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The Critical Period of American History


John Fiske

I am uneasy and apprehensive, more so than during the war”
Jay to Washington, June 27, 1786.

Boston & New York
Houghton, Mifflin & Company
The Riverside Press, Cambridge

Copyright, 1888
by John Fiske

The Riverside Press, Cambridge, mass, U.S.A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.

My Dear Classmates,
Francis Lee Higginson
Charles Cabot Jackson,
I Dedicate this Book.


This book contains the substance of the course of lectures given in the Old South Meeting-House in Boston in December, 1884, at the Washington University in St Louis in May, 1885, and in the theatre of the University Club in New York in march, 1886. In its present shape it may serve as a sketch of the political history of the United States from the end of the revolutionary war to the adoption of the Federal Constitution. It makes no pretensions to completeness, either as a summary of the events of that period or as a discussion of the political questions involved in them. I have aimed especially at grouping facts in such a way as to bring out and emphasize their casual sequence, and it is accordingly hoped that the book may prove useful to the student of American history.

My title was suggested by the fact of Thomas Paine’s stopping the publication of the “Crisis,” on hearing the news of the treaty of 1783, with the remark, “The times that tried men’s souls are over.” Commenting upon this, on page 55 of the present work, I observed that so far from the crisis being over in 1783, the next five years were to be the most critical time of all. I had not seen Mr. Truscott’s “Diplomatic History of the Administrations of Washington and Adams,” on page 9 of which he used almost the same words: “It must not be supposed that the treaty of peace secured the national life. Indeed, it would be more correct to say that the most critical period of the country’s history embraced the time between 1783 and the adoption of the Constitution in 1788.”

That period was preŽminently the turning-point in the development of political society in the western hemisphere. Though small in their mere dimensions, the events here summarized were in a remarkable degree germinal events, fraught with more tremendous alternatives of future welfare or misery for mankind than it is easy for the imagination to grasp. As we now stand upon the threshold of that mighty future, in the light of which all events of the past are clearly destined to seem dwindled in dimensions and significant only in the ratio of their potency of causes; as we discern how large a part of that future must be the outcome of the creative work, for good or ill, of men of English speech; we are put into the proper mood for estimating the significance of the causes which determined a century ago that the continent of North America should be dominated by a single powerful and pacific federal nation instead of being parcelled out among forty or fifty small communities, wasting their strength and lowering their moral tone by perpetual warfare, like the states of ancient Greece, or by perpetual preparation for warfare, like the nations of modern Europe. In my book entitled “American Political Ideas, viewed from the standpoint of Universal History,” I have tried to indicate the pacific influence likely to be exerted upon the world by the creation and maintenance of such a political structure as out Federal Union. the present narrative may serve as a commentary upon what I had in mind on page 133 of that book, in speaking of the work of our Federal Convention as “the finest specimen of constructive statesmanship that the world has ever seen.” On such a point it is pleasant to find one’s self in accord with a statesman so wise and noble as Mr. Gladstone, whose opinions is here quoted on page 233.

To some persons it may seem as if the years 1861-65 were of more cardinal importance that the years 1783-89. Our civil war was indeed an event of prodigious magnitude, as measured by any standard that history affords; and there can be little doubt as to its decisiveness. The measure of that decisiveness is to be found in the completeness of the reconciliation that has already, despite the feeble walls of unscrupulous place-hunters and unteachable bigots, cemented the Federal Union so powerfully that all likelihood of its disruption may be said to have disappeared forever. when we consider this wonderful harmony which so soon has followed the deadly struggle, we may well believe to be the index of such a stride toward the ultimate pacification of mankind as was never made before. But it was the work done in the years 1783-89 that created a federal union capable of enduring the storm and stress of the years 1861-65. It was in the earlier crisis that the pliant twig was bent; and as it was bent, so has it grown; until it has become a goodly and a sturdy tree.

Cambridge, October 10, 1888.


