AMERICAN REVOLUTION          home | history

War, Independence and debating the Constitution


France was officially neutral but secretly supplying the revolution with guns and gunpowder, and in 1777 French volunteers began joining the fighting. It was 1777 that the 20-year-old Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the colonies and joined Washington and his army. Lafayette was seeking revenge for the death of his father and for France's loss of territory in the Americas during the Seven Years' War.

Britain's former enemy, Spain, asked for Gibraltar as a reward for joining the war on its side. And when Britain refused, Spain declared war on it. The following year, 1780, France decided it was an opportune time to retaliate for losses incurred in the Seven Years' War, and it chose to gang-up against Britain. It too declared war. And another former enemy of the British, the Dutch, joined them. The Dutch had favored the insurrection in Britain's colonies from the beginning. When the revolution's John Paul Jones was in the Dutch Republic people cheered him wherever he went.

George Washington would have hanged, and perhaps worse, had the British defeated him, but perseverance by the Continental Army and George Washington paid off. Britain was handicapped by the distance to the place of fighting. It took weeks and sometimes months for messages and sailing ships to cross the Atlantic. On October 19, 1781, at Yorktown, Virginia, George Washington and his army, with military help from 6,000 French troops and the French navy, cornered and forced the surrender of a redcoat army commanded by Lord Cornwallis.

In February 1783, George III issued a "Proclamation of Cessation of Hostilities." On September 3, in Paris, a treaty was signed that recognized the United States of America as independent. It established the western boundary of the United States at the Mississippi River, and it returned Florida to Spain. In December, Washington resigned his command and returned to his home in Virginia. On January 14, 1784, the Continental Congress ratified the treaty.

By the end of the war, approximately 100,000 colonists (or 4 percent of the population) loyal to their king, George III, had fled the United States. Many of them (between 60,000 and 80,000) had fled in 1783, and most of them were members of the Church of England. Most went to Canada, while some fled to the Bahamas and took their slaves with them.

The British had offered freedom to slaves to lure them to their side. An estimated 30,000 slaves fled to the British when the latter invaded Virginia in 1781. And during the war a quarter of the slaves in South Carolina and Georgia ran away. It has been said that around 10,000 blacks fought on the side of the British, and they joined the loyalist exodus out of the United States, around a thousand of them ending up in Britain's African colony, Sierra Leone.

During the war, approximately 7,200 colonists died from violence, around 10,000 from disease or exposure and 8,500 died in British prisons. This is a total of 25,700 colonists. In percentage of the population that is equivalent in the year 2000 to 2.86 million deaths – the United States in the year 2000 having more than 110 times the population that the thirteen colonies had in 1775.

The peace treaty with Britain signed in Paris in 1783 inspired cheer and hope, but these were dashed by the economic hard times that followed. In these years, the Continental Congress often had too few delegates to make a quorum, and occasionally it moved – in June 1783 to Princeton, in November 1783 to Annapolis, in early 1784 to Trenton, and in late 1784 to New York City. The Continental Congress was short of funds, and for cash the Congress was happy to sell lands on the frontier to land speculators.

Hard Times following Victory

Economic hard times in the newly independent states was accompanied by social unrest. Money lenders from Britain and former colonial loyalists had been calling in their debts, and debtors were demanding state laws for protection. Massachusetts had no laws to cushion debtors against lenders and its citizens were frustrated with their state government's lack of action. At the end of 1786, frustration resulted in armed rebellion – Shays' Rebellion – which spread to the whole of New England. Daniel Shays had at least a couple thousand followers, most of them farmers. The governor of Massachusetts assembled militiamen to defend the courts and government property and to pursue the new rebels. The rebellion was crushed in six months. The rebels scattered and took advantage of a general amnesty. Two leaders of the rebellion, John Bly and Charles Rose, were hanged for treason.

