Resources for the Late Eighteenth Century United States
The aim of this page is to contextualize how people of various classes, races, and genders experienced politics and society in the late eighteenth century. Rather than providing a comprehensive list, we have selected some helpful resources to better understand social and political life during time period. For general resources on the military, economics, religion, and material culture, please see the bottom of this page.
Politics and political beliefs continued to be a topic of debate after the end of the Revolutionary War as statesmen sought to establish a federal government. The Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1777, established the first federal government in the United States of America, and by 1781 all 13 states had ratified it. By 1787, it was clear that a stronger federal government was required, and the Constitutional Convention began drafting what would become the Constitution. During this time, men and women continued to debate what the role of government should be, who is considered a citizen in the United States, what role recognized citizens should play in all levels of government, and what rights and freedoms those citizens should enjoy.
Resources on politics:
- From Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: Continuing Revolutions
- From the National Museum of American History: A Letter from George Washington, November 30, 1785
- From the Digital Public Library of America: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and Creating the US Constitution
- From the New England Historical Society: The 1795 Trial of Samuel Livermore and John Jay
- From the American Yawp: A New Nation and The Early Republic
Americans in different social classes frequently held dissimilar thoughts and opinions on government in the newly created United States. Many members of the middling and lower classes thought that the Articles of Confederation was beneficial primarily to those in the upper classes, and in some cases, such as Shays’ Rebellion from 1786-1787, men took up arms against the new government to revolt against a weak federal power. While today it is common to think that all Americans supported both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution, it was a highly contested document, and even some in the upper classes did not support the newly created federal government.
Resources on social classes:
- From History Matters:
- William Manning, “A Laborer,” Explains Shays Rebellion in Massachusetts: “In as Plain a Manner as I am Capable";
- “All Men Are Born Free and Equal”: Massachusetts Yeomen Oppose the “Aristocratickal” Constitution, January, 1788; and
- “The Sentiments of a Labourer”: William Manning Inquires in the Key of Liberty, 1798
- From the Digital Public Library of America: Shay’s Rebellion
Abigail Adams famously wrote to John Adams to “remember the ladies” while he was at the Constitutional Convention crafting the new federal government. White women held a secondary position in early American society, and were to be subordinate to their fathers and husbands. However, many women debated political ideas and engaged in overt political acts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Everyday acts, such as spinning bees and purchasing food and goods for the home, became politicized in the wake of the boycott of British goods prior to the Revolution. Up until the early decades of the nineteenth century, women in some states, such as New Jersey, were legally able to vote in elections, but then their suffrage rights were rolled back by white men who wanted to restrict the franchise. White women were granted the right to vote in 1920; black women could not vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite men’s expectations that women should not be involved in politics, women nevertheless held and exercised political opinions.
Resources on women and gender:
- From History Matters:
- From the New England Historical Society: How the Daughters of Liberty Fought for Independence
- From the Massachusetts Historical: Letter from Paul Revere to William Eustis, 20 February 1804
African American men and women held a precarious position in early American society. While there were some free blacks throughout the United States who enjoyed limited rights, whites enslaved the majority of black men and women and forced them to work in typically awful conditions with no pay, and ensured that they did not have any significant social, political, or economic rights in the newly created United States of America. Many black men and women had been forced by whites into slavery in Africa, had to endure a grueling and frequently fatal Atlantic crossing in slave ships, and forced to work on farms and plantations throughout the colonies and later the United States. With new technologies like the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the demand for enslaved labor increased exponentially. In addition, the transformation of the Upper South from farming tobacco to farming mixed crops led to the expansion of the domestic slave trade, and whites bought and sold enslaved men, women, and children, who were forced to work on rice, indigo, and sugar plantations and farms in the Lower and Deep South. Southern whites who did not own large plantations most often owned several black men, women, and children to work their smaller farms or plots of land. Even after emancipation, as they did during their enslavement, black men and women continue to fight for their political, social, and economic rights.
Resources on African American history and slavery:
- From History Matters:
- “Having Tasted the Sweets of Freedom”: Cato Petitions the Pennsylvania Legislature to Remain Free;
- “Is It Not Enough that We are Torn from Our Country and Friends?”: Olaudah Equiano Describes the Horrors of the Middle Passage, 1780s; and
- White Slaveowners Fear that the Haitian Revolution Has Arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, 1797
- From the Digital Public Library of America: Cotton gin and the expansion of slavery
- From the New England Historical Society:
- From the American Yawp: The Cotton Revolution
Indigenous peoples in the late eighteenth century had already endured centuries of violence at the hands of white Europeans who were actively working to strip them of their rights. White settlers had occupied and taken land that belonged to Indigenous men and women. Native Americans attempted to work with white settlers and later the United States government to negotiate their rights to their land and sought to secure political rights in the newly established federal government. Early political leaders in the United States met with Indigenous leaders to create compromises and treaties, but whites frequently manipulated these documents to solidify and legalize their supremacy over Indigenous communities. Native Americans continued to fight for political, social, and economic legitimacy in the eyes of whites and sought to retain control of their lands, a fight that still continues today.
Resources on Indigenous people
- From History Matters:
- From the New England Historical Society: Joseph Orono, The Blue Eyed Indian Who Helped the Revolutionary Cause
- Military - from History Matters: “Laying Close Siege to the Enemy”: Joseph Plumb Martin at the Battle of Yorktown, 1781
- Economics - from Mount Vernon: Ten Facts About the American Economy in the 18th Century
- Economics - from the American Yawp: The Market Revolution
- Religion - from the Library of Congress: Religion and the Founding of the American Republic
- Religion - from the American Yawp: Religion and Reform
- Material culture - from Colonial Williamsburg: Historic Threads: Three Centuries of Clothin
- Other resources - from the National Museum of American History: Peopling the Expanding Nation, 1776-1900
- Other resources - from the New York Public Library: Historical Maps of North America