East Coast: The Birth of the United States

“I am embarked on a wide ocean, on which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found.”

The birth of the United States was an agonizing ordeal—a protracted labor of many stages, throughout which survival was always far from certain. Even the father of his country had his doubts. At the onset of the American Revolution, Washington wrote: “I am embarked on a wide ocean, on which, perhaps, no safe harbor is to be found.”

The seemingly insurmountable difficulties in establishing the new nation went all the way back to the very beginning, when just settling North America proved to be an almost overwhelming prospect. The first English colony of Roanoke (off the coast of North Carolina) was a disaster, culminating in the mysterious disappearance of all its inhabitants. A second attempt at Jamestown seemed destined to fail as well. Disease took an enormous toll on the first settlers, as did regular attacks by the native Algonquin Indians. But it was the brutal winter of 1609-10, known as the Starving Time, that nearly doomed the colony.

Food reserves were extremely low as the result of a ferocious draught, forcing the settlers to scrounge for whatever meager sustenance they could find. Cat, dogs and rats were consumed first, then, when that supply was depleted, the Jamestown colonists did the unthinkable. As William Simmons reported in 1610, “so great was our famine, that a Salvage [Indian] we slew, and buried, the poorer sort toke him up again and eat him, and so did divers one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs.” One colonist reportedly even killed and ate his wife.

Out of 500 settlers at the outset of the Starving Time, only 60 remained alive the following spring. Nevertheless, the colony managed to survive. And with the steady influx of more settlers, as well as the cultivation of tobacco, a valuable cash crop, it actually began to thrive. In 1619, the first elected representative government in the New World, known as the House of Burgesses, met at the Jamestown church with a mandate from the Virginia Company (chartered by King James I) to form a government “as may be to the greatest benefit and comfort of the people.” The first seeds of democracy had been planted in America.

Nearly a century and a half after that first meeting, a newly elected member of the House of Burgesses named Patrick Henry stood before that body in Williamsburg (where capital of the Virginia colony had been moved from Jamestown in 1699) and spoke out vigorously against the Stamp Act, which was passed by the British parliament in 1765 and required American colonists to purchase and affix stamps to almost all forms of printed papers—including newspapers, legal documents, and even playing cards. To Henry, the act was an egregious betrayal of the colonists’ rights as British subjects to be taxed only with proper representation in Parliament.

“Caesar had his Brutus,” the young representative thundered before the assembly, “Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third may profit by their example.” Such inflammatory words were too much for some of the older, more conservative legislators. “Treason!” they cried, to which Henry reportedly responded, “If this be treason, make the most of it.” Despite the significant reservations of some, five resolutions were passed that day in Williamsburg strongly condemning the Stamp Act and inspiring other colonies to their own acts of defiance. A breach with Britain had been opened, and, for his part in it, Patrick Henry came to be called “The Trumpet of the Revolution.”

A decade later, when war with Britain appeared to be inevitable, an extralegal assembly met at St. John’s Church in Richmond—far from Williamsburg and the clutches of Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, who had previously dissolved the House of Burgesses. Patrick Henry was again among the delegates, and, in response to British aggression in New England, he urged that “this colony be immediately put into a state of defense.” His resolution was not well received by those in the assembly who were desperate to preserve the peace. Their reluctance prompted the Founding Father’s most famous speech, delivered on March 23, 1775.

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter,” Henry declared. “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

With the help of delegates like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry’s resolution to arm Virginia passed, but only narrowly. It did not bode well that so many—not just in Virginia, but in all the colonies—were reluctant to fight, or fund, the war with Britain that officially began the next month when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Even families were divided in their loyalties, perhaps nowhere more vividly exemplified than in the clash between Benjamin Franklin and his son William, the royal governor of New Jersey, who was subjected to a brutal imprisonment for siding with Britain.

