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BIG IDEA: It is difficult to understate the importance of George Washington on the founding of the United States. He led the army in the War for Independence and served as the nation’s first president.
George Washington had been a surveyor in Virginia. He was not poor, but not rich until he married into a wealthy family. He played an important part in the start of the Seven Years War, which gave him credibility with Congress who appointed him leader of the Continental Army during the Revolution.
Washington was not a brilliant military commander but was charismatic and inspired confidence and loyalty. Importantly, he respected the idea of civilian leadership and refused to become king, although he certainly could have used his army, and popularity to take power for himself.
Washington generally supported the Federalist idea of strong central government, although he did not like political parties and discouraged them during his eight years in the presidency.
Washington understood the importance of precedent and made careful choices as the first president. He created the cabinet of advisors, a tradition still in place today.
When farmers in the mountains of Virginia rebelled against a tax on whiskey, Washington led an army to put down the rebellion, thus reinforcing the new federal government’s power.
At the end of two terms Washington refused to be elected again. This created an important tradition that was respected for almost 200 years. When leaving office, he gave a farewell address that encouraged his countrymen to avoid forming political parties or engaging in alliances with foreign nations.
A persistent criticism of Washington is that he was a slave owner. However, Washington had mixed feelings about slavery. At the end of his life, he believed slavery should end and in his will he emancipated his slaves.
THE FIRST POLITICAL PARTIES
BIG IDEA: The United States has had two major political parties from the very beginning. These developed around the competing ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.
As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton proposed important plans to shape the American economy. His ideas reflected his idea that the federal government should be powerful. He wanted the federal government to absorb state debts. This helped northern states who still owed money after the Revolution. It also meant that people would support the federal government because they owned federal bonds.
Hamilton proposed chartering a Bank of the United States to hold federal funds. He believed this large bank would stabilize the economy. Hamilton believed the future of America was based on industry and trade. He wanted to increase tariffs on foreign products to protect American manufacturers. This would hurt Southerners who wanted to purchase imports. Hamilton believed in a loose interpretation of the Constitution. In his view, the Constitution enumerated powers but did not list every possible power of the government. Generally, Hamilton saw Great Britain as an ideal to copy. In his view, the chaos of the French Revolution was a bad example.
The Anti-Federalists changed their name to Democratic-Republicans and were led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who had grown to distrust Hamilton. They believed the ideal Americans were farmers who were self-sufficient. They saw the French as ideological brothers and distrusted the British. After all, Americans had just finished fighting a war with Britain. Jefferson and Madison were both Southerners and Hamilton’s ideas about tariffs, the bank, and absorbing state debt all benefited northern states at the expense of Southerners. The Democratic-Republicans believed in a strict interpretation of the Constitution. They favored stated powers and feared a power-hungry federal government. In their view, if a power wasn’t listed in the Constitution, the federal government did not have that power.
The new federal government moved to Washington, DC, a brand-new city created in the South. In the beginning, the city was mostly swamp. Adams was the first President to live in the White House.
When John Adams took over as second president, he wanted to continue Washington’s tradition of staying above the growing debate between the two parties, but he failed and both sides turned against him. The XYZ Affair showed growing problems with France. Federalists in Congress passed laws to make criticizing the government a crime, which was a clear political move to silence opponents. In 1800, Democratic-Republicans engineered an electoral victory for Thomas Jefferson.
THE EARLY SUPREME COURT
BIG IDEA: Because of the work of Chief Justice John Marshall, the Supreme Court emerged as a co-equal branch of government. Marshall also helped define the relationship between the federal government and the states.
The early Supreme Court was not considered an equal branch of government. This changed because of the work of Chief Justice John Marshall. The Marshall Court established three important precedents that have affected America’s government in the centuries that followed.
The Marbury v. Madison case established the Court as a coequal branch of government and the idea that the Court can overturn acts of Congress and the President as unconstitutional.
The McCulloch v. Maryland case confirmed the authority of the federal government over states.
The Gibbons v. Ogden case clarified Congress’s power to regulate business between states.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS & THE WAR OF 1812
BIG IDEA: The young United States was often caught between the warring powers of Britain and France. American leaders had different ideas about who to support and often found themselves in conflicts they would rather have avoided. In the end, America fought a second war with Britain.
In its early years, the United States had problems with both Britain and France. These were the two most powerful European powers and were in conflict with one another. Americans wanted to do business and benefit from this war but had problems maintaining independence from foreign influence.
Britain continued to maintain forts in American territory in the West that they had promised to leave after the Revolution. They actively encouraged and supported Native Americans who opposed American expansion. The British navy impressed American sailors. To solve these problems, America negotiated Jay’s Treaty. In return the United States agreed to pay back debts to British banks from before the Revolution. Democratic-Republicans saw this as giving in to the British.
America also negotiated Pinckney’s Treaty with Spain to gain land in what is now Mississippi and Alabama and the right to carry out trade in New Orleans.
American diplomats were disrespected by French officials embarrassing John Adams. The result was a non-declared war with France as the French navy tried to stop Americans from trading with Britain.
President Jefferson sent the navy to the Mediterranean Sea to fight the pirates from the Barbary States of North Africa.
Jefferson also implemented an embargo against both British and French imports in an attempt to stop them from interfering with American shipping, but the embargo simply hurt business and was unpopular.
America ultimately fought a declared war against Britain in 1812. Impressment of American sailors and British support for Native Americans in the West led Congress to declare war. It was not universally popular in Congress or with the public. The United States invaded Canada, but it did not go well. British troops bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore, an event that was immortalized in The Star-Spangled Banner, and burned Washington, DC. The United States had some minor victories as well, including a decisive victory by Andrew Jackson’s troops in New Orleans.
The War of 1812 led to the demise of the Federalist Party. At their convention in Hartford, talk turned to secession of New England. The war had been unpopular in New England since it was a center of trade with Britain. For most Americans, talk of secession simply sounded unpatriotic. Never again were the Federalists a force in national politics.
The War of 1812 concluded in a stalemate. The two sides agreed to the pre-war borders, so no land was exchanged. The Americans confirmed their independence and Andrew Jackson launched his political career.