· 1. Describe the tenets of republicanism
· 2. Explain the development of state constitutions
· 3. Explain the need for a central government stronger than that created by the Articles of Confederation
· 4. Analyze the causes and consequences of Shays’ Rebellion
· 5. Describe slavery in the new republic
· 6. Examine the role of religion in the new republic
· 7. Explain the key tenets of the U.S. Constitution, including the powers given to each branch of government by the Constitution
· 8. Analyze the provisions and nature of the United States Constitution, including such concepts as federalism
· 9. Explain what the different branches of government do, their separation of powers, and how they check and balance each other
· 10. Describe the vision of the Federalists • 11. Identify the amendments included in the Bill of Rights
Module6 Creating a Government
Figure 1. John Trumbull, Washington’s aide-de-camp, painted this wartime image of Washington on a promontory above the
Hudson River. Just behind Washington stands the enslaved William “Billy” Lee, with his eyes firmly fixed on Washington. In the
far background, British warships fire on an American fort.
During the 1770s and 1780s, Americans took bold steps to define what equality would mean in
America. Each state held constitutional conventions and crafted state constitutions that defined how
the government would operate and who could participate in political life. Many elite revolutionaries
recoiled in horror from the idea of majority rule—the basic principle of democracy—fearing that it
would effectively create a “mob rule” that would bring about the ruin of the hard-fought struggle for
independence. Statesmen everywhere believed that a republic should replace the British monarchy: a
government where the important affairs would be entrusted only to representative men of learning
After the Revolutionary War, the ideology that “all men are created equal” failed to match up with
reality, as the revolutionary generation could not solve the contradictions of freedom and slavery in
the new United States. Trumbull’s 1780 painting of George Washington hints at some of these
contradictions. What attitude do you think Trumbull was trying to convey? Why did Trumbull include
Washington’s slave Billy Lee, and what does Lee represent in this painting?
In this module, you’ll learn about the formation of a new Republic and the creation of the United
States Constitution. You’ll learn about the impressive feats of the Constitution and the rights that it
granted, as well as the rights and topics that were left out. Though the document was written over 230
years ago, it is a living document that affects the course of the country every day. For example, the
Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, states that:
Figure 2. What does the right to “keep and bear arms” mean in today’s world?
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep
and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
This amendment remains controversial today. The debate centers around such questions as: What
does it mean to have the right to bear arms? Should all citizens have the right? Does that include
arms of any kind, for any reason, or are there limits on this right? Should the amendment be
interpreted in the way that gun-rights advocates do, or did the Founders have a much stricter idea of
what it means to bear arms, limiting it to members of the military?
All of these are relevant questions and are debated and litigated over and over again. But the issue of
gun rights is just one among many constitutional issues that Americans still grapple with today. Other
constitutional issues include voting rights, the way elections should be run, immigration, and how to
achieve equality under the law. Though it is old, the Constitution remains vital to our understanding of
ourselves as a people and as a nation.
While monarchies dominated eighteenth-century Europe, American revolutionaries were determined
to find an alternative to this method of government. Radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine, whose
enormously popular essay Common Sense was first published in January 1776, advocated a
republic: a state without a king. Six months later, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence affirmed
the break with England but did not suggest what form of government should replace monarchy, the
only system most English colonists had ever known. In the late eighteenth century, republics were
few and far between. Genoa, Venice, and the Dutch Republic provided examples of states without
monarchs, but many European Enlightenment thinkers questioned the stability of a republic.
Nonetheless, after their break from Great Britain, Americans turned to republicanism for their new
The guiding principle of republicanism was that the people themselves would appoint or elect the
leaders who would represent them. The debate over how much democracy (majority rule) to
incorporate in the governing of the new United States raised questions about who was best qualified
to participate in government and have the right to vote. Revolutionary leaders argued that property
holders had the greatest stake in society and thus favored a republic that would limit political rights to
property holders. In this way, American republicanism exhibited a bias toward the elite from the
beginning. George Washington served as a role model for the new republic, embodying the
exceptional talent and public virtue prized in its political and social philosophy.
The late 1770s and 1780s witnessed one of the most creative political eras as each state drafted its
own constitution. The Articles of Confederation, a weak national league among the states, reflected
the dominant view that power should be located in the states and not in a national government.
However, neither the state governments nor the Confederation government could solve the enormous
economic problems resulting from the long and costly Revolutionary War. The economic crisis led to
Shays’ Rebellion by residents of western Massachusetts, and to the decision to revise the
From Monarchy to an American Republic
GUIDED READING QUESTIONS
• 1. Describe the tenets of republicanism
• 2. Explain the development of state constitutions
Figure 1. Key dates in the founding of the new American republic.
Republicanism as a Political Philosophy
Monarchy rests on the practice of dynastic succession, in which the monarch’s child or other relative
inherits the throne. Contested dynastic succession produced chronic conflict and warfare in Europe.
In the eighteenth century, well-established monarchs ruled most of Europe and, according to tradition,
were obligated to protect and guide their subjects. However, by the mid-1770s, many American
colonists believed that George III, the king of Great Britain, had failed to do so. Patriots believed the
British monarchy under George III had been corrupted and the king had turned into a tyrant who
cared nothing for the traditional liberties afforded to members of the British Empire. The disaffection
from monarchy explains why a republic appeared a better alternative to the revolutionaries.
American revolutionaries looked to the past for inspiration for their break with the British monarchy
and their adoption of a republican form of government. The Roman Republic provided guidance.
Much like the Americans in their struggle against Britain, Romans had thrown off monarchy and
created a republic in which Roman citizens would appoint or select the leaders who would represent
While republicanism offered an alternative to monarchy, it was also an alternative to democracy, a
system of government characterized by majority rule, where the majority of citizens have the power
to make decisions binding upon the whole. To many revolutionaries, especially wealthy landowners,
merchants, and planters, democracy did not offer a good replacement for monarchy. Indeed,
conservative Whigs defined themselves in opposition to democracy, which they equated with
anarchy. In the tenth in a series of essays later known as The Federalist Papers, Virginian James
Madison wrote: “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever
been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as
short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” Many shared this perspective and
worked hard to keep democratic tendencies in check. It is easy to understand why democracy
seemed threatening: majority rule can easily overpower minority rights, and the wealthy few had
reason to fear that a hostile and envious majority could seize and redistribute their wealth.
