The Early Republic: What’s in an Era?

Shira Lurie

Historians have a reputation for being obsessed with individual dates. But really, we’re obsessed with eras—the colonial era, the antebellum era, the gilded age, the interwar period. We often structure entire fields, courses, conferences, grants, and research projects according to these periods. Indeed, we are so enamoured with organizing time that we often defy its mathematical rules. Historians allow centuries to span past one hundred years and excuse this calculation by declaring them “long.” It is a hazard of the profession to chunk the past into neatly structured blocks and impose an artificial orderliness. For that is, in essence, the work of a historian: to make sense of the chaos of the past.

But historians, and academics generally, also have a penchant for disrupting norms. Lest we get too comfortable with our periodizations, scholars write pieces critiquing them with striking regularity. In the very first issue of the Journal of the Early Republic, Edward Pessen questioned the wisdom of dividing historical inquiry in the way that the journal’s title implied: “Periodizations are of course not in the events they enclose. They have been imposed on these events by historians, inevitably reflecting the intellectual assumptions and preoccupations of those who created them.” He recommended “regularly and critically re-examin[ing] as our interests shifts and our knowledge increases.”[1]

And so, when asked to comment on the Early Republic as a distinct era in American history, I feel caught in a bind. On the one hand, I empathize with Pessen. I value complicating familiar and easy narratives about the past. And yet, to my mind, there is something particular about the Early Republic. This period, spanning between 1789 (the ratification of the Federal Constitution) and 1815 (the end of the War of 1812), has certain qualities that make it distinct. The era witnessed the creation and initial operation of key political systems, precedents, and practices. Its political, legal, economic, and geographic developments also ensured that the promises of the American Revolution would be applied unevenly, weighing down the new nation with the burdens of inequality and injustice. And yet the Early Republic is also looked back on as a kind of golden age—a time of righteous leadership and positive progress. Thus, even in American memory, these years hold a key place.

With deference to Pessen and others, I make the following case for the Early Republic’s distinctiveness with humility. I invite you to consider it with the respectful curiosity and skepticism that give the historical profession its vibrancy. If you disagree with me, you are likely in excellent company.

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First, we can define the Early Republic by its political newness. The emergent nation and Federal Constitution created unprecedented governing institutions, systems, and political identities. Most White male Americans were now citizens, not subjects, and they lived in a republic, not an empire. Theirs was the first large republic in the modern world—an experiment without a model. As Jill Lepore put it, “In America, everything became a beginning.”[2] This first generation set many of the longstanding precedents, traditions, and practices that shape American politics and political culture. As the first president, George Washington understood that he “walk[ed] on untrodden ground” and almost every decision he made or action he took would “be drawn into precedent.”[3] Indeed, modern conventions we take for granted, such as the presidential cabinet, State of the Union and farewell addresses, two term limit, and the title “Mr. President” are all derived from Washington’s example. Likewise, the Early Republic gave rise to the first two-party system—a feature enshrined into electoral politics with the twelfth amendment (ratified in 1804), which encourages a partisan ticket with a presidential and vice-presidential candidate, as opposed to individuals standing for each separate election.

Like Washington, early Americans felt the weight of the future of the American experiment in self-government on their shoulders. But they were not developing their political culture from scratch. Much of the political wrangling of the Early Republic had to do with which elements of the colonial era’s politics should be adapted to the new republic and which should be left behind. For instance, in 1794, when farmers in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland resisted the enforcement of a new tax on whiskey, they staked their legitimacy on the precedents set in the American Revolution, as well as earlier colonial and English movements. As the son of a participant in the Whiskey Rebellion later explained, “They did not consider it immoral, or treasonable, to resist in every way a particular law by ‘intemperate resolutions,’ and even by direct acts of violence. They had examples before them of their British ancestors, in Hamden, Cromwell and Pym, and more recently in the Patriots of the Revolution.”[4] And so the whiskey rebels resorted to the same tactics used during the American Revolution and previous clashes with imperial authority: they used crowd action to intimidate tax collectors, pledged their non-compliance, raised liberty poles, and refused to pay the tax.

But many rebutted these claims, maintaining instead that the advent of representative government necessitated a break with past resistance traditions. Pennsylvania Chief Justice Thomas McKean denounced the whiskey rebels’ application of resistance methods developed under a monarchy to the politics of a republic: “They quarrel with a constitution and government purchased at the expense of much blood and treasure, and framed by themselves; they despise the rulers of their own choice, and trample on laws of their own making.”[5] Federal officials agreed. The Washington administration used overwhelming force to quash the Whiskey Rebellion; a tactic later repeated by John Adams when a tax resistance broke out during his presidency.

