We the People

“We the People”

The United States Constitution established a system of government that aims to derive its power from the people.

Learning Objectives

Describe the relationship between state and federal governments as established by the Constitution

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • By starting with the words “We the People,” the Preamble to the US Constitution suggests that the Constitution created derived its power from the people; yet it also, in some ways, implies exclusion of non- citizens.
  • After the Civil War, the Supreme Court held that the United States a single sovereign nation, as opposed to a collection of individually sovereign states.
  • The Constitution entrusts to the federal government specific established powers over which it has free exercise; yet much of the government’s power is exercised concurrently between the federal and state governments.
  • State constitutions address a wide variety of concerns, and are generally modeled after the federal Constitution.

Key Terms

  • constitutionality: The status of being in accord with the Constitution.
  • citizen: A person legally recognized as a member of a state, and thus possessing associated rights and obligations.

The People of the United States

The phrase “People of the United States” has sometimes been understood to mean “citizens.” The reasoning therein is that if the political community speaking for itself in the Preamble  to the Constitution (“We the People”) includes only citizens, it specifically, in some way, excludes non-citizens. It has also been thought to mean all individuals who fall under the sovereign jurisdiction of the US government.

The phrase can be seen as affirming that the national government the Constitution created derives its sovereignty from the people. It can also be seen as confirming that the government under the Constitution was intended to govern and protect “the people” directly, as one society, rather than governing only the states as political units.

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The Preamble of the Constitution: The Preamble of the Constitution of the United States begins with the often-quoted phrase, “We the People.”

Although in some ways the meaning and implications of the Preamble may be contested, at the least it can be said that it demonstrates that the US federal government was not created as an agreement between or among a coalition of the states. Instead, it was the product of “the People” with the power to govern them directly, unlike the government under the Articles of Confederation, which only governed them indirectly through rules imposed on the states.

Popular Nature of the Constitution

The Constitution is an act of “the People.” However, because it represents a general social contract, there are limits on the ability of individual citizens to pursue legal claims arising from it. For example, if a law that violates the Constitution were enacted, it would not be possible for any individual to challenge the statute’s constitutionality in court. Instead, only an individual negatively affected by the unconstitutional statute could bring such a challenge. In this same vein, courts will not answer hypothetical questions about a statute’s constitutionality. The judiciary does not have the authority to invalidate laws solely because they are unconstitutional, but it may declare a law unconstitutional if its operation would injure a person’s interests.

Federal System

The United States is a union of states, each with its own individual powers. Yet this does not mean the states have power to legislate on all matters. The federal government has its own fields of legislation. If federal legislation conflicts with state laws, the federal legislation prevails and the state must defer to the federal government. The alternative—that any state may at any time leave the Union and thus be free from Union interference in the state’s internal affairs—was attempted during the American Civil War when several states seceded from the Union.

There are two types of federal systems: dual federalism and cooperative federalism. Dual federalism holds that the Union and the states individually are equal. Under this view of federalism, the federal government only has the powers expressly granted to it, while the states retain all other powers. Cooperative federalism states that the federal government is definitively superior to state governments and that it should stretch its powers as far as possible. The United States is a union that does not completely fit either definition. The type of federalism that prevails often depends on who is in power at the time, and on that person’s interpretation of the Constitution. The Constitution contains safeguards that prevent stretching federalism too far to either extreme, and the Tenth Amendment notably reserves for state governments all powers not expressly given to the federal government within the Constitution.

Relationship Between State and Federal Government

While each state was originally recognized as sovereign unto itself, the post-Civil War Supreme Court held that the United States consists of only one sovereign nation with respect to foreign affairs and international relations. In other words, the individual states may not conduct foreign relations. Although the Constitution expressly delegates to the federal government only some of the usual powers of sovereign governments (e.g., power to declare war or make treaties), all such powers inherently belong to the federal government as the country’s representative in the international community.

