- Exploration & the Settlement of the Americas
- The Revolutionary War
- The Growth & Expansion of The Nation
- The Civil War & Reconstruction
- The Gilded Age & the Second Industrial Revolution
- World War I & The Roaring Twenties
- The Great Depression and The New Deal
- World War II
- The Cold War
- The Civil Rights Movement and The Sixties
GED Social Studies Practice Test: The Growth & Expansion of The Nation
As the states continued to fight among themselves, relations with Britain grew worse. It did not remove its forts in the Ohio Valley (as it was required to do under the peace treaty) and Spain, which owned the territory west of the Mississippi River, began to threaten the U.S.’s right to use the river for transport.
The final straw was Shays’s Rebellion in late 1786. Daniel Shays was a poor farmer in Massachusetts who led a rebellion against banks, mortgage holders, and the wealthy. While his followers were a ragtag bunch, they burned down courthouses that held bankruptcy records and scared the wealthy merchants of Boston. The possibility of complete anarchy (lack of government control) in other states seemed possible.
A small but dedicated group of men agreed the United States needed a stronger central government. A call went out to the states to send delegates to a convention to be held in the spring of 1787. A new constitution was about to be born.
Washington’s Presidency, 1789-1797
Members of the first Congress under the Constitution were elected in 1788 and began their first session in March 1789 in New York City (then the nation’s temporary capital).
It was widely assumed that George Washington would be the Electoral College’s unanimous choice for president, and indeed that is exactly what happened. Washington took the oath of office as the first U.S. president on April 30, 1789.
From this point on, what the Constitution and its system of checks and balances actually meant in practice would be determined from day to day by the decisions of Congress as the legislative branch, the president as the head of the executive branch, and the Supreme Court as the top federal court in the judicial branch.
Organizing the Federal Government
Executive departments: As chief executive, Washington’s principal task upon entering office was to organize new departments of the executive (law-enforcing) branch. In fact, the Constitution specifically authorizes the president to appoint chiefs of departments, provided that the president’s nominees are confirmed, or approved, by the Senate.
Washington appointed four heads of departments: Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the treasury, a secretary of war, and an attorney general. These four men formed a cabinet (advisory group) of officials with whom President Washington met regularly to discuss major policy issues.
Thus began the practice, continued to this day, of a president calling cabinet meetings as a basis for obtaining advice and information from key leaders in the administration.
Federal court system: The only federal court mentioned in the Constitution is the Supreme Court. Congress, however, was given the power to create other federal courts with lesser powers and to determine the number of justices making up the Supreme Court. One of Congress’ first laws was the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established a Supreme Court with one chief justice and five associate justices. This highest court was empowered to rule on the constitutionality of decisions made by state courts. The act also provided for a system of lower courts.
Hamilton’s Financial Program
One of the most pressing problems faced by Congress under the Articles had been the government’s financial difficulties. Alexander Hamilton, now secretary of the treasury, presented to the new Congress a comprehensive plan for putting U.S. finances on a firm and stable foundation. Hamilton proposed the following remedies for the government’s financial condition:
- Pay off the national debt at face value [at par] and have the federal government assume the war debts of the states. All told, the amount came to about $75 million.
- Protect the young nation’s “infant” (new and developing) industries and collect adequate revenues at the same time by imposing high tariffs (import taxes) on imported goods.
- Create a national bank for depositing government funds and for printing banknotes that would provide the basis for a stable U.S. currency.
Support for Hamilton’s program came chiefly from northern merchants and the wealthy who would gain directly from high tariffs and a stabilized currency. Opponents of Hamilton’s financial plan included the Anti-Federalists, who feared that the states would lose power to the central government.
Thomas Jefferson led a faction [group] of southern Anti-Federalists who viewed Hamilton’s program as benefiting only the rich at the expense of indebted farmers.
Interpreting the Constitution: the Controversy over a National Bank
Jefferson argued that the Constitution did not give Congress the power to create a bank. But Hamilton took a broader view of the Constitution, arguing that the document’s “necessary and proper” clause authorized Congress to do whatever was necessary to carry out its enumerated [listed] powers:
Congress shall have the power…to make all laws which shall
Be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the
[17 enumerated — that is, specifically stated] powers.
Hamilton pointed out that Congress was empowered to regulate interstate commerce, impose taxation, and make war. A central bank would be both “necessary” and “proper.”
