AP US HISTORY EXAM REVIEW

The Revolution and the Constitution


*For most of the colonial period, the British had mostly allowed the colonies to govern themselves and also taxed them lightly (and rarely enforced those taxes strongly).  This changed after the French and Indian War.

*The British government had all three forms of rule combined:  the king was the monarch, the House of Lords was the aristocracy, and the elected House of Commons was the democracy, and each restrained the others.  Most importantly, the House of Commons had the power of the purse, being the only part of the government allowed to create new taxes.

 

*In the American colonies, most colonial governments worked in much the same way, with an appointed Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, an appointed Council, and an elected Assembly, House of Commons, or House of Burgesses that had the power of the purse and used it to keep the governors relatively weak.

*In Britain (and America) at this time, it was believed that liberty was based on property--only someone with enough property to be independent of anyone else's control could truly be free.  This was one reason Britain and her colonies had property qualifications to vote:  a man who did not own enough property to support himself was not truly free, because whoever had economic influence over him might influence his vote, too.

*Under long-standing traditions and the newer contract theory of government, a just government could not just take a free person's property.  Therefore, taxes could only be levied by a representative body such as Parliament or a colonial legislature because it represented the property-owners whose property was being given to the government in the form of taxes.  This is why the House of Commons and the elected colonial assemblies had the power of the purse, and they guarded that privilege jealously.

*However, some traditions of government had changed over the centuries that people of the mother country and the colonies had been apart.

*A theoretical division, at least in America, was drawn between internal or direct taxes (levied on property, to raise revenue for the government) and external or indirect taxes (levied on trade, to regulate commerce and the Empire as a whole in the name of mercantilism, which the colonists claimed to support even as they ignored it in practise through rampant smuggling).  Most British people felt this was a pointless distinction.

*A theoretical division, at least in Britain, was drawn between actual and virtual representation.  Actual representation occurred when a man voted for a member of parliament and the MP then represented the specific interests of the constituency that elected him, but some political thinkers had come to feel that MPs also virtually represented all Englishmen (most of whom did not vote any way), because they naturally had certain sympathies with all members of the United Kingdom, even those who were not born in the same county they were.  Many Americans felt this was unrealistic, at least across the Atlantic, and felt that only actual representation of the voters' interests granted acceptable authority to create a direct tax.

*There were a number of external taxes in place before the 1760s (such as the Molasses Act of 1733), but most were not enforced, or at least not enforced well.  Many Americans (like John Hancock) grew rich off smuggling.

*Taxes like this were acceptable in part because they were easy to get around and because they were part of the mercantilist system.  The idea behind the mercantilist system (which all imperial powers used) was that the colonies ought to supply raw materials to Europe, who would in turn sell manufactured goods to the colonies.  Each set of colonies only supplied and bought from the mother country.  Thus each empire would be self-sufficient.  Indirect taxes that promoted this were seen as a reasonable part of keeping the empire running.  They also often helped the colonies, as products like tobacco were essentially subsidised by this system, which made sure Virginia tobacco could be sold in London, although under theories of mercantilism, colonial industry was officially discouraged in the colonies so that they would remain consumers of Britain's manufactured goods rather that competitors.

*Thanks to the French and Indian War, however, Britain was deep in debt, and also needed to police the Proclamation Line.  The British government came to feel that the colonies, on whose behalf the war had been fought, ought to help pay for it and, in general, ought to be managed more closely in the future.
 

*The Sugar Act of 1764 cut the Molasses Act in half, but actually tried to enforce it, thereby giving British authorities more power for search and seizure of potentially smuggled sugar and sugar products (such as molasses).  Colonists did not see a need for more taxes and especially not for more bureaucracy now that peace had arrived.  Worse, violators of the law were tried by the appointed British Admiralty courts located in distant Britain, not by local juries. 

*The Stamp Act was announced in 1764 but not put into force until 1765.  It was a tax on most printed documents, including legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and many other paper goods.  This was a direct tax levied against property in order to make money for the government.  Worse, it especially hurt newspapermen, businessmen, lawyers and legislators--the sort of people who could organise resistance.

*Eventually, representatives from nine colonies met in New York in 1764 to plan a cohesive resistance to this one act while remaining loyal to the king.  This was known as the Stamp Act Congress, although it did not accomplish much besides set an example of inter-colonial meetings to discuss resistance to British laws.

*Other groups appeared as well, including the Sons of Liberty, led by Samuel Adams and others, who served as vigilantes to harass anyone taking part in enforcing the Stamp Act.  By late 1765, all the officials supposed to sell the stamps were afraid to do their duty, and in 1766 the act was repealed and the Sugar Tax reduced, but Parliament passed the Declaratory Act saying they had the absolute right pass laws that were binding over the colonies, so the crisis was not over.

