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America in Adolescence

Adolescence is a transitional phase of human development, a period of struggle with issues of independence and self-identity. The united states were certainly at that point in 1783 after the treaty of Paris ended the war. The term, "united states", is used here not as a singular, collective noun but as a plural noun, for at that time we were just that. Under the Articles of Confederation, we were a loosely joined, cooperating group of independent, sovereign states, each with its own form of government, traditions, and interests.

The years between 1783 and 1788 have been called the critical period of American history by John Quincy Adams, even more crucial than the civil war of the next century that threatened the dissolution of the union. This period was fundamental in establishing that union.

Just like an adolescent that seems to be neither child nor adult, neither fish nor fowl, the united states were not sure if they were one nation or a confederation of 13 little republics. The rest of the world wasn’t sure either – England and Spain would be glad to test the strength of this young country, eager to watch the squabbling children fall prey to European powers.

George Washington, in this context, so aptly called the “father of our country,” warned of the dangers of childish petulance and the need to “grow up.” At the end of the war and the approaching disbandment of the army, he had addressed to the governors and presidents of the several states a circular letter, in which he insisted upon four things as essential to the very existence of the United States as an independent power. First, there must be an indissoluble union of all the states under a single federal government, which must possess the power of enforcing its decrees. Secondly, the debts incurred by Congress by the war must be paid to the uttermost farthing. Thirdly, the militia system must be organized throughout the thirteen states on uniform principles. Fourthly, the people must be willing to sacrifice, if need be, some of their local interests to the common good: they must discard their local prejudices and regard one another as fellow citizens of a common country, with common interests.

It wasn’t until Sept. 9, 1776, that congress officially named the country the United States of America; previously it was called the united colonies, a group of independent entities only working together in their defiance of British rule. It really isn’t too hard to imagine the difficulties that arose when the various states agreed to address those issues raised by Washington. We see it still today in congress as the various regions and constituencies try to influence legislation and elections. However, today we have a structure to work from: the Constitution; in that critical period, they had to start from scratch.

Think of how much this new nation had to deal with! They had to figure out how each state would relate to each other and to other nations, how it would pay its bills, how it would deal with commerce and currency, and how it would handle its expanded territory.

The original Articles of Confederation were submitted to the states for ratification in 1777 but were not finally ratified until 1781, when all the states relinquished their claims to the land in the old Northwest Territory. In those intervening years, through argument and discussion, pamphlets and leaflets and broadsides, ideas and philosophies were presented and debated. The confederation of states had succeeded in defeating a powerful army but in the process had revealed their weaknesses. It was Washington’s frustrating experiences of trying to get much needed supplies to his troops that moved him to make his recommendations after the war. And it was the war effort that made clear the weaknesses of the confederation.

Yet, under the Articles of Confederation the Continental Congress established the army, the navy, and marines; successfully dealt with treaties and fishing rights, and developed a departmental system of government with ministers of finance, war and foreign affairs. Most notably, the congress enacted the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance; and finally, the congress called for the revision of the articles by a Constitutional Convention in 1787.

Historic Fort Steuben is here today because of that Land Ordinance of 1785 which outlined the method of surveying, selling, and distributing land in the Northwest Territory – the land north and west of the Ohio river that England ceded to America. That ordinance sent the surveyors into the Ohio country who then requested the military for protection. The First American Regiment came to the Ohio country to defend against the hostile tribes and to evict the squatters. In so doing, they constructed the original Fort Steuben in 1786-87.

It was a busy and fruitful time for our adolescent country and laid the foundation for the document the Constitutional Convention would finally develop.

Over 200 years later we still wonder at the accomplishments of that period. Learn more at our annual exhibit as we "Celebrate the Constitution."

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