The U.S. After Independence: Constitution, Washington & Adams

The U.S. After Independence: Constitution, Washington & Adams
The signing of the United States Constitution, in 1789, in a 1940 painting by Howard Chandler Christy. Public domain image.

After the United States declared its independence from the British in 1776, the country embarked on a journey to create its own laws and institutions. At first, Americans were ruled by multiple state constitutions, but soon became evident the need for a strong central government with a single constitution for the whole nation, drafted in 1787. Following the establishment of the U.S. Congress, George Washington was elected president and served from 1789 to 1796, a period during which the country’s population and economy increased and Americans engaged in turbulent foreign affairs. In 1797, the Federalist John Adams rose to power and attempted to stifle opposition by the Democratic-Republicans. His endeavors had the opposite effect, because his authoritarianism ultimately helped the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, in 1800, who would later overturn much of his predecessor’s policies.

The Myriad of State Constitutions

While the Thirteen Colonies were achieving their independence from British colonial rule, each of them began to draft their respective constitutions. As early as May 10, 1776, the Second Continental Congress had advised the colonies to form new governments to ensure the happiness and safety of their citizens. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776, nearly all colonies had already established their constitutions. Although these documents were grounded in English practice, they also embraced republicanism and enshrined a series of inalienable rights that had been long praised by Enlightenment philosophers, such as:

  • Fixed terms for those who held public offices.
  • Freedom of assembly.
  • Freedom of conscience.
  • Freedom of press.
  • Habeas corpus.
  • Popular sovereignty.
  • The inviolability of domicile.
  • The right to a speedy trial by jury.
  • The right to bear arms.
  • The right to free elections.
  • The right to humane punishments, if necessary.
  • The separation of powers.

Not all of these rights were present in every state constitution. Rather, some states, like Virginia, granted more rights than others. Pennsylvania’s constitution was particularly radical, because it was influenced by artisans, frontiersmen, and German-speaking farmers who had gained control of the region. It allowed every male taxpayer and his sons to vote, required rotation in office, and featured a single-chamber legislature. At the time, Vermont was not a part of the United States, but its constitution abolished slavery in 1777.

Despite these advancements, the state constitutions had significant limitations by modern standards, because they did not break radically from the past. They did not secure equality for everyone. For example, Southern states excluded their slave populations from inalienable rights, women had no political rights, and no state permitted universal male suffrage. Even in states that allowed all taxpayers to vote, such as Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, office-holders were required to own property.

In 1781, the Articles of Confederation entered into force among the previous Thirteen Colonies. Reflecting the unwillingness of the former colonies to give up any part of their autonomy, the Articles established a very loose union. George Washington accurately described the states as united only by a “rope of sand”. These were some of the clear limitations of this arrangement:

  • The national government lacked the power to impose tariffs, regulate commerce, or levy taxes.
  • The national government had had little control over international relations.
  • Some states had their own armies and their own navies.
  • Without a stable common currency, commerce was conducted with a confusing mix of coins and depreciating state and national paper bills.

Therefore, the fact that the United States was governed by a myriad of state constitutions was very problematic. Meanwhile, disputes between Maryland and Virginia over the navigation in the Potomac River led to a conference in Annapolis in 1786. There, Alexander Hamilton convinced his colleagues of the need to revise the Articles of Confederation, in order to foster commerce. Following his stimulus and the support of George Washington, the Annapolis conference called for all states to send representatives to a convention in Philadelphia the following spring.

The Philadelphia Convention and the U.S. Constitution

In 1787, the Second Continental Congress authorized the Philadelphia Convention only to amend the Articles of Confederation. However, the delegates that attended this event decided to build a wholly new form of government for the country. They aimed to reconcile the power of local control exercised by the 13 semi-independent states with the need for a strong central government. In the end, it was during this Convention that the Constitution of the United States came into being.

