Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 2: The American Revolution or, “We Spilled the Tea”

Welcome to Anti-Social Studies! Last episode we covered the entire colonial era in 45 minutes – it was pretty impressive, if I do say so myself. All the early colonies were led by men named John, apparently; some colonists wanted to get rich quick while others were looking for a place where they could be the religious majority. And a few weirdos established truly enlightened colonies up in Connecticut and Rhode Island. It was great.

Now let’s get into Episode 2: The American Revolution or, “We Spilled the Tea.” We’re talking taxes, George Washington, Bunker Hill, and the Constitution. 

A friendly reminder before we get started that I post bonus content, including my version of the news, on Patreon. Go to patreon.com/antisocialstudies to see what you’re missing! 

OK. There’s a lot to get through today so let’s go!

Copy of lithograph by Sarony & Major, 1846 [Public domain]

Act 1: Causes of the Revolution

Where did the American Revolution come from? Were the Founding Fathers genius visionaries who came up with this whole “We don’t need a king” thing from scratch? Yes and no.

The 1700s was part of the so-called Age of Enlightenment in Europe. Over the past few hundred years, Europe had experienced a lot of dramatic shifts that totally changed its perspective: the Crusades re-awakened Europe’s curiosity about the wider world; Columbus’s “Discovery” of the Americas in 1492 made everyone question just how much they really knew; Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation challenged “The Man,” in this case The Pope; scientists were discovering that the Earth was governed by natural laws like gravity; and so political thinkers started to question the way things were as well. Traditionally, and by traditionally I mean for all of human history, most civilizations had been governed by a single ruler with effectively absolute power. But as other pillars of traditional authority came crashing down, people started to wonder if that was the best way. Now, it is important to note that most of the monoliths of the Enlightenment – especially our main guy John Locke – still believed that a monarchy was the best form of government. True democracy seemed insane and it scared the heck out of the upper classes – including our own Founding Fathers. But, a lot of Enlightened thinkers began to wonder if there could be a compromise – a monarch that shared more power and responsibility with the people.

At the same time, colonial America in the mid-1700s was going through a religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Religious leaders were concerned because secularism was growing more common in the colonies, another byproduct of the Enlightenment was an increasing separation between private, religious views and public life. Many of the traveling preachers that led the Great Awakening emphasized egalitarianism. It was kind of like Martin Luther’s Reformation 2.0. Preachers encouraged the colonists to develop a personal relationship with God, rather than relying on their Church’s minister. Many of the colonies grew more unified in this new, uber-Protestant, uniquely American form of Christianity. And the emphasis on individual rights of Christians to worship, read, and pray, mixed with Enlightenment ideals to create a growing sense of individualism in the colonies.

This was helped along by the fact that 1) they were really far away from their Mother Country. And 2) Britain kind of left the American colonies alone. As long as they were getting their sugar, cotton, and tobacco, the British looked the other way as Americans sold some excess goods on the black market to Spain, for example. And this system of salutary, or benign neglect worked… until Britain needed something from the colonies.

The British had just finished fighting a costly war known as the Seven Years War. Honestly, it’s not important to know much about this war except that on opposite sides were Britain and France and they fought in Europe, but also in North America where both powers had colonies. On our continent, we called it the French and Indian War because the American colonists were fighting against… you guessed it… the French and Indians.

Yadda yadda yadda, the British won – yay! As part of the peace deal, they got the highly-coveted Ohio Territory west of the Appalachian Mountains – yay! Except they issued a proclamation in 1763 called the Proclamation of 1763 saying that the colonists couldn’t go there. Boo. Why did they prevent Americans from crossing the Appalachians? Well, they didn’t really have the resources to administer the settled lands they already had because **drumroll** they were in debt! Oh no!

Yeah, wars are expensive. Even if you win them. And so, the British looked at their established policy of basically leaving the American colonists alone and thought, Yeah that’s not going to work anymore. Throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, they imposed a series of taxes on the colonists. You know the drill: the Sugar Act, the Currency Act, the Stamp Act, etc. If colonists had it, the British taxed it.

Now, just a quick note on this. From the British perspective, this was 100% reasonable. They felt like the colonists had been getting off pretty easy for years – a lot of the taxes they imposed were the same taxes that British citizens had been paying over in the UK for decades. And the American colonists were still subjects of the Crown, so why should they not have to pay?