The harsh response by officials, as well as more experience with republicanism, solidified an important shift in American political culture by the close of the Early Republic. As the antebellum era dawned, Americans had more confidence in their institutions. Rather than relying on protest traditions, many demonstrated a greater willingness to seek political change through party politics and elections. American political culture became less about resisting unjust government and more about ensuring that the right people held power. Andrew Jackson’s election, for instance, capitalized on popular dissatisfaction with the traditional governing elite. This transition marginalized the traditional popular organizing of the earlier era and painted those engaging in protest as a radical fringe.[6]

As a result, the Early Republic set the blueprint for how American politics would operate. While future decades would bring their own challenges and upheavals, the Early Republic’s precedents endured, even to this day. Much of what Americans currently take for granted about their politics was hashed out during those early years, for better or for worse.

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The Early Republic also put the incoherencies of the American Revolution to the test by determining how a nation founded on the language of liberty, equality, and self-determination would deal with the myriad inequalities and unfreedoms it contained. The most obvious inconsistency was, of course, slavery. In the northern states, the Early Republic witnessed a wave of gradual emancipation laws that slowly phased out slavery. A process aided, of course, by a relatively small enslaved population and the lack of economic or social systems built around the institution. In the South, however, the opposite occurred. In the decades following the American Revolution, slavery grew increasingly entrenched, especially as the invention of the cotton gin and the 1808 ban on the international slave trade made enslaving more profitable. Demographics help tell the story: in 1790, just under 700,000 enslaved people lived in the United States. By 1810, that population had increased by over 70 percent to just under 1.2 million people.[7] These developments ensured that the United States’s first century would be consumed by the brutal horrors of slavery and the sectional conflicts the institution provoked. The impacts of slavery’s endurance echo in the countless injustices of the American present. The failure of those in the Early Republic to apply the Revolution’s ideas of liberty and independence to end slavery is undoubtedly the era’s most consequential and damning legacy.

In addition to the continued hereditary enslavement of Africans and African Americans, the new United States also did not initiate a new legal status for White women. The new Constitution and political developments of the Early Republic failed to disrupt the institution of coverture, in which a woman had no individual legal standing. Instead, coverture held that the male head of household “covered” their dependents’ legal identities. Thus, a woman’s father or husband represented her (this is why women traditionally change their last names from their fathers’ to their husbands’ when they marry). As a result, women could not own property, sue, make a contract or will, or have custody over their children. The legal vestiges of coverture survived well into the twentieth century.

The free labor system was also plagued with its own injustices and contradictions. American cities grew dramatically in the decades following the American Revolution, but this economic expansion rested on the labor of the marginalized. As historian Seth Rockman has aptly described, “At a moment of great entrepreneurial energy and social mobility, prosperity came to Americans who could best assemble, deploy, and exploit the physical labor of others. The early republic’s economy opened up new possibilities for some Americans precisely because it closed down opportunities for others.”[8] In this way, the developments (the industries, infrastructures, and inventions) of American capitalism, but also its exploitative logics, took shape in the nation’s early years. And so, the United States’s path to prosperity was built (and maintained) on the backs of an impoverished working class.

The Early Republic was also an era of expansion. American settlers pushed westward, inflicting violence and destruction upon Indigenous peoples. While the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 had kept settlers relatively hemmed in, independence unleashed the expansionism of Americans. The federal government assisted with this process, adding 828,000 square miles of land to the federal union with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Crucially, after several failed invasions of Canada during the War of 1812, the United States oriented its future expansion solely westward, rather than northward, which would have tremendous consequences in the succeeding decades for the Indigenous peoples who lived there and the enslaved people trafficked and forced to labor there.[9]

In all of these ways (and likely others), the Early Republic was the era in which the powerful largely quashed the radical potential of the American Revolution and cemented injustice into American society. We should not take for granted that the Revolution failed to upend the systems and logics of inequality—the history of the Early Republic reveals that these were choices early Americans made. This was a period not just of missed opportunities, but one of a multitude of poisonings. Hence, the Early Republic is a distinct era for the dark path it set the new nation on—one from which Americans are still struggling to deviate.

