Modern history

On the Political Margins

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the United States was forced to the political margins in international affairs. At the same time, as the new Republic moved from war to peace to nationhood, some groups within the nation were marginalized as well. Small farmers were among those who suffered in the postwar period, but they were not alone. Church leaders who had enjoyed government support in the colonial period now had to compete for members and funds. African Americans, whose hopes for freedom had been raised by the Revolution, continued to fight for full-fledged citizenship and an end to slavery. Women, too, faced challenges as they sought to claim a greater voice in the nation.

Separating Church and State

Government support of churches largely ended with the establishment of the United States. Anglican churches had long benefited from British support and collected taxes to support their ministry during the Revolution. Then in 1786 the Virginia Assembly approved the Statute of Religious Freedom, which was drafted earlier by Thomas Jefferson and made church attendance and support voluntary and eliminated many Anglican privileges. Other states soon followed suit, affecting all churches that had previously counted on government support.

Most states did require that officeholders be Christians, or even Protestants. But by the 1780s, that designation included a wide array of denominations. Especially in frontier areas, Baptists and Methodists, the latter of which broke off from the Anglican Church in 1784, gained thousands of converts. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, and the Presbyterians also gained new adherents in this period, while Catholics and Jews experienced greater tolerance than in the colonial era. In fact, in 1790 the Vatican appointed John Carroll the first Roman Catholic bishop of the United States. As a result of this diversity, no single religious voice or perspective dominated in the new nation. Instead, all denominations competed for members, money, and political influence.

Many Protestant churches were also challenged from within by free blacks who sought a greater role in church governance. In 1794 Richard Allen, a preacher who had been born a slave, led a small group of Philadelphia blacks who founded the first African American church in the United States. The Bethel African-American Methodist Church initially remained within the larger Methodist fold. By the early 1800s, however, Allen’s church would serve as the basis for the first independent black denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

African Americans Struggle for Rights

Black churches provided one arena in which African Americans could demonstrate their independence. It was no accident that the Bethel African-American Methodist Church was founded in Philadelphia, which attracted large numbers of free blacks after passage of the state’s gradual emancipation law in 1780. Although the northern states with the largest enslaved populations—New York and New Jersey—did not pass such laws until 1799 and 1804, the size of the free black population increased throughout the region.

Many of these free blacks were migrants from the South, where tens of thousands of enslaved women and men gained their freedom during or immediately following the Revolution (see chapter 6). A few slave owners took Revolutionary ideals to heart and emancipated their slaves following the war. Many others emancipated slaves in their wills. In addition, several states prohibited the importation of slaves from Africa during or immediately following the Revolution, including Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Despite these emancipations and prohibitions, the number of individuals enslaved in the United States in 1800 was far greater than in 1776, and the enslaved population continued to grow rapidly thereafter. Now, however, slavery was increasingly confined to the South. As northern states passed gradual abolition laws, southern states moved in the opposite direction, making it more difficult for owners to free their slaves and for free blacks to remain in the South.

The limits on emancipation in the South nurtured the growth of free black communities in the North, especially in seaport cities like Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and New Bedford, Massachusetts. In these areas, most African Americans focused on establishing families, finding jobs, and securing the freedom of relatives still enslaved. Others, like Richard Allen, sought to build black communities by establishing churches, schools, and voluntary societies and demanding a political voice. Some northern states, such as New Jersey, granted property-owning blacks the right to vote. Others, such as Pennsylvania, did not specifically exclude them. Records suggest that few black men participated in elections in the early Republic, yet many petitioned state and local governments—in the North and the South—to provide African American communities with schooling, burial grounds, and other forms of assistance.

Although blacks gained little support from most white Americans, they did have some allies. The Society of Friends, the only religious denomination to oppose slavery in the colonial period, became more adamant in its stance in the post-Revolutionary period. Many affluent Quakers finally freed their slaves and withdrew from the slave trade. Anthony Benezet, a Quaker writer and educator, advocated tirelessly for the abolition of slavery within the Society of Friends and directed the Negro School in Philadelphia, which he had founded in 1770.

Women Seek Wider Roles

Quaker women as well as men testified against slavery in the 1780s, writing statements on the topic in separate women’s meetings. Although few other women experienced such spiritual autonomy, many gained a new sense of economic and political independence during the Revolution. Once peace was achieved, should they demand rights based on their wartime service or create new roles for themselves in the new Republic? Differences of age, wealth, region, race, and religion shaped women’s responses to these questions.

