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Founders and Frontiersmen
Historical Background

DURING THE PERIOD 1783-1828, from the end of the War for Independence to the election of President Andrew Jackson, the people of the United States transformed their wartime alliance of 13 virtually autonomous States into a strong Federal Union of 24 States. Building upon the colonial heritage of self-government and English common law, they formulated and defined the institutions and ideals that enabled the Nation to survive and mature. During these years, growth was dynamic. The national bounds doubled and the population nearly quadrupled. All these achievements were possible only because of the efforts of many men—famous and forgotten, founders and frontiersmen.

From 1783 to 1789 the 13 United States continued their wartime political system, defined by the Articles of Confederation. The State governments and the Second Continental Congress made some progress toward the solution of postwar problems. But many Americans called for a stronger, more effective, and truly national union. So in 1787, at Philadelphia, the Constitution came into being. The distillation of months of proposal, debate, and compromise, it created the machinery of the Federal Government, defined the limits of its powers, and specified its relation to the States. Above all it provided the framework for an enduring Union.

Opposition to the adoption of the Constitution was strong, the major criticism being the absence of a bill of rights that would guarantee hard-won individual liberties. The promise of the addition of such a bill weakened the opposition, and, by 1789, 11 States had ratified the Constitution—enough to win it a trial as the law of the land. Once in effect, it quickly gained the confidence of the people. In large measure this resulted from the integrity and achievements of the First Congress and President George Washington.

The political parties emerging in the 1790's made it possible for dedicated and honest men to express their differences and afforded effective vehicles by which the people could pass on their views to their representatives. The personal and philosophical differences between Hamilton and Jefferson and the partisanship arising out of the philosophical, diplomatic, and economic ramifications of the wars of the French Revolution divided the Nation into Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. In the 1790's party warfare was fierce. Washington's successor, John Adams, bore the brunt of it. A Federalist but not a Hamiltonian, he steered a course between the policies of Hamilton and Jefferson, one that avoided a declared war against France but defended U.S. sovereignty on the high seas.

In 1800 vigorous grassroots campaigning enabled Jefferson to win the Presidency and inaugurate 24 consecutive years of political ascendency of the Democratic-Republicans. The Federalists, repudiated after 12 years of power, would never elect another President. Although they had not been optimistic about the potentialities of democracy, they had left a substantial political legacy. They had launched the Government and put it on a solid fiscal and legal base.

George Town
George Town and the city of Washington in 1801. From an aquatint by T. Cartwright, after a painting by G. Beck. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

In 1801 Jefferson brought informality, simplicity, and economy to the Government. In contrast to Adams, Jefferson showed more concern for the future of agriculture and a deeper interest in the West. His foremost success, in 1803, was the acquisition of the vast Louisiana Territory. His greatest disappointment was the failure of the Embargo of 1807 as a substitute for military force in the effort to avoid war against Great Britain or France. In 1809 James Madison succeeded Jefferson. The major problem of Madison's first term was the need to obtain markets for U.S. goods in Europe—at the very time that Great Britain and France were struggling desperately to destroy each other's trade. Madison relied upon diplomacy in place of embargo, but it failed. In 1812 the United States and Great Britain went to war.

The war went badly. From the first, many New Englanders opposed it. The Army was a disappointment. It was for the most part poorly trained and led. The militia system proved ill-suited to offensive warfare. The victories at Put-in-Bay, the Thames, Plattsburgh, and New Orleans were mingled with such humiliations as the refusal of militiamen to cross into Canada and the burning of the Capitol and the White House. More than 2 years of war produced only a stalemate. Ship for ship, the U.S. Navy proved a match for the Royal Navy, but ships were too few; at the end of the war, the U.S. fleet rode restlessly at anchor, blockaded in its own ports. The Treaty of Ghent, in 1814, recorded no diplomatic victory for the United States; it only restored the status quo before the war. But in terms of morale and national purpose, the war proved a boon. The Nation had combated Great Britain, whose power had crushed the mighty Napoleon. And, twice tested, independence seemed more real.

A number of themes and trends characterized national development between the War of 1812 and the inauguration of Jackson. One was the acceptance of many Hamiltonian political programs by the heirs of Jefferson. Another was the upsurge of nationalism, which found expression in the nearly unanimous election of James Monroe and in the description of the first years of his Presidency as the "Era of Good Feelings." Still another was the Monroe Doctrine, which declared the Nation's intent to pursue its own destiny free from foreign interference. There remained inequities in U.S. society, but the growth of humanitarianism and the reform spirit aimed to erase them. So did the movement toward white manhood suffrage and the growing faith in democracy symbolized by Andrew Jackson's election to the Presidency in 1828.

Another theme was America's romance with the West. Good land and adventure lay beyond the horizon. The Presidents from Washington to Jackson recognized that Western settlement was intimately related to the country's future wealth and power. And the people knew it, too. In 1783, 2 percent of them had lived west of the Alleghenies; by 1830 the figure was 28 percent. The Indians, the British, the Spanish—all retreated before the pioneer. Prosperous farms, plantations, and towns sprang up in the trans-Appalachian West, while soldiers, trappers, and traders explored and mapped the trans-Mississippi West. The settlement of the successive frontier zones from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific would become a major determinant in national growth.

By the time of Jackson's election, the Nation had come a long way since its founding, when its very survival had been at stake. It had not fully matured, but the patterns of thought and action that had begun to form during these critical years pointed to future trends and problems. Representative Government and democratic ideals would guide political development. The people would allow no hereditary or formal class distinctions. The United States would oppose European intervention in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere and avoid entanglement in European politics. Sectional rivalry would pose serious threats to national unity. The West would be a source of contention, as well as strength. Already it had become an article of the optimistic national faith that some would prosper and some would not. Likely as not, however, a man would be better off than his father, but not so well off as his son.

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005