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Founders and Frontiersmen
Historical Background

The Formative Years—Visions and Prospects of Nationhood

The War for Independence, which pitted the United States and its allies France and Spain against Great Britain, officially ended in 1783, when the negotiators signed the Treaty of Paris. At last, almost 2 years after Cornwaliis' surrender to Washington, Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States. The dream of independence was a fact, but it brought serious problems. Challenge and promise were mingled with peril and uncertainty. Would the Nation survive? Would it endure?


In 1783 the United States encompassed more than 800,000 square miles, from present Maine to Georgia and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. The total population was more than 3 million people. Of these, 98 in every 100 lived in the 13 former British colonies, now independent States along the eastern seaboard. The other 2 percent had crossed the Appalachian Mountain barrier to seek the future in the forested, virgin territory between the mountains and the Mississippi. During the next century, millions more would follow and push beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific.

To provide the benefits of the land to the many under a representative form of government would be the challenge and the triumph of succeeding generations. In 1783 the land contained immense potential wealth. No one could even guess how much. But already Americans recognized the importance of land and knew that in their country it was in abundant supply. Nine-tenths of them made a living from it. From large tidewater plantations, elaborately organized for the production of a cash crop for sale in the world market, to frontiersmen's primitive subsistence farms, agriculture was the principal pursuit. Of course, most farmers were neither planters nor frontiersmen, but of the "middling sort," able to raise a modest surplus to exchange for goods in the nearest town—if they lived in the vicinity of a town or a navigable stream.

The problems of transportation required solution if the United States were to grow and remain united. The speed of communication was that of a man or animal—2 to 5 miles per hour for any long distance overland. Roads were rutted, winding, and often impassable. Water transportation was easiest and cheapest. As late as 1816 the cost of transporting a ton of goods 30 miles overland or 3,000 miles overseas was roughly the same. Under such circumstances cities were few and industrialization almost nonexistent.

Most towns were small; few had more than 2,500 inhabitants. But they had an influence beyond their size as centers of trade, culture, and the exchange of ideas. Several, owing to the energy of their merchants and providential locations where trade routes reached salt water, had prospered sufficiently to be called cities. Philadelphia, the Nation's metropolis, had in 1783 a population of perhaps 40,000. New York, Boston, and Charleston had more than 10,000 inhabitants and Baltimore would soon have that many. In the noisy and bustling cities, one could purchase a wide variety of plain and fancy manufactured goods. Gentlemen in powdered wigs and velvet and satin clothes passed among "mechanics" in felt hats, leather aprons, and buckskin breeches, and visiting farmers in homespun and moccasins. The towns and cities had no street lights, sewers, safe drinking water, or municipal police and fire departments as we know them, and epidemics often drove those who could afford to do so to flee to the country. Still the cities and towns offered entertainment and the chance to socialize. And from the town printing presses came the newspapers, pamphlets, and copies of the State and National laws that played such a vital part in fostering representative self-government.

The United States differed in many ways from the nations of Europe. It had no king, no hereditary aristocracy, and no national church. It did have an aristocracy of sorts, made up of ladies and gentlemen whose wealth, family, and elegance of manner, language, and dress marked them as special. But to a large extent talent was a prerequisite of social position. U.S. society, then as now, was open ended. The careers of the poor boy from Boston, Benjamin Franklin, and the immigrant from the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton, demonstrate that in only one generation an individual could rise from the bottom to the top. In the relatively simple society of the United States in 1783, few large fortunes had yet been accumulated and the confiscation of Loyalist estates at the time of the War for Independence eventually contributed to a wider distribution of property. The gulf between rich and poor was narrower than it would be a century later.

A widely held opinion in 1783 was the belief that men were entitled to equal treatment before the law. Related to this idea of equality, which Thomas Jefferson had stated in the Declaration of Independence, was a fundamental commitment to representative government. Just how representative government should be was a source of dispute, but most agreed that, for the good of society, in some way the will of the people must be expressed through representatives. In 1776 these two concepts had helped unite diverse groups in the Thirteen Colonies in defense of the rights of Englishmen. When political thinkers spoke of equality and representative government, they did not usually mean democracy as we think of it in the 20th century. Most 18th-century political theorists in the United States divided the state into three parts: The monarchy (executive), the aristocracy (legislature), and the democracy (the people). Each part had its function in government, and each was to act as a check upon the ambitions of the others. Should one of the three gain control of the state, evil was certain to result. Complete control by either the executive or the legislature was tyranny or oligarchy; complete control by the mass of people was "mob rule," or anarchy.

George Washington
More than any other man, George Washington symbolizes the ideals of the Founding Fathers. From a mezzotint by H. S. Sadd, after a painting by Gilbert Stuart. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

In practice, although variations existed from State to State, the country was more democratic than the theory suggests—even though only property owners were qualified to vote in national and local elections, only large property owners usually attained high office, slaves could not legally vote under any circumstances, and few women could vote. Property requirements for voting were modest. Most white adult males in the Thirteen States likely could vote and thus have a voice in government if they wished. Representative government and the belief in equality needed only time and logical development to become modern democracy. But first the perils that threatened the independence and unity of the Thirteen States had to be overcome.

In 1783 no one could be certain that the United States would endure—that it would be able to solve the many problems it faced in domestic affairs and foreign relations. True, the Atlantic Ocean posed difficult logistical problems to prospective invaders from Europe. Yet the British, though they had the most powerful navy in the world and bases in Canada and the West Indies, had been unable to subdue so large a country. But the Americans, who had a traditional distaste for large standing armies, relied primarily on the State militia system for defense, and the territory beyond the Appalachians had few inhabitants to fill militia ranks. The Spanish in the Southwest and the British in the Northwest were endeavoring to strengthen their domains in the trans-Appalachian country, and the United States lacked an effective Army.

Equally serious was the internal threat to the Union posed by extreme sectionalism and regionalism. Already the Northeast (New England), the Middle States (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), and the South (Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) differed in economic interests and social structure. New England, the richest section, specialized in commerce and fishing. Its society was dominated by merchants, bankers, and shipowners. The Middle States had a more flexible society than either New England or the South, and the economy was more evenly divided between commerce and agriculture. Southern society was basically agrarian and rural. Planters and farmers grew tobacco and rice, and, after about 1800, cotton. Within each of the three regions were further divisions. For example, in the South, the culture of the Virginia tidewater planters was quite distinct from that of the planters of South Carolina. Both cultures contrasted sharply with that of North Carolina as well as with those in the western parts of their own States. The regional and sectional diversity placed a heavy burden on the Nation's founders. They would need to erect a national political framework large enough to accommodate individual and group differences, strong enough to contain them, and flexible enough to permit growth. Their first attempt at such a framework produced the Articles of Confederation.

National Capitals, Key Cities, and Military Installations (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005