Fall of Lord North’s ministry.
Sympathy between British Whigs and the revolutionary party in America.
It Weakened the Whig party in England.
Character of Lord Shelburne
Political Instability of the Rockingham Ministry.
Obstacles in the way of a treaty of peace.
Oswald talks with Franklin.
Grenville has an interview with Vergennes.
Effects of Rodney’s Victory
Misunderstanding between Fox and Shelburne
Fall of the Rockingham Ministry
Shelburne becomes prime Minister.
Defeat of the Spaniards and French at Gibraltar
French policy opposed to American Interests.
The Valley of the Mississippi; Aranda’s policy.
The Newfoundland fisheries.
Jay detects the schemes of Vergennes
And sends Dr. Vaughn to visit Shelburne
John Adams arrives in Paris and joins with Jay in insisting upon a separate negotiation with England
The separate American treaty, as agreed upon:
     1. Boundaries.
     2. Fisheries; commercial intercourse.
     3. Private debts.
     4. Compensation of loyalists.
Secret article relating to the Yazoo boundary.
Vergennes does not like the way in which it has been done.
On the part of the Americans it was a great diplomatic victory.
Which commissioners won by disregarding the instructions of Congress and acting on their own responsibility.
The Spanish treaty.
The French treaty.
Coalition of Fox with North.
They attack the American treaty in Parliament.
And compel Shelburne to resign.
Which leaves England without a government, while for several weeks the king is too angry to appoint ministers.
Until at length he succumbs to the coalition, which presently adopts and ratifies the American treaty.
The coalition ministry is wrecked upon Fox’s India Bill.
Constitutional crisis ends in the overwhelming victory of Pitt in the elections of May, 1784.
And this, although apparently a triumph for the King, was really a death-blow to his system of personal government.

Cessation of hostilities in America.
Departure of the British troops.
Washington resigns his command.
And goes home to Mount Vernon.
His “legacy” to the American people.
The next five years were the most critical years in American history.
Absence of a sentiment of union, and subsequent danger of anarchy.
European statesmen, whether hostile or friendly, had little faith in the stability of the union.
False historic analogies.
Influence of railroad and telegraph upon the perpetuity of the union.
Difficulty of travelling a hundred years ago.
Local jealousies and antipathies, and inheritance from primal savagery.
State governments remodelled; assemblies continues from colonial times.
Origin of the senates in the governor’s council of assistants
Governors viewed with suspicion.
Analogies with British institutions.
The Judiciary.
Restrictions upon suffrage.
Abolition of primogeniture, entail, and manorial privileges.
Steps toward the abolition of slavery and the slave trade
Progress towards religious freedom
Church and State in Virginia.
Persecution of dissenters.
Madison and the Religious freedom act.
Temporary overthrow of the Church.
Difficulties in regard to ordination; the case of Mason Weems.
Ordination of Samuel Seabury by non-jurors at Aberdeen.
Francis Asbury and the Methodists.
Presbyterians and Congregationalists
Roman Catholics.
Except in the instance of slavery, all the changes described in this chapter
     were favourable to the union of the states.

But while the state governments, in all these changes, are seen working smoothly,
     we have next to observe, by contrast, the clumsiness and inefficiency of the federal government.

The several states have never enjoyed complete sovereignty.
But it is in the very act of severing their connection with Great Britain, they entered into some sort of union.
Anomalous character of the Continental Congress.
The Articles of Confederation; they sought to establish a “league of friendship” between the States.
But failed to create a federal government endowed with real sovereignty.
Military weakness of the government.
Extreme difficulty of obtaining a revenue.
Congress, being unable to pay the army was afraid of it.
Supposed scheme for making Washington King.
Greene’s experience in South Carolina.
Gate’s staff officers and the Newburgh address
Danger averted by Washington
Congress driven from Philadelphia by mutinous soldiers.
The Commutation Act denounced in New England.
Order of the Cincinnati
Reasons for the dread which it inspired.
Congress finds itself unable to carry out the provisions of the treaty with Great Britain.
Persecution of the loyalists.
It was specially severe in New York.
Trespass Act of 1784 directed against the loyalists.
Character and early career of Alexander Hamilton.
The case of Rutgers v Waddington.
Wholesale emigration of Tories.
Congress unable to enforce payment of debts to British creditors.
England retaliates by refusing to surrender the fortresses on the north-western frontier.

