Post-American Revolution: The Birth of New Thinking

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

By 1785, many of the revolutionary leadership was dead or had turned their political energies back to the politics of their own states. Springing up beside and around the generation of the old revolutionaries was a new generation. This generation remembered little or nothing of the Stamp Act or the French and Indian War, for this generation preferred the nation over the state.

A bronze statue of John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
John Marshall was one of the post-American Revolution new thinkers. (Image: eurobanks/Shutterstock)

This was a generation born in the mid-1750s or the early 1760s. For them, the great formative experience of their lives, the great experience of their youth, was not Committees of Correspondence or the Boston Tea Party, but the Revolutionary War itself and service in the Continental Army. For this new generation—these men who had done the actual fighting in the Revolution—the nation was what they had fought for, and they carried out of the Revolution an entirely different perspective on what the United States should be.

Post-American Revolution Thinking: Nation before State

In the snows of Valley Forge, in the heat of the Carolinas, in victory, and in defeat, these teenagers and young adults from New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and New Jersey had shared so many common hardships that their varied local identities faded away to nothingness.

They had fought and bled under one national flag, whose 13 stars and stripes proclaimed union, not division. They had marched under the orders of one man, Congress’s general—George Washington—whom they had come to adore. In short, they had learned to think continentally.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

John Marshall: A Post-American Revolution Continental Thinker

John Marshall, who was later the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, started the Revolution as a teenaged Virginia militiaman. He enlisted in the Continental Army in 1775 and survived the winter at Valley Forge. He remembered later, “I was confirmed in the habit of considering America”, note that he says America, not Virginia, “I was confirmed in the habit of considering America as my country and Congress as my government.”

Among these new men, no one carried these characteristics so unmistakably as Alexander Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton: A Post-American Revolution Continental Thinker

A statue of Alexander Hamilton in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the best known proponents of the post-American Revolution new thinking. (Image: RebelAt at the English Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Hamilton was born in the British West Indies, in the island of Nevis, in 1757. There is, in fact, a good deal of uncertainty about the exact birth date. One reason for that is because he was an illegitimate son of a feckless Scottish merchant, who abandoned the family that he had in the West Indies when Alexander Hamilton was just a boy.

A friendly clergyman got Hamilton a place at King’s College in New York City, just before the Revolution, but young Hamilton felt, keenly, the social stigma attached to bastards in colonial society. It is little wonder that when the Revolution began, he immediately threw in his lot with the revolutionaries.

Here was a man without a father making a common cause with those who wanted to be without a king. He formed his own company of volunteers. He was tagged by Washington to join Washington’s staff as an aide. And he finished his soldiering by leading a dramatic bayonet charge at Yorktown that, for all practical purposes, sealed the fate of the British defenders.

Prioritizing Growth Before Equality

Hamilton, nevertheless, was appalled at the aftermath of the Revolution. He looked on the jealousies and the competition of the individual states as a betrayal of the nation. He saw the state legislatures as little better than tiny red-necked oligarchies bent on stymieing progress and freezing economic growth.

To Alexander Hamilton, the bastard with no social rank, the only way to make his way in the world was by progress and by economic growth. Anyone who sat and talked about how it was necessary to restrain growth in the interest of equality became Hamilton’s enemy.

Learn more about Hamilton’s republic.

Post-American Revolution: The Arrival of Change

Sooner or later, the state governments—which had hobbled Congress, and which were destabilizing the Confederation—were bound to hurt people badly enough to make them wish for a change. By the middle of the 1780s, that moment had arrived. Most of the state constitutions, which had been written in the heat of the Revolution, had created state governments that usually had a single legislative house, very broadly and popularly elected.

Those governments usually had a weakened role for a governor or an executive, and also a weakened role for a system of judges. Usually, the judges were popularly elected judges rather than appointed judges, who could be recalled at will.

Now, this satisfied the demand of the revolutionaries for governments where popular majorities could hold sway without obstacle. And certainly, it was consistent with the demand of the revolutionaries that taxation and other policies be based upon the activities of the people’s representatives—not by a Parliament 3,000 miles away.

