As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 110 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer
Founding Moments: The Revolutionary Era in Retrospect

Cartoon image of the White House

Before we launch into our discussion about our nation's Founding Moments, How Dumb Are We?let's see how much we know about both our founding moments and our founding documents.

Now, let's take this exercise a bit further by seeing what we know and understand about the Constitution. Can I get some volunteers to tell me some things that you know and understand about the Constitution?

As we move ahead for the next two days with our discussion of the "Founding Moments" - of the first decades of the new nation, the United States of America - keep in mind that most Americans know very little about these moments or our founding documents. Our goal is to move each of us out of that "dumb" category and into the knowledgeable category.


Discussion Goals
Founding Moments: The Revolutionary Era in Retrospect

  1. To examine the politics surrounding the three founding moments in US History:
  2. To study the beliefs of two growing political groups - the Federalists and Anti-Federalists.
  3. To understand the controversies and compromises that accompanied the creation of the governmental structures under the Constitution.
  4. To examine a few myths surrounding the Constitution.
  5. To gain a better understanding of the first two presidencies of Washington and Adams and the domestic problems they confronted.

Goal #1: To examine the politics surrounding the three founding moments in US History

In his great book, Founding Brothers, historian Joseph Ellis claims that there were two "founding moments" in U.S. History: the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the signing of Photo of book cover to "Founding Brothers"the Constitution in 1787. Today, we will learn that there were actually three founding moments during which three founding documents were produced: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.

Founding Moment #1: The 1776 declaration of American independence from England - the Declaration of Independence.

When the English colonists decided to break their political and economic ties with England, they announced their break with the Declaration of Independence.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

What are the colonists announcing?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What does equality mean to the colonists?  What is liberty?

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.  That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind Declaration of Independenceare more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

“That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

But a declaration of independence was simply a statement that the British colonists wished to be free from England. It was not a legal document - it was simply a declaration of their intent to fight for independence. Thus, the Founders had to follow their first document declaring their independence with a second document creating a new government that could operate during the course of the Revolutionary War.

Founding Moment #2: The first governing structure of the United States - the Articles of Confederation.

Remember that before the War for independence, Americans were all too familiar with a dangers of a strong central government. Indeed, Britain had vetoed colonial legislation, sent armed forces to suppress political opposition, forced its will upon separate colonial governments, and imposed unfair taxes without consulting the colonial legislatures. Thus, the first governing document of the United States avoided the creation of a strong central government.

Instead, the Articles of Confederation, Articles of Confederation 200 year commerative stampadopted in 1777, created a weak central government of equal states whereby "each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence," as well as all powers and rights not "expressly delegated" to the United States government. It's goal was clear - to create a weak central government that would not interfere with the stronger powers of the 13 state governments.

The new government consisted of a one-house - unicameral - central legislature called Congress. The new Congress had the "sole and exclusive powers" to:

All other powers were left to the states.  The states had complete equality and the Articles placed very few restraints upon them. Each state had at least two and as many as seven Congressional representatives, all of whom were selected by the state governments.  Each delegation, however, had only one vote.  All laws had to be approved by 9 of the 13 state representatives.  Any amendment to the Articles required the unanimous approval of all 13 state legislatures.

The rules for Congressmen were rigorous and designed to restrain the political power of officeholders.

While the Articles were written in 1777 during the second year of the War, they were not ratified for 4 years because of a dispute over western lands. While the new Congress had authority over land Map of State Land Cessions under Articles of Confederationdisputes between the states, the Articles did not provide for a national domain under Congressional control. Thus, states with no claims to western lands - like Maryland and Pennsylvania - refused ratification until states with claims - like Virginia which had been based upon royal charters granting land extending in principle from "sea to sea" - relinquished them to Congress.

The Articles were finally ratified in March 1781 after the states agreed to land claims that met the requirements of 9 states.

So, how did Confederation Congress fare with its limited powers? Its most successful endeavor was the implementation of a plan to settle western land - the land known as the Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin.)

To achieve these goals, Congress passed three ordinances:

  1. The Ordinance of 1784 called for the admission of 10 states carved out of the new territory as soon as their populations equaled that of the smallest state in the Union, and democratic self-governance for all free white males.
  2. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established townships of 6 square miles, each of which was divided into 36 lots of one square mile (640 acres) as shown in this map.  The price was set at a minimum of one dollar per acre.
  3. Northwest Ordinance of 1787 overturned the idea of self-governance and replaced it with Congressionally-appointed governors; stipulated that between 3-5 states could be established out of the territory; forbade slavery in the territory; and set up a 3-step process for statehood.  After 5,000 adult males were settled, people could write a temporary constitution and elect a legislature; with 60,000 settlers, people could write a state constitution subject to Congressional approval prior to statehood.