In wake of Shays' Rebellion, a Federal Constitutional Convention assembled in May 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union (which had become effective back in 1781 during the war). "Perpetual Union" referred to the thirteen colonies, now states, being separate but joined together under a central government.

Delegates to the Convention were looking forward to ending the economic downturn and social uncertainty. Some wanted a stronger central government that could assure social stability. There was talk of the revolution having loosened the bonds of government. There were complaints of a rise of disobedience among children, among college students and youths working as apprentices and of slaves were growing more insolent toward their masters.

A New Constitution

George Washington, a member of the Virginia delegation to the Convention, was unanimously elected the convention's presiding officer. For four months the delegates debated, as did people outside the convention and across the states. From the arguments and compromises, on September 17, 1787, came the final draft of a new constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. It gave the federal government power to regulate domestic and foreign trade, the right to levy taxes, and the means of enforcing federal laws. It gave to individual states the power to make their own laws.

The new constitution began with the words "We the people," confirming democracy, laws in the service of the nation's common citizens. The United States was to be a republic, previously thought suitable only for small nations, like the Dutch republic and Switzerland. There was to be a president (rather than a monarch) who served as chief executive. Election of the president was to be by an electoral college.

There was to be a separation of powers. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention drew from John Locke's Two Treatises of Government by dividing government into legislative, judicial, and executive branches, each with distinct powers to balance those of the other two branches. Senators were to be selected by state legislatures. Members of the House of Representatives were to be elected as deemed by each state's property qualifications, but the House of Representatives was to have less power than the Senate and the Presidency. This was modeled after Britain's system, where the king and the House of Lords (aristocrats or large property owners) could suppress projects of the House of Commons.

Most framers of the Constitution wanted to give the vote only to those who owned property — as was the tradition in Britain. They feared that poorer folk getting involved in politics would disturb public tranquility. People with property were thought sufficiently cautious and conservative and people without property to have nothing to lose and inclined toward rash actions and foolish experiments. It was, however, left to the states to decide how much property would qualify one for participation in politics. White males without property, women and slaves would not be voting. The equality spoken of in the Declaration of Independence and still in the minds of the framers of Constitution was not a belief that all men were equal politically. The framers were creating a political revolution and not a cultural revolution. There were those who believed that, in the eyes of God, men were superior to women and whites superior to blacks.

The Constitution took from the states the power to make wars or treaties. Only the federal government could dispose of territories on the frontier, and the federal judiciary was to be superior to the state judiciary.

The framers who wanted a strong federal government argued with those who wanted more self-rule by the states. With fear of another Shays' Rebellion in mind, the Constitution proposed that state militias be placed under the control of the federal government, that the federal government could use military force against recalcitrant states or insurgencies and that the federal government would have the power to suspend habeas corpus (in other words to lock people up without giving reason).

The proposed Constitution gave to the federal government powers regarding the economy such as distribution of wealth and fiscal and monetary measures. States could no longer make laws that benefited debtors at the expense of creditors. The states could no longer coin money, make bills of credit or impair contract obligations. The proposed Constitution gave the federal government the power to protect property essential to a commercial economy (contracts, bonds, and credit) and to promote the expansion and development of market relations.

Compromise ended the stalemate between the federalists and anti-federalists, leading to numerous other compromises in a spirit of accommodation. There were delegates who left before the signing ceremony and three delegates who refused to sign. One of the thirty-nine signers, Benjamin Franklin, addressed the Convention, saying, "I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve." But he added that he accepted it "because I expect no better and because I am not sure that it is not the best".

The Constitution was forwarded to the states, with each state legislature to call elections for ratification. When the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified (on 21 June 1788) the Constitution became the law of the land. On March 4, 1789, the US Senate met for the first time. Two months later George Washington was inaugurated as President.

Washington has been described as wanting to ease the concerns of those fearing the power of the federal government (anti-federalists), and to this end, in his inaugural address, Washington hinted that Congress should add a Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

CONTINUE READING: The Bill of Rights

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