Domestically, the federal government’s sovereignty means that it may perform acts—such as entering into contracts or accepting bonds—that are typical of governmental entities but not expressly provided for in the Constitution or other laws. Similarly, the federal government, as an attribute of sovereignty, has the power to enforce those powers granted to it. The Court has recognized the federal government’s supreme power over those limited matters entrusted to it. Thus, no state may interfere with the federal government’s operations as though its sovereignty were superior to that of the federal government. For example, states may not interfere with the federal government’s near-absolute discretion to sell its own real property even when that real property is located in a certain state. The federal government exercises its supreme power not as a unitary entity, but rather via the three branches of the government (legislative, executive, and judicial); each of which has its own prescribed powers and limitations under the Constitution. Additionally, the doctrine of separation of powers functions as a limitation on each branch of the federal government’s exercise of sovereign power.

A unique aspect of the US system of government is that, while the rest of the world views the United States as one country, domestically, US constitutional law recognizes a federation of state governments separate from (and not subdivisions of) the federal government. Each is sovereign over its own affairs. Sometimes, as a means to explain the US system of state sovereignty, the Supreme Court has even analogized the states as being foreign countries in relation to each other. However, each state’s sovereignty is limited by the US Constitution, which is the supreme law of both the United States as a nation and each state. In the event of a conflict, a valid federal law has control.

As a result, although the federal government is recognized as sovereign and has supreme power over the matters within its control, the US constitutional system also recognizes the concept of “state sovereignty,” wherein certain matters are susceptible to government regulation, but only at the state level, and not the federal level. For example, although the federal government prosecutes crimes against the United States (such as treason or interference with the postal system), the general administration of criminal justice is reserved to the states.

State Constitutions

Each US state has its own constitution. These are typically longer than the 7,500-word federal Constitution and are more detailed regarding the day-to-day relationships between the government and the people. Often modeled after the federal Constitution, they outline the structure of the state government and typically establish a bill of rights, an executive branch headed by a governor (and often one or more other officials, such as a lieutenant governor and state attorney general), a state legislature, and state courts, including a state supreme court. (A few states have two high courts: for civil cases and for criminal cases).

The design on the front of the seal is the coat of arms of the United States. The shield has two main differences from the American flag. First, it has no stars on the blue chief. Second, unlike the American flag, the outermost stripes are white. The supporter of the shield is a bald eagle with its wings outstretched. From the eagle's perspective, it holds a bundle of 13 arrows in its left talon, (referring to the 13 original states), and an olive branch in its right talon, together symbolizing that the United States has "a strong desire for peace, but will always be ready for war." The eagle has its head turned towards the olive branch, on its right side, said to symbolize a preference for peace. In its beak, the eagle clutches a scroll with the motto E pluribus unum ("Out of Many, One"). Over its head there appears a "glory" with 13 stars on a blue field. The 13 stars above the eagle are arranged in rows of 1-4-3-4-1, forming a six-pointed star.

Great Seal of the United States of America: The Great Seal of the US government

American Indians and the New Nation

During its early days, the United States implemented a series of treaties and policies with the purpose of acquiring land from and “civilizing” the American Indians.

Learning Objectives

Examine the role of Native Americans in the new nation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The European-descendant settlers in the Americas were eager to expand their reach, develop farming and settlements in new areas, and satisfy the hunger for land by purchasing it from the American Indians.
  • In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Iroquois Confederacy ceded all claims to the Ohio territory and all land west of the mouth of Buffalo Creek. However, the Six Nations council at Buffalo Creek refused to ratify the treaty, denying that their delegates had the power to give away such large tracts of land.
  • In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the Iroquois Confederacy ceded all claims to the Ohio territory and all land west of the mouth of Buffalo Creek. However, the Six Nations council at Buffalo Creek refused to ratify the treaty, thus denying that their delegates had the power to give away such large tracts of land.
  • The cultural assimilation of American Indians was an effort by the United States from 1790 to 1920 to transform American Indian culture to more closely resemble European-American culture.
  • A common sentiment held by many, including George Washington, was the Eurocentric belief that American Indians were inferior and “uncivilized” compared with Europeans.
  • Stemming from this belief, George Washington advocated for the so-called advancement of American Indian society and formulated a policy to encourage a “civilizing” process, including his Six-Point Plan.