But there were problems with the Articles of Confederation. As Dr. Carol Berkin argues, while the Articles met the war goals of the Revolution, they were not able to meet the nation’s needs for a new government. This led the Founders into another discussion - and this time is was about creating a new form of government that would differ greatly from that created under the Articles of Confederation. This discussion led them into the third Founding Moment. (You might be interested in this video of Dr. Carol Berkin discussing the Articles of Confederation at

Founding Moment #3: The second governing structure of the United States - the Constitution

Shortly after the Articles of Confederation were passed, a dedicated, small group of powerful, propertied men who recognized the limitations of a weak central government began a discussion about creating a new constitution that would be based on a strong central government. To that end, in 1786, five states sent representatives to a gathering at Annapolis, Maryland where they proposed that a general gathering of state delegates be held in 1787 for the purpose of amending the Articles of Confederation.

The result was the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787.

Painting of Founders signing Constitution

Signing the Constitution above at Learn more about the painting at

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates voted to adopt the new Constitution which created a new structure for a strong federal government with three independent branches (legislative, executive, and judicial) that would serve as a "check and balance" for one another.

Chart of three branches of government

The Constitution represented a great power shift:

Chart comparing the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution

Goal #2: To study the beliefs of two growing political groups - the Federalists and Anti-Federalists

During the debates that accompanied all three of the founding moments, two political camps gradually arose and they eventually came to be known as the Federalists and Anti-Federalists

Anti-Federalists - Led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who advocated for strong governments and were supported primarily by agrarians, westerners, and southerners.

Federalists  - Led by Alexander Hamilton, Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, who advocated for a strong central government and was supported primarily by upper class northern and mid-Atlantic businessmen and professionals.

If we keep this heated debate between the federalists and anti-federalists in mind, it is clear as Joseph Ellis reminds us, that the United States was founded on a debate - an argument - involving conflicting attitudes about government - about state versus federal control of government.

Goal #3: To understand the controversies and compromises that accompanied the creation of the governmental structures under the Constitution

Because debate characterized the Revolutionary Era, and the debate involved two sharply divided sides, it is clear that compromise was required in order to create a new government. Following are some of the most important compromises made during these debates.

  1. The Preamble - Below is page 1 of the first draft of the Constitution printed in August 1787 as a text for the Founders during their debate:

    1st draft of Preamble to Constitution

    "We the People of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennslvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declar and establish the following Constitution for the Government of Ourselves and our Posterity".

The Compromise. Below is the final version of the Constitution printed on September 17, 1787:

    2nd draft of Preamble to Constitution

    "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

2. Congressional Representation.  The controversies were

The compromise - a bicameral Congress.

3. Slavery. The Constitutional debate over slavery included two extreme arguments:

4. Basic Freedoms. There were no inclusions of basic freedoms in the Constitution, other than the right of habeas corpus. Many of the Founders argued there was no need for "enumerated rights" - a list of rights guaranteed to all. They continued that basic rights were understood and there was no need to list them all. But representatives from the southern states insisted the inclusion of a list of rights.

The Compromise. The Bill of Rights.

This debate and compromise surrounding the signing of the Constitution contributed to decades of partisan debate about sovereignty.

Goal #4: To examine a few myths surrounding the Constitution

Map of Universal manhood suffrageMyth:  The Constitution represented a radical break with the past in that the Founding Fathers, most of whom were true believers in democracy, created a true democratic form of government.

A democracy is a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly through periodically free elections.

A republic is a government in which the supreme power resides with the people who are entitled to vote - and they do so by voting for representatives who are responsible to the people. 

In reality, the Founding Fathers did not create a radical break with the past by creating a true democracy. Of the 55 Founding Fathers, all were "monied men" - merchants, slaveholding plantation owners, lawyers. They were deeply suspicious of the "masses" whom they felt were not sufficiently "virtuous" to run the nation. Thus, they, the virtuous Americans with both knowledge and education, would represent the peoples' interests. Under the Constitution

Myth: The Constitution established English as the official language of the United States.

In reality, there is no mention of any official language in the Constitution.  In fact, so many Americans spoke so many different languages at the time that the Constitution was written, it would have been an absurdity to consider one language as "official."

Myth: The Constitution establishes the United States as a Christian nation and was, in fact, written to promite and prepetuate a Christian order.

While most of the Founding Fathers were profoundly influenced by their religious convictions, they were equally as influenced by Thomas Jefferson who had argued that there was a "wall of separation" between church and state. James Madison, like Jefferson, convinced the Founding Fathers that it was best for the Constitution to say as little as possible about religion, especially since state laws reflected a wide variety of positions on the topic.

Remember, too, that the founding fathers were laizzez faire advocates - they believed that government should be kept out of people's homes, out of the marketplace, and out of their spiritual lives. To them, politics was about economics and property - not about salvation and leading a moral life.

So, in the Constitution itself, there is no mention of God, Jesus Christ, or Christianity. The only mention of religion appears in Article VI, Section 3 that promises that "no religious text shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." So, the Constitution only prohibited religious requirements for holding Federal office,.