The Constitutional Convention, also known as the Federal Convention, gathered a remarkable group of notable leaders. These individuals averaged 42 years in age and had extensive experience in colonial and state governments, the legislative, the judiciary, and the military. Because of his integrity and military leadership, George Washington was chosen as the presiding officer. Other delegates included Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson from Pennsylvania; James Madison from Virginia; Rufus King and Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts; Roger Sherman from Connecticut; and Alexander Hamilton from New York. However, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were absent, for they were serving as ministers in France and Great Britain, respectively.

The proceedings were extensively documented by James Madison, who would become known as the “Father of the Constitution”. The delegates established that the functions and powers of the national government had to be carefully defined, while all other powers were understood to belong to the states. These were some of the highlights of the Constitution they drafted for the United States:

  • The state would have three equal and coordinated branches: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. This was influenced by the writings of Montesquieu and John Locke, who proposed a system of checks and balances.
  • The federal government would have full power on a range of issues: to coin money, borrow money, levy taxes, regulate interstate commerce, set weights and measures, grant patents and copyrights, establish post offices, build post roads, manage Native American affairs, naturalize foreigners, control public lands, pass necessary and proper laws, conduct foreign policy, raise an army and a navy, declare war, and make peace. In addition, the government was required to conduct a nationwide population census, counting all inhabitants except Native Americans, every 10 years.
  • The legislative would be comprised of a Congress with two branches: the House of Representatives and the Senate, each having certain powers. For instance, presidential appointments and treaties needed Senate confirmation, and the president and Supreme Court justices could be impeached and removed by Congress.
  • The judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court, would have the power to interpret federal laws and the Constitution itself.
This image shows a close-up of a historical document, the United States Constitution. The parchment is aged, showing signs of wear and a light brown hue indicative of its historical significance. The text is written in elegant, flowing script, characteristic of the 18th century. At the top, the word “Done” is prominently written, followed by a statement about the unanimous consent of the states present at the Convention. Below this text, the signatures of the delegates are arranged in columns by state, with each signature accompanied by a flourish or underline. From left to right, the states listed include Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Each state’s section includes the names of its delegates, written in a formal cursive style. Notable signatures include those of George Washington (as President of the Convention), Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison. The penmanship varies slightly, reflecting the individual handwriting of each signer. The parchment’s texture is visible, with slight creases and discolorations adding to its authenticity. The ink varies in darkness, with some signatures appearing bolder than others. The overall effect is one of solemnity and historical weight, capturing the moment when the Constitution was formally agreed upon and signed.
Signatures from the representatives of several states at the end of the Constitution of the United States. Public domain image.
  • The United States would be a representative democracy. However, sharp differences arose over this matter. Small states objected to basing representation on population, while large states argued for equal representation among states. The compromise solution came from Roger Sherman: representation based on population in the House of Representatives and equal representation for states in the Senate.
  • According to the Three-Fifths Compromise, three-fifths of the number of slaves in a given state would be considered in terms of tax levies and membership in the House of Representatives for said states. This was adopted in lieu of the wishes of the Northerners, who wanted slaves counted for tax purposes but not for representation purposes.
  • The states would have the freedom to enact voting restrictions — and many of them did, excluding Native Americans, slaves, free blacks and women from voting.
  • The elections in the United States would be indirect: rather than directly choosing among candidates or parties for an office, voters would be required to elect people to the Electoral College who, in turn, choose candidates or parties.
  • Any territory with 60,000 free inhabitants would be able to apply to be admitted to the Union as a new state on equal terms with the original thirteen states.
  • Any amendments to the Constitution was subject to a difficult procedure: it had to be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress or two-thirds of the states and ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures or conventions.

According to certain authors, the Constitution of 1787 represented conservative interests, because the main “agitators” that helped the country to secure independence were absent from the Philadelphia Convention. These authors claim that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. wanted to ensure the country’s stability and protect property rights against the “tyranny of the majority”. For example, American historian Charles Beard espouses a version of this argument, claiming that the Founding Fathers had commercial and capitalist interests that would be better served if the country had a strong national government. However, it should be noted that, when compared to other constitutions of the time, the U.S. Constitution was quite liberal.