While many now assume the United States was founded as a democracy, history, as always, is more
complicated. Conservative Whigs believed in government by a patrician class, a ruling group
composed of the males of a small number of privileged families. Radical Whigs favored broadening
the popular participation in political life and pushed for democracy. The great debate after
independence was secured centered on this question: Who should rule in the new American
Republicanism as a Social Philosophy
According to political theory, a republic requires its citizens to cultivate virtuous behavior; if the people
are virtuous, the republic will survive. If the people become corrupt, the republic will fall. Whether
republicanism succeeded or failed in the United States would depend on civic virtue and an educated
citizenry. Revolutionary leaders agreed that the ownership of property provided one way to measure
an individual’s virtue, arguing that property holders had the greatest stake in society and therefore
could be trusted to make decisions for it. By the same token, non-property holders, they believed,
should have very little to do with government. In other words, unlike a democracy, in which the mass
of non-property holders could exercise the political right to vote, a republic would limit political rights
to property holders, and only White male ones at that. In this way, republicanism exhibited a bias
toward the White male elite, a preference that is partially understandable given the colonial legacy.
During colonial times, wealthy planters and merchants in the American colonies had looked to the
British ruling class, whose social order demanded deference from those of lower rank, as a model of
behavior. Old habits died hard.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN’S THIRTEEN VIRTUES FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin carefully defined thirteen virtues to help guide his countrymen in maintaining a
virtuous republic. His choice of thirteen is telling since he wrote for the citizens of the thirteen new American
republics. These virtues were:
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s
peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Figure 2. This membership certificate for the Society of the Cincinnati commemorates “the great Event which gave Independence
to North America.”
George Washington served as a role model par excellence for the new republic, embodying the
exceptional talent and public virtue prized under the political and social philosophy of republicanism.
He did not seek to become the new king of America; instead he retired as commander in chief of the
Continental Army and returned to his Virginia estate at Mount Vernon to resume his life among the
planter elite. Washington modeled his behavior on that of the Roman aristocrat Cincinnatus, a
representative of the patrician or ruling class, who had also retired from public service in the Roman
Republic and returned to his estate to pursue agricultural life.
The aristocratic side of republicanism—and the belief that the true custodians of public virtue were
those who had served in the military—found expression in the Society of the Cincinnati, of which
Washington was the first president general. Founded in 1783, the society admitted only officers of the
Continental Army and the French forces, not militia members or minutemen. Following the rule of
primogeniture, the eldest sons of members inherited their fathers’ memberships. The society still
exists today and retains the motto Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam (“He relinquished everything
to save the Republic”).
Women in the Republic
Although the status of women did not change after the Revolution (they remained economically
dependent on their husbands), there were some small shifts in expectations. Overall, the Revolution
reconfigured women’s roles by undermining the traditional expectations of wives and mothers,
including subservience. In the home, the separate domestic sphere assigned to women, women were
expected to practice republican virtues, especially frugality and simplicity. Republican motherhood
meant that women, more than men, were responsible for raising good children, instilling in them all
the virtue necessary to ensure the survival of the republic. The Revolution also opened new doors to
educational opportunities for women. Men understood that the republic needed women to play a
substantial role in upholding republicanism and ensuring the survival of the new nation. Benjamin
Rush, a Whig educator and physician from Philadelphia, strongly advocated for the education of girls
and young women as part of the larger effort to ensure that republican virtue and republican
motherhood would endure. However, women, regardless of color, were not allowed to vote nor hold
public office in the new republic and their roles in society were still extremely circumscribed.
The task of creating republican governments in each of the former colonies, now independent states,
presented a new opportunity for American revolutionaries to define themselves anew after casting off
British control. On the state and national levels, citizens of the new United States debated who would
hold the keys to political power. The states proved to be a laboratory for how much democracy, or
majority rule, would be tolerated.
The State Constitutions
In 1776, John Adams urged the thirteen independent colonies—soon to be states—to write their own
state constitutions. Enlightenment political thought, grounded in reason and progress, profoundly
influenced Adams and other revolutionary leaders seeking to create viable republican governments.
The ideas of the French philosopher Montesquieu, who had advocated the separation of powers in
government, guided Adams’s thinking. Responding to a request for advice on proper government
from North Carolina, Adams wrote Thoughts on Government, which influenced many state
legislatures. Adams did not advocate democracy; rather, he wrote, “there is no good government but
what is republican.” Fearing the potential for tyranny with only one group in power, he suggested a
system of checks and balances in which three separate branches of government—executive,
legislative, and judicial—would maintain a balance of power. He also proposed that each state remain
sovereign, as its own republic. The state constitutions of the new United States illustrate different
approaches to addressing the question of how much democracy would prevail in the thirteen
republics. Some states embraced democratic practices, while others adopted far more aristocratic
and republican ones.
Figure 3. The 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, the first page of which is shown here, adhered to more democratic principles than
some other states’ constitutions did initially.
The 1776 Pennsylvania constitution and the 1784 New Hampshire constitution both provide examples
of democratic tendencies. In Pennsylvania, the requirement to own property in order to vote was
eliminated, and if a man was twenty-one or older, had paid taxes, and had lived in the same location
for one year, he could vote. This opened voting to most free White male citizens of Pennsylvania. The
1784 New Hampshire constitution allowed every small town and village to send representatives to the
state government, making the lower house of the legislature a model of democratic government.