The barbarous superstitions of the Middle Ages concerning trade were still rife in the eighteenth century.
The old theory of the uses of a colony.
Pitt’s unsuccessful attempt to secure free trade between Great Britain and the United States.
Ship-building in New England
British navigation acts and orders-in-council directed against American commerce.
John Adams tried in vain to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain.
And could see no escape from the difficulties except in systematic reprisal.
But any such reprisal was impracticable, for the several States imposed conflicting duties.
Attempts to give Congress the power of regulating commerce were unsuccessful.
And the several States began to make commercial war upon one another.
Attempts of New York to oppress New Jersey and Connecticut.
Retaliatory measures of the two latter states.
The quarrel between Connecticut and Pennsylvania over the possession of the valley of Wyoming.
The quarrel between New York and new Hampshire over the possession of the green Mountains.
Failure of American diplomacy because European states could not tell whether they were dealing
     with one nation or with thirteen.

Failure of American credit; John Adams begging in Holland.
The Barbary Pirates.
American citizens kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Lord Sheffield’s outrageous pamphlet.
Tripoli’s demand for blackmail.
Congress unable to protect American citizens.
Financial distress after the Revolutionary war.
State of the coinage.
Cost of the war in money.
Robert Morris and his immense services.
The craze for paper money.
Agitation in the southern and middle States.
Distress in New England
Imprisonment for debt.
Rag-money victorious in Rhode Island; the “Know Ye” measures.
Rag-money defeated in Massachusetts: the Shays insurrection.
The insurrection suppressed by state troops.
Conduct of the neighbouring states.
The rebels pardoned.
Timidity of Congress.

Creation of a national domain behind the Alleghanies.
Conflicting claims to the western territory.
Claims of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Claims of New York.
Virginia’s claims.
Maryland’s novel and beneficent suggestion.
The several states yield their claims in favour of the United States.
Magnanimity of Virginia.
Jefferson proposes a scheme of government for the north-western territory.
Names of the proposed ten states.
Jefferson wishes to prohibit slavery in the national domain.
North Carolina’s cession of western lands
John Sevier and the state of Franklin.
The northwestern territory
Origin of the Ohio Company.
The Ordinance of 1787.
Theory of folk-land upon which was based Spain, hearing of the secret article in the treaty of 1783,
     loses her temper and threatens to shut up the Mississippi River.

Gardoqui and Jay.
Threats of secession in Kentucky and new England.
Washington’s views on the political importance of canals between the east and west.
His far-sighted genius and self devotion.
Maryland confers with Virginia regarding the navigation of the Potomac.
The Madison-Tyler motion in the Virginia legislature.
Convention at Annapolis, Sept. 11, 1786.
Hamilton’s address calling for a convention at Philadelphia.
The impost amendment defeated by the action of New York; last ounce upon the camel’s back.
Sudden changes in popular sentiment.
The Federal Convention meets at Philadelphia, May, 1787.
Mr. Gladstone’s opinion of the work of the convention.
The Men who were assembled there
Character of James Madison.
The other leading members.
Washington chosen president of the convention.

Why the proceedings of the convention were kept secret for so many years.
Difficulty of the problem to be solved.
Symptoms of cowardice repressed by Washington’s impassioned speech.
The root of all the difficulties; the edicts of the federal government had operated only upon states,
     not upon individuals, and therefore could not be enforced without danger of war.

The Virginia plan, of which Madison was the chief author, offered a radical cure.
And was felt to be revolutionary in its character.
Fundamental features of the Virginia plan.
How it was first received.
The House of Representatives must be directly elected by the people.
Question as to the representation of states brings out the antagonism between large and small states.
William Paterson presents the New Jersey plan; not a radical cure, but a feeble palliative.
Struggle between the Virginia and New Jersey plans.
The Connecticut compromise, according to which the national principle is to prevail in the House of Representatives, and the federal principle in the Senate, meets at first with fierce opposition.
But is at length adopted.
And proves a decisive victory for Madison and his methods.
A few irreconcilable members go home in dudgeon.
But the small states, having been propitiated, are suddenly converted to Federalism, and make
     the victory complete.

Vague dread of the future west.
The struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery parties began in the convention, and was
     quieted by two compromises.

