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Unit 1: From Revolution to Constitution

Suggested Activities

Rufus King

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation

  1. Rufus King represented Massachusetts in the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1786 where, at age thirty-two, he was one of the youngest delegates. Although King began his service in the Continental Congress unconvinced that major changes needed to be made to the Articles of Confederation, his views became transformed during the proceedings and he became a staunch advocate for drafting a new Constitution. Read the Articles of Confederation (available at and summarize the issues it addresses. According to King and his supporters, what were the document's major flaws?
    [Standard 2—historical research capabilities]

The Articles of Confederation, which served as the first American constitution, were written soon after the colonies declared independence from Great Britain and established a confederation of sovereign states. The Articles protected trade between the states and guaranteed free movement of citizens and goods. They called for a common defense and stated that states should not form alliances that would be damaging to other states or to the confederation. The Continental Congress, the only manifestation of a central government, was empowered by the Articles of Confederation to handle national functions such as regulation of foreign affairs and war, establishment and maintenance of the postal service, control over Indian affairs, appointment of military officers, and oversight of financial matters such as currency valuation and procurement of loans.

The common cause of the Revolutionary War held the confederation of states together, but the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation became acutely apparent during the war's aftermath. The Congress was in debt to other countries from the war and was unable to raise the necessary money since the Articles did not give Congress the authority for taxation. Spain and England were interfering with interstate trade and the national government had no means to combat this threat with a national defense. In addition, fundamental items like a standard currency (instead of separate currencies for each state) and a national system of weights and measures was sorely needed. It was clear that the central government, as conceived in the Articles of Confederation, lacked the authority needed to build a great nation.

Rufus King (1755–1827)
Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828)
Oil on striated panel, 1819–1820
Gift of the James Smithson Society

  1. King was an opponent of slavery and introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory. King's resolution became part of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. What area of the United States comprised the Northwest Territory at this time? Outline the states currently included in the Northwest Territory on a map. What were the components of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787? Explain the resulting system of government and the provisions for statehood. How was the issue of slavery handled?
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

The Northwest Territory was the area of the American frontier north of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes, east of the Mississippi, and west of Pennsylvania (present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan). These lands were claimed by existing states until 1780, at which time the states ceded these territories to the central government. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established a framework for government in these lands and outlined the necessary steps for parts of the territory to be admitted as states to the Union. Congress appointed a governor and panel of judges to govern each district until its population of free adult males reached five thousand. At this time, the district would become a territory and could form its own representative legislature. When a territory could claim a population of sixty thousand, it could be admitted to statehood. The ordinance of 1787 declared that the Northwest Territory as a whole must eventually include a minimum of three and a maximum of five states. It outlawed slavery from these territories, and the resulting states remained free from slavery forever. Almost twenty years later, King denounced the Missouri Compromise, believing that the issue of slavery could be settled only by immediate compensated emancipation and colonization.

  1. Rufus King and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were the Federalist candidates for Vice President and President, respectively, in the 1804 and 1808 elections. Who were the Republican candidates they were running against and what was the outcome of the two elections? Compare the basic platforms of the Federalist and the Republican parties. Which of these two parties is more closely aligned to the political philosophies of the modern Democratic Party? To the modern Republican Party? Explain your answers.
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Rufus King ran against Thomas Jefferson and George Clinton in 1804 and James Madison and George Clinton in 1808. Jefferson and Clinton carried fifteen of seventeen states in 1804 and Madison and Clinton carried twelve of seventeen states in 1808.

The term "Federalist" was first used in 1787 to characterize supporters of the Constitution. The Federalist Party, which held power from 1789 to1801, advocated a strong central government and held a fairly liberal interpretation of the Constitution. In fiscal matters, Federalists supported the creation of a central bank, the funding of Revolutionary War debts, and the maintenance of a tax system. The Federalists were neutral in the war between France and Great Britain in 1793, supported the Jay Treaty of 1794, and sponsored the Alien and Sedition Acts, security laws passed in expectation of a war with France.

The Republican Party was the first American opposition party and was powerful from 1801 to 1825. This party was formed under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, and its tenets included the primacy of states' rights and a strict interpretation of the Constitution. Greatly influenced by the egalitarian ideals espoused in the French Revolution, the Republican Party opposed centralization at the seat of power. Unlike the Federalists, the Republicans supported France during the war with Great Britain, opposed Jay's Treaty, and fought the Alien and Sedition Acts.