America's Critical Period

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The term America's Critical Period, popularized by John Fiske in 1888 with his book The Critical Period of American History, refers to the period of United States history in the 1780s, right after the American Revolution, where the future of the newly formed nation was in the balance. More specifically, the "Critical Period" refers to the period of time following the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 to the inauguration of George Washington as President in 1789. The phrase was first used to describe this era (unbeknownst to Fiske) by William Henry Trescot in his 1857 book The Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams.[1]

During the 1780s, the loose confederation of states was beset with a wide array of foreign and domestic problems. Some historians believe it was a bleak, terrible time for Americans, while others believe the term “Critical Period” is exaggerated, and that, while the decade a time of dispute and change, they were also a time of economic growth and political maturation.

Debt and Taxes[edit]

As a young nation, the United States had acquired a massive amount of debt during the Revolution. A severe depression affected the nation during 1784-85.[2] Problems between farmers in debt and collectors in Massachusetts led to events such as Shays' Rebellion. The South was especially affected by the economic problems. Almost 60,000 slaves were lost during the Revolution, almost 30,000 in South Carolina and Georgia alone.[3] To create more financial problems for the South, Great Britain refused to import Southern goods into the British West Indies, one of their largest markets. Eventually, Hamilton's idea of paying off the debt would bring about better relations with other countries.

Foreign Issues[edit]

Although the war was over, the British had not completely abandoned the United States. Tensions with the British continued to plague the country even after the treaty had been signed. British troops refused to leave the forts in Detroit, Otsego, and New York because the government refused to return land confiscated from Tories during the war. Furthermore, American sailors, no longer under British protection, were being captured and sold into slavery by North African pirates. In 1785, pirates from Algiers captured an entire crew from an American merchant ship off the coast of Portugal.[4] Spain also complicated things after the Revolution due to disputes such as the West Florida Controversy and Western issues based around the Mississippi River.

Military Rebellion[edit]

George Washington resigning his commission in Annapolis, Maryland in 1783.

After the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Washington moved over 11,000 troops to the town of Newburgh in New York. After waiting several months, the men of the Continental Army were ready to take up arms against the government for its lack of payment. Officers from the Army came together to take action against the Continental Congress and in June 1783, they marched to Philadelphia. The soldiers threatened to hold members of the Congress hostage until their wages were paid. The Pennsylvania militia refused to assist the members and they were forced to relocate. Eventually, George Washington came to their aid and encouraged the soldiers not to act violently. He stated, “Do not open the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood”.[5] Thanks to Washington’s involvement and words to the soldiers, no violence erupted. This rebellion came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Articles of Confederation[edit]

Proposed in 1777 and ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the United States.[6] The Articles created strong state governments and limited the federal government. The national government would be composed of a Congress that would equally represent each state. According to the Articles, only states had the power to tax citizens. Congress was also not able to draft soldiers or regulate trade. The Articles of Confederation also made no provision for a president and also created term limits for representatives.[7] Because there was no pressure to make payments to the federal government, states did not make contributions and Congress was not able to pay off debts or members of the military. Along with other events of the 1780s, leaders in the country decided that the Articles of Confederation were not a sufficient way to run the government.

Question of a Crisis[edit]

Although many citizens at the time felt that their new nation was on the verge of disaster, there are critics who believe the country was not as desperate as it may have seemed. There were difficult situations that the country was facing after the Revolution. War and reconstruction had greatly affected the economy and the financial situation was far from stable. Governments had to be formed and leaders had to be selected. New markets had to be found to support those lost during the Rebellion.[8] In his book The American Revolution, Gordon Wood states that "the Loyalists may have numbered close to half a million, or 20 percent of white Americans" [9] These Tories were a huge loss to the American population and left a void that needed to be filled. However, the American Revolutionary War had made some positive effects on the nation as well. Despite a short depression during 1784-85, the period of the 1780s was marked with a large growth of the economy. Some critics[who?] suggest that it was the idea of the Revolution and the thought that it would bring a utopian society to the new country that made it possible for people to believe they had fallen instead into a time of crisis.[10] In retrospect it seems more likely that despite the Critical Period's turmoil and confusion, times were not as desperate as some citizens believed. Shay's Rebellion proved the Articles of Confederation to be weak and it was after the rebellion that the United States Constitution came into place.


  1. ^ Fiske, John (December 7, 2008) [1888]. The Critical Period of American History. Project Gutenberg. EBook #27430. 
  2. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Introduction", Digital History'.
  3. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Economic and Foreign Policy Problems," Digital History. [1]
  4. ^ "Critical Period: Economic and Foreign Policy."
  5. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: The Threat of a Military Coup," Digital History. [2]
  6. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Articles of Confederation," Digital History. [3]
  7. ^ "Critical Period: Articles of Confederation."
  8. ^ Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  9. ^ Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution (New York: Modern Library, 2002).
  10. ^ Wood, Creation of the American Republic.


Fleming, Thomas. The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Collins, 2007.

Mintz, S. "The Critical Period: America in the 1780s." Digital History. Accessed April 11, 2008.

Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Wood, Gordon Sican Revolution. New York: Modern Library, 2002.