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A Midwife's Tale | Article

After the Revolution


When Martha Ballard began her diary in 1785, the Revolutionary War had been over for just a year. The states, still a confederation and almost entirely agrarian, had a total population of under 4 million. The former colonies were struggling through a major economic depression and just beginning to understand how to operate outside the confines of British rule.

By the time of Ballard's last entry, in 1812, the United States, now organized under a central, constitutional government, had a population of 10 million people. The nation had changed dramatically in just under thirty years. The transition, however, was not an easy one, for either the military, political, and business leaders who had led the colonies to independence or for ordinary citizens like Martha and Ephraim Ballard.

The period following the Revolutionary War was one of instability and change. The end of monarchical rule, evolving governmental structures, religious fragmentation, challenges to the family system, economic flux, and massive population shifts all led to heightened uncertainty and insecurity. Although the states had united politically under the Articles of Confederation in 1777, they did not yet exist as a united nation. Each state retained individual sovereignty and operated under its own constitution. Congress struggled to hold the states together, and interests often clashed.

The weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation quickly became apparent. Congress could ask the states to provide revenue, but each state paid only what it could afford. Because of the inefficiency of state tax-collecting systems, Congress often lacked the money it needed to service its sizable war debts, to maintain the military, and to pay other costs of government. The weakness of the central government created a power vacuum, and towns, states, and federal jurisdictions vied for power and authority.

Money proved problematic in more ways than one. Before the Revolution, most business had been conducted on a personal level, but by the early nineteenth century, the states had chartered hundreds of banks and corporations. The new ability to readily borrow money -- often printed by the new banks -- unleashed tremendous entrepreneurial spirit, and great fortunes were made. Unfortunately, many currency issues lost their value, and the numerous currencies complicated interstate trade. Just as they rose, business empires collapsed, and the economy remained unstable.

In 1787, a group of delegates from the states wrote a new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution united the states as a single nation, strengthening the federal government and giving it the right to raise revenue, to coin money, and to maintain the military. The states surrendered their sovereignty, and could no longer coin money or raise armies of their own. The Constitution helped to stabilize the economy and fostered a bond of common interest among the states, but some feared the central concentration of power. To ease fears that the federal government might become oppressive, a Bill of Rights that guaranteed individual liberties was added to the document.

Socially, the new emphasis on egalitarianism and individual rights changed relationships and roles. Many British traditions were abandoned. The distinction of "gentleman" was disappearing. Most men were now called "citizen," or simply, "Mr." And where once "gentlemen" did not work for pay, having an occupation now became a mark of respect.

Not all citizens, however, benefited equally from this republican fervor. The Constitution provided for the direct election of the House of Representatives, but the state governments specified who could vote. Most states restricted suffrage to free male property owners. The Constitution counted each enslaved African American as 3/5 of a person for purposes of representation and taxation, and slavery remained legal.

Women, too, experienced fewer benefits of freedom. Except in New Jersey, where they enjoyed suffrage from 1776 to1807, women could not vote. They usually received less schooling than did men. In 1780, only half of New England's women could sign their names, and although literacy was virtually universal in New England by 1840, women's education was often limited to basic skills.

Nonetheless, women had been critical to the success of the revolution, running farms and family businesses in the absence of male family members who were away at war. Some women had worked outside the home even before the war as midwives, schoolteachers, or shop clerks; many returned to their former occupation as housewives at war's end. Others advocated eloquently for their fair share of republican freedom.

In a letter to her husband John, Abigail Adams wrote "Deprived of a voice in Legislation, obliged to submit to those Laws which are imposed upon us, is it not sufficient to make us indifferent to the publick Welfare? Yet all History and every age exhibits Instances of patriotic virtue in the female Sex, which considering our situation equals the most Heroick." But not until the twentieth century would the female citizens who worked to build the nation be able to vote in its elections.

Not only republican ideals, but the huge expanse of wilderness territory at the fringes of the nation, contributed to Americans' sense of freedom. Following the Revolution, many people left cities in the East and set out for the frontier. Tennessee's population increased tenfold; Ohio grew from a handful of settlers into the fifth most populous state, with half a million people. Although these settlers often headed west, some, like Martha Ballard, moved northward. Between 1783 and 1820, the population of Maine grew 450 percent, from 56,000 to 300,000 inhabitants. As settlers spilled into the open territories, competing land claims created turmoil.

Wealthy absentee speculators who owned large tracts of land stood at odds with the settlers who felt they had a right to claim territory as they saw fit. The settlers, many of whom fought against the British, viewed their struggle for land as a logical extension of the war for independence. That Ephraim Ballard, Martha's husband, was set upon while surveying territory for an absentee landowner is not surprising. The "White Indians" who attacked him were not Indians after all, but settlers seeking to intimidate Ballard and his employer. Similar clashes over land took place across the country.

Religious conflicts also occurred with increasing frequency, as new sects vied with established, community-oriented churches. Some states placed religious requirements upon officeholders, and certain sects endured persecution. While the Constitution's First Amendment ensured that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise therof," local disagreements about religion continued.

Americans worked to establish an orderly society, but their efforts sometimes fell short. According to historian Gordon Wood, American cities experienced increased rowdiness, labor strikes, and racial and ethnic conflicts after 1800. On the frontier, life was also harsh. One traveler observed that rather than becoming more civilized as their society progressed, Americans were becoming less so. In the early 1800s, the consumption of alcohol reached an all-time high. By 1830, there were 20,000 distilleries nationwide and at a yearly rate of 5 gallons per capita, Americans drank more liquor than did any citizens of any European nation at the time -- and three times as much as Americans today.

Not surprisingly, Wood relates, the Founding Fathers expressed disappointment and despair in the Revolution's aftermath. John Adams feared that greed, disobedient children and apprentices, and turbulent schools and colleges would weaken the Republic. In 1813, he asked when, where and how "the present chaos" would be "arranged into Order." Thomas Jefferson believed that the nation was moving backward rather than forward; Alexander Hamilton concluded that "this American world was not made for me," and by the time George Washington died, his hopes for democracy had waned. Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, eventually threw his notes and documents for a planned memoir of the Revolution into the fire. "America's revolutionary experiment on behalf of liberty," he wrote in 1812, "will certainly fail."

But despite the difficulties, the new nation survived. The conflicts witnessed by Martha Ballard and other Americans subsided. By the 1830s, writes historian Steven Watts, "a coherent cluster of values and attitudes appeared out of the wreckage of colonial tradition. It connected Protestant moralism, capitalist acquisitiveness and possessive individualism to establish a domestic ideal of middle-class life and the cult of the self-made man."

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