Federalists, Anti-Federalists and the Bill of Rights

On September 17, 1787, after 16 weeks of deliberation, the Constitution was signed by 39 of the 42 delegates that were present. Together, they celebrated the conclusion of the document. However, the Constitution still needed approval from state conventions to become effective. Because of this, there emerged a debate between two parties:

  • The Federalists supported a strong central government, thus advocated for the ratification of the Constitution. In order to spread their ideology, they wrote The Federalist Papers — a collection of 85 articles and essays written anonymously under the pseudonym “Publius”. Later on, it would be revealed that the authors were Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
  • The Anti-Federalists preferred a loose association of states, thus saw the Constitution as an affront to the rights of the states. They also opposed the fact that the document did not adequately protect individual rights. Led by Patrick Henry and George Mason, from Virginia, they campaigned against the ratification of the Constitution unless it were to include amendments protecting people’s rights. Five states adhered to this ultimatum.

Intense debate between these factions occurred in the press, legislatures, and state conventions. Because of this, large states such as New York and Virginia delayed their respective ratifications.

In September 1789, the First United States Congress convened in New York. In an effort to expedite the entry into force of the Constitution, Congress drafted the first ten amendments of the document, which came to be known as the Bill of Rights. These articles guaranteed several freedoms, such as:

  • Freedom of speech.
  • Freedom of the press.
  • Freedom of religion.
  • Protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • The right to a fair trial.
  • The right to assemble and protest.
  • The right to due process in criminal cases.
  • The acknowledgment of additional unlisted rights.

By December 1791, these amendments were ratified, but this did not end the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Since their adoption, only 17 more amendments have been added to the U.S. Constitution. While some of them revised the structure and the operation of the federal government, most expanded individual rights and freedoms, following the precedent set by the Bill of Rights.

The George Washington Administration

Since April 30, 1789, George Washington had been serving as the first President of the United States, after being elected unanimously by the Electoral College. At the time he assumed office, the government had to establish its own structures and create a taxation system to support itself. There was no judiciary, the Army was minimal, and the Navy was non-existent. Hence Congress swiftly created a series of much-needed institutions:

  • The Department of State, headed by Thomas Jefferson.
  • The Department of the Treasury, headed by Alexander Hamilton.
  • The Department of War.
  • The Department of Justice.
  • The judiciary, comprised of a Supreme Court, circuit courts, and district courts.

Congress also determined that a federal district, under its exclusive jurisdiction, be established along the Potomac River: Washington, D.C., named in honor of the President. Additionally, Washington’s preference for consulting his trusted advisors led to the creation of the Presidential Cabinet, which included the heads of all congressional departments.

This painting captures a military scene set against a mountainous backdrop. The sky is a mix of blue and gray, indicating a partly cloudy day. In the foreground, George Washington, on a white horse, is prominently featured. He is dressed in a blue military uniform with gold epaulettes and a tricorn hat, embodying leadership and authority. Washington is surrounded by other mounted officers, also in military attire. They are on variously colored horses, including brown and black, and are in the midst of a military review. The officers are engaged in conversation and pointing towards the assembled troops in the background. The troops are lined up in neat formations, wearing uniforms of blue and buff. Their muskets are shouldered, and they stand at attention, ready for inspection. Behind them, tents are set up, suggesting a military encampment. The scene is framed by rugged mountains in the distance, adding a dramatic natural element to the composition. In the foreground to the left, two civilians are depicted. They are dressed in plain clothing and seem to be observers, possibly local citizens. One is pointing towards the military scene, adding a sense of engagement and interest from the public. The painting’s colors are muted but rich, with the earth tones of the landscape contrasting with the vibrant blues and golds of the military uniforms. The brushwork is detailed, especially in the depiction of the horses and the folds of the uniforms, adding depth and realism to the scene.
George Washington reviewing troops as commander-in-chief, in a painting attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer. Public domain image.

