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Early United States: 1791–1815



The United States experienced growing pains in its first two decades as an independent country. Its leaders often clashed over the constitutionality of new laws and institutions they created to run a solvent and peaceful government. The authority of the government and the principles of the Constitution were tested by citizens who resented burdensome taxes and political leaders who indulged in partisan politics. Yet the country grew in size and reputation. It doubled in size with the purchase of land from France and became a major player on the world stage by defeating Great Britain in the War of 1812.

At A Glance

  • The creation of the First Bank of the United States caused heated debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Alexander Hamilton, the leading proponent of the bank, argued it was critical to help pay the nation's debts.
  • The U.S. government faced the first challenge to its authority from a group of farmers in Pennsylvania. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 was a protest against an excise on spirits.
  • Jay's Treaty with Britain angered Republicans and led France to abandon its alliance with the United States. French solicitations of loans and bribes resulted in the XYZ Affair and nearly led to war.
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts led the new nation into a constitutional crisis.
  • In 1800 Thomas Jefferson became president of the United States. His election effectively shifted control from the Federalists to the Democratic-Republicans.
  • Secretary of State James Madison's refusal to deliver documents to a judge appointed by John Adams led to the establishment of the principle of judicial review.
  • Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but he also raised a question as to whether the Constitution permitted the use of a treaty to acquire territory.
  • In 1804 President Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery, a company led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the Louisiana Territory.
  • In 1804 the British navy continued its policy of stopping and boarding U.S. cargo ships to impress American citizens into military service as a way to identify and punish deserters.
  • The Non-Importation Act and the Embargo Act were intended to put economic pressure on the British to get them to stop attacking American cargo ships. Both acts failed to achieve the desired result and led to domestic conflict.
  • To defend its national honor and its right to neutral trade, the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Neither side was fully prepared for the conflict.
  • The Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812. In the aftermath of the war came a swell in American nationalism as the fledgling nation asserted itself as a formidable power that had defeated the British not once, but twice.