Should representation be proportioned to wealth or to population.
Were slaves to be reckoned as persons or as chattels?
Attitude of the Virginia statesmen.
It was absolutely necessary to satisfy South Carolina.
The three-fifths compromise, suggested by Madison, was a genuine English solution, if ever there was one.
There was neither rhyme nor reason in it, but for all that, it was the best solution attainable at the time.
The next compromise was between New England and South Carolina as to the foreign slave-trade
     and the power of the federal government over commerce.

George Madison calls the slave-trade an “infernal traffic”.
And the compromise offends and alarms Virginia.
Belief in the moribund condition of slavery.
The foundations of the Constitution were laid in compromise.
Powers granted to the federal government.
Use of federal troops in suppressing insurrections.
Various federal powers.
Provision for a federal city under federal jurisdiction.
The Federal Congress might compel the attendance of members.
Powers denied to the states.
Should the federal government be allowed to make its promissory notes a legal tender in payment of debts? powerful speech by Gouverneur Morris.
Emphatic and unmistakable condemnation of paper money by all the leading delegates.
The convention refused to grant to the federal government the power of issuing inconvertible paper,
     but it did not think an express prohibition necessary.

If they could have foreseen some recent judgments of the supreme court, they would doubtless
     have made the prohibition explicit and absolute.

Debates as to the federal executive.
Sherman’s suggestion as to the true relation of the executive to the legislature.
There was to be a single chief magistrate, but how should he be chosen?
Objections to an election by Congress.
Ellsworth and King suggest the device of an electoral college, which is at first rejected.
But afterwards adopted.
Provisions for an election by Congress in the case of a failure of choice by the electoral college.
Provisions for counting the electoral votes.
It was not intended to leave anything to be decided by the President of the Senate.
The Convention foresaw imaginary dangers, but not the real ones.
Hamilton’s opinion of the electoral scheme.
How has it actually worked.
In this part of its work, the Convention tried to copy from the British Constitution.
In which they supposed the legislative and executive departments to be distinct and separate.
Here they were misled by Montesquieu and Blackstone.
What our government would be if it were really like that of Great Britain.
In the British government the executive is not separated from the legislative.
Circumstances which obscured the true aspect of the case a century ago.
The American Cabinet is analogous, not to the British Cabinet, but to the Privy Council.
The federal judiciary, and its remarkable character.
Provisions for amending the Constitution.
The document is signed by all but three of the delegates.
And the Convention breaks up.
With a pleasant remark from Franklin.

Franklin lays the Constitution before the legislature of Pennsylvania.
It is submitted to Congress, which refers it to the legislatures of the thirteen states, to be ratified or rejected by the people in conventions.
First American political parties, Federalists and Antifederalists.
The contest in Pennsylvania.
How to make a quorum.
A war of pamphlets and newspaper squibs.
Ending in the ratification of the Constitution by Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Rejoicings and mutterings.
Georgia and Connecticut ratify.
The outlook in Massachusetts.
The Massachusetts Convention meets.
And overhauls the Constitution clause by clause.
On the subject of an army Mr. Nason waxes eloquent
The clergymen oppose a religious test.
And Rev. Samuel West argues on the assumption that all men are not totally depraved.
Feeling of distrust in the mountain districts.
Timely speech of a Berkshire farmer.
Attitude of Samuel Adams
Meeting of mechanics at the Green Dragon.
Charges of bribery.
Washington’s fruitful suggestion.
Massachusetts ratifies, but proposes amendments.
The Long Lane has a turning and becomes a Federal Street.
New Hampshire hesitates, but Maryland ratifies, and all eyes are turned upon South Carolina.
Objections of Rawlins Lowndes answered by Cotesworh Pinckney.
South Carolina ratifies the Constitution.
Important effect upon Virginia, where thoughts are of a Southern confederacy had been entertained.
Madison and Marshall prevail in the Virginia Convention, and it ratifies the Constitution.
New Hampshire had ratified four days before.
Rejoicings at Philadelphia; riots at Providence and Albany
The struggle in New York.
Origin of the “Federalist”
Hamilton wins the victory, and New York ratifies.
All serious anxiety is now at an end; the laggard states, North Carolina and Rhode Island.
First presidential election, January 7, 1789; Washington is unanimously chosen.
Why Samuel Adams was not selected for vice-president.
Selection of John Adams.
Washington’s journey to New York, April 16 – 23.
His inauguration.