a time when morale was flagging, and have become iconic images of the war.
In early 1777, a grand British strategic plan, the Saratoga Campaign, was drafted in London. The plan called for two British armies to converge on Albany, New York from the north and south, dividing the colonies in two and separating New England from the rest. Failed communications and poor planning resulted in the army descending from Canada, commanded by General John Burgoyne, bogging down in dense forest north of Albany. Meanwhile, the British Army that was supposed to advance up the Hudson River to meet Burgoyne went instead to Philadelphia, in a vain attempt to end the war by capturing the American capital city. Burgoyne's army was overwhelmed at Saratoga by a swarming of local militia, spearheaded by a cadre of American regulars. The battle showed the British, who had until then considered the colonials a ragtag mob that could easily be dispersed, that the Americans had the strength and determination to fight on. Said one British officer:
The courage and obstinacy with which the Americans fought were the astonishment of everyone, and we now became fully convinced that they are not that contemptible enemy we had hitherto imagined them, incapable of standing a regular engagement, and that they would only fight behind strong and powerful works.
The American victory at Saratoga led the French into an open military alliance with the United States through the Treaty of Alliance (1778). France was soon joined by Spain and the Netherlands, both major naval powers with an interest in undermining British strength. Britain now faced a major European war, and the involvement of the French navy neutralized their previous dominance of the war on the sea. Britain was without allies and faced the prospect of invasion across the English Channel.
With the British in control of most northern coastal cities and Patriot forces in control of the hinterlands, the British attempted to force a result by a campaign to seize the southern states. With limited regular troops at their disposal, the British commanders realized that success depended on a large-scale mobilization of Loyalists.
In late December 1778, the British had captured Savannah. In 1780 they launched a fresh invasion and took Charleston as well. A significant victory at the Battle of Camden meant that the invaders soon controlled most of Georgia and South Carolina. The British set up a network of forts inland, hoping the Loyalists would rally to the flag. Not enough Loyalists turned out, however, and the British had to move out. They fought their way north into North Carolina and Virginia, with a severely weakened army. Behind them much of the territory they left behind dissolved into a chaotic guerrilla war, as the bands of Loyalist one by one were overwhelmed by the patriots.
The British army under Lord Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, Virginia where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. When that fleet was defeated by a French fleet, however, they were trapped, and were surrounded by a much stronger force of Americans and French under Washington's command. On October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered.
News of the defeat effectively ended the fighting in America, although the naval war continued. Support for the conflict had never been strong in Britain, where many sympathized with the rebels, but now it reached a new low. King George III personally wanted to fight on, but he lost control of Parliament, and had to agree to peace negotiations.
Long negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Paris (1783), which provided highly favorable boundaries for the United States; it included nearly all land east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada, except British Florida, which was awarded to Spain. Encompassing a vast region nearly as large as Western Europe, the western territories contained a few thousand American pioneers and tens of thousands of Indians, most of whom had been allied to the British but were now abandoned by London.
The Treaty of Paris left the United States independent and at peace but with an unsettled governmental structure. The Second Continental Congress had drawn up Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777, to regularize its own status. These described a permanent confederation, but granted to the Congress—the only federal institution—little power to finance itself or to ensure that its resolutions were enforced. There was no president and no judiciary.
Although historians generally agree that the Articles were too weak to hold the fast-growing nation together, they do give Congress credit for resolving the conflict between the states over ownership of the western territories. The states voluntarily turned over their lands to national control. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance created territorial government, set up protocols for the admission of new states, the division of land into useful units, and set aside land in each township for public use. This system represented a sharp break from imperial colonization, as in Europe, and provided the basis for the rest of American continental expansion through the 19th Century.
By 1783, with the end of the British blockade, the new nation was regaining its prosperity. However, trade opportunities were restricted by the mercantilist policies of the European powers. Before the war the Americans had shipped food and other products to the British colonies in the Caribbean, but now these ports were closed, since only British ships could trade there. France and Spain had similar policies for their empires. The former imposed restrictions on imports of New England fish and Chesapeake tobacco. New Orleans was closed by the Spanish, hampering settlement of the West, although it didn't stop frontiersmen from pouring west in great numbers. Simultaneously, American manufacturers faced sharp competition from British products which were suddenly available again. The inability of the Congress to redeem the currency or the public debts incurred during the war, or to facilitate trade and financial links among the states aggravated a gloomy situation. In 1786–87, Shays's Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Massachusetts against the state court system, threatened the stability of state government and the Congress was powerless to help.
The Continental Congress did have power to print paper money; it printed so much that its value plunged until the expression "not worth a continental" was used for some worthless item. Congress could not levy taxes and could only make requisitions upon the states, which did not respond generously. Less than a million and a half dollars came into the treasury between 1781 and 1784, although the states had been asked for two million in 1783 alone. In 1785, Alexander Hamilton issued a curt statement that the Treasury had received absolutely no taxes from New York for the year.
States handled their debts with varying levels of success. The South for the most part refused to pay its debts off, which was damaging to local banks, but Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia fared well due to their production of cash crops such as cotton and tobacco. South Carolina would have done the same except for a series of crop failures. Maryland suffered from financial chaos and political infighting. New York and Pennsylvania fared well, although the latter also suffered from political quarrels. New Jersey, New Hampshire, Delaware, and Connecticut struggled. Massachusetts was in a state of virtual civil war (see above) and suffered from high taxes and the decline of its economy. Rhode Island alone among the New England states prospered and mostly because of its notorious harboring of pirates and smugglers.
