The United States – A New Nation

Untied States - A New Nation

United States – A New Nation

On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence established a new nation. It transformed a limited uprising to secure rights within the British Empire into a far-reaching revolution aimed at complete independence from British control. Since the King and his ministers had determined to restore British rule, the Americans faced a long, hard struggle for independence that required a sustained national effort such as they had not expected in 1775.

Declaration of Independence by Arthur Szyk

Declaration of Independence by Arthur Szyk

The new nation was still a weak confederation of 13 independent states. The feeling of national pride was a new phenomenon growing out of common opposition to British measures. Colonial tradition, divided loyalties, the nature of the economy, and the spirit of a revolt born in opposition to the use of military force to suppress popular liberties all worked against the creation of any kind of strong central authority capable of mobilizing resources effectively for the long struggle that lay ahead.

The 13 states proclaimed independence in 1776 and possessed a population of about 2.5 million people. However, not all males of military age were potential military members. About 20 percent were African American slaves who, except under special circumstances, were not eligible for service. However, African Americans did serve in integrated units during the Revolution. A significant minority within the colonies remained loyal to the King, either reluctantly out of a sense of obligation or passionately as armed supporters. As in any society, there were also the apathetic and indifferent who swayed with the tide. Genuine patriots still provided far greater potential for military manpower than the British could transport and supply across the Atlantic. Still, most of the men of military age were farmers with families. Whatever their patriotic sentiments, few were ready to undertake long terms of military service, fearing that their farms and families at home would suffer. Accustomed to the tradition of short-term militia service under local commanders, they infinitely preferred it to longer terms in the Continental Army.

The economy of the 13 new states was neither self-sufficient nor genuinely national. The states were a collection of separate agricultural communities accustomed to exchanging their agricultural surplus for British-manufactured goods and West Indian products. Manufacturing was still in its infancy, and America produced few of the essentials of the military supply. Despite diligently promoting domestic production during the war, the Continental Army relied primarily on captures and imports from Europe and the West Indies. The British blocked these imports for much of its military hardware and even for clothing. While the country produced abundant food, transport from one area to another was difficult. The usual avenues of commerce ran up and down the rivers, not overland; roads running north and south were few and inadequate. There were always shortages of wagons, boats, and other means of transportation. Under these circumstances, supporting local militia for a few days or weeks was far easier than any sizable and continuously operating national army in the field.

First Continental Congress, September 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

First Continental Congress, September 1774, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The governmental machinery created after the Declaration was characterized by decentralization and executive weakness. By adapting their institutions, the 13 new “free and independent states” transformed their existing de facto revolutionary governments into legal state governments. Almost invariably, the new constitutions vested most of the powers of government in the state legislatures, successors to the popular assemblies of the colonial period. They also severely restricted the executive authority of governors. At the national level, the same general distrust of strong authority was apparent, and the existing Continental Congress, essentially a gathering of delegates chosen by the state legislatures and without either express powers of its own or an executive to carry out its enactments, was continued as the only central governing body.

The Articles of Confederation stipulating the terms of the union and granting Congress specific but limited powers were drawn up shortly after the Declaration. Still, jealousy among the states prevented ratification until 1781. In the interim, Congress exercised most of its powers under the Articles. Still, the Articles did not include either the right to levy taxes or the power to raise military forces directly under its auspices. Congress could only determine the Confederation’s need for troops and money to wage war and set quotas for the states to meet in proportion to their population and wealth. It had no means of ensuring that the states met their quotas; indeed, they seldom did.

One major weakness of this decentralized structure was its lack of adequate financing. As a result of widespread opposition to taxation, state legislatures, who had the power to tax but Congress did not, hesitated to use it extensively. They were often embarrassed to meet their own expenses. Very early, Congress took unto itself the power to issue paper money and to negotiate domestic and foreign loans. Still, it shared these powers with the states, which also printed paper money in profusion and borrowed both at home and abroad to the extent they could. Paper money was practical in the early part of the war; indeed, the American Revolution could not have been carried on without it. However, successive issues by Congress and the states led to gradual and galloping inflation, leaving the phrase “not worth a Continental” as a permanent legacy in the American language. The process of depreciation and the exhaustion of credit gradually robbed both the states and Congress of the power to pay troops, buy supplies, and otherwise meet the multitudinous expenses of the war.

A New Nation, 1783.

A New Nation, 1783.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated February 2024.

Source: Richard W. Stewart, General Editor; American Military History, Volume 1, The United States Army and the Forging of a Nation, 1775–1917, Second Edition, Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C.

Also See:

American Revolution

American Revolution Photo Gallery

A Capsule History of the Revolutionary War

Prelude to the Revolutionary War