Obviously, from the American perspective this was unfair. The real reason was just because everyone in history always hates taxes no matter what forever. Remember that. But they also felt like if they were going to get taxed by Parliament, then they should have some representation in Parliament. They made it catchier by chanting – say it with me – “No taxation without representation!” It’s good because it rhymes.

At this point I want to make sure we’re all clear that up until now the colonies had been completely separate. I mean, Benjamin Franklin made that famous snake cartoon “Join or Die” to try to convince the colonies to unite and fight as one in the French and Indian War, with mild success. But, really, the concept of being an “American” didn’t exist. You were a Virginian or a Rhode Islander or a Massachusettsian? Massachuster? Cape Codder? I’ve never thought about that before. What do they call themselves? I could look it up, but coming up with my own silly versions is more fun.

So, these taxes have the unintended consequences of starting to unite the colonies together in a common cause. The leaders of the various colonies start getting together in rooms and comparing notes and they start bro-ing out about how much they have in common, “Oh wait. Y’all hate the Quartering Act, too? We hate the Quartering Act! Sweet!”

The first major one of these bro gatherings was the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. The British Parliament had passed a tax on stamps. Nope. Actually it was a tax on paper – all legal documents, calendars, newspapers, playing cards, etc. had to have the official stamp showing that you had paid the tax. This impacted essentially all business in the colony and we were not for it. The Stamp Act Congress met in Federal Hall in New York City and issued the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. (Warning: get reading for a lot of Congresses and a lot of Declarations. Basically they were all just the colonists saying, “Britain, stop it!”) This declaration was where they issued their “no taxation without representation” argument and called for colonial representatives in Parliament chosen by the colonists.

In this same year, the Sons of Liberty was formed in Boston by Sam Adams. This was essentially a loose underground organization that led the resistance against perceived British oppression. I just want to note that this group, from the British view, was a rebel terrorist organization. They sacked and burned the homes and other property of prominent British officials and often incited mob violence in the name of overthrowing the government. Young men would come over from England to serve the empire as Customs Officers and they would refuse to get off the ship because they could see mobs of colonists waiting at the dock to beat them up. But, we won, so they get to be heroic revolutionaries instead of rebellious traitors. 

Long story short, the king repealed the Stamp Act! Yay! We won! But also no. He started sending more forces to the colonies, especially to New York and Boston, which were hotbeds for this revolutionary sentiment. In 1770, a street fight between colonists and one British soldier escalated into a chaotic riot. The so-called Boston Massacre resulted in 5 deaths and sparked outrage across the colonies. Although it’s not clear who started it, the perception was that the British military was attacking its own people and that didn’t look great.

By 1773, the British imposed a new tax on tea. Why tea? Well, for one, tea was incredibly popular so taxing it could make them a lot of money quickly. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day; middle-class families drank tea to show they were ritzy and sophisticated, too; and wealthy families drank tea because that’s what you do when you’re rich. All of this sophistication was really important to the American colonists who were sort of seen as “backwoods” or “rustic” in the eyes of England. So, especially middle- and upper-class colonists prided themselves on having the best tea, served on the finest china, to prove they were just as dignified as their friends and relations back in England. 

But also, tea was being smuggled by the colonists. A lot of it. So the British East India Company had a monopoly on tea sold to the American colonies. By 1765, tea alone made up anywhere from 70-90% of the imports of the British East India Company – it was critical to their business. But Americans had also been smuggling in cheaper, non-Company tea for years. Let me point out now that some of the earliest revolutionaries, including many members of the Sons of Liberty, were tea smugglers. So that Boston Tea Party thing was less about freedom and independence and more about gang leaders getting rid of the competition. But more on that in a second.

Over time the British East India Company had come to represent the oppressive powers of mercantilism. By the 1760s the company was in debt – which was a threat to the Britihs government, because they relied on the company’s profits for a lot of its budget. The tea market in Europe and England was already saturated – people can only drink so much tea – so they started shipping more and more to the colonies. On the one hand, this brought the price of tea down which was good; but slowly it started to feel like British tea was being forced down the throats of the colonists. Basically, the system was a big pyramid scheme – American commissioners had signed contracts with the Company to sell all the imported tea in America. They were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they didn’t sell the tea, they would lose their commission, lose their ship, and lose the money that they had fronted to get the tea in the first place. And so as the East India Company sent more and more shipments of tea, American commissioners were forced to take it on and find ways to sell it to colonists. This angered many Americans, but it also made the value of the illegal tea being smuggled in by many young men go way down in price – and they were not happy about that. 

