Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War

Government during the Colonial Era


The colonial era is characterized by the lack of self-governess and dependence on the British. The British government provided the colonies with military defense against other major colonial powers in the region but could enforce its regulations on the American colonists. Thus, being a subject of the British Empire, American colonies were dependent on the Crown and had limited power and no ability for self-determination.

We will write a
custom essay
specifically for you

for only $16.05 $11/page
308 certified writers online
Learn More

Views on the Issue of Power

The fact that the British government, and not colonists themselves, exercised legislative power and could impose its rules and taxes led to the growing discontent among American settlers. The situation escalated even more after the Seven Years War. The British, whose economy seriously suffered due to a massive war debt, tried to shift the financial burden on the colonies, which were considered the primary beneficiaries of the victory over Faience. They did so by increasing taxes and tariffs on many goods that were vital for the economy of the colonies, which affected a large portion of the population, including the elites.

Stamp Act


Stamp Act of 1765 is the most famous example of British legislation that led to growing resentment among the colonists. The act required all documents and printed material in colonies to have a revenue stamp paid for in British currency. The purpose of the law was to make the colonists pay for their defense during the war and increase the amount of tax money in the suffering British economy.


As this new direct taxation affected everyone in colonies, the law was met with severe opposition. The fact that the tax was so visible, and it was apparent that it passed just to raise money, also contributed to the growing discontent. The reaction of the colonists took different forms, including protests, boycotts of British goods, and mob action, but most importantly, facilitate the formation of organizations such as the Sons of Liberty.

John Locke

The colonists turned to the ideas of British philosopher John Locke to justify their resistance. The critics of the Stamp Act argued that, as Locke outlined in his work, the government should represent the interests of people and that life and liberty are natural rights of all humans. The philosopher also pointed out that it a moral obligation of all citizens to fight tyranny and, thus, justified a revolutionary activity.

Articles of Confederation

Revolutionary Ideas

Inspired by Locke’s ideas, many colonists strived for the independence of the British Crown, as it did not represent the colonial population and tried to enforce its rule by using power. The revolutionaries attacked the king and monarchy, as this institute denied people the right to elect their government. The leaders of the colonialists emphasize the necessity for self-governed and the creation of an independent nation that is based on principles of equality.

The agreement

United by these ideas, the colonies started to consolidate their efforts in achieving independence. Articles of Confederation was the agreement that brought together all thirteen states, and this document served as the first American constitution. The argument reflected the ideas of the Revolution by stating that the power of the government is based on its representation of people’s will and that liberty and equality are universal, inalienable rights.

Get your
100% original paper
on any topic

done in as little as
3 hours
Learn More

Failure of Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation had its successes at the beginning of its existence, but eventually, it ran into a number of operational problems that eventually led to its failure. As the document dedicated more power to state governments, the government of the United States did not have enough power to protect the common interests of all citizens. Such a situation made it difficult to have effective foreign policy and suppress rebellions within the country. Disagreements among the states resulted in few laws passing the vote, and the absence of effective centralized monetary regulations led to the devaluation of the currency.

Constitution and Bill of Rights


As the weak central government was the primary cause that led the Articles of Confederation to its failure, fixing this problem required a complete restructuring of the government. Federalists argued for a necessity of a strong federal government and were criticized by their opponents, who feared that such practice might lead to tyranny. Thus, finding a compromised way to balance power between the federal government and the states was key for the creation of an effective system and Constitution, and the Bill of Rights was designed to meet this requirement.

How they helped prevent abuse of power of the government

The new structure helped prevent the central government from abusing its power by balancing the amount of power held by states and national governments. Federalism and bicameral congress allowed equal and proportional representation of all states. Separation of power into mutually independent executive, judiciary, and legislature branches allowed avoiding the excessive accumulation of power by a single government entity. Thus, the creation of the system of checks and balances allowed establishing a new, more efficient, and flexible government.

Three Events 1791-1861

Kentucky and Virginia resolutions

In Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, the states’ legislatures claimed that federal Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. The proponents of the political statements argued for states’ rights and emphasized that the states should be able to judge federal decrees and laws and nullify them if needed. The resolutions passed creating a precedent of states claiming their own powers in regard to the constitutionality of an act of Congress.

New England’s attempt for secession

Disagreements over the attitude towards the war with Great Britain led to the situation where New England Federalists attempted to secede from the United States. The Hartford Convention is the name for a series of secret meetings at which the proponents of this idea criticized the increasing power of the central government and planed the secession. The success on the battlefield during the Bottle of New Orleans made the idea unpopular and led to the end of the Federalists as a major political force. This situation provides an example of the canal government successfully asserting its power over a state.