“These are the times that try men's souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”

No one understood that better than George Washington, who was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1775. He later recounted the terrible odds the colonists faced in triumphing over a foe as formidable as Britain—even if there had been unity of purpose among, and between, the colonies:

“It was known that the resources of Great Britain were, in a manner, inexhaustible, that her fleets covered the ocean and that her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter upon the globe. Not then organized as a nation, or known as a people upon the earth, we had no preparation. Money, the nerve of war, was wanting. The sword was to be forged on the anvil of necessity.”

Washington was so uncertain of success that he confided to Patrick Henry, “From the day I enter upon the command of the American armies, I date my fall and the ruin of my reputation.”

Three years into the protracted war, the Continental Army commanded by Washington was on the verge of complete disintegration as it settled in for the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge. Disease and starvation were rampant; supplies nearly non-existent. A Connecticut surgeon by the name of Albigence Waldo left a vivid account of the horrendous conditions: “Poor food—hard lodging—cold weather—fatigue—nasty clothes—nasty cookery—vomit half my time—smoak’d out of my senses—the devil’s in’t—I can’t endure it—why are we sent here to starve and freeze.”

Washington was distressed over the suffering of his soldiers: “To see men without Shoes, by which their Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet—and almost as often without Provisions as with; Marching through frost & Snow…is a mark of patience and obedience which in my opinion can scarce be parallel’d.”

What made the situation all the more devastating was the fact that the Valley Forge encampment was in the middle of some of the most fertile and productive land to be found. “An American Army in the Bosom of America is about to disband for the want of something to eat,” reported Governor Morris, a delegate to the Continental Congress. Local farmers were selling all their goods to the British, who occupied nearby Philadelphia, rather than to the army, with its near worthless currency.

“I am the more chagrined at the want of provisions to which I am informed your Army is reduced,” wrote William Livingstone, the governor of New Jersey, “as I believe it is partly owing to the boundless Avarice of some of our Farmers, who would rather see us engulfed in eternal Bondage, than sell their produce at a reasonable price.”

Yet despite the severe hardships it endured, the Continental Army emerged from Valley Forge the following June intact and ready to fight another day. But it would take another three years, and many more challenges, for Washington to achieve his dream of smashing Britain in one decisive war-ending battle. That came at Yorktown, Virginia, in October, 1781.

Among the ranks of Washington’s army was Joseph Plumb Martin, who recalled with glee the march to confront the enemy under General Charles Cornwallis: “We prepared to move down and pay our old acquaintance, the British, at Yorktown, a visit. I doubt not but their wish was not to have so many of us come at once as their accommodations were rather scanty. They thought, ‘the fewer the better cheer.’ We thought, ‘the more the merrier.’ We had come a long way to see them and were unwilling to be put off with excuses.”

With Cornwallis trapped at Yorktown by the French fleet, combined American and French forces surrounded his position and bombarded the British into submission. There was little choice left to them but surrender, as expected reinforcements from New York never arrived. Cornwallis could not bring himself to attend the formal surrender ceremony, feigning illness. The officers under him showed even less grace in defeat. “Their mortification could not be concealed,” reported Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army. “Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word ‘ground arms,’ and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless.”

The British defeat at Yorktown effectively ended the Revolutionary War, although peace did not come officially until the Treaty of Paris was signed in September, 1783. Not long after, in an act of astonishing humility, George Washington resigned his commission and retired to his estate at Mount Vernon. “The scene is at last closed,” he wrote. “I feel myself eased of a load of public care. I hope to spend the remainder of my days in cultivating the affections of good men and in the practice of the domestic virtues.” There would be little tranquility at Mount Vernon, however, as Washington watched with increasing distress that the great republic he had fought for was failing.

The American Revolution did not produce a new, united nation. Rather, it spawned a very loose confederation of independent states—each with its own divergent agendas, with citizens who cared very little about (and, in some cases, deeply mistrusted) a strong national government. Indeed, the Articles of Confederation that officially established formed the United States of America, ensured that the federal government would be a limp entity with little power—“a rope of sand,” as Washington called it.