Key Terms

  • Eurocentric: A view of the world from a European perspective and with an implied belief, consciously or subconsciously, in the superiority of European culture.
  • assimilation: The adoption, by a minority group, of the customs and attitudes of an apparently dominant culture.
  • Christianization: The act or process of converting or being converted to Christianity.

The European-descendant settlers in the Americas were eager to expand their reach, develop farming and settlements in new areas, and satisfy their hunger for land. The newly established US national government initially sought to purchase land from American Indians by treaties, but states and settlers were frequently at odds with this policy. According to George Washington:

Whereas it hath at this time become peculiarly necessary to warn the citizens of the United States against a violation of the treaties…. I do by these presents require, all officers of the United States, as well civil as military, and all other citizens and inhabitants thereof, to govern themselves according to the treaties and act aforesaid, as they will answer the contrary at their peril.

Treaty of Fort Stanwix

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix was signed in New York in October 1784 between the US government and the indigenous peoples of the land they now occupied. The treaty served as a supposed peace treaty between the Iroquois and the Americans, yet it effectively procured more land from the American Indians and into the hands of the US government. Rather than secure peace, the Treaty helped set the stage for the next round of hostilities between American Indians and British colonists along the Ohio River, and this would culminate in Lord Dunmore’s War.

In this treaty, the Iroquois Confederacy ceded all claims to the Ohio territory, a strip of land along the Niagara River, and all land west of the mouth of Buffalo Creek. In Pennsylvania, the land acquired in this treaty is known as the “Last Purchase.” The Six Nations council at Buffalo Creek refused to ratify the treaty, stating its delegates did not have the power to give away such large tracts of land. It asked the US government to return the deeds and indemnify it for the land it had given away. The general American Indian confederacy also disavowed the treaty, as most members of the Six Nations did not live in the Ohio territory. Many of the Ohio Country American Indians (including the Shawnee, Mingo, and Delaware tribes) fully rejected the treaty.

At one time, historians believed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix was an example of Iroquois being forced to accept unreasonable cessions. However, since the late 20th century, historians have credited the Iroquois with high-level strategic thinking in terms of giving up little-used land to deflect English settlement away from their own, more valuable homeland.

This map shows a series of twelve land purchases made from Native Americans in Pennsylvania from 1682 through 1792. The purchases began in southeastern Pennsylvania in 1682 and culminated in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1792. Notable purchases include the Walking Purchase of 1737 in eastern Pennsylvania; the Albany Purchase of 1754 in southern Pennsylvania; the New Purchase of 1768 spanning a horizontal swathe of land stretching from the southwest corner of the state to the northeast corner of the state; and the Last Purchase of 1784 in northwestern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania land purchases: A map showing land purchases from Native Americans in Pennsylvania (1682–1792).

Cultural Assimilation of American Indians

The cultural assimilation of American Indians was an assimilation effort by the United States to transform American Indian culture to European-American culture between the years of 1790 and 1920. With increased waves of immigration from Europe, there was growing public support among US citizens for education to encourage a standard set of cultural values and practices that the majority of citizens would hold in common. Education was viewed as the primary method in the acculturation process for minorities.

George Washington and Henry Knox were the first to propose cultural transformation of American Indians. A common sentiment held by many, including Washington and Knox, was the Eurocentric belief that American Indians were inferior to Europeans, or that they were personally equal but their society was inferior and “uncivilized.” Stemming from this belief Washington advocated for so-called advancement of American Indian society and formulated a policy to encourage a “civilizing” process.

Americanization policies were based on the idea that when indigenous people learned US (“American”) customs and values, they would be able to merge tribal traditions with American culture and peacefully join the majority of society. When the Indian Wars had concluded, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government outlawed the practice of traditional religious ceremonies. It established American Indian boarding schools that children were required to attend. There they were forced to speak English, study standardized subjects, attend church, and leave tribal traditions behind.