So, famously, a few members of the Sons of Liberty dressed as Native Americans, boarded British ships in Boston harbor and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. How much tea was that? Well, it could have brewed 18.5 million cups of tea and in modern currency it caused $1.7 million in damage for the East India Company. So, yeah. They weren’t happy. As punishment, the British passed the Intolerable Acts (they didn’t call them that – that would be really bad PR; the colonists nicknamed them “Intolerable”) that punished Boston. Basically, the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was revoked and the King implemented martial law in Massachusetts. General Thomas Gage, commander of all British troops in North America, was put directly in charge of the colony, along with 4,000 soldiers to back him up.

I want to point out that dictators always do this. Whenever I’m watching the news and I hear about nonviolent protests happening somewhere in the world – students marching on a square or mothers demonstrating in a plaza – I just wait for the disproportionate government response. Like, just sit down with them at the table and give them a little bit of what they want. Right? Nope. Without fail, they send in tanks or soldiers or tear gas or rubber bullets and they escalate an isolated protest into a national movement.

Which begs the question: Why didn’t the British just give us representation in Parliament?

  • Well, for one this would set the precedent that all colonies could get representation. Remember that Britain already had other colonies around the world and they were planning on acquiring more. They didn’t want other colonists getting the idea that if they objected loudly enough they could get their way.
  • But there were also logistical questions: Would the representatives stay in England? Would they cross the ocean every time Parliament was in session? And how would that representation work? The North American population was huge – over a million colonists lived in the Americas by 1750 compared with around 6 million people in the entire UK. This would have seriously changed the balance of power in Parliament.

So, despite these issues, maybe Britain could have just given us representation in Parliament and we could have avoided this whole Revolution but alas, they didn’t and their militaristic treatment of Boston probably did more to unite the colonies together than anything else. If it could happen there, it could happen here in Virginia or South Carolina.

At this point, in 1774, the First Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia. All but one of the colonies sent a representative (I’m looking at you, Georgia) to discuss next steps. There were tons of different ideas about how the colonies should respond but very few were advocating for a revolution right now. The Congress was tense because these colonists didn’t know each other. Remember from last episode that each colony was unique and they all had different relationships with Britain. But, they got past their distrust and proposed a continental government made up of a popularly elected Grand Council that would represent the interests of the colonies. Essentially, it would be a Continental Parliament, elected by the colonists. To appease the king, they proposed a President General who would represent the king’s authority in the colonies and would be chosen directly by the king. Essentially, they wanted to mimic the set-up in Britain – in which Parliament was elected but still had to contend with the King.

The King… was not on board. In a speech to Parliament he denounced “the daring spirit of resistance and disobedience to the law” that was occurring across the Atlantic. Frustrated that no one seemed to be listening in England, the colonists embarked on a mass boycott of British goods. Various colonial assemblies were constantly meeting to discuss the situation and decide what to do next. The most famous of these was in Virginia. In 1775, as Virginia delegates were debating how to deal with Britain, a young lawyer named Patrick Henry stood up from his pew. Frustrated at the ineffective declarations and the lack of unity amongst the colonists, he declared that, “The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers and New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian; I am an American.” He then proposed a resolution to raise a Virginia militia to protect the colonists from the Crown – Oh hey, treason! He was not the first to propose this – other colonies had begun forming their own defense, but there were still many who viewed this as an extreme step. But Henry convinced many who were there with his famous speech:

“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Apparently as he was saying that he raised his hands like they were in chains, then broke free, grabbed a letter opener and mimed plunging the knife into his heart at “Give me death!” The dude had style. And it worked. Virginia passed a resolution to ready themselves for combat, with Patrick Henry in charge of the effort. Thomas Jefferson, who was in attendance, later wrote, “It is not now easy to say what we should have done without Patrick Henry. He was before us all in maintaining the spirit of the Revolution.”

So, at this point, the Revolution has basically begun. I mean, once you start building up a military to fight against your own government… you’re basically in a Revolution. They just had to dot the I and cross the T in “Independent,” but essentially, it’s on.

