America's Critical Period

America's Critical Period

The term, Critical Period, coined by John Quincy Adams, refers to the 1780’s, a time right after the American Revolution where the future of the newly formed nation was in the balance. Large amounts of debt, high taxes, foreign affairs, domestic issues, and military concerns were some of the problems Americans faced shortly after the Revolution. Some historians believe it was a bleak, terrible time for Americans, while others believe the term “Critical Period” is exaggerated. The 1780’s were a time of dispute and change, but they were also a time of economic growth and the maturation of America's democracy.

Debt and Taxes

As a new nation, the United States had acquired a massive amount of debt during the Revolution. A severe depression impacted the nation during 1784-85. ["The Critical Period America in the 1780’s: Introduction," "Digital History". [] ] The government was on the verge of going bankrupt and could only take out loans from countries such as France if they agreed to pay outrageous interest rates. Paper money was worth close to nothing and hard currency was difficult to obtain, making it difficult to conduct business transactions. Problems between farmers in debt and collectors in Massachusetts led to events such as Shays' Rebellion. The South was especially impacted by the economic problems. Almost 60,000 slaves were lost during the Revolution, almost 30,000 in South Carolina and Georgia alone."The Critical Period America in the 1780’s: Economic and Foreign Policy Problems," "Digital History". [] ] To create more financial problems for the South, Great Britain refused to import Southern goods into the British West Indies, one of their largest markets.

Foreign Issues

Although the war was over, the British had not completely abandoned the United States. Tensions with the British continued to plague the country even after the treaty had been signed. British troops refused to leave the forts in Detroit, Otsego, and New York because the government refused to return land confiscated from Tories during the war. Furthermore, American sailors, no longer under British protection, were being captured and sold into slavery by North African pirates. In 1785, pirates from Algiers captured an entire crew from an American merchant ship off the coast of Portugal. ["Critical Period: Economic and Foreign Policy."] Spain also complicated things after the Revolution. Spanish leaders refused to recognize America’s claims to land between the Ohio River and Florida. They also closed the Mississippi River to trade. It is also rumored that Daniel Boone conspired with the Spanish to acquire lands in Kentucky and Tennessee. ["Critical Period: Economic and Foreign Policy."]

Military Rebellion

After the surrender of the British at Yorktown, Washington moved over 11,000 troops to the town of Newburgh in New York. After waiting several months, the men of the Continental Army were ready to take up arms against the government for its lack of payment. Officers from the Army came together to take action against the Continental Congress and in June 1783, they marched to Philadelphia. The soldiers threatened to hold members of the Congress hostage until their wages were paid. The Pennsylvania militia refused to assist the members and they were forced to relocate. Eventually, George Washington came to their aid and encouraged the soldiers not to act violently. He stated, “Do not open the flood gates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood”. ["The Critical Period America in the 1780’s: The Threat of a Military Coup," "Digital History". [] ] Thanks to Washington’s involvement and words to the soldiers, no violence erupted. This rebellion came to be known as the Newburgh Conspiracy.

The Articles of Confederation

Proposed in 1777 and ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation were the first constitution of the United States."The Critical Period America in the 1780’s: Articles of Confederation," "Digital History". [] ] The Articles created strong state governments and limited the federal government. The national government would be composed of a Congress that would equally represent each state. According to the Articles, only states had the power to tax citizens. Congress was also not able to draft soldiers or regulate trade. The Articles of Confederation also made no provision for a president and also created term limits for representatives. ["Critical Period: Articles of Confederation."] Because there was no pressure to make payments to the federal government, states did not make contributions and Congress was not able to pay off debts or members of the military. Along with other events of the 1780s, leaders in the country decided that the Articles of Confederation were not a sufficient way to run the government.

Question of a Crisis

Although many citizens at the time felt that their new nation was on the verge of disaster, there are critics who believe the country was not as desperate as it may have seemed. There were difficult situations that the country was facing after the Revolution. War and reconstruction had greatly impacted the economy and the financial situation was far from stable. Governments had to be formed and leaders had to be selected. New markets had to be found to support those lost during the Rebellion. [Gordon S. Wood, "The Creation of the American Republic" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).] In his book "The American Revolution", Gordon Wood states that "the Loyalists may have numbered close to half a million, or 20 percent of white Americans" [Gordon S. Wood, "The American Revolution" (New York: Modern Library, 2002).] These Tories were a huge loss to the American population and left a void that needed to be filled. However, the Revolutionary War had made some positive impacts on the nation as well. Despite a short depression during 1784-85, the period of the 1780s was marked with a large growth of the economy. Criticswho suggest that it was the idea of the Revolution and the thought that it would bring a utopian type society to the new country that made it possible for people to believe they were living in a time of crisis. [Wood, "Creation of the American Republic".] They believe that, though the country was going through a time of change and confusion the times were not as desperate as some citizens believed.



Fleming, Thomas. "The Perils of Peace: America's Struggle for Survival After Yorktown". New York: Collins, 2007.

Mintz, S. "The Critical Period: America in the 1780’s." "Digital History". Accessed April 11, 2008.

Wood, Gordon S. "The Creation of the American Republic". Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Wood, Gordon S. "The American Revolution". New York: Modern Library, 2002.

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