Conservative Whigs, who distrusted the idea of majority rule, recoiled from the abolition of property
qualifications for voting and office holding in Pennsylvania. Conservative Whig John Adams reacted
with horror to the 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, declaring that it was “so democratical that it must
produce confusion and every evil work.” In his mind and those of other conservative Whigs, this
constitution simply put too much power in the hands of men who had no business exercising the right
to vote. Pennsylvania’s constitution also eliminated the executive branch (there was no governor) and
the upper house. Instead, Pennsylvania had a one-house—a unicameral—legislature.
The Maryland and South Carolina constitutions provide examples of efforts to limit the power of a
democratic majority. Maryland’s, written in 1776, restricted office holding to the wealthy planter class.
A man had to own at least £5,000 worth of personal property to be the governor of Maryland, and
possess an estate worth £1,000 to be a state senator. This latter qualification excluded over 90
percent of the White males in Maryland from political office. The 1778 South Carolina constitution
also sought to protect the interests of the wealthy. Governors and lieutenant governors of the state
had to have “a settled plantation or freehold in their and each of their own right of the value of at least
ten thousand pounds currency, clear of debt.” This provision limited high office in the state to its
wealthiest inhabitants. Similarly, South Carolina state senators had to own estates valued at £2,000.
John Adams wrote much of the 1780 Massachusetts constitution, which reflected his fear of too much
democracy. It therefore created two legislative chambers, an upper and lower house, and a strong
governor with broad veto powers. Like South Carolina, Massachusetts put in place office-holding
requirements: To be governor under the new constitution, a candidate had to own an estate worth at
least £1,000. To serve in the state senate, a man had to own an estate worth at least £300 and have
at least £600 in total wealth. To vote, he had to be worth at least sixty pounds. To further keep
democracy in check, judges were appointed, not elected. One final limit was the establishment of the
state capitol in the commercial center of Boston, which made it difficult for farmers from the western
part of the state to attend legislative sessions.
The Articles of Confederation
GUIDED READING QUESTIONS:
• 3. Explain the need for a central government stronger than that created by the Articles
• 4. Analyze the causes and consequences of
The Articles of Confederation
Most revolutionaries pledged their greatest loyalty to their individual states. Recalling the experience
of British reform efforts imposed in the 1760s and 1770s, they feared a strong national government
and took some time to adopt the Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution. In June 1776
the Continental Congress prepared to announce independence and began to think about the creation
of a new government to replace royal authority. Reaching agreement on the Articles of Confederation
proved difficult as members of the Continental Congress argued over western land claims and other
issues. Connecticut, for example, used its colonial charter to assert its claim to western lands in
Pennsylvania and the Ohio Territory.
Figure 1. Connecticut, like many other states, used its state constitution to stake claims to uncharted western lands.
Members of the Continental Congress also debated what type of representation would be best and
tried to figure out how to pay the expenses of the new government. In lieu of creating a new federal
government, the Articles of Confederation created a “league of friendship”
between the states.
Congress readied the Articles in 1777 but did not officially approve them until 1781. The delay of four
years illustrates the difficulty of getting the thirteen states to agree on a plan of national government.
Citizens viewed their respective states as sovereign republics and guarded their ability to make their
own decisions from other states.
Figure 2. The first page of the 1777 Articles of Confederation, printed by Alexander Purdie, emphasized the “perpetual union”
between the states.
The Articles of Confederation authorized a unicameral legislature, a continuation of the earlier
Continental Congress. The people could not vote directly for members of the national Congress;
rather, state legislatures decided who would represent the state. In practice, the national Congress
was composed of state delegations. There was no president or executive office of any kind, and there
was no national judiciary (or Supreme Court) for the United States.
Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation
Passage of any law under the Articles of Confederation proved difficult. It took the consensus of nine
states for any measure to pass, and amending the Articles required the consent of all the states, also
extremely difficult to achieve. Further, any acts put forward by the Congress were non-binding; states
had the option to enforce them or not. This meant that while the Congress had power over Indian
affairs and foreign policy, individual states could choose whether or not to comply.
The Congress did not have the power to tax citizens of the United States, a fact that would soon have
serious consequences for the republic. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress had
sent requisitions for funds to the individual former colonies (now revolutionary states). These states
already had an enormous financial burden because they had to pay for militias as well as supply
them. In the end, the states failed to provide even half the funding requested by the Congress during
the war, which led to a national debt in the tens of millions by 1784.
By the 1780s, some members of the Congress were greatly concerned about the financial health of
the republic, and they argued that the national government needed greater power, especially the
power to tax. This required amending the Articles of Confederation with the consent of all the states.
Those who called for a stronger federal government were known as nationalists. The nationalist
group that pushed for the power to tax included Washington’s chief of staff, Alexander Hamilton;
Virginia planter James Madison; Pennsylvania’s wealthy merchant Robert Morris (who served under
the Confederation government as superintendent of finance in the early 1780s); and Pennsylvania
lawyer James Wilson. Two New Yorkers, Gouverneur Morris and James Duane, also joined the effort
to address the debt and the weakness of the Confederation government.
These men proposed a 5 percent tax on imports coming into the United States, a measure that would
have yielded enough revenue to clear the debt. However, their proposal failed to achieve unanimous
support from the states when Rhode Island rejected it. Plans for a national bank also failed to win
unanimous support. The lack of support illustrates Americans’ deep suspicion of a powerful national
government, a suspicion that originated from the unilateral and heavy-handed reform efforts that the
British Parliament imposed on the colonies in the 1760s and 1770s. Without revenue, Congress could
not pay back American creditors who had lent it money. However, it did manage to make interest
payments to foreign creditors in France and the Dutch Republic, fearful that defaulting on those
payments would destroy the republic’s credit and leave it unable to secure loans.
One soldier in the Continental Army, Joseph Plumb Martin, recounted how he received no pay in
paper money after 1777 and only one month’s payment in specie, or hard currency, in 1781. Like
thousands of other soldiers, Martin had fought valiantly against the British and helped secure
independence, but had not been paid for his service. In the 1780s and beyond, men like Martin would
soon express their profound dissatisfaction with their treatment. Their anger found expression in
armed uprisings and political divisions.
