As the American Revolution drew to a close, Revolutionary leaders sought to carve out a new, distinct national identity from the existing, repressive European powers—and an experiment began. The experiment was not one performed by scientists in the laboratory but rather one that took place in the crucible of American life. Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815opens at the signing of the Constitution and traces this republican experiment through the conclusion of the War of 1812. Wood posits, “By 1815 Americans had experienced a transformation in the way they related to one another and in the way they perceived themselves and the world around them.”
Historically, republics had been extremely tenuous because of their “reliance on the moral virtue of their citizens, on their capacity for self-sacrifice and impartiality of judgment.” Initially, one’s political service was not considered a profession. Rather, a “gentleman,” as opposed to a “commoner,” was expected to serve a “disinterested” role in public office and then return to his profession.
The dream of Hamilton, Washington, and the other Federalists of a strong, consolidated, and prosperous national polity was not the disinterested adjudicatory state that Madison had envisioned but an illustrious, European-type state that would rival the great powers of Europe.
By about 1789, however, Federalists recognized that the American people needed a stronger centralized government. Despite the realization that they could not rely solely on the disinterested gentleman, Federalists forged on with their republican experiment. As much as they loathed the idea of commoners and the “middling sorts” serving as government officials, they would still rather press forward with their republican dream than revert back to patriarchy and monarchy. Although monarchies did not require such morality from their subjects, Americans refused to adopt the oppressive system of government from which they had just broken free.
With the world watching, Americans elected their first president. During the first presidency, George Washington, political leaders, and Americans struggled with the president’s title, salary, number of terms, and cabinet. After Washington’s second term as American President, something happened the world did not expect. Washington stepped away from the presidency. His “retirement from the presidency enhanced his moral authority and set a precedent for future presidents.” More importantly, however, it confirmed the American republican experiment.
Despite Washington’s widespread popularity, in the early 1790s, the “Republican party” emerged in opposition to the Federalists. At this time political parties were not the discrete, organized groups we have today but rather were “rough divisions of opinion manifested in Congress.” After John Adams served a single term as president, the voters overwhelmingly shifted from the Federalist to the Republican Party. Indeed, in the election of 1800, the Republicans took over the presidency and both houses of Congress, and Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans began “what they rightly believed was the original aim of the Revolution: to reduce the overweening and dangerous power of the government.”
Republican reforms permeated and transformed nearly every area of one’s life: education, media, postal system, roads and transportation, charitable societies, criminal punishment, religion, museums, and arts. According to Wood, the most consequential Republican reform was the anti-slavery movement.
Although Americans worked to separate themselves from their British heritage, they also pined for British recognition and respect. The United States declared war on Great Britain, and the War of 1812 commenced. Although Americans’ entrance into the war had been justified by British violations of American maritime rights, the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on Christmas Eve 1814, never mentioned these maritime rights. Rather, the British agreed to acknowledge the “independence and sovereignty” of the United States. With that,
[t]he internal struggle that had gone on from 1789 over the direction of the United States finally seemed to be over. People now called for an end to party bickering and for uniting as one great family. The grand republican experiment had survived.