Act 2: The War

OK. Full disclosure. I don’t really understand military history. Like, I get it. But I don’t see the point in every high school student learning about every battle in American history. So… we’re not going to do that. But we do need to talk about some of the key events of the war, which will include some battles. Basically, what I’m saying is that if you’re listening and you’re a military history buff, this is going to be really frustrating for you. Sorry!

So the first shots of the war were fired a full year BEFORE the U.S. declared its independence. British troops – or Redcoats – were already stationed in the colonies and when they realized that many of the colonies were preparing to fight, they tried to seize military supplies before too many fell into the hands of the militias. From Boston, around 700 Redcoats marched to military stores at Concord. While on their way, they met with 77 local minutemen (so-called because they were private citizens who could be ready to fight in a “minute”) who had scrambled to intercept the British troops, thanks in part to a heads up from Paul Revere. We don’t know who fired the first shot – later nicknamed the “Shot Heard Round the World” – but the British quickly moved forward. When they got to Lexington, most of the military supplies had been hidden or destroyed and a few hundred American patriots were waiting for them. They decided to withdraw, but the entire march back to Boston was grueling as the colonists took up guerrilla warfare tactics, hiding in trees or barns, shooting British soldiers in the back, etc. By the end of the Battle of Lexington and Concord the British lost 273 soldiers to the Americans’ 95. Quickly, 16,000 New Englanders joined forces and began laying siege to Boston to try to kick out the British forces stationed there. The Revolution had begun.

Why was it called the “Shot Heard Round the World?” Well, think about it. Throughout all of world history, civilizations have been dominated by empires. And there had been rebellions before, but very few that were actually successful – like, ever, in world history. And this was the height of the British Empire – they were the indisputable global military power and we were a bunch of pesky minutemen with guns. It would be as if Puerto Rico took up arms against the U.S. government. Everyone in the world would be paying attention to what happened next. 

Also, let’s talk about Paul Revere. First, he was the son of a Frenchman whose original name was Apollos Rivoire – dibs baby name! But he changed it to the more English-sounding Paul Revere. Revere had been one of the revolutionaries who participated in the Boston Tea Party, but it was his ride on April 18, 1775 that made him immortal. And yes, he did ride through the night to warn the colonists that “The British were coming!” toward Lexington, but two other guys did, too: William Dawes and Samuel Prescott. And, honestly, Paul Revere wasn’t really a household name u til almost 100 years after the fact. You see, in the 1850s up to 1861, with American on the eve of a Civil War (spoiler alert), there was a wave of super nationalistic patriotic art. Painters, writers, poets all became very nostalgic for the time of the Revolution – when all Americans were united in a common cause – because they were experiencing such a terrible, divided time in American history in their own life. So, when you’re going through a museum and you see some old piece of that is really patriotic, I would bet that it was made in the 1850s. For example, Washington Crossing the Delaware was painted in 1851. And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” in 1861, published one month after South Carolina seceded from the Union.

OK. Really quickly, here are a few other things that happened in the Revolution BEFORE we declared our independence:

– George Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Hey George!

– We lost to the British at Bunker Hill, but we defended the area outside Boston so effectively that it surprised the British. This was the battle where the commander told his men to “not shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” to conserve bullets and hold the hill as long as possible. Eventually, the Americans will kick the British out of Boston – woohoo! – and the British navy will be forced to move to Canada. So…

– We invaded Canada! American troops occupied Montreal and Benedict Arnold tried to take Quebec but he failed. I don’t feel bad for him.

– We fight Loyalists in the colonies, especially in the South. About 1/5 of the colonists stayed loyal to Britain and so they became our first focus – how could we beat the British if 20% of our own population was working with them? This meant subduing other colonists, throwing some in jail, and even, in one case, burning the city of Norfolk, Virginia. Often in the South we were fighting a mixture of British troops, Native Americans and Loyalist colonists.

– We formed a small navy – the Continental Fleet – to disrupt British ships and trading – we captured an island in the Bahamas!

