1789 is a chapter break in American history (as it is in European history, but for a very different reason). We’re all finished up with Enlightenment philosophy and Revolution, and we turn the page to a new time with a new lexicon reflecting new, possibly less exciting concerns: nullification, internal improvements, Manifest Destiny and the cotton gin.
As we start the long 1789-1848 chapter (it really is weird how those dates match up with such important European dates), the most striking difference with the 1763-1789 chapter is that there’s a sense of stability, a permanence to this new beginning. Not only does America now have its own country, it also has its very own government that it has now made sure is going to be vigorous enough and flexible enough to hold the country together against whatever gets thrown at it, right down to the present day.
What we need to remember is that there’s absolutely no reason the people on the ground in 1789 should have felt that new stability. There’s no reason this particular new beginning should have felt any different to them than the very many new beginnings they had spent, at that point, their whole lives living through.
Let’s look at how much the world had changed for an American alive in the 1790s. Let’s look at, say, John Adams, born in Massachusetts in 1735. John Adams grew up in a British America that was confined to the Atlantic seaboard. Far more of North America was French than was British—Adams didn’t know much about the land that lay behind the Appalachian Mountains a few hundred miles to the west, beyond that it was vast and fertile, but he did know that it was accessible either through French Quebec on the St. Lawrence or through French New Orleans on the Mississippi, and that what settlements existed there were French. For Adams and his fellow colonists—to whom “French” meant two things they abhorred: Roman Catholic and absolutist—the spectre of so much of the continent being in enemy hands must have truly hung over them.
But in 1759 and 1760 (confirmed by treaty in 1763), all that changed. The Seven Years’ War swept France from North America, and the entire continent east of the Mississippi was ceded to Great Britain. For John Adams and his fellow colonists, it must have been like how we felt when the Berlin Wall came down. British America had gone from a narrow strip clutching the Atlantic Seaboard to a limitless expanse big enough that, as Thomas Jefferson later described it, it would take until the “thousandth and thousandth” generation for them to fill.
Then, of course, came the new beginning when Adams and his countrymen decided to forego the protection and the supervision of the world’s most powerful empire and take responsibility for their affairs wholly within their own control, and cemented that decision by winning a war very much against the odds. Replacing common allegiance to a hereditary monarch with common allegiance to the ideal of liberty was the biggest revolution Adams lived through, but it wasn’t the first, and it wasn’t the last: because just four years after Britain recognised American independence, the United States realised that it had got its first attempt at self-government absolutely wrong, and that it had to scrap its first constitution (the Articles of Confederation) and write a new one, a Constitution that many Americans thought was a recipe guaranteed to lead to tyranny and monarchy.
And for all that change that men and women of Adams’s generation saw politically in a single lifetime, let’s not forget that the boundaries of the world itself were undergoing constant change for them, too. When John Adams was an adult in his early twenties, the extreme frontier of white settlement in America was Albany, New York—Albany, in the southeastern quadrant of New York, a couple hours’ drive north from New York City and only about half an hour from the Massachusetts state line, was the gateway beyond which, to the north or west, the uncharted forests belonged to Indians, lone fur trappers, and the occasional stockade of companies of British or French soldiers. Albany was the crossroads where colonial leaders would gather when they wished to treat with the Iroquois sachems who would come out of the woods. And yet by the time Adams died, Missouri—in the very heart of the American continent—had already been so thoroughly settled by white colonists that it had been granted statehood, as had twenty-one of the twenty-four states east of the Mississippi River. (Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida, then as now desolate frontiers on the American periphery, were the exceptions.)
So for many Americans, the reaction to the Constitution in 1789 wasn’t wondering whether or not the new federal government would succeed, it would have been wondering what was going to replace it within the next decade or so. This was especially true for Americans, like James Wilkinson, who had moved west and were already rapidly filling Kentucky (statehood 1792), Tennessee (1796) and Ohio (1803). Americans already had a suspicion that their country would prove too large and would eventually fracture; they just didn’t think the fault would be along the Mason-Dixon Line, they thought it would be along the Appalachian Ridge, dividing the Atlantic states from the Ohio Valley.
In such a world of uncertain future, then, James Wilkinson—hero of the Battle of Saratoga, major landowner who was turning Lexington into Kentucky’s major town, and man of extreme ambition—decided that his most likely route to fame and fortune was to take a secret oath of loyalty to Spain for the express purpose of detaching Kentucky from the United States and turning it into a Spanish colony. This became common knowledge by the early 1790s (though not concrete proof was ever unearthed; if it had, Wilkinson would certainly have been tried for treason, and likely convicted), and yet George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all felt willing to keep giving Wilkinson successively greater responsibility, and greater power located at a greater remove from their own oversight: second-in-command of the Legion of the United States in Ohio and Indiana, then commander-in-chief of the United States Army along the left bank of the Mississippi, then governor of the Louisiana Territory with his capital at St. Louis.
Or maybe they didn’t feel comfortable doing so, so much as they didn’t feel they had a choice; maybe they felt that, like the Roman empire appointing a Germanic chieftain governor of the province he’s just invaded, they had to maintain Wilkinson in a position of honour at the American empire’s distant outposts in order to prevent him and the men loyal to him from turning against them.
In 1806, when Wilkinson was presented with the opportunity to do what he had actually pledged to do in 1787—detach the Mississippi Valley from the United States—he instead chose to betray his co-conspirator Aaron Burr to the federal government and side with the Union. But he acted no more out of loyalty to the United States in 1806 than he had to Spain in 1787; both times, he sided with the power that he felt was in the best position to give him honour and fortune in the Mississippi Valley. In the intervening nineteen years the United States was able to strengthen its grip west of the Appalachians until Wilkinson reached the calculation that it was simply too strong to dislodge there.
But James Wilkinson didn’t just watch that change: he was an integral part of it. Examining how he made his choice for Spain in 1787 and for the United States in 1806 shows us how it was that many of his fellow Americans of the period came gradually to the conclusion that the United States was something that would last longer than their own generation.