By Megan McClure
Our next episode of "Building Democracy" picks up after the end of the Revolutionary War. With the sovereignty and independence of the United States secured, the Revolutionary War over and the British (mostly) repulsed from North American shores, the young nation turns its attention to its Western borders.
When James Monroe and Robert Livingston secure the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Mississippi River and its tributaries become accessible to the Gulf of Mexico and international trade routes. This new acquisition of land and waterways allows for the quick expansion of people out into the wilderness of the American West.
Along with the people comes conflict and the need for governance: spreading and refining the system of representative government, via the process of creating territories with appointed governors and legislative bodies, then the transition to statehood through population growth and the drafting of state constitutions.
However, as has been the case since the first British colonists arrived in what would become Virginia, these lands were already home to native peoples. Amid all the hubbub to expand and migrate populations to the “new” territory, Native Americans already inhabiting these lands attempt to defend their homes and cultures. Tribal leaders rely on both diplomacy and violence to attempt to deter the encroachment of American settlers, both avenues resulting in negative results for the native peoples.
Along with difficult relations with Native Americans, the Federal, state and territorial governments grapple with internal strife regarding the status of slavery in the newly formed states. The Missouri Compromise, meant to keep the peace between the North and the South is eventually undermined by legislation introduced by an Illinois senator. This federal legislation sought to give states the authority to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery, rather than it being geographically determined. This legislation passes and leads to violence and unrest in Missouri and Kansas that very soon is mirrored across the nation as the Civil War commences.
After the end of the war, through three renditions of reconstruction plans, the Federal government seeks to try and reconcile the two sides in an attempt to assimilate and provide a transition for a huge population of formerly enslaved people from a state of complete dependence to independence with jobs, land and education.
In states such as Georgia and Mississippi, many black men (some formerly enslaved, some not) are elected to their respective state legislatures. However, resistance to allowing former slaves their full rights as citizens both overt and covert, by those in power in former confederate states, along with complacency and political maneuvering at the federal level, leads to the collapse of reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow and the erasure of many of the gains made.
Hear all the details along with excerpts of interviews with legislative and historical experts in Episode 3 of "Building Democracy."
Megan McClure is a research analyst II in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program.