From his retirement at Mount Vernon, Washington wrote a steady stream of letters expressing his grave concerns over the new nation’s survival. “Without some alteration in our political creed,” he asserted, “the superstructure we have been seven years raising at the expense of much blood and treasure must fall. We are fast verging to anarchy & confusion.”

In another letter, Washington lamented: “No morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present….Thirteen sovereignties pulling against each other, and all tugging at the [federal] head, will soon bring ruin on the whole.”

James Madison shared Washington’s frustration. “The question whether it is possible and worthwhile to preserve the Union of the States must be speedily decided one way or other,” he declared. “Those who are indifferent to the preservation would do well to look forward to the consequences of its extinction.”

While both Madison and Washington were in agreement about the vital need for a strong central government if the United States was ever to achieve greatness, only one of them had the stature among his countrymen to successfully advance their shared vision at the upcoming Philadelphia Convention, later known as the Constitutional Convention, which was to be convened to address problems with the Articles of Confederation. Only problem was, Washington had no intention of budging from his retirement at Mount Vernon.

“After all,” writes historian Joseph Ellis, “he had effectively promised the American people that he would never return to public life when he stepped down as commander in chief. He was the American Cincinnatus, permanently ensconced under his vine and fig trees at Mount Vernon.”

Yet despite Washington’s most fervent protestations, Madison eventually persuaded him to lead the Virginia delegation at the Philadelphia Convention. There both men hoped to not just modify the Articles, as Thomas Jefferson and many other wanted, but to replace them entirely with a new Constitution that would create a fully empowered nation-state.

Throughout the sweltering summer of 1787—sworn to secrecy and hidden behind heavily-draped windows— delegates from twelve states (Rhode Island refused to attend) gathered at the same State House where eleven years earlier the Declaration of Independence had been signed and managed to produce the most respected and longest enduring written constitution the world has ever known. It was a grueling experience, filled with compromises that left few of the delegates happy—perhaps least of all Washington and Madison, who saw their goal of a supreme federal government fundamentally diluted by the numerous states rights left intact.

Benjamin Franklin acknowledged the misgivings he and many other delegates had about the Constitution they had hammered together, but, he concluded: “I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best.” Now it was up to the people to decide if they would consent or not, and there strong indications that they might very well refuse.

One of the leading voices against ratification was none other than “The Trumpet of the Revolution” himself, Patrick Henry, who had refused to join the Virginia delegation to the secretive Philadelphia Convention, remarking, “I smell a rat.” For Henry, the Articles were sufficient for the maintenance of the union. “The Confederation…carried us through a long and dangerous war. It rendered us victorious in that bloody conflict with a powerful nation. It has secured has secured us a territory greater than any European monarch possesses. And shall a Government this strong and vigorous be accused of imbecility for want of energy?”

The proposed Constitution removed too much sovereignty from the states,” Henry argued, and created a federal behemoth with imperial pretensions. “Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire,” he declared; “we must have an army, and a navy, and a number of things. When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different. Liberty, Sir, was the primary object….You make the citizens of this country agree to become the subjects of one great consolidated empire of America….When I come to examine these features, Sir, they appear to me horribly frightful. Among other deformities it has an awful squinting; it squints toward monarchy.”

That the Constitution was ratified—by the slimmest margins in the key states of Virginia, Massachusetts and New York—may have had something to do with compromises in Philadelphia that Washington and Madison initially found so odious: the ones that left the respective sovereignties of the central government and the states indistinct, both shared and divided. This allowed Madison to argue at the Virginia Ratification convention that the proposed Constitution “is of a complicated nature, and this complication, I trust, will be found to exclude the evils of absolute consolidation, as well of a mere confederacy.”

Any attempt to resolve the “complicated nature” of the Constitution, and force an unambiguous answer to the relative powers of the federal government and the states, “would probably have killed the infant American republic in the cradle,” writes Ellis. But the continued debate culminated several generations later, when the young republic—still wobbly on its feet and facing disintegration—engaged in the bloodiest war in its history. It was only then, on the great battlefields of the Civil War, that the United States of America truly emerged as one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.