*The Townshend Acts of 1767 placed duties on certain imports, including glass, paper, lead, paint, and tea.  These were supervised by a board of customs commissioners headquartered in Boston, which was generally resented.  The taxes resulted in protests, boycotts and violence, as merchants (sometimes out of fear) signed non-importation agreements that hurt British merchants, who in turn complained to Parliament.  This violence reached a climax in Boston in 1770 with the Boston Massacre, which became an important source of propaganda. 

*On the same day, all the Townshend Duties were repealed except the tax on tea.

*In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act.  This gave a monopoly on tea importing to the East India Tea Company (in which many MPs and royal officials owned stock), and let them bypass wholesalers.  Some merchants and the Sons of Liberty protested, leading to the Boston Tea Party in December, 1773.

*In response, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts, of 1774.  These shut down Boston Harbour until all the taxes were paid and the tea itself was paid for; replaced the governor with General Thomas Gage as military governor; ensured that royal officials charged with any crime would be tried in England (not the colonies), which theoretically could let them harass locals and get away with it; and introduced more troops to enforce the laws, who had to be supported any way the military say fit (even in private homes).  The Quebec Act, which preserved Catholicism, the French language, and other traditions in Quebec while enlarging its borders down to the Ohio River.

*Twelve colonies (all but Georgia) sent a total of 55 delegates to Philadelphia, where they constituted the First Continental Congress (5 September, 1774-26 October, 1774).  Some of the delegates supported independence, but most still wanted compromise.

*Fighting began around Boston in April, 1775, with the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and eventually George Washington laying siege to Boston.

*As the siege entered its second month in May, 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia with delegates eventually arrived from all thirteen colonies.  This group would ultimately lead the colonies and then the United States for the majority of the Revolutionary War.  Some delegates wanted independence, and others wanted compromise, eventually offering the Olive Branch Petition to the King, which was ignored.

*In July, 1776, Congress declared independence.  During the war the followed, Washington and other successful commanders delayed and exhausted the British, despite winning few large battles.  One of the few large victories was at Saratoga in 1777, after which the French allied with America openly.  The other major victory was at Yorktown in 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered a major army to George Washington.

*The war lasted until the Peace of Paris in 1783.

*In 1777, Congress created the Articles of Confederation, but they were not ratified by all 13 states until 1781.  The Confederation Congress (which had just one chamber with each state getting one equal vote, and no executive or judiciary) was a deliberately weak government, leaving most power in the hands of the states, where many different forms of democratic government were experimented with.

*Congress did have a few accomplishments, most notably the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which set out how land in the Northwest would be sold and formed into states.  This established that these new states would be equal to the existing states in Congress and otherwise, and that they would have democratically elected governments created by the people of the state (once approved and accepted by Congress).  The Northwest Ordinance also outlawed slavery in states created there, beginning the legal divide between Free and Slave states.

*Otherwise, the Confederation Congress was pretty ineffective.  Congress could not regulate the economy, so foreigners would not do business with the US out of fear that state money and state debts might be worthless.  Congress could not regulate disputes between or within states, allowing border disputes, rebellions, and even independence movements to flourish.  Congress could raise an army but could not easily fund it because it could not collect taxes, which meant in turn that it was hard to fight Indians or pirates.  Finally, it took a 2/3 majority to pass any law and all 13 states to amend the Articles, so changing them to deal with these problems was nearly impossible.

*Many leading Americans, especially merchants, came to see a need to change the articles due to the problems mentioned above, with the final straw being Shays’s Rebellion against payment of Massachusetts taxes in specie rather than the paper money most of them had.

*In 1786 many Americans were worried about their country, with frontier state movements, Indian attacks, rebellions, and piracy on the high seas all beyond Congress’s power to control.  In response, Virginia called for a convention in Annapolis to deal with issues of trade among the colonies.

*The Annapolis Convention of 1786 did not accomplish much.  Only five states even sent delegate. However, the Convention sent a request to Congress authorising a meeting to address the problems of the Articles of Confederation.  Congress reluctantly agreed.

*On 25 May, 1787, 55 delegates from 12 states (but not Rhode Island) met officially to revise the Articles of Confederation.  However, many of those attending hoped to completely replace it with a new system of government.

*Many of the delegates already had experience writing constitutions, having taken part in writing their own states’ constitutions, and many had, or rapidly created, plans for a new government, although almost all were conservatives who wanted a relatively strong central government that would protect property, provide security, and promote trade.

*James Madison came prepared for this with what is known as the Virginia Plan.  The legislature would be bicameral, with a lower house elected by the people and an upper house selected by the lower house from a list of nominees from the state governments.  This bicameral legislature would then elect an executive and establish the judiciary.  Working together, the three branches could even veto state laws.  That was controversial, and never adopted, but the matter of fiercest debate was that under the Virginia Plan, the number of representatives in both houses of the legislature would be based on the population of the states, which gave an obvious advantage to Virginia, the most populous state of all.

