Abigail Thistleton and Grace Lovell
18th Century Theology
February 15, 2011
The 18th Century was a time of enormous change for Great Britain, North America, and the entire world, and the 1780’s hold particular significance in the development of the United States as a nation. During this time, Great Britain lost part of her expansive empire in the American Revolution while the United States simultaneously won their independence. This period in America is referred to as the “Revolutionary Enlightenment” by some scholars, as the American Revolution created not only a new society, but a new nation whose foundations were shaped by the influences of a number of men such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams, among others. During this decade, the thirteen British colonies became the thirteen United States of America, under the leadership of an elected President and governed by its Constitution. The principles which instigated the American Revolutionary War and the political ideas which contributed to the Constitution were heavily influenced by the Puritans’ understanding of the world, specifically their understanding of covenants and God’s earthly purposes for mankind.
By 1780, the colonies had been engaged in the Revolutionary War against Britain for almost four years. In the following year, though the colonies had not yet officially won their independence, they ratified The Articles of Confederation which established a national government composed of a Congress that had the authority to declare war, appoint military officers, sign treaties, make alliances, appoint foreign ambassadors, and manage relations with the Indians. Within this Congress, each state had equal representation, and a bill required nine out of the 13 states’ approval before it could become law. The Articles of Confederation gave states alone the power to tax, and Congress could only raise money by requesting funds from the states, loaning money from foreign nations, or selling western lands. Furthermore, the Articles did not give Congress the authority to institute the draft or to regulate trade. Nor was there provision for national courts or a president, for the states were wary of the threat such a chief posed to their liberties, and representatives could serve no longer than three years in a six-year period. All of this was to create a weak central government, contrasting the monarchy of Great Britain, which they had seen gone awry. These articles seemed inadequate, however, when the states would not make their contributions to the central government and Congress was forced to cease interest payments on the public debt, which lead the Continental army to threaten revolt over lack of pay. These events and more lead the nation’s leaders to view the Articles of Confederation as “a wholly inadequate framework of government.”
The American Revolution was a unique, unparalleled event in history. “Previous to the American Revolution,” Ramsay writes, “The inhabitants of the British colonies were universally loyal. That three millions of such subjects should break through all former attachments, and unanimously adopt new ones, could not be reasonably expected.” Indeed, much of the colonial populace was very connected with Great Britain and many factors divided those dwelling on the North American continent, including nationality, religion, political leanings and loyalty to the crown. Despite these conditions, however, the American Revolution did occur and did change the course of history. In 1783, the Revolutionary War came to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Britain officially acknowledged the United States’ independence on February 3, 1783, Trumbull, Connecticut celebrated this victory with a Great Jubilee Day in May of 1783, and the Treaty of Paris, which secured the United States’ independence, was signed in September of 1783. John Adams, one of the leading participants in the treaty’s composition, called it “one of the most important political events that ever happened on the globe.”
In August of 1786, an event took place that prompted Congress to reconsider the Articles of Confederation. A Massachusetts man, by the name of Daniel Shays, instigated a significant armed uprising against the State of Massachusetts beginning in September of 1786. Historian Jonathan Smith listed three causes of this rebellion:
the absence of a strong national government, commanding the confidence and obedience of the people; the issue by the Confederation, and by the state government of large quantities of worthless and hopelessly irredeemable paper currency; [and lastly,] the extreme poverty of the people, resulting from the long war of the Revolution, the total absence of manufacturing industries, the ruin of American commerce, and the crushing burdens of public and private indebtedness.
Because of Congress’ minimal powers laid out in the Articles, there was a significant lack of institutional response to Shay’s rebellion which, combined with a number of other factors, led to a revision of the Articles. In 1787, delegates from each state met together in Philadelphia to revise the Articles, but after much debate, the Convention realized a new Constitution would be necessary. This Constitutional Convention lasted for almost four months and in September of 1787, the Constitution was ratified by the necessary nine of thirteen states.
The Northwest Ordinance, which was first written in 1787, was ratified by the Congress in 1789, establishing the Northwest Territory as the first organized territory of the United States. It has been placed in importance next to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as one of America’s three most important foundational documents. “It shaped the essential features by which a nation of thirteen states east of the Appalachians became a nation of fifty states stretching into the Pacific.” The Northwest Ordinance was America’s response to a number of different pressures – relations with Britain and Spain, the westward expansion, American relations with Indians and the weakness of the Articles of Confederation, among other things. One of the most important components of the Ordinance was its prohibition of slavery in the territories. Slavery, which was prevalent in the 1780’s especially in the South, would not be nationally challenged until the 19th century, but a number of states began to take up this issue in the 1780’s.