Six-Point Plan

Washington developed a six-point plan for this assimilation process that included:

  1. Impartial justice toward American Indians
  2. Regulated buying of American Indian land
  3. Promotion of commerce
  4. Promotion of experiments to civilize or improve American Indian society
  5. Presidential authority to give presents
  6. Punishments for those who violated American Indian rights

The United States appointed agents, such as Benjamin Hawkins, to live among the American Indians and teach them how to live in accordance with European standards. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 promoted this policy by providing funding to societies (mostly religious) who worked on American Indian “improvement.” These societies encouraged the assimilation and Christianization of American Indians.

African Americans and the Republic

Slavery in the new Republic, while a debated issue, bolstered the economic backbone of the United States.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the factors that shaped the institution of slavery in the North and in the South, and evaluate the role African Americans played during the Revolutionary Period

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • During the Revolutionary War, both the British and American governments, in principle, offered freedom and resettlement to slaves who were willing to fight for them.
  • Slavery was a contentious issue to negotiate during the drafting of the US Constitution, as the agricultural economy of the US South depended on slavery and the internal slave trade to provide free labor.
  • Slavery-related clauses in the Constitution allowed for continued importation of slaves, prohibited changes to regulation of the slave trade for two decades, prohibited citizens from providing assistance to escaped slaves, and established the Three-Fifths Compromise.
  • Thomas Jefferson, though an advocate of freedom and equality, owned and fathered slaves. Jefferson’s personal views on race were complicated and ambivalent; he took actions that both advanced and limited slavery in the United States.
  • Many Northern states abolished slavery in the first decades after the Revolution, and between 1776 and 1804 slavery was outlawed in every state north of the Ohio River and the Mason–Dixon Line.

Key Terms

  • Three-Fifths Compromise: An agreement between Southern and Northern states in which a portion of the population of slaves would be counted for representation and taxation purposes.
  • forced migration: The coerced movement of people away from their home or home region.

Slaves During the Revolutionary War

During the American Revolutionary War, both the British and American governments, in principle, offered freedom and resettlement to slaves willing to fight for them. Free black people in the North and South fought on both sides of the Revolution, though most fought for the colonial rebels. Many African-American slaves became politically active during these years in support of the King, as they thought Great Britain might abolish slavery in the colonies at the end of the conflict. Tens of thousands used the turmoil of war to escape from slavery.

White American advocates of independence were commonly called out in Britain for their hypocritical calls for freedom while maintaining slavery in the colonies. Despite their criticism, however, the British continued to permit the slave trade in other parts of the world.

Slavery in the New Constitution

Representation and the Three-Fifths Compromise

One of the most contentious slavery-related questions during the drafting of the Constitution was whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation in the Congress, or if they would be considered property not entitled to representation. Delegates from states with large populations of slaves argued that slaves should be considered people in determining representation. Simultaneously, they argued slaves should be considered property if the new government were to levy taxes on the states based on population. Delegates from states where slavery had become rare argued the opposite: that slaves should be included in taxation, but not in determining representation.

Finally, delegates James Wilson and Robert Sherman proposed the Three-Fifths Compromise, which the convention eventually adopted. This final compromise established the policy of counting slaves as three-fifths of a person. This reduced the slave states ‘ power relative to the original Southern proposals, but increased it over the Northern proposal.

Slave Trade

Another issue was what should be done about the international slave trade and slave importation. While slavery was a debated issue, it also bolstered the economic backbone of the United States. The agricultural economy of the US South especially depended on slavery and the internal slave trade to provide free labor. If the Constitution adopted a plan that upset one region, then the states of that region may have withdrawn from the Philadelphia Convention. Convention delegates agreed to incorporate provisions supporting and protecting slavery in the Constitution to placate slaveholding states that refused to join the Union if slavery were not allowed.

To address this, Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution allowed continued importation of slaves. By for two decades prohibiting changes to the regulation of the slave trade, Article V effectively protected the trade until 1808. During that time, planters in states of the lower South imported tens of thousands of slaves. As further protection for slavery, the delegates approved Section 2 of Article IV, which prohibited citizens from providing assistance to escaping slaves, and required the return of chattel property to owners.