– We keep trying to take Quebec – no luck

Again, all of this happened before the colonists had agreed that they wanted to be independent. There were those who still wanted some sort of resolution or representation in the British government, but not to be separate from it completely. And if you think about it, it’s really a crazy idea to break away from Britain. I mean, it’s a scary world in the late 18th century, dominated by European superpowers who are all desperate for as much land and money as possible. Sure, you’re pissed at Britain, but they’re also protecting you from everyone else in the world. What would happen if you were all of a sudden alone in the wilderness, an ocean away from “civilization” without any sort of unified organization? When I say it that way… were we dumb? Was this a terrible idea?

Anyway, there was still a lot of debate as to what to do, but there were a few prominent speakers and writers who did a lot to convince everyone that independence was necessary.

The most influential of these thinkers was Thomas Paine. Or T. Paine as I’m going to call him just to anger young listeners who hate when adults make references that were cool, like, a decade ago. So T. Paine wrote a pamphlet called “Common Sense;” it was written simply in plain direct language to convince all Americans of his argument. It very clearly argued that independence was not just necessary, but it was inevitable. It was… common sense?

Here’s a quote:

“Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.”

Notice the language he’s using – “natural proof,” “the design of Heaven” – he’s arguing that it’s God’s will that the Americas be independent. A lot of his language is intentionally connected to Protestant beliefs about individual rights – again, the unifying impact of the Great Awakening. He goes on, “But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain.” So first of all, those are fightin’ words. I can’t say this enough: all of these men would have been hanged for treason if we had lost. But, again, he’s responding to a common question in the colonies: OK fine, but who will be our new king? Seriously. The idea of just straight-up not having a king was unimaginable for a lot of people.

Common Sense was sold and distributed all across the colonies – many would read it aloud at taverns and other meeting places. In proportion to the population at the time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. That’s still true today. It’s the best-selling American title ever and is still in print today. John Adams later said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Side note: Thomas Paine moved to Europe and became influential in the French Revolution, too, until he was caught up in the Reign of Terror and imprisoned by Robespierre. While in prison, he wrote a book called The Age of Reason and other works that called for, among other things, freedom of thought, the end of institutionalized religion, and a guaranteed minimum wage. He was the Bernie Sanders of the late 18th century. He also never made any money off of the publication and success of Common Sense – partly because as he maintained his anonymity for the first few months, he got screwed out of payments by his publisher. He also refused to get a copyright, so he never profited off of the most influential work in American literary history. When he died in 1809, only six people attended his funeral because his ideas – especially his criticism of Christianity – had made him so unpopular. But, arguably, without his writings many would not have been convinced that a complete separation from Britain was necessary. Thanks T. Paine.

OK. So by July, the Congress decided that it was time to make things official. In 1776, the Congress passed the Lee Resolution. What? I bet you thought I was going to say the Declaration of Independence. Nope. The Lee Resolution was the actual legal document that asserted our independence. The Declaration was basically the announcement of that resolution being passed – so Thomas Jefferson was like the ultimate Hype Man for the Continental Congress. Interestingly, the Lee Resolution was named for its author, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Yeah, those Lees from Virginia. Just a few generations later, the same family tree would produce Robert E. Lee – but more about him in a few episodes. 

So we declared independence on July 4, 1776. Actually, we declared it on July 2 but it got formally approved on July 4. And it wasn’t actually signed until August 2. Ah, Congress, slow to get things done from the start. I could go into a whole thing about the Declaration of Independence but I feel pretty confident that y’all already know that one, right? “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all (white, property-owning) men are created equal?” OK cool let’s move on.

So the war is on and it’s not looking so great for the Americans. We were up against the freakin’ British Empire, with the best military in the world and a ton of money to spend (thanks colonies for all the cash crops!) But we had some advantages, too. For one, we were fighting on our home turf. We knew the land better and we were close to our homes, supplies, and other necessities, whereas the British were an ocean away from any backup or additional resources. Also, as the war drags on, there are going to be those at home in England who wonder if it’s worth all the trouble? But in America, we were fighting for our freedom – so it was worth it. Finally – and this is the most important reason why we won the war – we didn’t have to win the war. Let me explain: Head-to-head, the British would destroy the Americans easily. Sorry patriots, inspirational speeches can only get you so far. But the only objective that the Americans had was to get the British to leave them alone. So we didn’t have to win anything – we just had to not lose. We needed to drag the war out as long as possible until the British decided to take their ball and go home. And that’s what happened. Now, it’s not the sexiest way to win a war but it works. 

