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Challenges Facing the Nation Previous Next
Digital History ID 2971


During the 1790s, the young republic faced many of the same problems that confronted the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia in the 20th century. Like other nations born in anti-colonial revolutions, the United States faced the challenge of building a sound economy, preserving national independence, and creating a stable political system which provided a legitimate place for opposition.

In 1790, it was not at all obvious that the Union would long survive. George Washington thought that the new government would not last 20 years. One challenge was to consolidate public support. Only about 5 percent of adult white males had voted to ratify the new Constitution and two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, continued to support the Articles of Confederation. Vermont threatened to join Canada.

The new nation also faced economic and foreign policy problems.

  • A huge debt remained from the Revolutionary War and paper money issued during the conflict was virtually worthless.
  • In violation of the peace treaty of 1783 ending the Revolutionary War, Britain continued to occupy forts in the Old Northwest.
  • Spain refused to recognize the new nation's southern and western boundaries.

Establishing the Machinery of Government

The U.S. Constitution created a general framework of government. It would be up to the first president and first Congress to fill in the details.

The new government consisted of nothing more than 75 post offices, a large debt, a small number of unpaid clerks, and an army of just 46 officers and 672 soldiers. There was no federal court system, no navy, and no system for collecting taxes.

The Senate devoted three weeks to debating how the president should be addressed. One committee proposed "His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same."

The House of Representatives, under the leadership of James Madison considered more pressing problems.

  • To raise revenue, it passed a tariff on imports and a tax on liquor.
  • To encourage American shipping, it imposed duties on foreign vessels.
  • To provide a structure for the executive branch of the government, it created departments of State, Treasury, and War.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 organized a federal court system, which consisted of a Supreme Court with six justices, a district court in each state, and three appeals courts.

To strengthen popular support for the new government, Congress also approved a Bill of Rights. These first ten amendments guaranteed the rights of free press, free speech, and religion; the right to peaceful assembly; and the right to petition government. The Bill of Rights also ensured that the national government could not infringe on the right to trial by jury. In an effort to reassure Antifederalists that the powers of the new government were limited, the tenth amendment "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people" all powers not specified in the Constitution.

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