Jefferson and Slavery

Though Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, wrote the Declaration of Independence, the document propounded ideals of freedom that became important to the abolitionist movement. Jefferson, a political advocate of liberty and equality among men, lived in a slave society; he owned plantations spanning thousands of acres, and inherited hundreds of slaves during his lifetime. As a slaveholder, Jefferson perpetuated the slave society in which he lived, while also making contributions to the rise of anti-slavery constitutionalism in the United States.

Jefferson’s personal views on race were complicated and ambivalent. He took actions that both advanced and limited slavery in the United States. In 1778, with Jefferson’s leadership, the Virginia General Assembly banned importation of slaves into Virginia, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade. Some historians have claimed that, as a representative to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote an amendment or bill that would abolish slavery. However, it has been documented that he refused to add gradual emancipation, stating that the timing was not right. After 1785, Jefferson remained publicly silent on, or did little to change, slavery within the United States.

Slavery from 1776 to 1804

Between 1776 and 1804, slavery was outlawed in every state north of the Ohio River and the Mason–Dixon Line. Starting in 1777, Northern states started to abolish slavery, beginning with Vermont, which ended the practice under its new state constitution. Massachusetts effectively ended slavery before the end of the century by means of a court case. States usually instituted abolition on a gradual schedule, with no government compensation to the owners. Many states, such as New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, required long apprenticeships of former slave children before they gained freedom and came of age as adults.

Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, slavery was prohibited in the territories northwest of the Ohio River, while territories south of it (and Missouri) did allow slavery. In the first two decades after the war, the legislatures of the slave states Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware made it easier for slaveholders to free their slaves. Numerous slaveholders in the Upper South took advantage of the changes: the proportion of free blacks went from less than 1% before the war to more than 10% overall by 1810. After this time, few slaves were freed in the South except those who were personal favorites or the master’s children.

The demand for slaves in the South rose with the growth of cotton as a commodity crop, especially after the invention of the cotton gin, which enabled widespread cultivation of short-staple cotton in the upland regions. As the demand for slave labor in the Upper South decreased because of changes in crops, planters began selling their slaves to traders and markets to the Deep South in an internal slave trade. This caused the forced migration of an estimated one million slaves during the following decades.

A table at the bottom of the map lists 1860 census data from fifteen southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, and Delaware The table lists the free population, slave population, total population, and percentage of slaves in each of these states. South Carolina has the highest percentage of slaves (57.2%) and Delaware has the lowest percentage of slaves (32.2%). The map itself further illustrates the census data by displaying the percentage of slaves by county using a nine-point “Scale of Shade.” Counties whose slave population is less than 10% are shown in white. On the opposite end of the scale, counties whose slave population is 80% or more are shown in black.

Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the US Southern states.: The map, compiled from the Census of 1860, was sold for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers of the US Army.

Women in the Republic

In the new Republic, women were legally, economically, and socially subordinated to men.

Learning Objectives

Describe the rights accorded to women under the new Constitutional system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The United States Constitution left the boundaries of suffrage largely undefined, and delegated voting rights to the individual states. At that time all states, except for New Jersey, denied voting rights to women.
  • The idea of republican motherhood was born in this period, giving women the essential role of instilling in their children—especially their sons—the education and values conducive to leading a healthy republic.
  • The “cult of domesticity” was a new ideal of womanhood that arose as men began working outside of the home in jobs that produced goods or services, while their wives and children stayed at home.
  • The writings of several women, such as Eliza Wilkinson and Judith Sargent Murray, during this time became influential in challenging societal relationships between men and women, and paved the way for future change.

Key Terms

  • suffrage: The right to vote for elected officials in a representative democracy.
  • Republicanism: The guiding political philosophy of the United States, stressing liberty and unalienable rights, personal sovereignty, and rejection of aristocracy and inherited political power.

Limited Rights for Women

During the time of the new US Constitution and the development of the new Republic, women were widely considered inferior to men. This status was especially clear in the lack of legal rights for married women; the law did not recognize wives’ independence in economic, political, or civic matters in the 18th century.

In the 18th-century United States, as in Great Britain, the legal status of married women was defined as coverture, meaning a married woman (or feme covert) had no legal or economic status independent of her husband. She could not conduct business or buy and sell property. Her husband controlled any property she brought to the marriage, though he could not sell it without her agreement. Married women’s status as femes covert did not change as a result of the American Revolution, and wives remained economically dependent on their husbands.

