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The Beginning of Our United States

The British government had enormous problems after the enduring victory over France in the Seven Years War.  The Seven Years War had virtually doubled the national public debt, and the attainment of half the territory in North America had vastly compounded the problems of controlling the empire.  These circumstances required new revenues for the empire, and the ruling circles in Great Britain believed that the colonists were best able to provide the necessary funds to re-pay the national public debt (American History [Vol. 1] p.123).

Accordingly, measures to secure enforcement of the Navigation Acts, which excluded all non-British ships from the colonial carrying trade, were adopted by the British Parliament in 1764.  In order to obtain additional revenue, Parliament in 1765 replaced the Molasses Act with a Stamp Act, requiring Americans to validate various documents, transactions, and purchases by buying and applying stamps issued by the royal government (Encarta: Sugar & Molasses Act, 1999).

There was a widespread anger among the American colonists with the passage of the Stamp Act, especially in states such as Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts.  Protest meetings, riotous demonstrations, and other manifestations of popular hostility occurred in practically every urban center from Massachusetts to Georgia (Encarta: Stamp Act, 1999).  Nearly all officials responsible for execution of the Stamp Act were forced to resign, and many of the stamps were seized and destroyed.  Secret societies of patriots calling themselves the Sons of Liberty were formed in numerous communities (Electric Library, 1994).

The inter-colonial upsurge against taxation without representation exploded in October of 1765 in the Stamp Act Congress, which was the first important demonstration of American political unity (American History [Vol. 1] pg. 132-33).  Although Parliament refused to recognize the adoption by the Congress of a petition of rights, privileges, and grievances, the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766 (Encarta: Stamp Act, 1999).

After a change in leadership in the British government, the policy of imposing direct taxes on the American colonies was revised in 1767.  Parliament approved a series of measures, that were known as the Townshend Acts, which among other things, levied modest customs duties on tea, paper, lead, paint, and glass (Encarta: Boston Massacre, 1999).  Colonial resistance to the Townshend Acts included, boycotts of British goods, intercolonial expressions of disapproval, and in Massachusetts, open defiance of the British government by the town of Boston and the General Court (Encyclopedia.com: Boston Massacre, 1994).

In 1768 Great Britain transferred two regiments of troops to Boston in response to the seditious sentiments prevalent in Massachusetts.  However, this action merely served to intensify the anti-British feelings there (Encarta: Boston Massacre, 1999).  Finally, on March 5, 1770, a group of British soldiers who were protecting the Kings tax collectors from being tarred and feathered, fired on a hostile crowd, producing the first bloodshed of the struggle (Encyclopedia.com: Boston Massacre, 1994).

Primarily due to changed political circumstances in Great Britain, Parliament in 1770 repealed all the Townshend Act duties except the tax on tea, which was retained to uphold Great Britains right to levy taxes on its subjects.  The Americans then dropped all non-import measures except for a tea boycott, kept up to maintain their objections to taxation without representation (Knowledge Adventure: Boston Tea Party, 1998).  Relations returned to normal until 1773, when Parliament tried to save the English East India Company from bankruptcy by granting it a monopoly on the tea sold to America.  Known as the Tea Act, this measure precipitated a new crisis for the colonies.  The colonists, regarding the Tea Act as a measure to induce them to submit to parliamentary taxation, not only intensified the boycott but, in Boston, they destroyed cargoes of tea (Grolier: Boston Tea Party, 1993).
Parliamentary reactions to the events in Boston were swift and harsh.

By enactments adopted in March of 1774, Parliament closed the port of Boston, prohibited town meetings everywhere in Massachusetts, and imposed many other penalties.  Inter-colonial resentment greatly increased over this legislation, popularly known as the Intolerable Acts, which paved the way for the First Continental Congress in September 1774 (American Revolution: First Phase, 1998).  The Congress sent a petition to the British sovereign, George III, which called for intensification of the boycott on trade with Great Britain, and completed plans for a new Congress to assemble in May 1775, in the event of British refusal to grant its demands (Encarta: American Revolution, 1999).

The King of England, George III, rejected the Congresss petition and characterized the colonial protest movement as a rebellion against Great Britain (American Revolution: First Phase, 1998).  Less than four months after the news was received in America, armed conflict broke out in Massachusetts.  Then the royal governor, General Thomas Gage, dispatched troops against Concord, where the leaders of the resistance had concentrated arms and ammunition (Encarta: American Revolution, 1999).  On April 19, 1775, British soldiers fired on a group of militia members at Lexington, precipitating the first battle of the American Revolution (American Revolution: First Phase, 1998).

The Second Continental Congress convened at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  Although it was a purely extralegal institution, the Congress proclaimed American determination to resist Great Britains aggression with armed force, and provided for establishment of a Continental Army.  The Congress appointed former British Soldier and American hero, George Washington commander-in-chief, authorized the creation of paper money, and assumed other privileges of executive authority over the colonies (Encarta: American Revolution, 1999).  Congress also appealed to the British government for a peaceful solution of the crisis, but in August, George III responded with a proclamation exhorting his loyal subjects to suppress rebellion and sedition, in North America (American Revolution: First Phase, 1998).

Meanwhile, American troops had inflicted severe casualties on a large force of British soldiers in Massachusetts (American History [Vol. 1] pg. 161).  Sentiment for a complete break with Great Britain and for national independence did not begin to emerge in the colonies until after the events at Bunker Hill.  More than a year later, on July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress declared independence, and two days afterward adopted a formal statement of principle written by Thomas Jefferson justifying that action (Encarta: American Revolution, 1999).