The other reason we defeated the British was because we got critical help from the French. You should check out my entire episode on Lafayette from last season, but basically the French stepped in to support our cause midway into the Revolution. For one, there were many in France – like Lafayette – who believed in the ideals of the Revolution, and we know that’s true because they would go on to implement them in their own country’s revolution just a few years later. The French didn’t fully commit until our victory at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Side note: Saratoga was renamed Schuylerville after the famous Schuyler family that those of you who’ve seen Hamilton know all about.

But, the French government was also willing to help the Americans because they saw it as a neat opportunity to take down their enemy, the British. And it should be noted that a lot of world powers felt the same way. Founded by Catherine the Great of Russia, a collection of other powers like Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Ottomans, joined together to protect against the British boarding and searching ships for contraband going to support the colonies. So thanks Catherine, Europeans, and Muslims for helping us win our Revolution!

Yadda yadda yadda. Four more years of fighting go by – I told you that my military history buffs were going to be annoyed – the decisive battle occurs in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. In the end, British General Cornwallis surrenders to George Washington and the Revolution is effectively over. But it’s not actually over. There were still British forces spread throughout the colonies, especially in the south. It took another year for the two sides to agree to stop fighting. And then another year after that to sign the Treaty of Paris. 

So the Revolution ended in 1783 with the British formally recognizing the Thirteen Colonies to be free and independent states over which they had no claim on the land or the government. Woohoo! Negotiated by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, and Henry Laurens (John Laurens’s dad, for my Hamilton fans), the treaty also granted the new United States land all the way to the Mississippi River. This was great news for the settlers who had been wanting to expand westward for years but bad news for the indigenous tribes who had been hoping the British would win because they had promised them more formal recognition of sovereign Indian land. Basically, to most Native Americans the British were the lesser of two white evils.

Fun fact: Benjamin West, a famous American painter, started a portrait of the treaty negotiations. He got through the left side with the Americans but then could never finish the right side because the British refused to pose. Aw c’mon. Don’t be sore losers, you still control, like, the rest of the globe. You’ll be fine. 

Act 3: The New Government

So even before the formal peace treaty had been signed, the leaders of the new nation created our first founding document and it was pretty bad. The Articles of Confederation was our rough draft, except that we basically just threw our rough draft in the trash after a few years and started over the Constitution.

What was so bad about the Articles of Confederation? We were fresh off our breakup from an oppressive king and so we rebounded with the Articles of Confederation – it was an overcorrection that created a government with essentially no head. Before we get more into it, a quick vocabulary lesson: our system is known as a federalist system, which means that power is shared between a national government (often referred to as the federal government) and regional governments (in our case, the states). So from the very beginning of our country, there is a deep and constant divide between people who think the federal government should be more power and people who think the state governments should be more powerful. That divide is the root of almost every political debate in our country’s history, including the Civil War (specifically on the question of whether the federal government could tell the states they couldn’t have slaves anymore), and modern political arguments. 

So, the Articles of Confederation was a win for States’ Rights advocates. They were afraid of the federal government just replacing the monarchy and so they gave it almost no power. Almost everything was left to each individual state – remember, up until about 15 years ago these had been entirely separate colonies that didn’t have much to do with each other – and national bodies like Congress were just mediators who could act as a last resort if there was a conflict between two states. Meanwhile, the federal government couldn’t levy taxes, so it had no money, it couldn’t oversee commerce, there was no chief executive to lead the federal government. We weren’t a chicken with its head cut off – we were a chicken that never had a head to begin with.

Side note: The term “Confederation” is important. Confederation implies a loose collection of people and states in a general alliance. This is how the States’ Rights advocates are going to come to see the early government and it’s also why when the Civil War comes around the South is going to create the “Confederate States of America” in contrast to the “United States of America.”

But, after a few years, most of the leadership agreed that the confederation was too loose and so they went back to the drawing board. In 1787 the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia with the intent to address the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Some, especially southern delegates, just wanted to edit the document while others wanted to scrap it entirely and start over. Eventually, these “Federalists” – or people who supported a stronger federal/national government – won out and the Constitution was created. Now this isn’t a government lesson so I’m not going to go through the entire Constitution but for our purposes, it’s important that we understand a few continuities that are getting established right now at the founding moment of our nation. These themes are going to continue to influence American history up until today so what are they?

