Making Rules

14c. Evaluating the Congress

Marietta, Ohio
The town of Marietta, Ohio, was one of the first settlements in the Northwest Territory.

The central failure of the Congress was related to its limited fiscal power. Because it could not impose taxes on the states, the national government's authority and effectiveness was severely limited. Given this major encumbrance, the accomplishments of the Congress were quite impressive. First of all, it raised the Continental Army, kept it in the field, and managed to finance the war effort.

Diplomatic efforts helped the war effort too. Military and financial support from France secured by Congress helped the Americans immeasurably. The diplomatic success of the treaty of alliance with France in 1778 was unquestionably a major turning point in the war. Similarly, the success of Congress' diplomatic envoys to the peace treaty ending the war also secured major — and largely unexpected — concessions from the British in 1783. The treaty won Americans' fishing rights in rich Atlantic waters that the British navy could have controlled. Most importantly, Britain granted all its western lands south of the Great Lakes to the new United States.

Louis XVI
After the colonies and France signed treaties of alliance and commerce in 1786, King Louis XVI helped fund the revolutionary war effort.

While granted the western lands from the British, actual ownership of this land and how to best settle it was enormously controversial. Although states had ceded their own claim to western land to the national government as part of their ratification of the Articles of Confederation, this threatened to reemerge as a postwar problem. Many Americans had ignored legal restrictions on western settlement and simply struck out for new land that they claimed as their own by right of occupation. How could a national Congress with limited financial resources and no coercive power deal with this complex problem?

The Congressional solution was a remarkable act of statesmanship that tackled several problems and did so in a fair manner. The Congress succeeded in asserting its ownership of the western lands and used the profits from their sale to pay the enormous expenses associated with settlement (construction of roads, military protection, etc.). Second, the Congress established a process for future states in this new area to join the Confederation on terms fully equal to the original thirteen members. The new states would be sovereign and not suffer secondary colonial status.

Signing of the Treaty of Paris
When artist Benjamin West began this work of the delegates to the Treaty of Paris, he started by painting the members of the American delegation (shown). West planned to complete it by including the British delegates, but the British men refused to pose and the painting was never finished.

The actual process by which Congress took control of the area of western lands north of the Ohio River indicated some of its most impressive actions. Three laws regarding the settlement of this Northwest Territory established an admission policy to the United States based on population, organized the settlement of the territory on an orderly rectangular grid pattern that helped make legal title more secure, and prohibited the expansion of slavery to this large region which would eventually include the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

The resolution of a potentially crisis-filled western land policy was perhaps the most outstanding accomplishment of the first national government. A political process for adding new states as equals was created. A partial solution to the national revenue crisis was found. Together these policies fashioned a mechanism for the United States to be a dynamic and expanding society. Most remarkably of all, Congressional western policy put into practice some of the highest Revolutionary ideals that often went unheeded. By forbidding slavery in the Northwest as an inappropriate institution for the future of the United States, the Congress' achievements should be considered quite honorable. At the same time, however, there were people whose rights were infringed upon by this same western policy. The control of land settlement by the central government favored wealthy large-scale land developers over small-scale family farmers of ordinary means. Furthermore, Native Americans' claim to a western region still largely unsettled by whites was largely ignored.

Like the contradictory elements of the Revolution, the record of first national government includes achievements and failures, and these two qualities often could be found intertwined within the very same issue.

On the Web
France's Treaty of Alliance with America
This Library of Congress site provides the text, commentary and links to additional resources on the 1778 treaty that secured an alliance with the French. The Library of Congress has even included a link to some of the content in this textbook. thanks, LOC!
Early America's Bloodiest Battle
The settling of the Northwest Territory wasn't all peaches and cream. Among the dangers were angry Native Americans trying to defend their homes. Settlers clashed with Indians in 1791 at what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio and nearly 750 lives were lost in the stunning defeat.
Ohio History Connection: American Indian Voices From the Past
Learn about the chronology, containers, tools and games of the American Indians of Ohio through hands-on activities offered by the Ohio History Center.
Fallen Timbers Battlefield
The Battle of Fallen Timbers was the culminating event that demonstrated the tenacity of the American people in their quest for western expansion and the struggle for dominance in the Old Northwest Territory. The events resulted in the dispossession of American Indian tribes and a loss of colonial territory for the British military and settlers.
Historical Documents
A compendium of historical documents ranging from the Magna Carta to the present.
The Treaty of Greenville: 1795
Read the text of this treaty which represented a massive expansion of U.S. territory into Indian lands, including "One piece of land six miles square, at the mouth of Chikago river ... " Filled with grandiose demands, and short-lived promises, the Treaty
When Elias Boudinot of New Jersey put his "John Hancock" on the Treaty of Paris, his title became (6 years before George) "President of the United States in Congress Assembled."
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William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, was elected president in 1840 but died after serving less than a month in office.
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When George Washington got word that the colonies had signed an alliance treaty with France he was overjoyed! So much so that he ordered the pardon of 2 soldiers facing execution and planned a celebration complete with shouting and firing guns into the air.
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