Popular majorities are not always wise majorities though. And timid governors and judges who keep their eyes firmly fixed on reelection are as likely to be run ragged by mobs as the old governors and judges were liable to bribery and patronage.

Learn more about Republicans and Federalists.

New State Constitution of Massachusetts

In 1780, Massachusetts adopted a new state constitution that split its legislature into two houses: one elected generally by the people, and the other elected on the basis of districts drawn on the basis of property taxes. These two houses were paired off to review each other’s legislation. It was a case of forcing the people and the money to agree on a common course.

New State Constitution of New Hampshire

New Hampshire adopted a new constitution in 1784, which took the appointment process for judges, and in fact for the entire rest of the state, out of the hands of the legislature and gave it to the governor. Thomas Jefferson proposed a new Virginia constitution that gave a veto power in the legislature to a senate and created an independent lifetime judiciary.

Learn more about Adams and liberty.

Adoption of New Agreements by the States

Experience was yielding new prudence. Reform of the state constitutions only highlighted the need for reform on the level of the Confederation itself. In 1785, Virginia and Maryland signed an agreement regulating the use of the Potomac River, which of course both share as a boundary. It could have been a model for a convention governing two other commercially vital shared rivers, the Susquehanna and the Delaware.

The Confederation Congress had no authority to press the Virginia and Maryland example on the other states, so it fell to Virginia and Maryland, in 1786, to call a convention at Annapolis. They did it on their own hook, which would involve delegates from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey to settle disputes over rights to the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers.

Annapolis Convention

An illustration of the State-House at Annapolis, the Capital of Maryland 1888.
The Annapolis Convention was called upon to remedy the faults and the lacking of the federal government. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Alexander Hamilton had won election to the New York legislature that spring. Not surprisingly, he shoehorned himself onto the state delegation headed to the Annapolis Convention. There, he persuaded the Annapolis Convention that a solution to individual interstate commercial problems was impossible unless they were considered in a larger federal context.

Hence, the Annapolis Convention was prevailed upon to call on the Confederation Congress for the assembling of a national convention of the states in Philadelphia in May of 1787 “to devise such answers as shall appear to them necessary to render the Constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the Union”.

Shays’s rebellion that summer added the incentive of fear to this invitation. In February of 1787, Congress hurriedly issued an invitation to all the states to assemble and send delegations. The Philadelphia Convention was, at least as it was advertised, supposed to be about interstate trade. Very quickly, the principal problem was defined not as interstate trade but as the Articles of Confederation. As the Articles became the problem, the solution would have to be a new instrument of the national government.

Post-American Revolution: New Men of the Convention

This was very much a convention of new men like Hamilton. Twelve states were represented. Only Rhode Island refused the invitation. The delegates as a whole numbered some 74. Only three of those delegates had attended the Stamp Act Congress back in the 1760s, only eight of them had signed the Declaration of Independence back in 1776, and only a little more than half had served in the Continental Congress.

On the other hand, 22 of them had served in the Continental Army, three of them on George Washington’s staff. These men were also very different from the artisans and working men who had framed the state constitutions. Fifty-five of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention came from the top five percent of the American wealth pyramid. And while the top of the pyramid in America, especially after the Revolution, was a far cry from the lords and landowners of Britain, still, at least two-thirds of them could be classified as wealthy by American standards.

That made it easy to suggest that concern for ensuring that the rich would stay rich was what guided the councils of the Philadelphia Convention. But what would have made just as deep an impression on observers in 1787 was that so many of these men were unknowns, or at least unknown to the old revolutionaries and unknown to state politics. These were people, new men, who were ready to think continentally.

Common Questions about Post-American Revolution: The Birth of New Thinking

Q: What were some effects of the American Revolution?

The American Revolution led to powerful political, social, and economic changes not only in America but also across the world.

Q: What was the purpose of the Annapolis Convention?

The Annapolis Convention was aimed at establishing concrete parameters for regulating trade between states during a time of political and economic turbulence.

Q: What was the most significant effect of the American Revolution?

The most consequential effect of the American Revolution was that it removed the restrictions imposed by the British Mercantilism.

Q: Why was the Annapolis convention a failure?

The Annapolis Convention was a failure because it failed to draw enough interest and find solutions, owing to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.

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