This view, which looks to the spirit, rather than the exact wording of the Constitution, is known as loose construction [to understand or explain the intention; to analyze the arrangement of words].
Jefferson, who feared that the new government would become too powerful, believed that the Congress (and the president) could only do what is specifically stated in the Constitution.
[Think of this in the same way that people argue about Scripture: is the Bible the ACTUAL word of God, or is it meant to be understood in metaphorical and non-literal ways.]
President Washington supported Hamilton on the issue, and the proposed bank was voted into law. Although chartered by the federal government, the Bank of the United States was privately owned. As a major shareholder of the bank, the federal government could print paper currency and use federal deposits to stimulate business.
After much political dealing and bargaining, Congress finally adopted the three major parts of Hamilton’s plan.
Agreement on Debt: Jefferson and his supporters finally gave in to Hamilton’s urgent insistence that the U.S. government payoff the national debt at face value and also assume payment of the war debts of the states. In return for Jefferson’s support on this vital aspect of his plan, Hamilton agreed to Jefferson’s idea to establish the nation’s capital in the South along the Potomac River (an area that, after Washington’s death, would be named Washington).
Tariffs and excise taxes: The tariff rates set by Congress were lower than Hamilton had wanted. To raise enough revenue to pay the government’s debts, Hamilton persuaded Congress to pass excise taxes [taxes on non-essential, luxury items], particularly on the sale of whisky.
Washington’s first term as president (1789-1793) coincided with the outbreak of revolution in France, an event that was to touch off a series of wars between the new French Republic and the monarchies of Europe. Washington’s entire eight years as president, as well as the four years of his successor, John Adams, were taken up with the question of whether to give U.S. support to (a) France, (b) France’s enemies, or (c) neither side.
The French Revolution: Americans generally supported the French people’s aspiration to establish a republic, but many were also horrified by reports of mob hysteria and mass executions. To complicate matters, the U.S.-French alliance remained in effect, although it was an alliance with the French monarchy, not with the revolutionary republic. Jefferson and his supporters sympathized with the revolutionary cause. They also argued that, because Britain was seizing American merchant ships bound for French ports, the United States should join France in its defensive war against Britain.
Proclamation of Neutrality (1793): President Washington, however, believed that the young nation was not strong enough to engage in a European war. Resisting the popular clamor, in 1793 he issued a proclamation of U.S. neutrality in the conflict. Thomas Jefferson resigned from the cabinet in disagreement with Washington’s order.
Native Americans: Through the final decades of the 18th century, settlers crossed the Allegheny Mountains and moved the frontier steadily westward into the Ohio Valley and beyond. The settlers encroached on the lands of Native Americans, who resisted the westward movement as a threat to their existence. Americans on the frontier were angered by evidence that the British were supplying the Native Americans with arms and encouraging them to attack the “intruding” Americans. In 1794 the U.S. army led by General Anthony Wayne defeated a group of tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio. The next year, the chiefs of the defeated peoples agreed to the Treaty of Greenville, in which they surrendered claims to the Ohio Territory and promised to open it up to settlement.
The Whisky Rebellion (1794): Was the new federal government strong enough to deal successfully with rebellion against its own laws? In western Pennsylvania, the refusal of a group of farmers to pay the federal excise tax on whisky seemed to pose a major challenge to the viability of the U.S. government under the Constitution. The rebelling farmers could ill afford to pay a tax on the whisky that they distilled from surplus corn. Rather than pay the tax, they defended their “liberties” by attacking the revenue collectors.
Washington responded to this crisis by federalizing 15,000 state militiamen and placing them under the command of Alexander Hamilton. The show of force had its intended effect, causing the Whisky Rebellion to collapse without any bloodshed on either side. Some Americans applauded Washington’s action, contrasting it with the previous government’s helplessness to do anything about Shays’ Rebellion [See Chapter 2].
Western lands: In the 1790s, as the original 13 states surrendered their western land claims, the federal government gained control of vast tracts of land. Congress encouraged the rapid settlement of these lands by passing the Public Land Act in 1796, which established orderly procedures for dividing and selling federal lands at reasonable prices.
The process for adding new states to the Union, as set forth in the Constitution, also went smoothly. In 1791 Vermont became the first new state after the original 13, followed by Kentucky in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796.
