The U.S. Constitution and Early 19th Century Society

De Baripedia

The objective of this course is to understand the development of the United States Constitution that is still in force today in order to see its contradictions and the tensions it generated leading to the Civil War, also known as the Civil War of 1861 - 1865. Changes in politics, religion, and society led to the Monroe Doctrine.

Studying the United States around 1800 provides an understanding of the United States today in terms of both its foreign and domestic political systems.

The Articles of Confederation and the Constitutions of the various States[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Shortly after independence in 1776, the States of the Union signed the Articles of Confederation. They are written as a reaction against England limiting the powers of the central government, which otherwise would not allow the union to survive.

Map of the thirteen British North American colonies in 1775.

At the same time, these 13 states plus a 14th, which is Vermont, each adopts its own constitution. Each of them shows the differences between the states and the preamble to the constitution states: "We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, to establish justice, to maintain peace within the United States, to provide for the common defense, to develop the general welfare, and to secure the benefits of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do hereby enact and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Some states like Pennsylvania are fairly egalitarian states that give the right to vote to all free men who pay taxes. In Pennsylvania we have only one assembly with a collegial executive. Other states, such as Maryland, with a tendency towards slavery, create an assembly and a senate concentrating executive power in the hands of an all-powerful governor elected by the big landowners who also have the right to vote.

In New Jersey, suffrage is limited to those with a certain level of property ownership, including women who have been rich for a long time.

All this shows the great diversity. Moreover, many States are adopting the Bill of Rights which is a declaration of fundamental rights that guarantees the equality of men, their rights to property and fundamental freedoms being those of religion, expression and peaceful association.

In all states except South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, there is no exclusion of blacks. In some states there are almost no slaves, while in others there are hardly any slaves at all. In some states, such as Vermont, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, slavery was abolished shortly after independence. Other states passed very gradual abolition laws. Throughout the South, however, slavery hardened after independence and slaves became more and more numerous through imports and natural growth.

At the end of the war, all these tensions came to the fore, especially as the new federation suffered an economic crisis. A stronger, more central government, of which Washington was a part, obtained a new constitutional revision.

The Philadelphia Constitutional Convention[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

"Scene at the signing of the U.S. Constitution," by Howard Chandler Christy. This chart represents the 33 delegates who signed the Constitution.

During this convention, all are men, mostly lawyers and 19 out of 55 are large slave owners. They first of all clash over a legitimate government representing the governed and the question of who will be able to vote.

We are already forgetting the declaration of independence ensuring equality between men, the question is whether the right to vote will be reserved for landowners or whether it is a natural right of every free man. One of the other issues is slavery and the status of free slaves.

Silences, concessions and achievements of the Constitution of 1787[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The American Constitution of 1787: « ’We, the People... »

The U.S. Constitution is a compromise often with vague and malleable language explaining why it has survived to the present day.

In order not to break the fragile unity, the convention ratifies a constitution that begins with "we the people," which, moreover, never provides any definition of who is part of the people. On the other hand, the constitution does not mention slavery.

It is a federal constitution that gives each state its own constitution and its own definition of citizenship.


There is a lot of debate, or there is a separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. Delegates decide that the legislature should be bicameral with a House of Representatives and a Senate. The senate is composed of two senators per state. In contrast, the House of Representatives is a chamber that is proportional to the population of each state.

There are many debates, or there is a separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers. The delegates decide that the legislative branch should be bicameral with a House of Representatives and a Senate. The senate is composed of two senators per state. In contrast, the House of Representatives is a chamber that is proportional to the population of each state.

In 1787, the delegates from the northern states made a huge concession to the slaveholding south, accepting that the number of representatives from the slaveholding states should correspond to the number of free inhabitants plus 3/5 of the slave population of their state. Thus they concede that a slave is worth 3/5 of a human being.

On the question of the executive, some want a very strong president with a kind of constitutional monarchy, while others oppose anything resembling a monarchy with an elected representative. It is a president with a veto over parliament and a vice-president not elected by suffrage but by an electoral college of electors.

Basically, the electoral college is for each state the number of representatives that state has in the House of Representatives plus two senators. The rules will change over the years.


Today, on Presidential Election Day, voters elect Electoral College electors, who are the ones who will cast ballots for the election of the president and vice president. What is shocking is that every state uses the "winner takes all" method. In each state, the party that wins the majority of votes wins all the votes for president. That explains why Democrats and Republicans go where the states have the largest populations. For example, all of Florida's votes went to Obama.

U.S. citizens do not elect their president by universal suffrage; a predictor can be elected without having a majority of the votes.

In 1787, the delegates agreed to create a strong judiciary that controls Congress and can declare certain decisions unconstitutional. It is an established supreme court made up of 6 judges (now 9) appointed by the president, but elected by parliament and appointed for life. The Supreme Court is the citizens' last resort in all matters relating to constitutional law.