Establishing workable foreign and commercial policies under the Articles of Confederation also
proved difficult. Each state could decide for itself whether to comply with treaties between the
Congress and foreign countries, and there were no means of enforcement. Both Great Britain and
Spain understood the weakness of the Confederation Congress, and they refused to make
commercial agreements with the United States because they doubted they would be enforced.
Without stable commercial policies, American exporters found it difficult to do business and British
goods flooded U.S. markets in the 1780s, a repetition of the economic imbalance that existed before
the Revolutionary War.
The Confederation Congress under the Articles did achieve success through a series of directives
called land ordinances, which established rules for the settlement of western lands in the public
domain and the admission of new states to the republic. The ordinances were designed to prepare
the land for sale to citizens and raise revenue to boost the failing economy of the republic. In the land
ordinances, the Confederation Congress created the Mississippi and Southwest Territories and
stipulated that slavery would be permitted there. The system of dividing the vast domains of the
United States stands as a towering achievement of the era, a blueprint for American western
The Northwest Ordinances
The Ordinance of 1784, written by Thomas Jefferson, directed that new states would be formed from
a huge area of land below the Great Lakes, and these new states would have equal standing with the
original states. This was the first of what were later called the Northwest Ordinances. The
Ordinance of 1785 called for the division of this land into rectangular plots in order to prepare for the
government sale of land. Surveyors would divide the land into townships of six square miles, and the
townships would be subdivided into thirty-six plots of 640 acres each, which could be further
subdivided. The price of an acre of land was set at a minimum of one dollar, and the land was to be
sold at public auction under the direction of the Confederation.
The Ordinance of 1787 officially turned the land into an incorporated territory called the Northwest
Territory and prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River. The map of the 1787 Northwest Territory
shows how the public domain was to be divided by the national government for sale. Townships of
thirty-six square miles were to be surveyed. Each had land set aside for schools and other civic
purposes. Smaller parcels could then be made: a 640-acre section could be divided into quarter-
sections of 160 acres, and then again into sixteen sections of 40 acres. The geometric grid pattern
established by the ordinance is still evident today on the American landscape. Indeed, much of the
western United States, when viewed from an airplane, is composed of an orderly grid system.
Figure 3. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 created territories and an orderly method for the admission of new states.
Despite Congress’s victory in creating an orderly process for organizing new states and territories,
land sales failed to produce the revenue necessary to deal with the dire economic problems facing
the new country in the 1780s. Each state had issued large amounts of paper money and, in the
aftermath of the Revolution, widespread internal devaluation of that currency occurred as many lost
confidence in the value of state paper money and the Continental dollar. A period of extreme inflation
set in. Added to this dilemma was American citizens’ lack of specie (gold and silver currency) to
conduct routine business. Many attributed these weaknesses to the weakness of the Articles of
Confederation in dealing with financial matters. Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers, many of whom had
spent their formative years fighting rather than learning a peacetime trade, searched desperately for
The economic crisis came to a head in 1786 and 1787 in western Massachusetts, where farmers
were in a difficult position: they faced high taxes and debts, which they found nearly impossible to pay
with the worthless state and Continental paper money. For several years after the peace in 1783,
these indebted citizens had petitioned the state legislature for redress, but were not granted relief.
Many were veterans of the Revolutionary War who had returned to their farms and families after the
fighting ended and now faced losing their homes.
Figure 4. This woodcut, from Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanack of 1787, depicts Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck. Shays and Shattuck
were two of the leaders of the rebels who rose up against the Massachusetts government in 1786 to 1787. As Revolutionary War
veterans, both men wear the uniform of officers of the Continental Army.
Their petitions to the state legislature raised economic and political issues for citizens of the new
state. How could people pay their debts and state taxes when paper money proved unstable? Why
was the state government located in Boston, the center of the merchant elite? Why did the 1780
Massachusetts constitution cater to the interests of the wealthy? To the indebted farmers, the
situation in the 1780s seemed hauntingly familiar; the revolutionaries had routed the British, but a
new form of seemingly corrupt and self-serving government had replaced them.
In 1786, when the state legislature again refused to address the petitioners’ requests, Massachusetts
citizens took up arms and closed courthouses across the state to prevent foreclosure (seizure of land
in lieu of overdue loan payments) on farms in debt. The farmers wanted their debts forgiven, and they
demanded that the 1780 constitution be revised to address citizens beyond the wealthy elite who
could serve in the legislature.
Many of the rebels were veterans of the war for independence, including Captain Daniel Shays from
Pelham. Although Shays was only one of many former officers in the Continental Army who took part
in the revolt, authorities in Boston singled him out as a ringleader, and the uprising became known as
Shays’ Rebellion. The Massachusetts legislature responded to the closing of the courthouses with a
flurry of legislation, much of it designed to punish the rebels. The government offered the rebels
clemency if they took an oath of allegiance. Otherwise, local officials were empowered to use deadly
force against them without fear of prosecution. Rebels would lose their property, and if any militiamen
refused to defend the state, they would be executed.
Despite these measures, the rebellion continued. To address the uprising, Governor James Bowdoin
raised a private army of forty-four hundred men, funded by wealthy Boston merchants, without the
approval of the legislature. The climax of Shays’ Rebellion came in January 1787, when the rebels
attempted to seize the federal armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. A force loyal to the state
defeated them there, although the rebellion continued into February.
Shays’ Rebellion resulted in eighteen deaths overall, but the uprising had lasting effects. To men of
property, mostly conservative Whigs, Shays’ Rebellion strongly suggested the republic was falling
into anarchy and chaos.
Daniel Shays and other leaders were indicted for treason, and several were sentenced to death, but
eventually Shays and most of his followers received pardons. Their protest, which became known as
Shays’ Rebellion, generated intense national debate. While some Americans, like Thomas Jefferson,
thought “a little rebellion now and then” helped keep the country free, others feared the nation was
sliding toward anarchy and complained that the states could not maintain control. For nationalists like
James Madison of Virginia, Shays’ Rebellion was a prime example of why the country needed a
strong central government. “Liberty,” Madison warned, “may be endangered by the abuses of liberty
as well as the abuses of power.”
