A Perceived Burden of Intolerable Evils

John Quincy Adams. By: John Singleton Copley.

After the American Revolution and after the war with Britain, America was suffering what appeared to be a crisis.

America was in a crisis of sorts, perhaps exaggerated, but still a crisis. John Quincy Adams in a speech at Harvard College in July 1787, he said that America was “groaning under the intolerable burden of . . . accumulated evils.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 393 quoting Robert A. East, John Quincy Adams: The Critical Years, 1785-1794 (N.Y., 1962), 85.

One American observed that “[a] foreigner could hardly believe we were that brave people who so nobly struggled for our Independence.” Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 393 quoting Boston Independent Chronicle, Aug. 31, 1786; Providence Gazette, Oct. 6, 1787; Charleston S.C. Gazette and General Advertiser, Aug. 9, 1783.

Undoubtedly, there were significant changes occurring, both good and bad. America was recovering from the Revolutionary War while dealing with social changes, financial confusion, geographic expansion, and public debt. See Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic: 1776-1787, 394.

Americans asked themselves: “Have we fought for this?” and “Was it with these expectations that we launched into a sea of trouble, and have bravely struggled through the most threatening dangers?” Id. at 396. Charles Backus concluded that Americans simply “had too high expectations from the world.” Charles Backus, A Sermon Preached at Long Meadow, April 17th . . .  (Springfield, 1788), 7.

The country knew the stakes. If America did not succeed, “the consequence will be, that the fairest experiment ever tried in human affairs will miscarry; and that a revolution which had revived the hopes of good men and promised an opening to better times, will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favour of liberty, and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery.” Richard Price, Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution . . . (Dublin, 1785), 85.

Perhaps the weight of expectations were too much after the Revolution, as Americans began to sense that the task of building a great country was not easily or quickly achieved. It is also possible that through all the excitement and progress of the Revolution and the drafting of the state constitutions, Americans were too preoccupied to formulate such doubts.

This is perhaps one of the best examples in American history where the excitement and accomplishments have led to a period of perceived crisis. To some extent, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution would change this mood of the 1780s, ensured by the presence of George Washington as President, given his enormous leadership influence. In other words, a cure had come for the ills, justified or not, that Americans believed they were suffering from.

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