The New Nation
Creating the Constitution
The American people had not liked England’s rules. They had fought a war to be free. But now they had to figure out who would make the rules for the United States of America.
The answer seemed simple. The English government had treated Americans badly because it was too strong. Americans would not repeat the mistake of having a strong government. And so they created a weak government for the nation.
Americans soon learned, however, that a weak government can lead to problems, too. From 1781 to 1787, the government made rules, but there was no president to make sure people obeyed. This government also did not have the power to tax, which meant that it never had the money it needed and was always in debt.
Finally, in 1787, a meeting was held in Philadelphia to create a more powerful government. People from 12 states met during the hot summer months. They had a tough job. They had to figure out how to make a government that was strong but would not treat the people badly as the strong English government had done.
They put their solution into a document called the Constitution. It set up a powerful government, one that had a president and could bring in money by taxing. To protect the people, the Constitution divided the government’s power into three parts. Each part could stop the other two from doing bad things. The American people approved their new Constitution in 1788, and they elected George Washington their first president.
The Louisiana Purchase
At the time the United States won its independence, the new country stretched from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. On the other side of the river, Spain owned the land. In 1795, the U.S. and Spain made a deal. American farmers could use the Mississippi to float their crops on rafts down to New Orleans. At New Orleans, the crops could be taken off the rafts and loaded onto ships. This use of the river and New Orleans was very important to the farmers.
Suddenly, in 1800, France took Louisiana, the land west of the Mississippi all the way to the Rocky Mountains, from Spain. President Thomas Jefferson was afraid that France would close off the Mississippi and New Orleans to Americans. To protect the farmers, he decided to buy New Orleans from the French. He offered $2 million, but he was ready to pay more if he had to.
What Jefferson didn’t know was that the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, no longer wanted the land France had taken from Spain. In 1803, Bonaparte offered to sell the Americans not just New Orleans but all of Louisiana. At first, the Americans were shocked. But then they made the deal, paying $15 million, or about three cents an acre, for 828,000 square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began a long trip to explore the Louisiana Purchase. They traveled all the way to the Pacific Ocean before returning two years later.
The War of 1812
In the early 1800s, England and France were at war. The United States wanted to stay out of their war. But neither side would let the United States trade with its enemy. Both countries attacked American ships that were headed for its enemy’s ports.
Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison tried to get England and France to leave U.S. ships alone, but they failed. In 1812, the United States declared war on England because England seemed to be more of an enemy than France.
The war began badly. Three attacks on English-ruled Canada failed. The United States did better in 1813. Oliver Hazard Perry led American ships to victory over an English fleet, and William Henry Harrison won a land battle against the English.
By late 1814, however, the English were clearly winning. They marched on Washington, D.C., and burned many buildings. Then they attacked Baltimore, Maryland. During this attack, Francis Scott Key, watching to see if the U.S. flag was still flying, wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The final battle of the war took place at New Orleans. Andrew Jackson led American forces to a great victory. In just a half hour, the English lost more than 2,000 men while Jackson’s army lost just 70. What no one in New Orleans knew, however, was that England and the United States had made peace the month before the battle was fought. But the Battle of New Orleans made many Americans think that the United States had won the war.
From Sea to Sea
In 1783, when the United States won its independence, it stretched from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase made the country much bigger. The United States reached as far west as the Rocky Mountains. But it was still growing.
In 1819, Spain sold Florida to the United States. In 1845, the huge area of Texas joined the Union. Many Americans, though, wanted more land. They dreamed of a nation that stretched from sea to sea, from the Atlantic Ocean on the east to the Pacific Ocean on the west. These Americans would see their dream come true.
President James K. Polk shared his dream. In 1846, he made a deal with England for the land that later became the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. With this land, the country finally did stretch from sea to sea. But Polk was not finished.
He wanted what we call the Southwest. This land was part of Mexico. Polk tried to buy the land, but Mexico did not want to sell. The president then said that the United States should go to war with Mexico. He claimed that Mexican soldiers had killed some American soldiers in Texas. In 1846, the Mexican War began.
The war did not last long. In 1848, Mexico surrendered. As part of the treaty ending the war, Mexico gave the United States all the land Polk had wanted. This land became the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. The dream of a United States that stretched from sea to sea had come true.
Conflict over Slavery
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote these famous words: “all men are created equal.” The idea was that all people have the same rights. How, then, could some people be slaves in a land where everyone was supposed to have the same rights? The idea of equality clashed with the idea of slavery.
Northern states did away with this clash by doing away with slavery. Southern states, however, kept slavery. Cotton became a major crop, and Southerners needed slaves to grow it. Although some Northerners said that the slaves should be freed, most believed that Southerners had a right to own slaves.
The real conflict over slavery began when Southerners wanted to take their slaves with them into the new lands of the west. Most Northerners could accept the idea of slavery in the South. But they could not accept the idea of slavery spreading into the Louisiana Purchase land and the land won in the Mexican war.
In 1820, the conflict over the spread of slavery led to a famous deal called the Missouri Compromise. In this deal, a line was drawn through the Louisiana Purchase. Slavery was allowed to spread south of the line but not north of it. Another deal in 1850 settled the issue of slavery in the lands won from Mexico.
By 1860, however, most Northerners believed that slavery was wrong, and they would not let it spread further. Southerners believed slavery was right, and many were ready to break away and form a new country if the North threatened their way of life.