1783-1786: The first few years as a new nation
- The anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts stirred early in comparison with the rest of the colonies. As early as 1755, the town of Salem formally sought the prohibition of the slave trade. Bills appeared before the legislature regularly, but it was through the courts that abolition eventually came about. Massachusetts bears the distinction of being the only state to accomplish emancipation by judicial process supplemental to the constitution.
When Massachusetts created a new constitution in 1780, the first article declared that "All men are born free and equal." Since slaves in Massachusetts possessed a number of civil rights, including the right to sue in a court of law, it wasn't long before several court cases arose to decide whether slavery was legal under the state's new constitution. The dispute which is generally recognized as having accomplished abolition consists in a series of cases between a slave named Quork Walker and his master, Nathaniel Jennison.
In the initial case, Walker's lawyer relied upon the new constitution and natural law to argue against slavery. Chief Justice William Cushing finally settled the question in April of 1783. His charge to the jury made it clear that the courts no longer considered slavery legal in Massachusetts. He said: "As to the doctrine of slavery... it is true [that it] has been heretofore countenanced by the Province Laws...but nowhere expressly enacted...It has been a usage...But whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses, [or] features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution...by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal-and that every subject is entitled to liberty,...as well as life and property-and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution..."
Although most of Massachusetts' court decisions against slavery were not as clear as Cushing in delineating their reasons, the fundamental message was plain. Slavery in Massachusetts was less secure under the law than anywhere else in the colonies.
- June 8
- In this famous letter, Washington enumerated the weaknesses of the existing government, which had caused him and his troops such hardship during the War of Independence. He urged the states to establish "a supreme power to regulate and govern the general concerns of the confederated republic." The time immediately following the conclusion of the War was, Washington wrote, a time of "political probation" for the United States. It was a period which would determine whether the new nation "would be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable." It would show whether the American Revolution must "ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse, [and] not to the present age alone," but to those "unborn millions" whose lives would be decisively affected by America's fate. During this time, the supreme question in the minds of many people was how to harmonize a strong central government with protections for individual liberty.
In 1776, John Adams had written that rights and consent were easily reconciled and that "democratic despotism" was a contradiction in terms. During the war, however, Americans learned that this earlier, optimistic view was mistaken. The Founders saw that a democratic despotism was an all-too-real possibility. The central issue for them had become: Can the principles of rights and consent be reconciled-that is, can the people rule by consent, through majority rule, and still protect individual rights- or is republican government impossible in practice? Washington's circular letter addressed this very important question and set the tone for the great writings on government of the 1780's.
Many thoughtful observers of the Revolution saw America's fate as being somehow linked with the fate of all mankind. One example of this solemn view is a pamphlet written by an Englishman, Dr. Richard Price, entitled "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution." Price wrote that the Americans' victory and establishment of a new nation commenced "a new prospect in human affairs," a "new era in the history of mankind." America promised to become a "place of refuge for oppressed men in every region of the world," and the example of America would begin the extension of the "sacred blessing" of "universal liberty" to the rest of the world.
- September 3
- By the terms of the Treaty, Great Britain acknowledged the United States "to be free, sovereign and independent States." Boundaries separating the United States from Canada were agreed upon, and the United States Congress was urged to appeal to the legislatures of the respective states for the return of all property belonging to British subjects. The treaty also called for the withdrawal "with all convenient speed" of all British troops.
- November 25
- British troops leave New York City.
- Noah Webster strongly believed that the safety of a nation depends upon an enlightened citizenry that is instilled with the sense of civic responsibility essential to the preservation of liberty. Education of the young, he maintained, plays a crucial role in the creation national character.
With this in mind, Webster wrote The American Spelling Book, later retitled The Elementary Spelling Book. This textbook taught children not only how to spell, but how to read (using the "alphabet method") and how to pronounce words. It was immensely popular, estimates of its total sales range from 60 to 100 million. Generations of young Americans obtained their understanding of their own language from its pages, and Webster's hope that his little book would help to unify America was fulfilled.
- February 24
- Congress names John Adams the ambassador to the Court of St. James, England.
- March 8
- Henry Knox is named Secretary of War
- March 10
- Thomas Jefferson is appointed ambassador to France
- January 16
- Jefferson was in France at the time of the debate over the Bill, and James Madison led the campaign for its passage. The Bill is one of the three accomplishments for which Jefferson most wished to be remembered (along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia).
"Almighty God hath created the mind free," wrote Jefferson in the preamble, and "all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness."
- Shays' Rebellion forcibly demonstrated the dangers to which the new nation was vulnerable because of her weak national government. Daniel Shays, a farmer in eastern Massachusetts, led armed uprisings that extended as far east as Concord. The rebels managed to close the courts in Berkshire, Hampshire, and Worcester counties, preventing lawsuits for the collection of debts, and nearly took the federal arsenal at Springfield.
The cause of Shays' Rebellion was partly the refusal of the Massachusetts Legislature to issue paper money. The reason for this refusal was that the Legislature was intent upon repaying the state's wartime debt, and had repeatedly turned down requests from inhabitants of the western part of the state for help in relieving their debts by issuing paper money.
A more detailed account of the Rebellion and an examination of its causes and possible consequences can be found in a letter from George Washington to Henry Knox, December 26, 1786.
- September 11
- Virginia led the way in resuscitating the national government by proposing a meeting of delegates from each of the states, in order to agree upon uniform regulations of commerce. If a convention of delegates could agree upon such regulations, then Congress might be given power to enforce them.
Several states, however, sent off their delegates with the understanding that, should the opportunity present itself, a complete overhaul of the Articles of Confederation ought to be considered. Delegates known to be reform-minded included James Madison from Virginia and Alexander Hamilton from New York.
The commissioners of five states-New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia-were assembled in Annapolis, with the rest en route, when it was discovered that all present were of like mind on the need for extended reforms. A report was adopted which called for a general convention in Philadelphia in May of 1787, for the purpose of considering how "to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." This report was sent to all of the states and Congress. Without waiting for latecomers, the attending commissioners adjourned and went home.
The response to the Annapolis report varied. Some states, such as Virginia, looked upon it as an overdue summons to action. Others thought it was revolutionary in both origin and purpose, and refused to take any steps until Congress passed a resolution encouraging attendance at the Philadelphia convention.