Primary Source Images: A New Nation

A grand debate over political power engulfed the young United States. The Constitution ensured that there would be a strong federal government capable of taxing, waging war, and making law, but it could never resolve the young nation’s many conflicting constituencies. The new nation was never as cohesive as its champions had hoped. Although the officials of the new federal government—and the people who supported it—placed great emphasis on unity and cooperation, the country was often anything but unified. As the 1790s progressed, Americans became bitterly divided over political parties and foreign wars. As party differences and regional quarrels tested the federal government, the new nation increasingly explored the limits of its democracy. Analyzing these sources allows us to see these national tensions and the limits to American democracy.

States ratify the Constitution, 1789

Newspaper image showing pillars being erected for a building, representing the different states that have adopted the constitution

Figure 1. “The Federal Pillars,” from The Massachusetts Centinel, August 2, 1789, via Library of Congress.

The Massachusetts Centinel ran a series of cartoons depicting the ratification of the Constitution.  Each vertical pillar represents a state that has ratified the new government.  In this cartoon, North Carolina’s pillar is being guided into place (it would vote for ratification in November 1789).  Rhode Island’s pillar, however, is crumbling and shows the uncertainty of the vote there.

Anti-Thomas Jefferson cartoon, 1797

An American Eagle grabs the Constitution out of Jefferson's hand as Jefferson kneels before a flaming altar of despotism, representing Jefferson's threat to the U.S.

Figure 2. “Providential Detection,” 1797 via American Antiquarian Society.

This image attacks Jefferson’s support of the French Revolution and religious freedom.  The Altar to “Gallic Despotism” mocks Jefferson’s allegiance to the French. The letter, “To Mazzei,” refers to a 1796 correspondence that criticized the Federalists and, by association, President Washington.