The Constitution, adopted in 1789, left voting rights—the rights of suffrage—largely undefined. The only directly elected body created by the original Constitution was the House of Representatives, for which voter qualifications were explicitly delegated to the individual states. At that time all states, except for New Jersey, denied voting rights to women. The New Jersey constitution of 1776 enfranchised all adult inhabitants who owned a specified amount of property. Laws enacted in 1790 and 1797 referred to voters as “he or she,” and women regularly voted. A law was passed in 1807, however, that excluded women from voting in that state.

Roles of Women in the New Republic

The Revolution had a deep effect on the philosophical underpinnings of US society. One aspect the democratic ideals of the Revolution drastically changed was the roles of women.

The idea of republican motherhood was born in this period and reflects the importance of Republicanism as the dominant US ideology. Republicanism assumed that a successful republic rested on the virtue of its citizens, and required intelligent and self-disciplined citizens to form the core of the new republic. Thus, women had the essential role of instilling in their children values conducive to a healthy republic. This heightened significance to a traditional aspect of wives’ duties brought with it a new commitment to female education and helped make husbands and wives somewhat more equal within the family.

Despite any gains, however, women largely found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands, disenfranchised and with only the role of mother open to them. The “cult of domesticity,” a new ideal of womanhood that emerged around this time, rose from the reality that a 19th-century middle-class family did not have to make what it needed in order to survive, as did previous families. Therefore, men could now work jobs that produced goods or services while their wives and children stayed at home. The ideal woman became one who stayed at home and taught her children how to be proper citizens. Nevertheless, many women of the time did work outside the home.

Early Calls for Change

The American Revolution had increased people’s attention to political matters and bestowed particular importance on issues of liberty and equality. Some women of the newly independent nation, especially the wives of elite republican statesmen, began to campaign for equality under the law between husbands and wives and for the same educational opportunities as men. As Eliza Wilkinson of South Carolina explained in 1783, “I won’t have it thought that because we are the weaker sex as to bodily strength we are capable of nothing more than domestic concerns. They won’t even allow us liberty of thought, and that is all I want.”

Judith Sargent Murray wrote the most systematic expression of a feminist position in this period, in 1779 (but not published until 1790). Her essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” challenged the view that men had greater intellectual capacities than women. Instead, she argued that whatever differences existed between the intelligence of men and women were the result of prejudice and discrimination that prevented women from sharing the full range of male privilege and experience. Murray championed the view that the “order of nature” demanded full equality between the sexes, but male domination corrupted this principle.

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Portrait of Judith Sargent Murray: Judith Sargent Murray is well known for her early feminist essay “On the Equality of the Sexes.”

Like many of the most radical voices of the Revolutionary era, Murray’s support for gender equality was largely met with shock and disapproval, and the New Republic remained a place of male privilege. Nevertheless, the understanding of the proper relationships among men, women, and the public world were beginning to undergo significant changes in this period.

The Founding Mothers

The “founding mothers”—Washington, Adams, and Jefferson—played an important role in the development of the early Republic.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the contributions of Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Martha Jefferson and other influential women in the early Republic

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • While women in the new Republic were still legally, economically, and socially subordinate to men, several played an active role in developing and shaping the new Republic.
  • Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Martha Jefferson, the first three First Ladies of the United States, are often considered the “founding mothers” of the new nation.
  • A political influencer, Abigail Adams is remembered for the many letters of advice she exchanged with her husband, John Adams, during the Continental Congresses. She became an early advocate of women’s rights when she prompted her husband to “remember the ladies” when drawing up the new government.
  • It is important to note that many of the women who advocated for women’s rights came from privileged backgrounds; their literacy and position allowed them to push for new roles for women in and after the Revolution.

Key Terms

  • dower: A provision accorded by law, but traditionally by a husband or his family, to a wife for her support in the event she should outlive her husband (i.e., become a widow).

While women in the new Republic were still legally, economically, and socially subordinate to men, several women played an active role in the development and shaping of the new Republic. Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Martha Jefferson, as the first three First Ladies of the United States, are often considered the “founding mothers” of the new nation.