The other twelve states had faced similar economic and political difficulties, and continuing problems
seemed to indicate that on a national level, a democratic impulse was driving the population. Seeing
what happened in Shays’ Rebellion convinced George Washington to come out of retirement and
lead the convention called for by Alexander Hamilton to amend the Articles of Confederation in order
to deal with insurgencies like the one in Massachusetts and provide greater stability in the United
Slavery and Religion in New Republic
GUIDED READING QUESTIONS:
• 5. Describe slavery in the new republic
• 6. Examine the role of religion in the new republic
After the Revolution, the balance of power between women and men and between White, Black, and
Indigenous people remained largely unchanged. Yet revolutionary principles, including the call for
universal equality in the Declaration of Independence, inspired and emboldened many. Abigail Adams
and others pressed for greater rights for women, while the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and New
York Manumission Society worked toward the abolition of slavery. Nonetheless, for Blacks, women,
and native peoples, the revolutionary ideals of equality fell far short of reality. In the new republic, full
citizenship—including the right to vote—did not extend to nonwhites or to women.
By the time of the Revolution, slavery had been firmly in place in America for over one hundred years.
In many ways, the Revolution served to reinforce the assumptions about race among White
Americans. They viewed the new nation as a White republic; Blacks were slaves, and Indians had no
place. Racial hatred of Black people increased during the Revolution because many of the enslaved
fled their White masters for the freedom offered by the British. The same was true for Indians who
allied themselves with the British; Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that separation
from the Empire was necessary because George III had incited “the merciless Indian savages” to
destroy the White inhabitants on the frontier. Similarly, Thomas Paine argued in Common Sense that
Great Britain was guilty of inciting “the Indians and Negroes to destroy us.” For his part, Benjamin
Franklin wrote in the 1780s that, in time, alcoholism would wipe out the Indians, leaving the land free
for White settlers.
PHILLIS WHEATLEY: “ON BEING BROUGHT FROM AFRICA TO AMERICA”
Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa in 1753 and sold as a slave to the Wheatley family of Boston; her African
name is lost to posterity. Although most enslaved people in the eighteenth century had no opportunities to
learn to read and write, Wheatley achieved full literacy and went on to become one of the best-known poets of
the time, although many doubted the authorship of her poems because of her race.
Figure 1. This portrait of Phillis Wheatley from the frontispiece of Poems on various subjects, religious and moral shows the writer at
work. Despite her status as a slave, her poems won great renown in America and in Europe.
Wheatley’s poems reflected her deep Christian beliefs.
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.—Phillis Wheatley, “On Being Brought from Africa to America”
Slavery offered the most glaring contradiction between the idea of equality stated in the Declaration of
Independence (“all men are created equal”) and the reality of race relations in the late eighteenth
Slavery helped shape White views of Blacks. Although he penned the Declaration of Independence
and had a brilliant political mind that accomplished much, Thomas Jefferson owned more than one
hundred slaves, of whom he freed only a few either during his lifetime or in his will. He thought Black
people were inferior to White people, dismissing Phillis Wheatley by arguing, “Religion indeed has
produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.” White enslavers took their female
slaves as mistresses, as most historians agree that Jefferson did with one of his enslaved women,
Sally Hemings. It is believed that together they had several children.
Figure 2. This page, taken from one of Thomas Jefferson’s record books from 1795, lists his slaves.
Jefferson understood the contradiction fully, and his writings reveal hard-edged racist assumptions
that were a product of his time. In his Notes on the State of Virginia in the 1780s, Jefferson urged the
end of slavery in Virginia and the removal of Black people from that state. He wrote: “It will probably
be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the Blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of
supplying, by importation of White settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices
entertained by the Whites; ten thousand recollections, by the Blacks, of the injuries they have
sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other
circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but
in the extermination of the one or the other race. —To these objections, which are political, may be
added others, which are physical and moral.” Jefferson envisioned an “empire of liberty” for White
farmers and relied on the argument of sending Black people out of the United States, even if doing so
would completely destroy the enslavers’ wealth in their human property.
Figure 3. This 1796 broadside to “the Citizens of the Southern States” by “a Southern Planter” argued that Thomas Jefferson’s
advocacy of the emancipation of slaves in his Notes on the State of Virginia posed a threat to the safety, the prosperity, and even
the existence of the southern states.
Southern planters strongly objected to Jefferson’s views on abolishing slavery and removing Black
people from America. When Jefferson was a candidate for president in 1796, an anonymous
“Southern Planter” wrote, “If this wild project succeeds, under the auspices of Thomas Jefferson,
President of the United States, and three hundred thousand slaves are set free in Virginia, farewell to
the safety, prosperity, the importance, perhaps the very existence of the Southern States.” Enslavers
and many other Americans protected and defended the institution.
While racial thinking permeated the new country, and slavery existed in all the new states, the ideals
of the Revolution generated a movement toward the abolition of slavery. Private manumissions, by
which enslavers freed their enslaved laborers, provided one pathway from bondage. Slaveholders in
Virginia freed some ten thousand slaves. In Massachusetts, the Wheatley family manumitted Phillis in
1773 when she was twenty-one.
Other revolutionaries formed societies dedicated to abolishing slavery. One of the earliest efforts
began in 1775 in Philadelphia, where Dr. Benjamin Rush and other Philadelphia Quakers formed
what became the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Similarly, wealthy New Yorkers formed the New
York Manumission Society in 1785. This society worked to educate Black children and devoted funds
to protect free Blacks from kidnapping.
Slavery persisted in the North, however, and the example of Massachusetts highlights the complexity
of the situation. The 1780 Massachusetts constitution technically freed all enslaved persons.
