History of the United States (1789–1849)

This article covers the history of the United States from 1789 through 1849, the period of westward expansion.

George Washington, elected the first president in 1789, worked with the heads of the departments of State, Treasury, and War, along with an Attorney General (the Justice Department wasn't created until 1870), the group of which later became known as his cabinet. Based in New York, the new government acted quickly to rebuild the nation's financial structure. Enacting the program of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, the government assumed the American Revolutionary War (1775-1778) debts of the states and the national government, and refinanced them with new federal bonds. It paid for the program through new tariffs and taxes; the tax on whiskey led to a revolt in the west; Washington raised an army and suppressed it. The nation adopted a Bill of Rights as 10 amendments to the new constitution. Fleshing out the Constitution's specification of the judiciary as capped by a Supreme Court, the Judiciary Act of 1789 established the entire federal judiciary. The Supreme Court became important under the leadership of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), a federalist and nationalist who built a strong Supreme Court and strengthened the national government.

The 1790s were highly contentious. The First Party System emerged in the contest between Hamilton and his Federalist party, and Thomas Jefferson and his Republican party. Washington and Hamilton were building a strong national government, with a broad financial base, and the support of merchants and financiers throughout the country. Jeffersonians opposed the new national Bank, the Navy, and federal taxes. The Federalists favored Britain, which was embattled in a series of wars with France. Jefferson's victory in 1800 opened the era of Jeffersonian democracy, and doomed the upper-crust Federalists to increasingly marginal roles.

The Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon in 1803 opened vast Western expanses of fertile land, which exactly met the needs of the rapidly expanding population of yeomen farmers whom Jefferson championed.

The Americans declared war on Britain (the War of 1812) to uphold American honor at sea,[1] and to end the Indian raids in the west, as well as to temporarily seize Canadian territory as a negotiating chip. Secretary of State James Monroe said in June 1812, "It might be necessary to invade Canada, not as an object of the war but to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion."[2] Despite incompetent government management, and a series of defeats early on, Americans found new generals like Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Winfield Scott, who repulsed British invasions and broke the alliance between the British and the Indians that held up settlement of the Old Northwest. The Federalists, who had opposed the war to the point of trading with the enemy and threatening secession, were devastated by the triumphant ending of the war. The remaining Indians east of the Mississippi were kept on reservations or moved via the Trail of Tears to reservations in what later became Oklahoma.

The spread of democracy opened the ballot box to nearly all white men, allowing the Jacksonian democracy to dominate politics during the Second Party System. Whigs, representing wealthier planters, merchants, financiers, and professionals, wanted to modernize the society, using tariffs and federally funded internal improvements; they were blocked by the Jacksonians, who closed down the national Bank in the 1830s. The Jacksonians wanted expansion—that is "Manifest Destiny"—into new lands that would be occupied by farmers and planters. Thanks to the annexation of Texas, the defeat of Mexico in war, and a compromise with Britain, the western third of the nation rounded out the continental United States by 1848.

Howe (2007) argues that the transformation America underwent was not so much political democratization but rather the explosive growth of technologies and networks of infrastructure and communication—the telegraph, railroads, the post office, and an expanding print industry. They made possible the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, the expansion of education and social reform. They modernized party politics and sped up business by enabling the fast, efficient movement of goods, money, and people across an expanding nation. They transformed a loose-knit collection of parochial agricultural communities into a powerful cosmopolitan nation.[3] Economic modernization proceeded rapidly, thanks to highly profitable cotton crops in the South, new textile and machine-making industries in the Northeast, and a fast developing transportation infrastructure.

During 1791 and 1838, 13 new states were formed.

Breaking loose from European models, the Americans developed their own high culture, notably in literature and in higher education. The Second Great Awakening brought revivals across the country, forming new denominations and greatly increasing church membership, especially among Methodists and Baptists. By the 1840s increasing numbers of immigrants were arriving from Europe, especially British, Irish, and Germans. Many settled in the cities, which were starting to emerge as a major factor in the economy and society. The Whigs had warned that annexation of Texas would lead to a crisis over slavery, and they were proven right by the turmoil of the 1850s that led to the Civil War.[4]


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