*Small states objected, and put forth the New Jersey Plan.  Under this plan, the Articles of Confederation would be retained, but significantly modified.  They would retain a unicameral legislature with each state having equal representation.  It would create an executive branch and a judiciary, but the executive branch would be made up of a small group and not an individual leader.  It still made the national government more powerful than it had been, although not as powerful as the Virginia Plan would have made it.

*After a long debate, the Great Compromise (also called the Connecticut Plan or Sherman’s Compromise, after Roger Sherman) was adopted.  In a bicameral legislature, a House of Representatives would represent the people with representation based on population, while a Senate would represent the states, with each state’s legislature selecting two Senators.  In some ways the Senate would be more powerful, having a bigger say in confirming or denying appointments and treaties made by the executive branch, but the power of the purse would lie with the House of Representatives, where all tax bills must originate.

*Because the House of Representatives (and state contributions to taxes) were based on population, a census would be held every ten years.  A debate in this area was how slaves would be counted for representation and taxation.  Southerners wanted them counted for representation but not taxation; northerners wanted the reverse.  A Three-Fifths Compromise agreed that they would be three-fifths of a person for both purposes, presaging future sectional debates about slavery.

*In many ways, the two most important parts of Article I (which created Congress) are the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. 

*By having the power to regulate commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes Congress would be able to address the problems besetting trade that had originally led to the calling of the Annapolis Convention the year before, but could also give Congress influence over any type of business that crossed state lines, and eventually Congress would make the most of this power.

*Initially, Congress only ended up raising money through the tariff, land sales, the excise tax, and issuing bonds—most direct taxes would be avoided.

*The Necessary and Proper Clause gives Congress even more power, by allowing it to create all laws necessary and proper to carry out its duties, but it is Congress who determine what is necessary and proper.  This power has proven so flexible that it is sometimes known as the Elastic Clause.

*According to Article II, the President would be commander-in-chief of the military (although without the power to declare war) and be in charge of international diplomacy, the treasury, and the duties of executing the laws passed by Congress (or vetoing them—although Congress can overturn his vetoes).  George Washington created the Cabinet to oversee the major departments of the Executive Branch.

*The Judicial Branch was barely described in Article III of the Constitution, except to establish that it was separate from the other branches and that members of the Supreme Court would serve for life or during good behaviour after being appointed by the executive and confirmed by the Senate, making it the branch of the government most removed from the people.  While the judiciary was seen as important, in many ways it was treated as an afterthought, and in the manner of common law, its nature would be defined by future legal decisions, most significantly Marbury v. Madison in 1801, which set the precedent of Judicial Review.

*Although the Framers of the Constitution may have composed it, and James Madison may have been its father, according to the document itself, its authors were 'We the People,' and it was the People who would have to ratify it through specially elected conventions, but only after long and fierce debates.

*The Constitution of 1787 was not a popular document at the time.  The struggle to ratify it was the first major political debates to split the entire country since the Revolution.

*The Constitution was distrusted by many people, but several influential men supported it.  They, and their adherents, were called the Federalists, because they described the system of government the Constitution was supposed to create as a federal system.  However, this was a bit disingenuous:  they were not really seeking to create a new confederation in which the various states had as much or more power than the national government; although the states would continue to exist and be important, they would be subordinate to the national government created by the Constitution.  This was not federalism as most people meant it at the time, but because most people wanted a federal system, the name was a politically clever choice for the Federalists (and left their opponents, who feared that a strong central government would trample the rights of the states and the people and were really more federalist than the Federalists, stuck with the negative name 'Anti-Federalists').

*To assuage some fears, the Federalists promised to create a Bill of Rights (which was ratified in 1791).  In New York, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay also wrote the Federalist Papers to lay out the importance and positive nature of the new government.  This may have helped influence that important state, and certainly let historians know the thoughts of some of the most important Framers.

*Most of the small states ratified the Constitution quickly, and nine states had done so by June, 1788 (and large Virginia and New York fortunately followed them; NC and RI were slower).

*With the ratification of the Constitution by eleven of the thirteen states in 1788, it was time to elect a president.  Of course, only one man was truly thinkable for the position:  George Washington.  He set many of the precedents that defined the presidency, from the creation of the Cabinet to the Two-Term Tradition.  Upon leaving office, he told Americans to avoid entangling foreign alliances, setting another precedent that would last for over a century.

*While in office, Washington did use the power of the national government, most controversially to enforce a higher excise tax during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

*Although all the founders were opposed to political parties, two factions soon formed:  the Federalists (around Hamilton, John Adams, and eventually and reluctantly Washington), who supported a strong central government, pro-business policies, and a loose interpretation of the Constitution, and the Republicans (around Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) who preferred small farmers’ interests  and wanted to limited the central government as much as possible through a strict interpretation of the Constitution.  These loose factions are sometimes described as the First Two-Party System, and played an important role in the election of 1796, when Vice-President John Adams was elected to the Presidency with Thomas Jefferson as his vice-president.



This page last updated 15 April, 2016.
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