America's Critical Period

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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 such as Merrill Jensen 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.

End of the American Revolution[edit]

Historians have often commented that the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolutionary War was very generous to the United States in terms of greatly enlarged boundaries. Historians such as Alvord, Harlow, and Ritcheson have emphasized that British generosity was based on a statesmanlike vision of close economic ties between Britain and the United States. The concession of the vast trans-Appalachian region was designed to facilitate the growth of the American population and create lucrative markets for British merchants, without any military or administrative costs to Britain.[2] The point was the United States would become a major trading partner. As the French foreign minister Vergennes later put it, "The English buy peace rather than make it".[3] Vermont was included within the boundaries because the state of New York insisted that Vermont was a part of New York, although Vermont was then under a government that considered Vermont not to be a part of the United States.[4]

Privileges that the Americans had received from Britain automatically when they had colonial status (including protection from pirates in the Mediterranean Sea) were withdrawn. Individual states ignored federal recommendations, under Article 5, to restore confiscated Loyalist property, and also ignored Article 6 (e.g., by confiscating Loyalist property for "unpaid debts"). Some, notably Virginia, also defied Article 4 and maintained laws against payment of debts to British creditors. The British often ignored the provision of Article 7 about removal of slaves.[5]

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 a confederacy of strong state governments with a limited federal government. As the national government did not have an independent executive branch, the unicameral Congress of the Confederation directed national affairs. Each state received equal representation in Congress. In 1781, Congress established the executive positions of Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of War, and Superintendent of Finance to oversee some aspects of national policy and administration.[7] Congress also established the first federal court, the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture and the first national bank, the Bank of North America.

Under the Articles, only states had the power to levy taxes or regulate commerce. In 1783, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and some other members of Congress proposed that Congress be granted the power to tax imports, but the proposal failed to win the approval of all thirteen states. 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.[8]

Although historians generally agree that the Articles were too weak to hold the fast-growing nation together, they do give Congress credit for resolving the conflict between the states over ownership of the western territories. The states voluntarily turned over their lands to national control. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and Northwest Ordinance created territorial government, set up protocols for the admission of new states, the division of land into useful units, and set aside land in each township for public use. This system represented a sharp break from imperial colonization, as in Europe, and provided the basis for the rest of American continental expansion through the 19th Century.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

Foreign issues[edit]

North America after the Treaty of Paris

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 City 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.[12] Spain also complicated things after the Revolution due to disputes such as the West Florida Controversy and Western issues based around the Mississippi River.

Unrest in the Continental Army[edit]

General George Washington Resigning His Commission in Annapolis, Maryland in 1783, painting by John Trumbull.

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”.[13] Thanks to Washington’s involvement and words to the soldiers, no violence erupted. This rebellion came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Despite the failure of the conspiracy, many in the Continental Army remained dissatisfied. On Washington's request, Congress attempted to pass an amendment granting the national government the power to levy an impost on imports, but the amendment was defeated by the states. With the end of the war, the states were unwilling to grant the federal government further powers. The Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783 broke out among angry soldiers who demanded payment, causing Congress to relocate the capital to Princeton, New Jersey. Upon re-convening in Princeton, Congress reduced the size of the army from 11,000 to 2,000. Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris finally paid the army with certificates that the soldiers "Morris notes." The notes promised to pay the soldiers in six months, but few of the soldiers believed that they would ever actually receive payment. Most of the Morris notes were sold to speculators.[14]

Creation of a new constitution[edit]

Reform efforts[edit]

The end of the war in 1783 temporarily ended any possibility of the states giving up power to a central government.[15] Most Americans saw the Revolutionary War as a struggle against a strong government, and few state leader were willing to surrender their own state's sovereignty.[16] But by the end of 1784, Washington had come to believe that a stronger central government was required to settle the West, protect international and interstate commerce, and defend against future aggressions from European powers.[17] He was joined in this belief by Hamilton, Robert Morris, and several other prominent national leaders who had long called for a stronger national government.[18] In 1785, Washington hosted the Mount Vernon Conference, which established an agreement between Maryland and Virginia regarding several commercial issues. Encouraged by this success, James Madison convinced the Virginia assembly to host another conference, the Annapolis Convention, with the goal of promoting inter-state trade. Though every state was invited to the convention, only five state delegations attended. At the end of the convention, the delegates called for another convention the following year to consider amendments to the Articles of Confederation.[19]

The Philadelphia Convention[edit]

Congress, meeting in New York, called on each state to send delegates to a Constitutional Convention, meeting in Philadelphia. While the stated purpose of the convention was to amend the Articles of Confederation, many delegates, including James Madison and George Washington, wanted to use it to craft a new constitution for the United States. The Convention convened in May 1787 and the delegates immediately selected Washington to preside over them. Madison soon proved the driving force behind the Convention, engineering the compromises necessary to create a government that was both strong and acceptable to all of the states. The Constitution, proposed by the Convention, called for a federal government—limited in scope but independent of and superior to the states—within its assigned role able to tax and equipped with both Executive and Judicial branches as well as a two house legislature. The national legislature—or Congress—envisioned by the Convention embodied the key compromise of the Convention between the small states which wanted to retain the power they had under the one state/one vote Congress of the Articles of Confederation and the large states which wanted the weight of their larger populations and wealth to have a proportionate share of power. The upper House—the Senate—would represent the states equally, while the House of Representatives would be elected from districts of approximately equal population.[20]