During this convention of 1787, the northern delegates made further concessions to the slave-owning southern states showing the racial limits of the concept of equality.

The northern states approved a clause that forced states that had already abolished slavery to return fugitive slaves from the south to the southern states. The other concession was that the northern delegates agreed to postpone the ban on importing new slaves from Africa for 20 years, i.e. until 1808. This will lead to massive imports of Africans until 1800.

At the same time, the slave trade within the United States continued until the abolition of slavery in 1865.

Much more than the compromise, it is the reduction of prerogatives in relation to the central federal state that will cause the most tension. It was the idea that the federal state could levy taxes on the whole territory, the other and the fear of the small states of losing their freedoms in relation to the large states.

It will be some time before the convention is adopted. It was only three years later, in 1790, that the most reluctant states finally signed the Constitution, but before that, amendments had to be attached to the constitution.

Bill of Rights[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The Bill of Rights.[8][9][10]

These amendments form the Bill of Rights[11] that protect fundamental freedoms:

  • religion;
  • expression;
  • press;
  • peaceful assembly;
  • petition;
  • weaponry for state defense militias; *
  • protection against abuses by the state, police and justice.

The Bill of Rights is preceded by very little of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in France. However, the Bill of Rights is much more concerned with the common good and very individualistic. There are also rights that protect individuals against arbitrary action by the state.

One amendment that continues to attract a lot of ink is the freedom to bear arms: "Since a well-organized militia is necessary for security, the right of the people to keep and bear arms must not be restricted. This shows how malleable this is.

One clause limits the rights of the federal state to those contained in the Constitution. On the other hand, it must be seen that it contains fundamental freedoms that are totally incompatible with slavery; its adoption without calling slavery into question tacitly confirms the exclusion of blacks and women.

Society at the beginning of the 19th century[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Territorial expansion[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Article détaillé : The conquest of the territory.

The United States of 1800 will expand rapidly. The Lewis and Clark Expedition crosses territories then in Indian hands[12][13][14][15][16][17]

An event that will double the territory and the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon's France. Louisiana had been returned by Spain to France, but was finally bought for 15 million dollars from Napoleon to finance the war in Haiti[18][19][20][21][22][23][24]. It is a territory where there are posts, but mostly Amerindian populations. The United States acquired Florida in 1818 without compensating Spain. Suddenly, the territory doubles.[25][26][27][28][29][30][31][32][33].

Bipartism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Very quickly, the oppositions that emerged during the constitutional debates were between two main parties, namely :

  • the federalists with George Washington who were in favor of a strong federal government and good relations with Britain, opposed to the French Revolution. It's a very strong party among merchants, owners, craftsmen linked to trade and supported mainly in the north.
  • The Republican-Democrats: they are in favour of a limited central government, close in some ways to the French Revolution, because they are not in favour of racial equality, opposed to Great Britain. They are strong among planters in the south and farmers in the north.

Already in 1800, there is an election campaign in the United States with the Republican-Democrats accusing the federalists of being monarchical and sold out to Britain, while the federalists accuse the Republican-Democrats of being Jacobin, anarchist and sans-culotte.

Religion[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Methodist camp meeting in 1819 (engraving, Library of Congress).

A "great awakening" took place throughout the Louisiana region and with the advance of the border at the expense of the Indians. More militant and evangelical Protestantism will make the revival to the sound of sermons with preachers who mobilize thousands of faithful in meeting camps.[34][35][36][37][38].

Women's participation is important for women's entry into politics.

In Kentucky, a camp brought together 20,000 people. The other important thing is the development of religious sects is a phenomenon that can be understood with the evolution of the border. For the new migrants, in each new conquered territory there will be religiosity in order to create a link between the different migrants.

This "great awakening" affects women, but especially black people. First of all, it is the free blacks who will form the first black church with the African Evangelical Apostolic Church in response to the racism that is beginning to develop in the white churches.

The "great awakening" affects the forcibly displaced slaves, because it is with the slaves and with the whip that these new territories will be conquered.

Around 1810, 100,000 slaves were forcibly displaced to the West. Slavery spread and hardened. In 1770, there were 450,000 slaves in the 13 colonies; by 1820, there were 1.5 million.

Among the slaves there is a parallel with the enslaved Jewish people in Egypt. In this movement, black preachers emerge.

Religion played a covering role for the women, but also for the slaves, allowing them to carve out a place in society through religion.

Growth of slavery[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Animation showing the evolution of the slave territories, including the one related to the Missouri compromise.

Since the purchase of Louisiana in 1803, the issue of slavery and the balance between slave and non-slave states has been growing.