The Troubled Presidency of John Adams, 1797-1801
Washington’s vice president, John Adams, was the Federalists’ candidate, while former secretary of state Thomas Jefferson was the choice of the anti-Federalist party, called the Democratic-Republicans.
The campaign was nasty. Jefferson’s supporters mocked Adams’s appearance, calling him “His Rotundity.” The Federalists hinted that Jefferson was an atheist, would burn the Constitution, and was even an agent of France. Adams won by just three electoral votes and Jefferson, his enemy, would up as his vice president.
Troubles abroad related to the French Revolution presented Adams with the first major challenge of his presidency. Americans were angered by reports that U.S. merchant ships were being seized by French warships and privateers.
Conflict with France
France, in the midst of its revolution, harassed American shipping, hoping to draw the U.S. into its war against Britain (France had, after all, helped the new nation when it was battling the British). Federalists favored an alliance with Britain, as they feared the revolutionary spirit of the French. Antifederalists favored France, fearing potential British influence over the U.S.
President Adams, on the other hand, resisted the popular sentiment for war. Recognizing that the U.S. Army and Navy were not yet strong enough to fight a major power, the president avoided war and sent new ministers to Paris. However, to quiet domestic turmoil at home, he asked Congress to pass laws limiting civil liberties. This made him very unpopular.
The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions
Republicans argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts violated rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. In 1799, however, the Supreme Court had not yet established the principle of judicial review.
Republican leaders challenged the legislation of the Federalist Congress by enacting nullifying laws of their own in the state legislatures. Nullification is the refusal or failure of a U.S. state to recognize or enforce a federal law within its boundaries.
The Kentucky legislature adopted a resolution that had been written by Thomas Jefferson, and the Virginia legislature adopted a resolution introduced by James Madison.
Both resolutions declared that the states had entered into a “compact” [league] in forming the national government, and, therefore, if any act of the federal government broke the compact, a state could nullify the federal law.
Although only Kentucky and Virginia adopted nullifying resolutions in 1799, they set forth an argument and rationale that would be widely used in the nullification controversy of the 1830s.
President Thomas Jefferson and the Expansion of the U.S.
In 1800 the young nation faced another crucial test: whether national leadership could pass peacefully from one political party to another. Once again, the race was between John Adams, now the incumbent [holding the office] president and his now-estranged friend, Thomas Jefferson, vice incumbent vice president. The campaign was nasty, but Jefferson — whose supporters engaged in nasty tactics against President Adams — won the election.
The U.S. Buys Louisiana from France
The single most important achievement of Jefferson’s first term (1801-1805) was the acquisition of the vast western lands known as the Louisiana Territory.
The Louisiana Territory encompassed vast, largely unexplored western lands through which the Mississippi and Missouri rivers flowed. This was originally French Louisiana, but had been transferred to Spain (Britain’s ally) when the French lost the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War) in 1763. Until 1800, it belonged to Spain, but French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte pressured Spain to cede (give) it back to France. At the mouth of the Mississippi River lay the territory’s most valuable property in terms of commerce — the port of New Orleans.
For many years, Louisiana and New Orleans had been claimed by Spain (under Pinckney’s Treaty, concluded with Spain in 1795, the U.S. was allowed to use the port of New Orleans).
The U.S. had a great interest in the Mississippi River. During Jefferson’s presidency, the western frontier extended beyond Ohio and Kentucky into the Indiana Territory. Settlers in this region depended for their economic existence on transporting goods on rivers that flowed westward into the Mississippi River and southward as far as New Orleans.
Jefferson sent ministers to France with instructions to offer up to $10 million for both New Orleans and a strip of land extending from that port eastward to Florida. If the American ministers failed in their negotiations with the French, they were instructed to begin discussions with Britain for a U.S.-British alliance. Napoleon’s ministers, seeking funds for a war against Britain, offered to sell not only New Orleans but also the entire Louisiana Territory for $15 million. The surprised American ministers quickly went beyond their instructions and accepted. The new territory, 829,000 square miles, was bought for less than 5 cents and acre!
Jefferson authorized an expedition, headed by his former aide, Meriwether Lewis and Army Captain William Clark, to explore the new territory and learn just what the U.S. had purchased. During their 2 ½ year trek, they traveled as far north as modern-day North Dakota all the way to the Pacific Ocean, observing plants and animal life, and making contact with numerous Native American tribes. American expansion across the continent could now begin.