In this lesson you will explore some of the issues faced by the government of the United States as it struggled to create a new, independent nation. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.
Do you remember the first time you realized you were growing? As a kid, you were always excited to grow, and you didn't really expect the growing pains. Growing is hard. Much harder than it sounds like it should be.
This simple, unavoidable truth applies to nations as well. While the idea of becoming an independent nation sounds great in theory, there are a lot of things that you simply cannot anticipate. Problems with government, lack of a federal treasury, questions about political power; you can only really work out the kinks as you go. As a new nation, the United States certainly had its growing pains, but these struggles helped the nation define itself, and we ended up growing.
Articles of Confederation
The road to independence was full of paperwork. In 1775, the American colony of Massachusetts was declared to be in rebellion against Britain, starting the Revolutionary War. That summer, delegates from the 13 colonies came together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to direct the war against Britain. This was the Second Continental Congress, the first having convened back in 1774. In essence, it was the government of the United States until the end of the war.
The Second Continental Congress began the important process of completing all the paperwork needed for the newly forming nation. In 1776 they completed the Declaration of Independence, formally severing the United States from Britain, and then drafted the Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation established the colonies as a union of states and served as the nation's constitution. Basically, the Declaration of Independence said that the colonies were no longer part of Britain, and the Articles of Confederation said that those colonies were their own nation with its own government. This document legally gave the Continental Congress the power to direct the colonies, interact with other governments, and conduct the war against Britain.
It was the first attempt by the Americans to really develop their own government, but it quickly became obvious that the nation would need more direct leadership after the war was over. In 1789, the Articles of Confederation were replaced with the U.S. Constitution, which included offices like the president and allowed the government to collect taxes.
The Northwest Ordinance
The Articles of Confederation created a government that would oversee the United States called the Congress of the Confederation. This congress controlled America from 1781 to 1789, when the U.S. Constitution established the presidency. They passed several important laws that became the founding principles of the United States. One of these was the Northwest Ordinance: an act to create the first territory of the United States, passed in 1787.
This was a major moment. The United States had been 13 colonies, then 13 states after the Articles of Confederation. Now, with the Northwest Ordinance, it was 13 states and one territory. So what's the big deal about one territory? The new area was called the Northwest Territory, and it was the first of many. Every other state that the United States would create was a territory first, and this helped the government set its policies on westward expansion.
Everything that came after, from the Homestead Act to the Oregon Trail to the California Gold Rush, was defined by how America created this first territory. Plus, slavery was illegal in this territory, setting a precedent that led to widespread abolition in the North.
The Revolutionary War began with a rebellion in Massachusetts. One of the United States' first major challenges as a new nation started the same way. America emerged from the Revolutionary War in 1783, victorious and independent but very weak and pretty much broke. After a few years of a struggling economy, a lack of credit from the fact that the United States treasury was brand new, and mixed ideas about the future of the nation, a series of rebels decided to take up arms in 1786.
Led by Daniel Shays, they took control of local courts to prevent the law from enforcing policies on collecting more taxes, which had become high. As the rebels grew more militarized, they developed a plan to march on the main armory for the United States government in Springfield, Massachusetts. The state of Massachusetts gathered the state militia, because there was essentially no federal army at this point, and managed to successfully defend the armory, defeating Shays' rebels.
The rebellion was completely crushed soon after, in 1787. Although it did not accomplish its direct goals, Shays' Rebellion had major impacts on the U.S. government. The government was realizing that a loose union of largely independent states was not working; they needed more direct leadership through offices like the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court.
This was one of the major motivations for replacing the Articles of Confederation with a new constitution in 1789. This debate had another great impact on American history; it was enough to convince a retired general named George Washington to become involved in American politics, leading to his election as the nation's first president.
In 1775, the 13 British colonies of America rebelled for their independence, sparking the Revolutionary War. To direct this new nation, each state sent delegates to a governing council called the Second Continental Congress. In 1776, this council wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. The first stated that America was no longer part of Britain; the second defined us as an independent nation in the form of a union of largely independent states.
After the war, the United States expressed its ability to act like a nation by expanding its borders. With the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the government created the first territory of the United States, expanding the nation west. But with growth, comes growing pains. In 1786 and 1787, discontented citizens of Massachusetts under the leadership of Daniel Shays rebelled against increased taxes. Shays' Rebellion demonstrated that the government needed more power than they had given themselves in the Articles of Confederation.
They re-organized the government in the U.S. Constitution in 1789, creating the United States we know and love today. America grew and grew; all they had to do was survive the growing pains.
After you have finished this lesson, you can put your knowledge to the test:
- Recall the purpose and creation of the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of Independence
- Discuss the importance of the Northwest Ordinance
- Explain how Shay's Rebellion was responsible for the restructuring of the young U.S. Government