Struggle for ratification[edit]

Map of the states and territories of the United States as it was on August 7, 1789

The Constitution itself called for ratification by state conventions specially elected for the purpose, and the Confederation Congress recommended the Constitution to the states, asking that ratification conventions be called. Several of the smaller states, led by Delaware, embraced the Constitution with little reservation. But in the most populous two states, New York and Virginia, the matter became one of controversy. Virginia had been the first successful British colony in North America, had a large population, and its political leadership had played prominent roles in the Revolution. New York was likewise large and populous; with the best situated and sited port on the coast, the state was essential for the success of the United States. Local New York politics were tightly controlled by a parochial elite led by Governor George Clinton, and local political leaders did not want to share their power with the national politicians. The New York ratification convention became the focus for a struggle over the wisdom of adopting the Constitution.

Those who advocated the Constitution took the name Federalists and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most influential Federalists were Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays published in New York newspapers, under the pen name "Publius". The papers became seminal documents for the new United States and have often been cited by jurists. These were written to sway the closely divided New York legislature.[21]

Opponents of the plan for stronger government, the Anti-Federalists, feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as despotic and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Anti-federalist writers included Patrick Henry and George Mason, who demanded a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

Promises of a Bill of Rights from Madison secured ratification in Virginia, while in New York, the Clintons, who controlled New York politics, found themselves outmaneuvered as Hamilton secured ratification by a 30–27 vote.[22] North Carolina and Rhode Island eventually signed on to make it unanimous among the 13 states.[23]

The old Confederation Congress now set elections to the new Congress as well as the first presidential election. The electoral college unanimously chose Washington as first President; John Adams became the first Vice President. New York was designated as the national capital; they were inaugurated in April 1789 at Federal Hall.

Question of a Crisis[edit]

Although some 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.[24] The Loyalists numbered about half a million people, or 20 percent of white Americans" [25] Over 80% of the Loyalists remained in the new nation and became loyal citizens. Despite a short depression during 1784-85, the period of the 1780s was marked with a large growth of the economy. Gordon Wood suggests 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.[26] 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 nationalists mobilized to write a much stronger new Constitution.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Fiske, John (December 7, 2008) [1888]. The Critical Period of American History. Project Gutenberg. EBook #27430. 
  2. ^ Charles R. Ritcheson, "The Earl of Shelbourne and Peace with America, 1782–1783: Vision and Reality." International History Review (1983) 5#3 pp: 322–345. online
  3. ^ Quote from Thomas Paterson, J. Garry Clifford and Shane J. Maddock, American foreign relations: A history, to 1920 (2009) vol 1 p 20
  4. ^ Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution (1935)
  5. ^ James W. Ely Jr. (2007). The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights. Oxford UP. p. 35. 
  6. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Articles of Confederation," Digital History. [1]
  7. ^ Wright, Jr., Robert K.; MacGregor, Jr., Morris J. (1987). "The Articles of Confederation". Soldier-Statesmen of the Constitution. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History. p. 27. Retrieved January 7, 2017. 
  8. ^ Ferling, John (2009). The Ascent of George Washington. New York: Bloomsbury Press. pp. 223–224, 227–228. 
  9. ^ Richard Morris, The Forging of the Union, 1781–1789 (1988), is the standard scholarly history
  10. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Introduction", Digital History'.
  11. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: Economic and Foreign Policy Problems," Digital History. [2]
  12. ^ "Critical Period: Economic and Foreign Policy."
  13. ^ "The Critical Period America in the 1780s: The Threat of a Military Coup," Digital History. [3]
  14. ^ Ferling, pp. 235-237
  15. ^ Ferling, pp. 230-237
  16. ^ Ferling, pp. 261-262
  17. ^ Ferling, pp. 259-260
  18. ^ Ferling, pp. 230-232
  19. ^ Ferling, pp. 265-266
  20. ^ David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (2008)
  21. ^ Pauline Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (2010) p 84
  22. ^ Maier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788 (2010) p 396
  23. ^ Leonard W. Levy and Dennis J. Mahoney, The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution (1987)
  24. ^ Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
  25. ^ Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution (New York: Modern Library, 2002).
  26. ^ Wood, Creation of the American Republic.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bouton, Terry. "The Trials of the Confederation." in by Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (2012): 370-87.
  • Fleming, Thomas. The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown. New York: Collins, 2007.
  • Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History of the United States During the Confederation, 1781-1789 (1953).
  • Mintz, Steven. "The Critical Period: America in the 1780s." Digital History. Accessed April 11, 2008.
  • Nevins, Allan. The American States During and After the Revolution, 1775-1789 (1927) online edition
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Creation of the American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.