When Adams went to London in 1785 as the first representative of the United States, he found it impossible to secure a treaty for unrestricted commerce. Demands were made for favors and there was no assurance that individual states would agree to a treaty. Adams stated it was necessary for the states to confer the power of passing navigation laws to Congress, or that the states themselves pass retaliatory acts against Great Britain. Congress had already requested and failed to get power over navigation laws. Meanwhile, each state acted individually against Great Britain to little effect. When other New England states closed their ports to British shipping, Connecticut hastened to profit by opening its ports.
By 1787 Congress was unable to protect manufacturing and shipping. State legislatures were unable or unwilling to resists attacks upon private contracts and public credit. Land speculators expected no rise in values when the government could not defend its borders nor protect its frontier population.
The idea of a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation grew in favor. Alexander Hamilton realized while serving as Washington's top aide that a strong central government was necessary to avoid foreign intervention and allay the frustrations due to an ineffectual Congress. Hamilton led a group of like-minded nationalists, won Washington's endorsement, and convened the Annapolis Convention in 1786 to petition Congress to call a constitutional convention to meet in Philadelphia to remedy the long-term crisis.
Congress, meeting in New York, called on each state to send delegates to a Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia. While the stated purpose of the convention was to amend the Articles of Confederation, many delegates, including James Madison and George Washington, wanted to use it to craft a new constitution for the United States. The Convention convened in May 1787 and the delegates immediately selected Washington to preside over them. Madison soon proved the driving force behind the Convention, engineering the compromises necessary to create a government that was both strong and acceptable to all of the states. The Constitution, proposed by the Convention, called for a federal government—limited in scope but independent of and superior to the states—within its assigned role able to tax and equipped with both Executive and Judicial branches as well as a two house legislature. The national legislature—or Congress—envisioned by the Convention embodied the key compromise of the Convention between the small states which wanted to retain the power they had under the one state/one vote Congress of the Articles of Confederation and the large states which wanted the weight of their larger populations and wealth to have a proportionate share of power. The upper House—the Senate—would represent the states equally, while the House of Representatives would be elected from districts of approximately equal population.
The Constitution itself called for ratification by state conventions specially elected for the purpose, and the Confederation Congress recommended the Constitution to the states, asking that ratification conventions be called.
Several of the smaller states, led by Delaware, embraced the Constitution with little reservation. But in the most populous two states, New York and Virginia, the matter became one of controversy. Virginia had been the first successful British colony in North America, had a large population, and its political leadership had played prominent roles in the Revolution. New York was likewise large and populous; with the best situated and sited port on the coast, the state was essential for the success of the United States. Local New York politics were tightly controlled by a parochial elite led by Governor George Clinton, and local political leaders did not want to share their power with the national politicians. The New York ratification convention became the focus for a struggle over the wisdom of adopting the Constitution.
Those who advocated the Constitution took the name Federalists and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most influential Federalists were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays published in New York newspapers, under the pen name "Publius". The papers became seminal documents for the new United States and have often been cited by jurists. These were written to sway the closely divided New York legislature.
Opponents of the plan for stronger government, the Anti-Federalists, feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as despotic and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Anti-federalist writers included Patrick Henry and George Mason, who demanded a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.
The Federalists gained a great deal of prestige and advantage from the approval of George Washington, who had chaired the Constitutional Convention. Thomas Jefferson, serving as Minister to France at the time, had reservations about the proposed Constitution. He resolved to remain neutral in the debate and to accept either outcome.
Promises of a Bill of Rights from Madison secured ratification in Virginia, while in New York, the Clintons, who controlled New York politics, found themselves outmaneuvered as Hamilton secured ratification by a 30–27 vote. North Carolina and Rhode Island eventually signed on to make it unanimous among the 13 states.
The old Confederation Congress now set elections to the new Congress as well as the first presidential election. The electoral college unanimously chose Washington as first President; John Adams became the first Vice President. New York was designated as the national capital; they were inaugurated in April 1789 at Federal Hall.
Under the leadership of Madison, the first Congress set up all the necessary government agencies, and made good on the Federalist pledge of a Bill of Rights. The new government at first had no political parties. Alexander Hamilton in 1790–92 created a national network of friends of the government that became the Federalist party; it controlled the national government until 1801.
However, there continued to be a strong sentiment in favor of states' rights and a limited federal government. This became the platform of a new party, the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party, which assumed the role of opposition to the Federalists. Jefferson and Madison were its founders and leaders. The Democratic-Republicans strongly opposed Hamilton's First Bank of the United States. American foreign policy was dominated by the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars between the United Kingdom and France. The Republicans supported France, encouraging the French Revolution as a force for democracy, while the Washington administration favored continued peace and commerce with Britain, signing the Jay Treaty much to the disgust of Democratic-Republicans, who accused Hamilton and the Federalists of supporting aristocracy and tyranny. John Adams succeeded Washington as President in 1797 and continued the policies of his administration. The Jeffersonian Republicans took control of the Federal government in 1801 and the Federalists never returned to power.