Washington’s administration was a period of intense economic and population growth, because Americans were moving westward and immigration from Europe was increasing. For example, those from New England and Pennsylvania were settling in Ohio, and those from Virginia and the Carolinas were moving to Kentucky and Tennessee. Fertile farmland was available at low cost, and the United States was on the brink of the Industrial Revolution — particularly in the production of textiles. Besides that, the American naval sector was expanding, making the United States second only to Britain on the seas.

In order to organize the country amidst these changes, the administration developed policies for settling territories previously held by Britain and Spain, stabilized the northwestern frontier, and oversaw the admission of Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and Tennessee (1796) as new states. Meanwhile, Alexander Hamilton proposed an economic program focused on government-assisted development. His idea was to stabilize the currency, increase import tariffs, and facilitate access to credit. As part of the program, the federal government committed to assuming state debts and creating the Bank of America. All in all, Hamilton’s proposals were highly favorable to the industries of the Northern states. In practice, however, state intervention in the economy fostered speculation and generated a crisis: the Panic of 1792, which encouraged legislative changes, promoting risk-taking and curbing speculation.

In the meantime, during the 1790s, the old rifts between Federalists and Anti-Federalists evolved into the First Party System. It was characterized by the disputes between the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party:

  • The Federalists were led by Alexander Hamilton and included names such as John Adams. They represented the interests of trade and manufacturing, believing these sectors were essential for progress and could only thrive under a strong central government that adopted protectionist measures. Also, they were wary of letting the country be run by the changing wishes of the majority of the population.
  • The Republicans were led by Thomas Jefferson and included names such as James Madison. They represented agricultural interests and thus had little regard for the industrial sector. They believed that democracy thrived best in a rural society of self-sufficient farmers under the jurisdiction of states (rather than that of the federal government). Accordingly, they were strongest in the South.

The debates between these factions often took place in newspapers, leading to significant ideological clashes. For instance, when Hamilton proposed establishing the Bank of America, Jefferson argued that the Constitution did not grant the federal government the authority to do so, as it reserved to the states all powers that were not explicitly listed. Hamilton countered that the Constitution’s general clauses implied a vast body of necessary powers, including the creation of a national bank to efficiently manage the country’s finances. Washington and Congress ultimately sided with Hamilton, setting a precedent for an expansive interpretation of federal powers.

During Washington’s tenure, foreign policy was also a critical issue. Although he was skeptical of forming permanent alliances with other states, he did collaborate internationally when it favored American interests. A case in point was the Haitian Revolution, during which the U.S. helped the French in suppressing the rebellion by sending arms, ammunition and money to the island of Saint-Domingue. Also, the administration had to deal with the repercussions of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. At the time, European conflicts threatened international peace and stability, made it harder for the United States to develop, and deepened the rifts between Federalists (favorable to England) and Democratic-Republics (favorable to France).

At first, Washington refrained from meddling in European affairs, by nullifying the 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Alliance and imposing a policy of neutrality. In 1793, France declared war on Great Britain and Spain, then sent Edmond Charles Genet as an envoy to the United States. His actions, including the capture of a British ship and its subsequent use in the war, strained American relations with France. In the meantime, tensions with Britain remained unresolved, because British troops were still occupying forts in the U.S. and seizing American ships bound for French ports.

Washington sent John Jay to England, where he negotiated a treaty that resulted in the withdrawal of English soldiers from western forts and compensation for seized American ships. Yet the treaty imposed limitations on American trade with the West Indies and did not hold England accountable for forcing American soldiers to fight for its army. In addition, American diplomat Charles Pinckney successfully negotiated a treaty with Spain in 1795, settling the Florida border and granting Americans access to the port of New Orleans.

In 1796, George Washington announced he would not run for a third presidential term. That same year, the elections for President and Vice-President were unified: the former would be whoever gained the most votes and the latter would be whoever came in second place. Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, and John Adams, a Federalist, competed to succeed Washington. Adams narrowly won the election.