The most famous Revolutionary claim for women’s rights was penned by Abigail Adams in 1776 when she warned her husband, John, that “if particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion [sic], and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Adams and other elite women sought a more public voice following the Revolution as well. Only in New Jersey could women—widowed or single, property-owning women—vote, and many cast ballots in state and local elections by the early nineteenth century.

The vast majority of women, however, could shape political decisions only by influencing their husbands, sons, and brothers. Fortunately, many leaders of the early Republic viewed virtuous wives and mothers as necessary to the development of a strong nation. In 1787 Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, published his Essay on Female Education. He believed that women could best shape political ideas and relations by “instructing their sons in principles of liberty and government” and rewarding husbands engaged in public service with “approbation and applause.” To prepare young women for this enhanced domestic role, Rush suggested educating them in literature, music, composition, geography, history, and bookkeeping.

A more radical approach to women’s education was presented by Judith Sargent Murray. Murray argued that “girls should be enabled to procure for themselves the necessaries of life; independence should be placed within their grasp.” In addition to such practical instruction, Murray also advocated an education for girls that included science, mathematics, Latin, and Greek. She argued that at age two, boys and girls were intellectually equal. But from then on, “the one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited.” A few American women in the late eighteenth century did receive broad educations, and some ran successful businesses; wrote plays, poems, and histories; and established urban salons where women and men discussed the issues of the day. In 1789 Massachusetts became the first state to institute free elementary education for all children, and female academies also multiplied in this period. Still, most girls’ education was focused on preparing them for domesticity, and most women wielded what influence they had as an extension of their domestic responsibilities.

While women’s influence was praised in the post-Revolutionary era, state laws rarely expanded women’s rights. All states limited women’s economic autonomy, although a few allowed married women to enter into business. Divorce was also legalized in many states but was still available only to the wealthy and well connected. Meanwhile women were excluded from juries and legal training and with rare exceptions from voting rights.

African American and Indian women lived under even more severe restraints than white women did. By the 1790s, the number of enslaved women began to increase rapidly once again. Even black women who gained their freedom could find jobs only as domestic servants or agricultural workers. Indian women also faced a difficult future. Years of warfare had enhanced men’s role as warriors and diplomats while restricting women’s political influence. Furthermore, American officials and missionaries encouraged Indians to embrace gender roles that mirrored those of Anglo-American culture by giving men hoes and women spinning wheels. When forced to move farther west, Indian women also lost political and economic authority that was linked to their traditional control over land, crops, and households.

Indebted Farmers Fuel Political Crises

Although many Americans struggled economically in the 1780s, ordinary men did gain a greater voice in politics. Under constitutions written during the Revolution, most state governments broadened the electorate, allowing men with less property (or in some cases no property) to vote and hold office. They also increased representation from western areas. Although most elected officials still came from the wealthier classes, many felt some responsibility to address the claims of the less fortunate.

Still, the economic interests of poor farmers and of wealthy merchants and landowners diverged sharply. As conflicts between rich and poor, debtors and creditors, escalated between 1783 and 1787, state governments came down firmly on the side of those with money. When petitions and elections failed, impoverished workers and farmers mounted protests. In New Hampshire, debt-ridden farmers marched on the original state capital at Exeter to demand reform. They were confronted by cavalry units, who quickly seized and imprisoned their leaders.

In addition to rebellions by farmers and debtors, many political and economic leaders were worried about the continued efforts of Great Britain and Spain to undercut U.S. sovereignty, ongoing struggles with Indian nations, and attacks on private property by squatters. When James Madison and Alexander Hamilton attended the 1785 convention in Annapolis to address problems related to interstate commerce, they discovered that their concerns about the weakness of the confederation were shared by many large landowners, planters, and merchants. Despite these concerns, state legislatures were reluctant to give up the powers conferred on them under the Articles.

Shays's Rebellion, the 1786 armed uprising by disgruntled, indebted farmers in western Massachusetts, turned the tide by crystallizing fears among prominent patriots about the limits of the confederation model. On December 26, 1786, Washington wrote Henry Knox to express his concerns about the rebellion and other upheavals along the frontier: “If the powers [of the central government] are inadequate, amend or alter them; but do not let us sink into the lowest states of humiliation and contempt.” Hamilton, too, believed that Shays’s Rebellion marked “almost the last stage of national humiliation.” Speaking of the confederation government, he claimed that this “frail and toddering edifice seems ready to fall upon our heads and crush us beneath its ruins.”


• How did America's experience of the Revolutionary War change the lives of African Americans and women?

• What do uprisings by farmers and debtors tell us about social and economic divisions in the early Republic?

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