Post-American Revolution America

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The History of the United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The American Revolution was ended by the Treaty of Paris, but it was not so clear that the Treaty of Paris ensured the survival of the nation the revolution had created. For one thing, both Congress and the states were hopelessly in debt by the end of the revolution.

A gold engraving of the year 1787 when Shays' Rebellion took place.
Led by Daniel Shays, a small army of revolutionary veterans, debtors, and small farmers marched on Springfield, Massachusetts, to seize the Federal arsenal at Springfield. (Image: Hols/Shutterstock)

Post-American Revolution: The Economic Troubles of Congress

After the American Revolution, the states and Congress were both in deep debt. Now, the states could hope to eventually pay their bills by taxing their citizens, but Congress? Congress had no such power under the Articles of Confederation. In addition, it had taken to paying its bills in paper money, which, quite literally, was hemorrhaging value month by month.

The optimistic or patriotic souls who had lent Congress money received—in return for the lending—Continental securities, Continental IOUs, or Continental currency, and they watched the value of these securities and pledges dwindle away to nothing. The veterans of the Continental Army, even after they were demobilized, still went unpaid, or they had to accept payment in bizarre forms of promissory notes, such as quartermaster certificates.

Learn more about Adams and liberty.

Post-American Revolution: The Economic Battles between the States and Congress

The more the value of Continental money and Continental securities depreciated, the more the states tried to prevent their people from using it, even if it meant that individual states were, in effect, trying to bankrupt the Confederation government to protect themselves. Virginia and North Carolina actually taxed Continental securities in order to encourage their people to liquidate them.

Maryland and New Jersey moved to take responsibility for funding their states’ portion of the national debt in their own currencies. Others would refuse to accept Continental notes and securities for the payment of state taxes. In some cases, the states would offer to redeem Continental securities in state currencies so that the states would end up holding the financial paper of the Confederation government, and therefore holding the Confederation financially hostage.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Post-American Revolution: The Economic and Political Troubles of the States

An illustration showing Shays' protesters taking down a tax collector.
After the success of the American Revolution, the United States entered a state of economic and political turmoil.
(Image: Wmpetro/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Now, that did not mean that the states were managing their economies any better in the post-American Revolution world. In the summer of 1786, mobs in western Massachusetts gathered to protest their state’s taxes. They met attempts by state officers to sell the land of those who failed to pay at sheriff’s sales with armed resistance.

Led by Daniel Shays, a small army of revolutionary veterans, debtors, and small farmers marched on Springfield, Massachusetts. They tried to seize the Federal arsenal at Springfield. In the end, though, Shays’s men were routed by the state militia. The state government was sufficiently shaken by Shays’s rebellion to appeal for support from the Confederation Congress.

Congress, as Massachusetts should have expected, declined to intervene because it was powerless to do anything in the state’s affairs. West of the Appalachians, Virginia’s westernmost settlements, in what is now Kentucky and Tennessee, tried to organize their own state of Franklin. They then debated whether they should join themselves to the Confederation or to the Spanish Empire.

Post-American Revolution America: A State of Complete Disarray

An oil painting of George Washington.
George Washington was disappointed with the state of disarray that the country had found itself in after the American Revolution. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

“Have we fought for this?” asked George Washington in near despair. Nevertheless, Washington was not the only one with this question on his mind. A large proportion of the old revolutionaries of the 1760s and the 1770s thought of themselves as Marylanders or Pennsylvanians first, and those old revolutionaries were perfectly happy to see the Confederation kept weak and toothless.

In Pennsylvania, the various committees that mobilized resistance to the British were filled with people that no upstanding colonial assembly of the old days would have tolerated in their midst. It was filled with mechanics, artisans, and militiamen. At the end of the Revolution, these were the people who stepped in the leadership vacuum created by the disappearance of the loyalists.

Learn more about Hamilton’s republic.

Post-American Revolution: Class Struggles

Laborers in New York and Boston organized political associations to, as they said, keep lawyers and men of learning and moneyed men from being allowed to swallow up us little folks.

The number of men in the legislatures of New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey who were only middle class increased from one-sixth to three-fifths after the Revolution. Even the notion of liberty itself was being redefined. To the old revolutionaries, the idea of liberty meant simply that communities should have the right to govern themselves.

The people whom the Revolution cast up into places of power in America defined liberty more broadly. For them, liberty meant access for everyone to the political process, and maybe even a restraint on individual wealth and property in order to ensure more general economic equality.

Common Question About Post-American Revolution America

Q: What were some effects of the American Revolution?

The American Revolution led to powerful political, social, and economic changes. It also increased participation in politics and governance along with the institutionalization of religious toleration.

Q: What happened to the British after the American Revolution?

Notwithstanding the loss of 13 American colonies, post-American Revolution Britain went on to create the Second British Empire, which eventually became the biggest empire in world history.

Q: Could the British have won the Revolutionary War?

Yes, the British could have won the Revolutionary War despite the contrary claims from some Britishers regarding the possibility of a positive outcome.

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