Constituting a Nation

In the eyes of many, government after 1783 was much as it had been before 1776. The legal foundations of the new United States remained English common law, and traditional conceptions of the British constitution kept a firm grip on American political thought. John Adams, for instance, believed that if the British constitution were purged of corruption and equal representation introduced to the House of Commons, then "it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man." Alexander Hamilton went even further, declaring that "as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed." America, therefore, needed a constitution based on it, especially as the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation became painfully clear.

In May 1787, a group of delegates charged only with reforming the Articles met in Philadelphia. The result was a new written United States Constitution that substantially strengthened the national government in ways undreamt of in Britain, such as an elected President who could wield more power than any British monarch since before the Glorious Revolution. To get the Constitution ratified by states, federalists were forced by opponents, among whom were many former revolutionaries, such as Richard Henry Lee, to take a page out of what used to be their own history, British history—a page from exactly a century before that required them to adopt a Bill of Rights. By agreeing to include one, almost all of the states were persuaded to accept the Constitution by June 1788, although in several states, such as Virginia, the vote was razor thin (Rhode Island did not ratify until May 29, 1790).

On March 4, 1789, the first United States Congress convened in the new capital city of New York. On April 6, the Senate, having counted the votes of the Electoral College, announced that George Washington was elected president and John Adams his vice president. Washington took office on April 30, 1788.

A constitution, however, could not in itself protect or project American interests at home or abroad. Threats to the new nation abounded. Native Americans, tired of having treaty terms dictated to them by the United States, threatened the western borders from 1784. The British, struck hard bargains over re-opening crucial trade routes and continued to harass American shipping, while the former ally, the French, gripped by their own revolution, pushed the United States to the very brink of war in the 1790s.

In any case, one thing became crystal clear to Americans after 1783: securing independence might prove to have been a much simpler matter than holding onto it.

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