Revolution and New Nation
Connections Essay - Revolution and New Nation
Political Growth and Western Expansion
From the time of the American Revolution until at least 1810, Virginia was both the most populous and largest state in the union. Forty percent of its population consisted of black slaves. Throughout the colonial period, individuals had made their fortunes by buying land, growing tobacco, and owning slaves. The establishment of an independent United States offered Virginians an opportunity to expand their liberties as well as to promote their own material interests.
Even as the war for independence raged on, Virginians had to decide whether they would sacrifice some of the state’s western lands for the sake of the newly formed union. In 1777, the Continental Congress wrote a document, called the Articles of Confederation, to provide a form of government for the new nation. Before it could go into effect, the document had to be approved by each of the thirteen state legislatures. Although most states ratified the proposal fairly quickly, Maryland refused. It demanded that states possessing large landholdings in the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River cede some of their land to Congress.
Virginia was the biggest problem. At that time, Virginia extended well beyond its present-day boundaries and encompassed what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. Virginia also claimed a substantial portion of land in the territory north of the Ohio River and south of Canada. Many wealthy Virginians, including George Washington and George Mason, owned land in these regions.
Not until 1781, when Virginia relinquished its claims to the Ohio Territory did the Articles of Confederation become the official government of the young United States. Almost immediately, settlers began flooding into the backcountry. In 1792, Kentucky separated from Virginia to become a separate state. White settlement led to increasing conflict between whites and Indians and frequent interventions by the federal government. Various treaties marginalized the Indians and enabled whites to gain control of the land. Whereas in 1790 only about one American in forty lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, by 1820 one American in four resided in the region.
At the same time that these developments were occurring in the country, Virginians were making other important political decisions about the structure of their state and national governments. With the coming of independence in 1776, Virginia, like most of the other states, wrote a new state constitution to replace its colonial charter. In addition to describing the functions of the legislature, executive, and judiciary, the Virginia constitution contained a so-called “Declaration of Rights.” This statement listed the basic rights and liberties that all that people should enjoy, including the right to trial by jury, the right to bear arms, freedom from excessive bail, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and many others. This document became the basis for declarations of rights in many of the other state constitutions and for the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
As significant as the Declaration of Rights was in securing religious freedom, however, the wording of the document was such that it protected only Protestant Christians, not all people regardless of their religious beliefs. Some Virginians, including Patrick Henry, believed that the state should provide financial assistance to religious groups and punish those who did not adhere to certain religious tenets. Thomas Jefferson believed otherwise. In the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786 with the assistance of James Madison, Jefferson asserted that freedom of religion was a fundamental natural right. No one, he insisted, should be compelled by the state to support a particular faith or even to support Christianity in general. A true commitment to liberty required that people be allowed to make their own choices with regard to matters of faith and morals, without interference from the government. This principle later became incorporated into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
As important as political developments were within Virginia in the 1780s, even bigger changes occurred at the national level. By the middle of the 1780s, many observers doubted the viability of the Articles of Confederation. By 1786, some individuals were calling for a convention to revise the Articles. By the time the delegates met in Philadelphia in May 1787, James Madison of Virginia had concluded that the confederation system of government was unworkable. He drafted a proposal for a wholly new form of government.
Instead of revising the Articles, Madison’s plan replaced the confederation with a republican form of government that encompassed the entire nation. A strong centralized government, Madison believed, was necessary both to control the thirteen state governments and, at the same time, to preserve the people’s liberties. Presented to the convention by Edmund Randolph as reflecting the sentiments of the Virginia delegation (thus becoming known as the “Virginia Plan”), Madison’s proposal became the basis of debate at the Philadelphia convention. Although many aspects of Madison’s original plan were changed, modified, or eliminated, its main features remained intact in the document that was presented to the people of the United States for ratification in 1787. For this reason, Madison is known as “The Father of Constitution.”
With the crisis of union in the mid-1780s, political leaders called on George Washington, who had been Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, to return to public life. Washington, they believed, was the only person who possessed sufficient, fame, prestige, and integrity to lead the country through the tumultuous period ahead. Reluctantly, Washington agreed to leave his retirement at Mount Vernon and attend the Philadelphia convention as part of the Virginia delegation.
Once the proceedings opened, Washington was promptly elected to be the presiding officer. Although Washington made few substantive comments during the deliberations, it was widely assumed that he would become the country’s first chief executive. Indeed, in the first federal election, members of the electoral college unanimously cast their votes for Washington as president. In effect, Americans no longer looked to King George III but to President George Washington as the symbol of their country. Because of Washington’s enormous contributions as a political leader and as unifying symbol, he has earned the title, “Father of our Country.”
Read this essay and then continue to the next page.