Nonetheless, several hundred individuals remained enslaved in the state. In the 1780s, a series of
court decisions undermined slavery in Massachusetts when several slaves, citing assault by their
masters, successfully sought their freedom in court. These individuals refused to be treated as slaves
in the wake of the American Revolution. Despite these legal victories, about eleven hundred Blacks
continued to be enslaved in the New England states in 1800. The contradictions illustrate the
difference between the letter and the spirit of the laws abolishing slavery in Massachusetts. In all,
over thirty-six thousand enslaved people remained in the North, with the highest concentrations in
New Jersey and New York. New York gradually phased out slavery, with the last enslaved people
emancipated in the late 1820s.
Religion and the State
Prior to the Revolution, several colonies had official, tax-supported churches. After the Revolution,
some questioned the validity of state-authorized churches; the limitation of public office-holding to
those of a particular faith; and the payment of taxes to support churches. In other states, especially in
New England where the older Puritan heritage cast a long shadow, religion and state remained
During the colonial era in Virginia, the established church had been the Church of England, which did
not tolerate Catholics, Baptists, or followers of other religions. In 1786, as a revolutionary response
against the privileged status of the Church of England, Virginia’s lawmakers approved the Virginia
Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, which ended the Church of England’s
hold and allowed religious liberty. Under the statute, no one could be forced to attend or support a
specific church or be prosecuted for his or her beliefs.
Pennsylvania’s original constitution limited officeholders in the state legislature to those who
professed a belief in both the Old and the New Testaments. This religious test prohibited Jews from
holding that office, as the New Testament is not part of Jewish belief. In 1790, however, Pennsylvania
removed this qualification from its constitution.
Due to their religious beginning, the New England states were slower to embrace freedom of religion.
In the former Puritan colonies, the Congregational Church (established by seventeenth-century
Puritans) remained the church of most inhabitants. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire
all required the public support of Christian churches. Article III of the Massachusetts constitution
blended the goal of republicanism with the goal of promoting Protestant Christianity. It reads:
As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government,
essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused
through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of GOD, and of public
instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure
the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this Commonwealth have
a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall,
from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other
bodies-politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the
institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public
protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not
be made voluntarily. . . .
And every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good
subjects of the Commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law: And no
subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.
In 1776, none of the American state governments observed the separation of church and state. On
the contrary, all thirteen states either had established, official, and tax-supported state churches, or at
least required their officeholders to profess a certain faith. Most officials believed this was necessary
to protect morality and social order. Over the next six decades, however, that changed. In 1833, the
final state, Massachusetts, stopped supporting an official religious denomination. Historians call that
gradual process disestablishment.
In many states, the process of disestablishment had started before the creation of the
South Carolina, for example, had been nominally Anglican before the Revolution, but it had dropped
denominational restrictions in its 1778 constitution. Instead, it now allowed any church consisting of at
least fifteen adult males to become “incorporated,” or recognized for tax purposes as a state-
supported church. Churches needed only to agree to a set of basic Christian theological tenets, which
were vague enough that most denominations could support them.
South Carolina tried to balance religious freedom with the religious practice that was supposed to be
necessary for social order. Officeholders were still expected to be Christians; their oaths were
witnessed by God, they were compelled by their religious beliefs to tell the truth, and they were called
to live according to the Bible. This list of minimal requirements came to define acceptable Christianity
in many states. As new Christian denominations proliferated between 1780 and 1840, however, more
and more Christians fell outside this definition.
South Carolina continued its general establishment law until 1790, when a constitutional revision
removed the establishment clause and religious restrictions on officeholders. Many other states,
though, continued to support an established church well into the nineteenth century. The federal
Constitution did not prevent this. The religious freedom clause in the Bill of Rights during these
decades limited the federal government but not state governments. It was not until 1833 that a state
supreme court decision ended Massachusetts’s support for the Congregational Church.
Many political leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, favored disestablishment
because they saw the relationship between church and state as a tool of oppression. Jefferson
proposed a Statute for Religious Freedom in the Virginia state assembly in 1779, but his bill failed in
the overwhelmingly Anglican legislature. Madison proposed it again in 1785, and it defeated a rival bill
that would have given equal revenue to all Protestant churches. Instead, Virginia would not use public
money to support religion. “The Religion then of every man,” Jefferson wrote, “must be left to the
conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may
At the federal level, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 easily agreed that the
national government should not have an official religion. This principle was upheld in 1791 when the
First Amendment was ratified, with its guarantee of religious liberty. The limits of federal
disestablishment, however, required discussion. The federal government, for example, supported
Native American missionaries and congressional chaplains. Well into the nineteenth century, debate
raged over whether the postal service should operate on Sundays, and whether non-Christians could
act as witnesses in federal courts. Americans continued to struggle to understand what it meant for
Congress not to “establish” a religion.
The U.S. Constitution
GUIDED READING QUESTIONS:
• 7. Explain the key tenets of the U.S. Constitution, including the powers given to each
branch of government by the Constitution
• 8. Analyze the provisions and nature of the United States Constitution, including such
concepts as federalism
• 9. Explain what the different branches of government do, their separation of powers,
and how they check and balance each other
Understanding the Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is
comprised of seven articles, or sections, and, perhaps surprisingly, the original document is not very
long. You can read the entire U.S. Constitution here. All four pages of the original U.S. Constitution
were written on parchment. Here’s a simple breakdown of the seven sections of the Constitution:
Legislative Branch: the U.S. Congress makes the laws for the United States. Congress has two parts, called “Houses,” the House
of Representatives and the Senate.
Executive Branch: the President, Vice-President, Cabinet, and Departments under the Cabinet Secretaries carry out the laws
made by Congress.
Judicial Branch: the Supreme Court decides court cases according to US Constitution. The courts under the Supreme Court
decide criminal and civil court cases according to the correct federal, state, and local laws.
States’ powers: States have the power to make and carry out their own laws. State laws that are related to the people and
problems of their area. States respect other states’ laws and work together with other states to fix regional problems.
