The new United States was confronted by European powers on the nation’s frontier, a weak central government, debt, inflation, and the withering of profitable industries.
The Revolutionary War ended in 1783 but the former thirteen colonies were anything but unified. Independence was a baptism by fire, creating a host of problems that were brought under control, in part, after the new states formed a new union through the Constitution in 1787-1788. During the interim years, the new nation was governed by a weak central government and the individual states that saw themselves as sovereign entities. No longer part of the British mercantile system, entire industries failed. The United States was in debt and disenchanted citizens threatened insurrection, culminating in the 1786 Shays’ Rebellion in New England. The immediate years after the American Revolution may have been more tenuous than the trying times before the war.
The State of the New Nation in 1783
Although independent, the new nation was surrounded by European powers. Great Britain controlled Canada and still maintained their garrisons in forts along the frontiers of the United States. Florida, New Orleans, and the lands beyond the Mississippi were Spanish. As the new nation pressed westward, Spanish control of the vital New Orleans port would pose a serious threat to American farmers using the mighty river to freight goods south.
The weak central government was identified with the Articles of Confederation, drafted in November 1777 at a time the rebellious colonies were still attempting to win independence. Fears of monarchy and the reluctance of individual colonies to surrender any aspect of self-perceived sovereignty kept the structure of the central government weak. Once the colonies were free, the Articles lacked the power to enforce any element that might have promoted a strong nation able to retire its debts and compete in the global market.
Profitable industries nurtured by the British mercantile system and regulated by various Navigation Acts were ruined. Tobacco profits declined dramatically, forcing southern planters to turn to other commodities such as cotton cultivation. The production of “naval stores,” introduced in South Carolina by Britain in the early 18th Century, all but disappeared. Southern rice production also withered, despite attempts to market rice to countries like Spain.
Rights and Personal Freedoms
The revolution had been fought for independence and the ideological foundations of arguments for independence were frequently articulated in speeches and writings like the Declaration of Independence. Yet the Revolution never altered the political or social inequalities of the new nation. Despite pleas by women like Abigail Adams not to forget the women, written to her husband at the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, political rights did not change. As before the Revolution, only white men who were property owners (referring to land) could participate in the political process.
African Americans were also dismissed by the newly formed government. Although several attempts at emancipation were discussed by leaders in the Continental Congress, southern delegates used every argument available to preserve slavery. Many blacks had fought in the Revolution. It was a unit of predominantly black New England soldiers that made the escape of George Washington possible at the battle of Brooklyn Heights.
Economics, Foreclosures, and Insurrection
As European products, notably English, flooded American markets, indigenous industries faltered. The absence of a central monetary system further eroded confidence in finance and economics. Individual states produced their own currencies. In New England, farmers pressed by rampant inflation became victims of foreclosure. It was here that the most prominent threat took place when Daniel Shays, a war veteran, led farmers against local magistrates, keeping them from ruling on foreclosure suits.
America after the Revolution confronted problems that could have doomed independence. The September 1786 Annapolis Convention was aware of threats by New England of secession and the possible dissolution of the new nation. It became clear that the Articles needed revision in order to overcome the myriad of obstacles faced by the young United States. This led to the Constitutional Convention and a complete overhaul of government and leadership.
- Samuel H. Beer, To Make a Nation: the Rediscovery of American Federalism (Harvard University Press, 1993)
- Oliver M. Dickerson, The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1951)
- Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003)