The John Adams Administration

Adam’s time in office was marked by tumultuous experiences. Angered by John Jay’s Treaty with the British, France began seizing American ships headed for Britain, capturing 300 of them by 1797 and cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States. When Adams sent commissioners to Paris to negotiate, they were met by agents of Foreign Minister Talleyrand, who demanded a $12 million loan and bribes to start negotiations. This was the XYZ Affair, which sparked American hostility toward France, with serious domestic repercussions:

  • The government began to enlist troops and strengthen the Navy.
  • Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), which applied restrictions to immigration and speech in the country, severely impacting civil liberties. The Alien Act gave the president power to expel or imprison foreigners in wartime, while the Sedition Act prohibited writing, speaking, or publishing anything false, scandalous, and malicious against the president or Congress.
  • Congress passed the Naturalization Act (1798), which extended the time for a foreigner to become a U.S. citizen from five to fourteen years. Its goal was to hamper the acquisition of citizenship by Irish and French immigrants suspected of supporting the Republicans.

These measures made it possible for the government to stifle opposition, but they also were met with resistance, created martyrs and increased support for the Democratic-Republicans. In order to counter the authoritarian tendencies of the Adams administration, Jefferson and Madison sponsored the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions. These documents asserted that states had the right to change and nullify federal actions. Later, Southern states would use this same nullification doctrine to resist protectionism and defend slavery.

This is a formal portrait of John Adams, the second President of the United States, painted by John Trumbull. The background is dark, making Adams’ figure stand out prominently. His attire is typical of the late 18th century, featuring a brown coat over a white shirt with a high collar and a white cravat tied at the neck. Adams’ face is the focal point of the portrait. He has a pale complexion, and his expression is one of seriousness and contemplation, reflecting his significant role in American history. His hair is white and styled in a fashion typical of the era, with curls on the sides and tied back in a queue. The light in the painting is directed towards his face, highlighting his features and giving a sense of depth. The brushwork is fine and detailed, capturing the texture of Adams’ skin, the folds in his clothing, and the subtle expressions on his face. The dark background contrasts sharply with his light-colored clothing, emphasizing his importance and giving the portrait a solemn, dignified tone. The overall effect is one of respect and admiration for a key figure in American history.
A portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull. Public domain image.

In 1799, after several sea battles, war with France seemed imminent. Despite Hamilton’s desire for war, Adams reopened negotiations with the French. Napoleon received the negotiations warmly, and they led to the signing of the Convention of 1800. It released the United States from its 1778 defense alliance with France, but the French refused to provide monetary compensation for the seizing of American ships.

In 1800, the American people were ready for change. Although the Federalists under Washington and Adams had established a strong government, their policies sometimes alienated large groups, failing to honor the notion that the government must be responsive to the people. For instance, in 1798, they had enacted a tax on houses, land, and slaves, affecting every property owner in the country.

The 1800 presidential elections stretched from March to November. They were the first ones to involve party conventions and scathing attacks by each candidate’s supporters on their rivals. Once again, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were vying for the presidency. By criticizing Adams’ authoritarianism, the Democratic-Republicans had steadily garnered support from small farmers, shopkeepers, and workers, so their victory was unsurprising. However, because their electors in the Electoral College forgot to confer more votes for Jefferson than for his running mate, Aaron Burr, they were both tied with 73 votes for the presidency. According to the rules at the time, the tie had to be resolved by the House of Representatives, which was still dominated by the Federalists. After much contention, the lawmakers decided to elect Thomas Jefferson, inaugurating a new era in American politics.


The history of the United States after independence is one of multiple changes and challenges. The establishment of a Congress, the drafting of a constitution, the creation of departments and other institutions — all of this pointed towards a state that was progressively growing. At the same time, the American population increased by more than a million, from 1790 to 1800, American firms entered the Industrial Revolution, and new states were admitted to the Union. Both George Washington’s and John Adams’ administrations had to deal with pressing domestic and international matters, and sometimes their specific policies differed. Adams, in particular, faced many challenges when attempting to curb opposition. His actions contributed to a change in 1800, when the Federalists lost power to a Democratic-Republican party led by Thomas Jefferson and interested in dedicating politics to the needs of farmers, shopkeepers and workers. All in all, the seeds of American laws and ideologies are found in these last decades of the eighteenth century.




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