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History of the United States (1776-1865)

 This article is part of the
History of the United States series.
 Colonial America
 History of the United States (1776-1865)
 The coming of the Civil War
 The Civil War
 History of the United States (1865-1918)
 History of the United States (1918-1945)
 History of the United States (1945-1964)
History of the United States (1964-1980)
 History of the United States (1980-present)
 Demographic history of the United States
 Military history of the United States

Table of contents
1 Independence
2 The Articles of Confederation
3 The struggle for constitution
4 Washington's presidency
5 Adams and Jefferson
6 Madison administration
7 Monroe administration
8 Formation of the Democratic Party
9 Westward expansion
10 The coming of the Civil War


The United States of America was founded in 1776 from British colonies along the Atlantic Coast of North America. In 1775 frustration with various British crown practices had led to revolt by colonists in Massachusetts. The next year, representatives of thirteen of the British colonies in North America met in Philadelphia and declared their independence in a remarkable document, the Declaration of Independence, primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson. With the help of their French allies they were eventually able to win the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain, settled by the Treaty of Paris (1783).

The Articles of Confederation

Until 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles created an extremely weak central government. The United States had no power to levy taxes; for income, it relied on "requisitions," essentially requests, of money from the states. In addition, the government of the United States had no central executive branch, making its already weak government further divided and lacking strong leadership. The government of the United States under the Articles was also weak with regards to foreign affairs, and during this period Britain and Spain treated the United States like a third-rate power.

The struggle for constitution

As the 1780s drew to an end, many felt that the crippling weakness of the Articles of Confederation needed to be replaced with a stronger central government. Those who advocated the creation of such a government took the name Federalists, and quickly gained supporters throughout the nation. The most well-known Federalists include Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. These were the main contributors to the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays which served in many ways as seminal documents for the new United States that was to come. These were written, however, after the Constitutional Convention and were a part of the ratification debates in the state of New York.

Opponents of the plan for stronger government took the name Antifederalists. They feared that a government with the power to tax would soon become as despotic and corrupt as Great Britain had been only decades earlier. The most notable Antifederalists were Patrick Henry and George Mason. They were also quite concerned with the absence of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

Interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as Ambassador to France at the time, was neither a Federalist nor an Antifederalist, but decided to remain neutral and accept either outcome. However, in letters from France he did express his reservations about the finished document to his friend and eventual ally, James Madison. The Federalists gained a great deal of prestige and advantage when George Washington joined their cause.

The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, originally with the intent of modifying the Articles. However, the convention soon turned to the business of writing a new founding document for the country, and in 1789 the Constitution of the United States was adopted. This Constitution was in many ways a direct response to the Articles of Confederation - it created for the first time a strong executive branch and gave the government the power to tax. Add more on slavery, the Great Compromise, and other elements of the Constitution.

After the adoption of the Constitution, the Antifederalist party effectively ceased to exist, and many of its members accepted the new founding document. However, the ideals of states' rights and a smaller federal government, were in many ways absorbed by the growth of a new party, the Republican or Democratic-Republican Party

Washington's presidency

George Washington was elected the first as the first President of the United States under the new Constitution. This was in many ways inevitable; Washington was a renown hero of the American Revolutionary War who kept the Continental Army together, President of the Constitutional Convention, and perhaps the most well-loved figure ever in United States politics. He easily won the U.S. presidential election of 1789, running virtually unopposed.

Despite a desire on the part of Washington to remain isolationist, (as detailed in his farewell address), the United States has a rich diplomatic history.

Adams and Jefferson

Madison administration

James Madison won the U.S. presidential election of 1808, largely on the strength of his abilities in foreign affairs at a time when England and France were both on the edge of war with the United States. Both countries were blockading the ports of the other, preventing American commerce with either. In the end, England's efforts to destroy American maritime commerce put them over the top. In 1810, a bill was passed that would break off relations with any nation that would not remove the blockade: France did, and England didn't.