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The Early Republic also holds a unique place in American popular consciousness. It has become a touchstone in a way few other eras have. Americans habitually refer to the “founding generation” for legitimacy, guidance, and comfort. Indeed, this practice is built into American jurisprudence through originalism, a legal theory that interprets the constitutionality of laws based on what the framers intended. Hence, originalists search for the validity of legislation in the Early Republic, examining the era for clues about what the first generation of Americans believed. This is not an esoteric position—four current Supreme Court justices identify as originalists.[10]

Politicians from across the ideological spectrum also refer to the Early Republic to justify their positions and situate themselves as the defenders of American tradition. For example, in his opening remarks of the 2020 impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Congressman Adam Schiff began by quoting a 1792 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington regarding the dangers of demagogues. He then went on, “We are here today—in this hallowed chamber, undertaking this solemn action for only the third time in history—because Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, has acted precisely as Hamilton and his contemporaries had feared.” Schiff enjoined the listening senators to “be the tribunal that Hamilton envisioned.”[11] Republicans play the same game. In fact, according to a former staffer, Ron DeSantis, Florida Governor and former candidate for the Republican party’s 2024 presidential nomination, is “obsessed with James Madison” and regularly asks for Madison quotes to be inserted into his remarks.[12] He is so enamored that he has named his children Madison and Mason, allegedly in homage to the fourth president and George Mason, a prominent Virginian politician of the Early Republic.[13]

This preoccupation with the nation’s early years extends to average Americans, as well. The history sections of popular bookstores are often crammed with work, particularly biographies, on the “founders.” This bestselling genre, known as “Founders Chic,” offers celebratory portraits of the great White men of the era and almost universally argue that the genius and leadership of these individuals put the United States on a path to greatness. As one purveyor asserts, “The shape and character of the political institutions were determined by a relatively small number of leaders…they comprised, by any informed and fair-minded standard, the greatest generation of political talent in American history. They created the American republic, then held it together.”[14] The Early Republic has also made its way into a variety of pop culture hits, the record-breaking phenomenon of Hamilton being the most obvious.

And so, the Early Republic looms large in the American consciousness as a defining era—the one that somehow holds the fundamental truths of the American experience and identity, and so the balms to the wounds of the present. It is, undoubtedly, a problematic phenomenon. But still, the Early Republic’s outsized influence points to the era’s distinctiveness in American historical memory.

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In some ways, making the case for the singularity of a particular historical era is a pedantic exercise—the sort of “inside baseball” that excites academics and likely alienates everyone else. Yet it is precisely this type of question that reveals the inner workings of historical practice. I have marshalled historical and historiographical evidence to convince you, my reader, of the validity of my argument. In doing so, I may have taught you some history. But, more importantly, I have made sense of the past—encouraged you to understand it in a way that goes beyond a chaotic collection of disparate facts, dates, anecdotes, and individuals. Periodization questions remind us that a historian’s job is not merely to recount the past but to give it meaning. That is why we like dividing history into eras. That is why we like disagreeing over those eras, too. So, if while reading this you have thought of rebuttals, counter-examples, or complications to my thesis, you have played your part in the larger process of making history.

Author

Shira Lurie is an assistant professor of U.S. history at Saint Mary’s University. She is the author of The American Liberty Pole: Popular Politics and the Struggle for Democracy in the Early Republic. Her writing has been published in The Journal of the Early Republic, The Washington Post, TIME, The Toronto Star, and The Conversation.

Notes

[1] Edward Pessen, “We are all Jeffersonians, We are all Jacksonians: or A Pox on Stultifying Periodizations,” Journal of the Early Republic, 1 (Spring 1981), 2.

[2] Jill Lepore, These Truths; A History of the United States (2018), 30.

[3] “From George Washington to Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham, 9 January 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-04-02-0363. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789 – 15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, 1993, pp. 551–554.]

[4] H.M. Brackenridge, History of the Western Insurrection Commonly Called the Whiskey Insurrection, 1794 (1859), 39.

[5] Charge of Chief Justice McKean and Reply of the Grand Jury, November 8, 1792, in Pennsylvania Archives Series 2, Vol. 4.

[6] I explore this transition and its consequences in more detail in my book The American Liberty Pole: Popular Politics and the Struggle for Democracy in the Early Republic (2023).

[7] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (2003), 93.

[8] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (2009), 2-3.

[9] Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (2010); Ned Blackhawk, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History (2023).

[10] Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Clarence Thomas.

[11] Proceedings of the United States Senate in the Impeachment Trial of President Donald John Trump, Vol. II: Floor Trial Proceedings, 116th Congress, Second Session, January 31, 2020, 758-764.

[12] Gabriel Sherman, “Ron DeSantis: The Making and Remaking (and Remaking) of a MAGA Heir, Vanity Fair, Sept. 27, 2022.

[13] David Waldstreicher, “The Forgotten Ron DeSantis Book,” The Atlantic, Feb. 22, 2023.

[14] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000), 13.