By winning the War of Independence, the United States emerged successfully from its first severe test as a nation.  With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, ending the war with Great Britain, the nation was confronted with new problems; most of which was devising a form of government that would bind the thirteen states into a strong and efficient union (Grolier: Articles of Confederation, 1993).
From 1776 to 1781 the states had been governed by the Continental Congress, which assumed certain executive powers, such as raising an army, borrowing money from foreign countries, and concluding treaties with Great Britain (Grolier: Articles of Confederation, 1993).  These powers in effect made the Congress a replacement for the king.  They were relieved shortly after independence, in an agreement known as the Articles of Confederation which was the first constitution of America (Encarta: Articles of Confederation, 1999).

The articles were approved by the Congress in 1777 and were ratified successfully by the various states, ending with Maryland in 1781 (Grolier: Articles of Confederation, 1993).  Maryland was slow to ratify because it lacked a colonial charter, and feared that other states that claimed vast western reserves would dominate the union because of their size.  It agreed to enter the confederation only if all the states concerned ceded to the Union their western claims.  The states involved eventually agreed.  Beginning with New York in 1781 and ending with Georgia in 1802, all made the necessary cessions (Encarta: Articles of Confederation, 1999).

Under the Articles of Confederation, the states explicitly retained their power, which meant that their individual legislature remained supreme in matters of taxation and administration of justice, as provided by their own constitutions.  Congress was a body in which only the states, not the people, were represented.  It functioned as a large plural executive, not as a legislature (Grolier: Articles of Confederation, 1993).  Therefore, Congress could only ask the states for money to run the government, and depending on the states feelings toward the issue at hand might or might not contribute funds to the government.  Although Congress had power to issue its own currency and to borrow money on behalf of the United States, it had no authority over the internal finances of the states, which issued currency and borrowed money on their own.  In the unstable financial climate of the post-revolutionary America, these limitations on its power prevented the Congress from keeping domestic peace (Encarta: Articles of Confederation, 1999).

During the period in which the Articles were in force, nationalists, such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, worried that rivalries between the states and social conflicts within them threatened the ability of the Unites States to survive as a country (Grolier: Articles of Confederation, 1993).  Some states, such as Rhode Island, inflated their currencies to ease the condition of their farmers, who were suffering in the depression that had followed the American Revolution.  A few states like Massachusetts refused to ease the troubles of the debtor class and raised taxes as a way of protecting themselves from inflation (Encarta: Articles of Confederation, 1999).  In Massachusetts, this high-tax policy led directly to a revolt by the farmers, who initially resisted the authority of the state by closing the country courts, and later took up arms under the leadership of a Continental Army veteran, Captain Daniel Shays (Encarta: Shays Rebellion, 1999).

The Massachusetts state government put down the uprising, but Shays Rebellion convinced many nationalists that there could be no security for people or property without a central government to exert authority over, and within, the states (Encarta: Shays Rebellion, 1999).  The Confederation Congress was capable of governing within the sphere it had been permitted as demonstrated by the Ordinance of 1787, which organized the national domain, known as the Northwest Territory, between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes (Encarta: Articles of Confederation, 1999).  In the aftermath of Shays Rebellion, nationalists petitioned for revision of the Articles in order to expand the governments authority over the states (Encarta: Shays Rebellion, 1999).

The more devoted nationalists, including Madison and Hamilton, believed that the Articles of Confederation would most likely have to be discarded.  The delegates tricked the Congress in 1787 by telling them they were going to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, even though the delegates were planning on writing a new Constitution (Grolier: Constitution, 1993).  Meeting at Philadelphia from May to September 1788, in which the delegates picked George Washington as their president, the convention drew up the Constitution of the United States of America (Encarta: Washington, George, 1999).  Much conflict took place during the convention and immediately afterward, thus important compromises had to be worked out among the parties in attendance before the Constitution was finally adopted by the convention.

In general, the Constitution laid the foundations for an efficient national union by making the people, not the states, the parties to the agreement (American History [Vol. 1] pg. 195-197).  Largely the work of Madison, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, and many other nationalist delegates, the Constitution substituted a fully articulated government of three branches, which were the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (Grolier: Constitution, 1993).  The Constitution became the law of the land in 1788, after the required nine states had ratified it.  Shortly thereafter twelve states had ratified the document by the end of 1788.  On March 4, 1789, the first Congress of the United States of America elected under the Constitution assembled in New York City, then the national capital (American History [Vol. 1] pg.201-203).  On April 13, 1789, George Washington, who had been unanimously elected the first president of the United States, was inaugurated in New York City (Grolier: Constitution, 1993).


Works Cited

An Outline of American History (1997).  The Colonial Period: The Land is Settled
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Brinkley, Alan, American History: A Survey, Vol. 1: to 1877, Tenth Edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999.
Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, third edition, (1994) Columbia University Press, Encyclopedia. Com: [On-line].  Available: http://www.encyclopedia.com.html
Encarta Encyclopedia Online (1999), Microsoft Corporation [On-line].  Available: http://encarta.msn.com
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Knowledge Adventure, Inc. (1998): Boston Tea Party: A tax on tea? Never!  [On-line].  Available:  http://www.letsfindout.com/subjects/america/tea.html
Thorpe, F.N.  New England Articles of Confederation (1643).  American Charters, Constitutions and Organic Laws, Vol. I, pg. 77-81, (1995).

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