McCulloch vs. Maryland

The Supreme Court case of McCulloch vs. Maryland made a substantial contribution to the discussion about the balance of power between the central government and the states. The case is characterized by an attempt of the state of Maryland to tax the National Bank that was located on its territory. The Supreme Court took the side of the central government, deciding that the state could not impose a tax on the national institution. Even more importantly, the Supremacy Clause was added to the Constitution, stating that federal laws should be considered superior to state laws and giving the central government the upper hand. This case shows how the federal government enquired superiority in legislative power over legislators at the state level.

Dred Scott Decision

Description of the case

At the same time, judicial power sometimes displayed certain inconsistency and dependence on the political agenda. The case of Dred Scott can be seen as an illustration of this dependence as the court in Missouri ruled against federal laws and the so-called Missouri Compromise of 1820. Dred Scott was a slave who resided in Missouri, but his owner, John Emerson, took him to Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, the territories that were free. After that, they returned to Missouri, and when Dred’s owner died, the slave tried to buy his freedom. Since the widow of John Emerson did not want to let Dred go, he went to court claiming that he was brought to free territories, so he was not a slave according to the law. The state court decided that Scott was free in 1850, but in 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed this verdict.

We will write a custom
for you!
Get your first paper with
15% OFF
Learn More

In 1857, the case was heard at the U.S. Supreme Court, and it was decided that the case had to be dismissed due to the lack of jurisdiction. The Chief Justice claimed that although slaves in some states were regarded as citizens, they still could not appeal to the Supreme Court. The ruling was based on the assumption that since slaves were not regarded as citizens in some states, they were not citizens on the federal level. Eventually, Scott earned his freedom as he was freed by his new owner, but Dred Scott died a year later.


The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court enhanced the tension that existed in American society regarding such issues as slavery and federalism. Politicians, as well as the representatives of the judicial system, argued that the Chief Justice misinterpreted certain articles and concepts of the state and federal laws. Lawyers and judges emphasized that the federal law was rather clear about the status of slaves who could appeal to the Supreme Court. It was also stressed that the rule “once free always free” had to be followed. At the same time, the supporters of slavery saw the case as a valuable precedent and felt empowered. Both sides were determined to achieve their goals and establish the order they saw as the most appropriate for the country.

Reasons for Secession

Argument and justification

It is necessary to note that the tension between the South and the North continued to grow, and each case precipitated the Civil War. It is necessary to note that scholars considered several major causes that led to the secession. The debate regarding this matter started once the secession took place, but it is still far from being terminated. The majority of scholars agree that the central reasons for the secession included the different perspectives of the two camps concerning state rights, basic views on nation and race, as well as slavery.

For instance, Northern states focused on the development of the nation, although it could require paying less attention to some regional interests. However, Southerners cherished the rights of states and were concerned about the growing power of the federal government. They feared that the federal rule could eventually turn into tyranny. As for certain fundamental differences associated with race, Northerners believed that all people were equal and one race could never exploit another one. People in the South had an opposing view as they stressed that Africans were inferior, so they were destined to be the instrument for the development of a strong society.

The issue of slavery

However, slavery is often seen as the primary cause of secession and the war between the South and North. Slavery was the backbone of the economy of Southern states and the well-being of slave owners. Therefore, they could hardly let their slaves go as this would mean their complete bankruptcy. This economic paradigm was established during the 18th century and resulted in the creation of the agricultural South that depended on the labor of slaves. Decades of slavery made Southerners develop a specific view on races that justified the existence of slavery in the New World, where people tried to establish a truly just society.

On the other hand, the North of the country was mainly industrialized, so Northern states did not rely on the labor of slaves due to its low efficiency. People of the North did not depend economically on slavery, which affected their views on the matter. In these states, people cherished their rights and freedoms and condemned slavery that opposed all possible laws. Northerners stressed that God created all people equally, so no race could enslave another race.


In conclusion, it is necessary to note that the USA emerged as a nation of free people who shared democratic values. Based on the laws of the British Empire, Americans managed to create their own system that appeared to be effective. The system of checks and balances developed to address the challenges of the emerging country helped U.S. citizens to unite. The states were different and built on opposing values, but Americans managed to overcome the difficulties, although this led to the loss of thousands of lives during the Civil War.

Print Сite this

Cite this paper

Select style


StudyCorgi. (2021, August 1). Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/central-government-from-the-colonial-era-to-the-civil-war/

Work Cited

"Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War." StudyCorgi, 1 Aug. 2021, studycorgi.com/central-government-from-the-colonial-era-to-the-civil-war/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War." August 1, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/central-government-from-the-colonial-era-to-the-civil-war/.


StudyCorgi. "Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War." August 1, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/central-government-from-the-colonial-era-to-the-civil-war/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War." August 1, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/central-government-from-the-colonial-era-to-the-civil-war/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Central Government from the Colonial Era to the Civil War'. 1 August.

This paper was written and submitted to our database by a student to assist your with your own studies. You are free to use it to write your own assignment, however you must reference it properly.

If you are the original creator of this paper and no longer wish to have it published on StudyCorgi, request the removal.