Amendments: The Constitution can be changed. New amendments can be added to the US Constitution with the approval by a
two-thirds vote in each house of Congress (67, 281) and three-fourth vote by the states (38).
Federal powers: The Constitution and federal laws are higher than state and local laws. All laws must agree with the US
Ratification: The Constitution was presented to George Washington and the men at the Constitutional Convention on September
17, 1787, Representatives from twelve out of the thirteen original states signed the Constitution. From September 1787 to July
1788, the states met, talked about, and finally voted to approve the Constitution.
Table 1. Major Clauses in the Constitution
Interpreting documents written hundreds of years ago can sometimes be difficult. Your historical hack at the end of this unit will teach you how to break down
documents to make them more understandable, but let’s try it now! Read the key clause and decide for yourself what it means. Then, reveal the interpretation we’ve
given you. Were you close?
The Key Clauses
Article I, Section 2. Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned
among the several states which may be included within this union, according
to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole
number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years,
and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Article I, Section 3. The Senate of the United States shall be composed of
two Senators from each state, chosen by the legislature thereof, for six years;
and each Senator shall have one vote.
Article I, Section 8: The “Necessary and Proper Clause.” To make all laws
which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing
powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of
the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
Article I, Section 9: The Slave Importation Clause. The migration or
importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think
proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one
thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such
importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.
Article II, Section 1. Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the
Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole
number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled
in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an
office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.
The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two
persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state
with themselves. And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for, and of
the number of votes for each; which list they shall sign and certify, and
transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to
the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the
presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the
certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the
greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority
of the whole number of electors appointed; and if there be more than one who
have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of
Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President;
and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said
House shall in like manner choose the President. But in choosing the
President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each
state having one vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or
members from two thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be
necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the
person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice
President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the
Senate shall choose from them by ballot the Vice President.
Article III. The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one
Supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to
time ordain and establish.
Article IV, Section 1. Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the
public Acts, Records and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the
Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts,
Records and Proceedings shall be proved and the Effect the effect thereof.
Article IV, Section 2. No person held to service or labor in one state, under
the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or
regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be
delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.
Article VI. The Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be
made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made
under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the
Article VII. The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be
sufficient for the establishment of this Constitution between the states so
ratifying the same.
The Constitution in Practice
Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances
Although debates over slavery and representation in Congress occupied many at the convention, the
chief concern was the challenge of increasing the authority of the national government while ensuring
that it did not become too powerful. The framers resolved this problem through a separation of
powers, dividing the national government into three separate branches and assigning different
responsibilities to each one. They also created a system of checks and balances by giving each of
three branches of government the power to restrict the actions of the others, thus requiring them to
Figure 1. To prevent the national government, or any one group within it, from becoming too powerful, the Constitution divided
the government into three branches with different powers. No branch could function without the cooperation of the others, and
each branch could restrict the powers of the others.
Congress was given the power to make laws, but the executive branch, consisting of the president
and the vice president, and the federal judiciary, notably the Supreme Court, were created to,
respectively, enforce laws and try cases arising under federal law. Neither of these branches had
existed under the Articles of Confederation. Thus, Congress can pass laws, but its power to do so
can be checked by the president, who can veto potential legislation so that it cannot become a law.
Later, in the 1803 case of Marbury v. Madison, the U.S. Supreme Court established its own authority
to rule on the constitutionality of laws, a process called judicial review.
Other examples of checks and balances include the ability of Congress to limit the president’s veto.
Should the president veto a bill passed by both houses of Congress, the bill is returned to Congress
to be voted on again. If the bill passes both the House of Representatives and the Senate with a two-
thirds vote in its favor, it becomes law even though the president has refused to sign it.
Congress is also able to limit the president’s power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces by
refusing to declare war or provide funds for the military. To date, Congress has never refused a
president’s request for a declaration of war. The president must also seek the advice and consent of
the Senate before appointing members of the Supreme Court and ambassadors, and the Senate
must approve the ratification of all treaties signed by the president. Congress may even remove the
president from office. To do this, both chambers of Congress must work together. The House of
Representatives impeaches the president by bringing formal charges against him or her, and the
Senate tries the case in a proceeding overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The
president is removed from office if found guilty.
According to political scientist Richard Neustadt, the system of separation of powers and checks and
balances does not so much allow one part of government to control another as it encourages the
branches to cooperate. Instead of a true separation of powers, the Constitutional Convention “created
a government of separated institutions sharing powers.” For example, knowing the president can veto
a law he or she disapproves, Congress will attempt to draft a bill that addresses the president’s
concerns before sending it to the White House for signing. Similarly, knowing that Congress can
override a veto, the president will use this power sparingly.
Federal Power vs. State Power
The strongest guarantee that the power of the national government would be restricted and the states
would retain a degree of sovereignty was the framers’ creation of a federal system of government. In
a system of federalism, power is divided between the federal (or national) government and the state
governments. Great or explicit powers, called enumerated powers, were granted to the federal
government to declare war, impose taxes, coin and regulate currency, regulate foreign and interstate
commerce, raise and maintain an army and a navy, maintain a post office, make treaties with foreign
nations and with Native American tribes, and make laws regulating the naturalization of immigrants.
All powers not expressly given to the national government, however, were intended to be exercised
by the states. These powers are known as reserved powers. Thus, states remained free to pass laws
regarding such things as intrastate commerce (commerce within the borders of a state) and marriage.
Some powers, such as the right to levy taxes, were given to both the state and federal governments.
Both the states and the federal government have a chief executive to enforce the laws (a governor
and the president, respectively) and a system of courts.
Figure 2. Reserve powers allow the states to pass intrastate legislation, such as laws on commerce, drug use, and marriage (a).