Since 1800, 20 new states have joined the Union. Of the 22 states that made up the Union in 1819, there is a precarious balance between slave and non-slave states.

In 1819, Missouri applied to join the Union as a slave state. A long debate ensues in Congress, because the big question is the Senate. If you have a large majority of slave states, that means that the majority of senators are slave states, which means that slavery could be forced into the non-slave states. This will lead to the Civil War.

After a year of debate, the "Missouri Compromise" was reached with the creation of a free state to have 12 slave and 12 non-slave states[39][40][41][42][43][44][45][46][47][48][49][50][51].

The beginning of American nationalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The revival of nationalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

It is a nationalism that was to be revived in 1812 when the United States launched a new war against England to expand its northern borders[52][53][54][55]. The idea is to push the English back north, but it was a failure.

In addition, the United States had no navy, and Great Britain was imposing a blockade on the seas and coasts of the United States, which would have the effect of strengthening nationalism.

The United States did not gain a square metre, but the big losers were the defeated Indian nations who opened up all the territories south of the Great Lakes to the new white settlers. All this still very Indian part will see massacres and exodus.

The consequence of this war is an upsurge in nationalism and self-confidence. Artists began to represent the myth of an agrarian society. The English embargo allows the first development of factories mainly on the east coast of the United States competing with the English.

It is also a time when we realize that in order to control the territory we have to build roads and canals which is very important to develop the colonization of the territory.

On the other hand, the rulers were interested in education and public health, which led to the development of infrastructures. It is also the birth of an American architecture, but which in fact imitates the Greco-Roman style. Thomas Jefferson will go so far as to design his own house inspired by ancient constructions.

Nationalism also translates into the strengthening of the army with the creation of the United States Military Academy of West Point.

The Monroe Doctrine[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

James Monroe.

This doctrine marks the beginning of the imperialist vision of the United States[56][57][58][59][60]. Its context is the victory of the Haitian revolution, the independence of Brazil and the Spanish colonies from Mexico to the very bottom of South America. This will stir up the lust of Great Britain. It is a unilateral declaration by the government of the United States under President Adams, which is against any interference from Europe in the Americas, which were already largely independent in 1823.

This doctrine includes the demand for non-colonisation by European powers in the western hemisphere, particularly with regard to Alaska, and the non-intervention of European powers in the affairs of the American continent.

  • non-interference by the United States in the affairs of Europe, including the European colonies. At the time, this doctrine went virtually unnoticed, because the great power of the day was Great Britain, which was respected in the Americas by its Royal Navy.

The Monroe Doctrine marks the beginning of American ambitions for the Americas and then for the world that will take shape over the decades.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

  • La doctrine de Monroe, un impérialisme masqué par François-Georges Dreyfus, Professeur émérite de l'université Paris Sorbonne-Paris IV.
  • La doctrine Monroe de 1823
  • Nova Atlantis in Bibliotheca Augustana (Latin version of New Atlantis)
  • Amar, Akhil Reed (1998). The Bill of Rights. Yale University Press.
  • Beeman, Richard (2009). Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. Random House.
  • Berkin, Carol (2015). The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America's Liberties. Simon & Schuster.
  • Bessler, John D. (2012). Cruel and Unusual: The American Death Penalty and the Founders' Eighth Amendment. University Press of New England.
  • Brookhiser, Richard (2011). James Madison. Basic Books.
  • Brutus (2008) [1787]. "To the Citizens of the State of New York". In Storing, Herbert J. (ed.). The Complete Anti-Federalist, Volume 1. University of Chicago Press.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. (2015). The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780385353410 – via Google Books.
  • Hamilton, Alexander, Madison, James, and Jay, John (2003). Ball, Terence (ed.). The Federalist: With Letters of Brutus. Cambridge University Press.
  • Kyvig, David E. (1996). Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776–1995. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0931-8 – via Google Books.
  • Labunski, Richard E. (2006). James Madison and the struggle for the Bill of Rights. Oxford University Press.
  • Levy, Leonard W. (1999). Origins of the Bill of Rights. Yale University Press.
  • Maier, Pauline (2010). Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788. Simon & Schuster.
  • Rakove, Jack N. (1996). Original Meanings. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Stewart, David O. (2007). The Summer of 1787. Simon & Schuster.
  • Wood, Gordon S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815. Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, Keith (November 18, 2013). "Kerry Makes It Official: 'Era of Monroe Doctrine Is Over'". Wall Street Journal.
  • Keck, Zachary (November 21, 2013). "The US Renounces the Monroe Doctrine?". The Diplomat.
  • "John Bolton: 'We're not afraid to use the word Monroe Doctrine'". March 3, 2019.
  • "What is the Monroe Doctrine? John Bolton's justification for Trump's push against Maduro". The Washington Post. March 4, 2019.

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