The first is compromise. Our nation was built on compromises and they aren’t always great. Remember a few things: our nation was not united until it had to be to get rid of the British. Most early Americans still viewed their colony – or now their state – as the most important identifying factor. You were a Virginian, and then you were an American. Also, going back to episode 1, there were a lot of different types of people in the new United States and they were there for many different reasons with different ideas about what it meant to be an American. For some, that was freedom to worship, especially if you’re type of worship is Protestant Christianity. For others, it was pure economic freedom, without the restraints of an oppressive mercantilist monarchy. And for others, they had absolutely no say in how this new country would be set up or what it meant to be an American because they were enslaved and treated as less than human. I promise I’m going to talk about slavery in way more depth – a whole episode on it is coming soon.

So, when delegates met to write the Constitution there were a lot of questions that needed to be settled.

For one, how would we decide how many representatives each state would get in the US Congress? Large states wanted it to be based on population while smaller states worried about being overpowered and left out of the conversation. And so, the Great Compromise was struck: in the House, representation would be based on population while in the Senate each state gets 2 senators. 

Second question, would enslaved people count as part of the population? Southern states wanted enslaved people to count in their population numbers so that they could get more representation in Congress. Northern – or states with few to no enslaved people – thought this was ridiculous considering that in every other way the slaveowners did not treat their enslaved Africans as human beings, let alone equal members of the population. And so, the horrific Three-Fifths Compromise was struck: each enslaved person would count as ⅗ of a human being with regards to population. 

It should be noted that the question of slavery did come up at this convention. And there were delegates who argued for the abolition of slavery right then and there, but they were not taken very seriously. The bigger question was the slave trade – should we continue to allow Americans to buy enslaved people from overseas? Most of the delegates pushed to ban it immediately, but Georgia and the Carolinas threatened to leave if this happened – foreshadowing, anyone? So there was another compromise: they would allow the slave trade to continue until 1808, when Congress would be given the option to vote to ban the slave trade then (which they did). To be clear, slavery was still allowed – and slaveowners had a ready supply of new enslaved people from the children of those they had enslaved – but in 1808 the international slave trade was banned in the U.S. I guess it’s a step in the right direction? I don’t know. But what is clear is that the United States was going to break apart over the slavery issue at some point. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20 when you’re from the future.

One more question was how this new position of the president should be elected? Some delegates wanted a straight popular election but many other delegates worried that the voting population might not be informed enough to make that decision. Let’s make one thing clear: the Founding Fathers were terrified of true democracy. They were elitists who believed that the government should be run by well-educated (read: rich and white) men. The idea of letting just every person in the U.S. make decisions about the country was insane to them; and to be fair, it was an insane proposal for the 18th century when you consider that basically every other government in the world was still fairly absolutist. And to be even fairer, I don’t think they were wrong about the dangers of an uninformed voting population, right? But still. Out of all three branches of the federal government, the only officials who were directly elected by the voting population were Representatives in the House. Senators were elected by their state legislatures, judges were chosen by the president, and the president was chosen by a weird mix of ideas that still exists today, somehow. 

This brings us to our final compromise: the Electoral College. Basically, many delegates wanted the President to be voted on only by Congress – kind of like how the British Parliament selects the Prime Minister. But others argued for a true popular vote and so they created the Electoral College. Basically, each state has Electors, these are individuals who are chosen by their political parties to actually cast the vote for president. When a candidate wins the popular vote in that state, the electors for that candidates party are basically being chosen – and then they go and cast their vote for the candidate they were tied to, although in theory they can switch their vote but that rarely happens. It was meant to be a safety measure in case the general population selected someone so wholly unqualified for office that the state electors could step in and go against the will of the people, arguably for the good of the nation. Again, these “faithless electors” are very rare and today, the Electoral College is basically just a point system that makes election night a really confusing jumble of red and blue maps and pointing and math. 

And finally, back to our major theme of U.S. History: How powerful should the federal government be? In the Articles of Confederation, States’s Rights people won out. In the Constitution, Federalists won out – with a few caveats.