The Bill of Rights First Amendment only prohibited Congress - not the states - from passing laws "respecting an establishment of religion." Thus, the states were able to do as they pleased with religion - and many of them did.

In reality, the Founding Fathers defined government in secular terms - in terms that clearly delineated a "wall of separation" between church and state. 

Goal #5: To gain a better understanding of the first two presidencies of Washington and Adams and the domestic problems they confronted

Portrait of George WashingtonPortrait of John Adams

George Washington was elected during the first federal election in 1788 and inaugurated on April 30, 1789. Washington served as president between 1789-1796. His vice president was John Adams. Washington was a federalist, a wealthy landowner, and a famous general - member of the elite.

John Adams was elected in 1796 and served a president between 1797-1800. His vice president was Thomas Jefferson. Adams was a federalist, a lawyer and a middle class farmer, and a member of the elite.

A very short-lived spirit of unity marked the early days of Washington's administration. Federalists sought and won the overwhelming majority of seats in the new Congress and this success enabled them to work quickly and efficiently on matters that they agreed were a priority. However, within a few months of Washington's presidency, it was apparent that the founding fathers had split into two distinct groups, with two distinctly different leaders, each of whom had conflicting visions for the newly established United States.

Portrait Alexander HamiltonPortrait Thomas Jefferson

Given these two competing dreams for the evolution of the United States, it was clear that domestic problems would arise during the two presidencies. And the first major problem became known as The Whiskey Rebellion, which was quickly followed by various social and economic divisions.

The Whiskey Rebellion. The problem - To produce enough revenue to support the national assumption of state debts, Secretary of State Hamilton proposed an excise tax on domestically-produced whiskey. Congress passed the tax in March 1791. Problems immediately erupted in western Pennsylvania.

The excise tax required a 25% charge on all production and sale of liquor. Additionally, Painting of Whiskey Rebellion

The significance - It defined all the fundamental issues and debates facing the new federal republic: federal versus states/local rights; western versus eastern interests; agricultural versus industrial interests; the nature of taxation; and the duties and rights of citizens. For Hamilton, the farmers' resistance was a direct threat to his plan for national economic expansion. If one group of citizens chose to oppose government taxes by force and succeeded, Hamilton reasoned, their success would set a dangerous precedent for other groups.

The outcome - Hamilton convinced President Washington to head an army of 13,000 men. When the rebels saw the huge army marching against them, they quickly dispersed - and the new federal government had proved its credibility. The cost for putting down the rebellion was $1.5 million - about one-third of the revenues raised by the whiskey tax during its entire life Ironically, Washington, who had led the revolt against British taxation, led this army to crush a revolt against a similar internal tax.

Social Divisions, 1789-1800. By 1800, the population of the U.S. was 5.3 million and was growing at an annual rate of 3 percent.  While the population grew, so did various divisions.

But the biggest division that arose during the early presidencies occurred in 1798 under President Adams - a division that led to Adams' endorsement of legislation that eventually derailed his presidency. At this time , Congress was dominated by Federalists who were alarmed over two primary issues:

The Federalist Congress responded by passing the Alien and Sedition Acts which:

Within months after the Acts were passed, 17 anti-Federalist newspaper editors and politicians were accused of sedition and 10 were found guilty and imprisoned.

Founding Moments

  1. There were essentially three "founding moments" in the Revolutionary Era of U.S. History that created three founding documents - the 1776 Declaration of American independence, the Articles of Confederation; and the Constitution.
  2. The Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution, provided for a weak central government and a loose union of strong state governments.  The Articles were replaced by the Constitution which created a strong central government within a federal system of shared power and dual lawmaking between three branches of government
  3. The adoption of the Constitution set off a political debate between two potent forces - the Federalists and the Republicans (Anti-federalists).  Today, the battle still rages between the forces of federalism who favor a strong central government with broad governing powers, and the forces of anti-federalism who feel the central government has usurped the powers of the people and that power needs to be devolved to the state and local governments.
  4. The Founding Fathers did not create a radically revolutionary document. The Constitution did not end slavery, nor did it significantly broaden the electorate.  Rather, the Constitution represented a shift from a completely non-democratic form of government that existed prior to the Revolution, to a somewhat more democratic government.  In essence, the republic it created opened the door for true democratic involvement - a process that continues through today.
  5. The Founding Fathers defined the federal government in secular terms that clearly delineated a "wall of separation" between church and state. In so doing, they enacted the only really revolutionary provisions of the Constitution.
  6. Despite the Founding Fathers' intention to avoid partisan politics, by the turn of the 19th century, political, social, economic, and ideological divisions were apparent throughout the United States.
  7. Many positive trends developed during the first 11 years after the Constitution was signed.
  8. At the same time, several divisive trends also developed:
  9. The sum total of the positive and negative trends that occurred during this period represented an evolutionary step forward rather than a revolutionary departure from the past.