However, sometimes judicial rulings at the federal level may supersede such legislation, as happened
in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the recent Supreme Court case regarding marriage equality (b). (credit a: modification of work by
Damian Gadal; credit b: modification of work by Ludovic Bertron)
Although the states retained a considerable degree of sovereignty, the supremacy clause in Article VI
of the Constitution proclaimed that the Constitution, laws passed by Congress, and treaties made by
the federal government were “the supreme Law of the Land.” In the event of a conflict between the
states and the national government, the national government would triumph. Furthermore, although
the federal government was to be limited to those powers enumerated in the Constitution, Article I
provided for the expansion of Congressional powers if needed. The “necessary and proper” clause of
Article I provides that Congress may “make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying
into Execution the foregoing [enumerated] Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in
the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
The Constitution also gave the federal government control over all “Territory or other Property
belonging to the United States.” This would prove problematic when, as the United States expanded
westward and population growth led to an increase in the power of the northern states in Congress,
the federal government sought to restrict the expansion of slavery into newly acquired territories.
The Federalists and the Bill of Rights
GUIDED READING QUESTIONS:
• 10. Describe the vision of the Federalists
• 11. Identify the amendments included in the Bill of Rights
In June 1788, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the federal Constitution, and the new
plan for a strong central government went into effect. Elections for the first U.S. Congress were held
in 1788 and 1789, and members took their seats in March 1789. In a reflection of the trust placed in
him as the personification of republican virtue, George Washington became the first president in April
1789. John Adams served as his vice president; the pairing of a representative from Virginia
(Washington) with one from Massachusetts (Adams) symbolized national unity. Nonetheless, political
divisions quickly became apparent. Washington and Adams represented the Federalist Party, which
generated a backlash among those who resisted the new government’s assertions of federal power.
Federalists in Power
The Constitution sketched a federal framework that aimed to balance the forces of decentralized and
centralized governance in general terms; but it did not flesh out standard operating procedures that
say precisely how the states and federal governments were to handle all policy contingencies
Though the Revolution had overthrown British rule in the United States, supporters of the 1787
federal constitution, known as Federalists, adhered to a decidedly British notion of social hierarchy.
The Federalists did not, at first, compose a political party. Instead, Federalists held certain shared
assumptions. For them, political participation continued to be linked to property rights, which barred
many citizens from voting or holding office. Federalists did not believe the revolution had changed the
traditional social roles between women and men, or between Whites and other races. They did
believe in clear distinctions in rank and intelligence. To these supporters of the Constitution, the idea
that all were equal appeared ludicrous. Women, Blacks, and Native peoples, they argued, had to
know their place as secondary to White male citizens. Attempts to impose equality, they feared,
would destroy the republic. The United States was not created to be a democracy.
The architects of the Constitution committed themselves to leading the new republic, and they held a
majority among the members of the new national government. Indeed, as expected, many assumed
the new executive posts the first Congress created. Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton, a
leading Federalist, as Secretary of the Treasury. For Secretary of State, he chose Thomas Jefferson.
For Secretary of War, he appointed Henry Knox, who had served with him during the Revolutionary
War. Edmond Randolph, a Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was named Attorney
General. In July 1789, Congress also passed the Judiciary Act, creating a Supreme Court of six
justices headed by those who were committed to the new national government.
Many of Washington’s picks for the cabinet were staunch Federalists who believed that a strong
central government was critical to the success of the United States. Men such as Alexander Hamilton
wanted an active government that would promote prosperity by supporting American industry.
However, Washington also chose Thomas Jefferson to be his secretary of state, and Jefferson was
committed to restricting federal power and preserving an economy based on agriculture. Almost from
the beginning, Washington struggled to reconcile the Federalist and Republican (or Democratic-
Republican) factions within his own administration.
Congress passed its first major piece of legislation by placing a duty on imports under the 1789 Tariff
Act. Intended to raise revenue to address the country’s economic problems, the act was a victory for
nationalists, who favored a robust, powerful federal government and had worked unsuccessfully for
similar measures during the Confederation Congress in the 1780s. Congress also placed a fifty-cent-
per-ton duty (based on materials transported, not the weight of a ship) on foreign ships coming into
American ports, a move designed to give the commercial advantage to American ships and goods.
The Bill of Rights
Many Americans opposed the 1787 Constitution because it seemed a dangerous concentration of
centralized power that threatened the rights and liberties of ordinary U.S. citizens. These opponents,
known collectively as Anti-Federalists, did not constitute a political party, but they united in
demanding protection for individual rights. Several states made the passing of a bill of rights a
condition of their acceptance of the Constitution. Rhode Island and North Carolina rejected the
Constitution because it did not already have this specific bill of rights.
Federalists followed through on their promise to add such a bill in 1789, when Virginia Representative
James Madison introduced and Congress approved the Bill of Rights. Adopted in 1791, the bill
consisted of the first ten amendments to the Constitution and outlined many of the personal rights
state constitutions already guaranteed.
Amendment 1 Right to freedoms of religion and speech; right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances
Amendment 2 Right to keep and bear arms to maintain a well-regulated militia
Amendment 3 Right not to house soldiers during time of war
Amendment 4 Right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure
Amendment 5 Rights in criminal cases, including to due process and indictment by grand jury for capital crimes, as well as the right not to testify against oneself
Amendment 6 Right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
Amendment 7 Right to a jury trial in civil cases
Amendment 8 Right not to face excessive bail or fines, or cruel and unusual punishment
Amendment 9 Rights retained by the people, even if they are not specifically enumerated by the Constitution
Amendment 10 States’ rights to powers not specifically delegated to the federal government
Rights Protected by the First Ten Amendments
The adoption of the Bill of Rights softened the Anti-Federalists’ opposition to the Constitution and
gave the new federal government greater legitimacy among those who otherwise distrusted the new
centralized power created by men of property during the secret 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional
There was much the Bill of Rights did not cover. Women found no special protections or guarantee of
a voice in government. Many states continued to restrict voting only to men who owned significant
amounts of property. And slavery not only continued to exist; it was condoned and protected by the
Review each of the amendments in the Bill of Rights in this short video.
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