War of 1812

In 1812, the United states entered a second war with the British Empire, known as the War of 1812. It was caused in large part by the British policy of Impressment (the forcible seizure of American seamen for service in the British Royal Navy)and the British blocking of French seaports where Americans desired to carry on trade.

The war was not a wonderful success; the British won victory after victory, including a temporary occupation of Washington, D.C., when Madison was driven out. The British also armed American Indians in the west, including the Shawnee under their leader Tecumseh. Neither side was terribly enthusiastic about the war, however: the British had nothing to gain, and in the United States, New England threatened secession if the war was not ended.

Though the British held the upper hand in most engagements, several of the battles entered the American mythos -- including the Battle of New Orleans (1815), when General Andrew Jackson handed the British one of the worst defeats in their history. Ironically, the battle was fought two weeks after the peace Treaty of Ghent, which supposedly ended the hostilities.

The major lasting effect for the political face of the country was the end of the Federalist Party, who were considered traitors when they opposed the war.

Dolley Madison

Madison's wife, Dolley, was one of the most famous in U.S. history. During her husband's political life, Dolley Madison was noted as a gracious hostess, whose sassy, ebullient personality, love of feathered turbans, and passion for snuff seemed at odds with her Quaker upbringing. However, probably her most lasting achievements were her letters to James Madison during the period of the framing of the United States Constitution, and her rescue of valuable treasures, including state papers and a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington, from the White House before it was burned by the British army in 1814.

Monroe administration

Following the War of 1812, James Monroe was elected president in the election of 1816, and re-elected in 1820. Monroe, the last American Revolutionary War veteran to serve as president, was almost uncontested in his two elections.

Monroe's presidency was later labeled "The Era of Good Feeling", in part because partisan politics were almost nonexistent. The Federalist Party had died out, and the rift between the Democratic Party and the Whig Party had not yet happened. Practically every politician belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party.

Monroe is probably best known for the Monroe Doctrine, which he delivered in his message to Congress on December 2, 1823. In it, he proclaimed the Americas should be free from future European colonization and free from European interference in sovereign countries' affairs. It further stated United States's intention to stay neutral in European wars and wars between European powers and their colonies but to consider any new colonies or interference with independent countries in the Americas as hostile acts toward the United States.

Formation of the Democratic Party

Following his defeat in the election of 1824 despite having a majority of the popular vote, Andrew Jackson set about building a political coalition strong enough to defeat John Quincy Adams in the election of 1828. The coalition that he built was the foundation of the United States Democratic Party.

Westward expansion

During the 19th century the country expanded its territory greatly through two major acquisitions. In 1802, the size of the country doubled with the Louisiana Purchase, when France sold all of its territories west of the Mississippi River to the United States. The Lewis and Clark expedition quickly explored the north western territories from the Mississippi to the Pacific. The nation's territory continued to expand by the annexation of Texas, which led to the Mexican-American War, where the United States obtained territory in the southwest from Mexico. The Oregon territory was purchased from Great Britain, Alaska from Russia, and the kingdom of Hawaii was annexed at the end of the century, completing the present territory of the United States. In summary, the following contributed to the present-day territory of the United States:

Westward expansion by official acts of the United States Government was accompanied by the western (and northern in the case of New England) movement of settlers on and beyond The Frontier. Daniel Boone was one frontiersman who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky. This pattern was followed throughout the West as men traded with the Indians, trapped fur, and explored. Skilled fighters and hunters, these Mountain Men in small groups trapped beaver throughout the Rocky Mountains. After the demise of the Fur Trade they established trading posts throughout the west, continuing trade with the Indians, and serving the western migration of settlers to Utah, Oregon and California.

Major events in the western movement of the American people were The Homestead Act, a law by which, for a nominal price, a settler was given title to land to farm; the opening of the Northwest Territory to settlement; The Texas Revolution; the opening of the Oregon Trail; the Mormon Emigration to Utah in 1846-7; The California gold rush of 1849; the Colorado Gold Rush of 1859; and the completion of the US Transcontinental Railroad May 10, 1869.

The western movie, one of the classic American film genres, is situated in this era.

The coming of the Civil War

For details see the main article The coming of the Civil War.