Abigail Adams

Elite republican revolutionaries did not envision a completely new society, as traditional ideas and categories of race and gender, and order and decorum remained firmly entrenched among members of their privileged class. Women’s roles in society, though starting to change, were still largely subordinate to men. They did not have the right to vote or own property, and had no legal or economic status independent from their husbands.

Some women, especially the wives of elite republican statesmen, began to agitate for equality under the law between husbands and wives, and for the same educational opportunities as men. Abigail Adams, a political influencer, is remembered for the many letters of advice she exchanged with her husband, John Adams, during the Continental Congresses. She became an early advocate of women’s rights when she prompted her husband to “remember the ladies” when drawing up a new government in 1776:

In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestor. Do not put such unlimited power in the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

John declined Abigail’s “extraordinary code of laws,” but he frequently sought her advice, and their letters are filled with intellectual discussions on government and politics. When John was elected the second President of the United States, Abigail took an active role in politics and policy, unlike the quiet presence of Martha Washington. She was so politically active her political opponents came to refer to her as “Mrs. President.” Abigail was an advocate of married women’s property rights and for greater opportunities for women, particularly in the field of education. She also believed slavery was immoral and a threat to the American democratic experiment. A letter she wrote on March 31, 1776, explained her doubts that most Virginians had such “passion for Liberty” as they claimed, as they “deprive their fellow Creatures” of freedom.

Portrait of Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams: Abigail Adams was an early proponent of women’s rights during the formation of the new Republic.

Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson

Martha Washington, wife of the first President, George Washington, is considered the first First Lady. She brought considerable wealth to their marriage, which enabled the President to purchase land and many slaves to add to his personal estate. She also brought nearly 100 dower slaves for her use during her lifetime. They and their descendants reverted to her first husband’s estate at her death and were inherited by his heirs. Martha did not emancipate any of her own slaves during her lifetime.

A widow of her first marriage, Martha Jefferson was the wife of Thomas Jefferson, who became the third President of the United States. She did not live to see her husband become President as she died of multiple causes of ill health during the Revolutionary War. She was First Lady of Virginia, from 1779 to 1781 during the American Revolution. In that capacity, and in response to a request from Martha Washington, Mrs. Jefferson led a drive among the women of Virginia to raise funds and supplies for her state’s militia in the Continental Army, to the extent that her health permitted. She published an appeal in the Virginia Gazette, announcing that collections would be taken in churches. Nationally, the Ladies’ Association raised $300,000 to buy linen shirts for Washington’s army. Mrs. Jefferson also contacted other prominent Virginians, including Nelly Madison, mother of James Madison, to raise funds for the troops.

Other Notable Women in the Early Republic

Another privileged member of the revolutionary generation, Mercy Otis Warren, also challenged gender-based assumptions and traditions during the revolutionary era. Warren, born in Massachusetts, published anti-British works actively opposing British reform measures before the outbreak of fighting in 1775. In 1812, she published a three-volume history of the Revolution, a project she had started in the late 1770s. By publishing her work, Warren stepped out of the female sphere and into the otherwise male-dominated arena of public life.

Inspired by the Revolution, Judith Sargent Murray of Massachusetts advocated women’s economic independence and equal educational opportunities for men and women. Murray, who came from a wealthy Gloucester family, questioned why boys were given access to education as a birthright while girls had very limited educational opportunities. She began publishing her ideas about educational equality in the 1780s, arguing that God had made the minds of women and men equal. Murray’s more radical ideas championed women’s economic independence. She argued that a woman’s education should be extensive enough to allow her to maintain herself, and her family, in the absence of a male breadwinner. Indeed, Murray was able to make money of her own from her publications. Her ideas were both radical and traditional, yet she also believed that women were much better than men at raising children and maintaining a family’s morality and virtue.

It is important to note that Adams, Murray, and Warren all came from privileged backgrounds. All three were fully literate, while many women in the American republic were not. Their literacy and positions allowed them to push for new roles for women in the atmosphere of unique possibility created by the Revolution and its promise of change.