In the same way that Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense to convince people to declare independence from Britain, other Founding Fathers wrote a series of papers convincing people to accept the new Constitution. These are collectively known as the Federalist Papers and they were written by James Madison, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton the Musical mentions that Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 papers, including one arguing that the courts will have the power to review laws or acts by the other two branches and declare them unconstitutional. This helped ease fears about a tyrannical president or Congress by pointing out that there would another check on their power. Poor John Jay only wrote 5 and Madison wrote the other 29. These papers are crucial for understanding what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution and they are going to be important documents for a lot of early Supreme Court cases and other government decisions. This is where Madison laid out the groundwork for checks and balances and, in the most famous “Federalist No. 10” he established the philosophical importance of a Constitution that would prevent rule by the majority. 

This rule by the majority was also of concern to many States’ Rights advocates, especially southern states who had just wanted to edit the old Articles of Confederation. Despite the writings of the Federalists, these “Anti-Federalists” were still worried about a strong government turning into another oppressive force like the one they had just fought against. So, the final compromise was that the Founding Fathers agreed that if the states ratified the Constitution, their first act would be to pass 10 amendments to address their concerns. These amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. 

The Bill of Rights

Now, I know I already mentioned that this isn’t a government lesson but I think it’s important that you remember what these 10 rights are, so let me explain them to you in true “Anti-Social Studies” fashion.

1st Amendment: Freedom of speech, the press, religion, and the right to assemble. Yay democracy!

2nd Amendment: Guns!

3rd Amendment: Soldiers can’t stay in your house if you don’t want soldiers in your house.

4th Amendment: The government can’t search or take your property “unreasonably” whatever that means

5th Amendment: Lots of legal stuff (No double jeopardy, you can’t be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process)

6th Amendment: You get a “speedy and public trial” – What is speedy? Who knows?

7th Amendment: You have the right to a trial by jury

8th Amendment: You can’t be held on “excessive” bail – again, what’s excessive? Who knows? And no cruel or unusual punishments – what’s “cruel and unusual?” Yeah, you’re starting to get it. We don’t know!

9th Amendment: Just because we listed these rights doesn’t mean other rights don’t also exist – Oh hey, right to privacy! We’ll see you in the 20th century!

10th Amendment: This is critical for the Anti-Federalists – “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constituion, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

And this leads us to our last debate that will span all of American history:

Do we follow the Constitution literally or do we use it as a guide? Federalists – and generally 21st century Democrats – believe the Constitution is a guide and they base this off of the “necessary and proper clause” that says that the federal government can make laws that they deem “necessary and proper” for carrying out their job. So they argue that there are implied powers that might not be written out word for word but were clearly intended by the Founding Fathers. So, for example, in the Constitution Congress has the written power to collect taxes. So it’s implied that they also have the power to create an agency – the IRS – to oversee the collection of taxes. Or, later on down the road, the Supreme Court will rule that there is an implied right to privacy which extends to the right to make decisions about your body, laying the groundwork for reproductive and abortion rights for women. This is a liberal view of the Constitution and it’s common amongst Federalists early on and, typically, the more northern states.

On the flip side, the Anti-Federalists argue for a strict interpretation of the Constitution. They believe that the Founding Fathers put in the 10th Amendment to cover anything else that may be “implied” – so if it’s not written in the Constitution, it should be up to each state to decide. This is going to come up most dramatically with the issue of slavery when Lincoln is going to campaign on the promise to not allow slavery in new territories. States’ rights advocates are going to argue that it should be up to each state to decide whether or not they want slavery and that the federal government can’t make that decision for them. But we’ll get there. 

For now, these debates about the size and power of the federal government and how to read the Constitution, are going to lead to the creation of our earliest political parties: the Federalists and the confusingly-named Democratic-Republicans (these are my Anti-Federalists or States’ Rights guys, for now.) But, honestly, the names of the parties don’t matter as much as the big takeaway: the American colonies were settled by very different types of people with very different ideas about what their colonies would look like. And the Revolution was an event that forced these disparate colonists together out of necessity, but they still didn’t feel super united even after they won. So our country was founded on arguments, debates, and compromises – some of which worked better than others. And if this isn’t foreshadowing for the constant political chaos that is our country, then I don’t know what is. 

Join me next time in my episode on the Early Republic – from Washington to Monroe! For a transcript of today’s episode and classroom resources, check out www.antisocialstudies.org. And if you want MORE Anti-Social Studies content, go join my Patreon page. Help me spread the word by following me on FB and IG at @antisocstudies and give me a rating and review wherever you get your podcast! Thanks!

Sources

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