Beginning in 1780, a number of New England states had begun gradually abolishing the institution of slavery within their territory. In Pennsylvania’s Act for the Abolition of Slavery, it asserted that people who had been so blessed with freedom by God should not withhold that freedom from other men. Thus, in 1780 they proclaimed that
all persons, as well Negroes and Mulattoes as others, who shall be born within this state from and after the passing of this act, shall not be deemed and considered as servants for life, or slaves; and that all servitude for life, or slavery of children, in consequence of the slavery of their mothers, in the cafe of all children born within this state, from and after the passing of this act as aforesaid, shall be, and hereby is utterly taken away, extinguished and forever abolished.
Massachusetts followed Pennsylvania’s example in 1783, Connecticut and Rhode Island in 1784, New York in 1785 and New Jersey in 1786. While the issue of slavery was not resolved until the 19th century, it is important to note the controversy surrounding it even in this decade. The Constitution did expressly prohibit Congress from abolishing the slave trade prior to the year 1808. But when the Constitution was written, many of the nation’s leaders, both from the North and South, believed that slavery would experience a natural death, as it appeared to be on the decline already.
The 1780’s, though a significant decade of the American founding with the Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance, really only set the stage for the 90’s, which was a much more integral decade as the American people struggled to understand their identity as laid out in the Constitution. In the 1780’s, the colonies of the United States became thirteen free and independent states, elected their first president George Washington in 1789 and began expanding Westward under the Northwest Ordinance. Many questions regarding the nature of American government and the interpretation and application of the Constitution will be discussed in the following decade.
But it is also important to look backwards and observe how the Puritans may have influenced the American founding. While many of these ideas do not belong to a particular decade, it is helpful to summarize how certain Puritan beliefs influenced the ideas which prompted the Revolutionary War and the American founders’ conception of government. In many ways, the Puritans legitimized the Revolutionary War against Britain. The Puritans drew a sharp distinction between revolution and rebellion; revolution being a providential instrument for carrying out God’s plans on earth. The Puritans beleived that God was actively preparing the world for the second coming of his Son, and revolution was necessary to bring about this change. Resistance to tyrants was perceived as obedience to God. The organization of Puritan New England governments also shaped the political ideas of the founding fathers. The Puritan domestic political life was “completely democratic and republican. They made their own laws, levied their own taxes, controlled their internal affairs, and held their magistrates accountable.” The Puritans significantly impacted the American ideas of government and union at this time.
The 1780’s, though full of events pertaining to the American founding, also had profound impact on the world of philosophy as well, with the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781—considered to be some of the most influential philosophical work in history. Kant argued that reason alone could bring man to his full potential, and only by “daring to know” could man truly be enlightened. In 1783, the Berlinische Monatsschrift, a German magazine, held an essay contest asking, “What is Enlightenment?” Kant’s response was, “Man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance.” This idea of “the self-directed individual” had lasting implications for the western world, as people began to value authority less and themselves more.
The 1780’s was an especially significant decade for the United States. Though a number of important documents were written and decisions made, it was the years following 1789 when the American people wrestled with how these documents shaped the American identity, and how much power the Constitution allotted to the federal government. While the founders made man important decisions throughout this decade, many issues still needed to be resolved.
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Langley, Lester D. "The Dilemmas of Victory." The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1996. 60-83.
Ramsay, David, and Lester H. Cohen. "The State of Parties; the Advantages and Disadvantages of The Revolution; Its Influence on the Minds and Morals of the Citizens." The History of the American Revolution. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990. 625-38.
Smith, Jonathan. “The Depression of 1785 and Daniel Shays’ Rebellion.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), 77-94.
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Weigley, Russell Frank. "Soldiers and Civilians: The Martial Spirit in America, 1775-1865." Towards an American Army; Military Thought from Washington to Marshall. New York: Columbia UP, 1962.
Yale Law School, Avalon Project. “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780”
Jose R. Torre Introduction. The Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.) xvi
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 Ramsay, David and Cohen, Lester H. "The State of Parties; the Advantages and Disadvantages of The Revolution; Its Influence on the Minds and Morals of the Citizens." The History of the American Revolution. (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1990.) 625
 Kaplan, Lawrence S. “The Treaty of Paris, 1783: A Historiographical Challenge.” The International History Review, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Aug., 1983), 431.
 Horsman, Reginald. “The Northwest Ordinance and the Shaping of an Expanding Republic.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Autumn, 1989), 21.
 Yale Law School, Avalon Project. “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, 1780.” Retrieved from: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/pennst01.asp
 Kessler, Sanford. “Tocqueville’s Puritans: Christianity and the American Founding.” The Journal of Politics, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Aug., 1992), 784.
 Torre, Jose R. Introduction. The Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008), vii.
 I Kant, What is Enlightenment, as quoted in Jose R. Torre Introduction. The Enlightenment in America, 1720-1825. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008.) Vii