THE STATES. - When Washington became President, the thirteen original states of the Union [1] were in many respects very unlike the same states in our day. In some the executive was called president; in others governor. In some he had a veto; in others he had not. In some there was no senate. To be a voter in those days a man had to have an estate worth a certain sum of money, [2] or a specified annual income, or own a certain number of acres. [3]

Moreover, to be eligible as governor or a member of a state legislature a man had to own more property than was needed to qualify him to vote. In many states it was further required that officeholders should be Protestants, or at least Christians, or should believe in the existence of God.

The adoption of the Constitution made necessary certain acts of legislation by the states. They could issue no more bills of credit; provision therefore had to be made for the redemption of those outstanding. They could lay no duties on imports; such as had laid import duties had to repeal their laws and abolish their customhouses. All lighthouses, beacons, buoys, maintained by individual states were surrendered to the United States, and in other ways the states had to adjust themselves to the new government.

THE NATIONAL DEBT. - Each of the states was in debt for money and supplies used in the war; and over the whole country hung a great debt contracted by the old Congress. Part of this national debt was represented by bills of credit, loan-office certificates, lottery certificates, and many other sorts of promises to pay, which had become almost worthless. This was strictly true of the bills of credit or paper money issued in great quantities by the Continental Congress. [4] Besides this domestic debt owed to the people at home, there was a foreign debt, for Congress had borrowed a little money from Spain and a great deal from France and Holland. On this debt interest was due, for Congress had not been able to pay even that.

THE MONEY OF THE COUNTRY. - The Continental bills having long ceased to circulate, the currency of the country consisted of paper money issued by individual states, and the gold, silver, and copper coins of foreign countries. These passed by such names as the Joe or Johannes, the doubloon, pistole, moidore, guinea, crown, dollar, shilling, sixpence, pistareen, penny. A common coin was the Spanish milled dollar, which passed at different ratings in different parts of the country. [5] Congress in 1786 adopted the dollar as a unit, divided it into the half, quarter, dime, half dime, cent, and half cent, and ordered some coppers to be minted; but very few were made by the contractor.

POPULATION. - Just how many people dwelt in our country before 1790 can only be guessed at. In that year they were counted for the first time, and it was then ascertained that they numbered 3,929,000 (in the thirteen states) of whom 700,000 were slaves. All save about 200,000 dwelt along the seaboard, east of the mountains; and nearly half were between Chesapeake Bay and Florida.

The most populous state was Virginia; after her, next in order were Massachusetts (including Maine), Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and New York.

The most populous city was Philadelphia, after which came New York, Boston, Charleston, and Baltimore.

LIFE IN THE CITIES. - What passed for thriving cities in those days were collections of a thousand or two houses, very few of which made any pretension to architectural beauty, ranged along narrow streets, none of which were sewered, and few of which were paved or lighted even on nights when the moon did not shine. During daylight a few constables kept order. At night small parties of men called the night watch walked the streets. Each citizen was required to serve his turn on the watch or find a substitute or pay a fine. He had to be a fireman and keep in his house near the front door a certain number of leather fire buckets with which at the clanging of the courthouse or market bell he would run to the burning building and take his place in the line which passed the full buckets from the nearest pump to the engine, or in the line which passed the empty buckets from the engine back to the pump. Water for household use or for putting out fires came from private wells or from the town pumps. There were no city water works.

Lack of good and abundant water, lack of proper drainage, ignorance of the laws of health, filthy, unpaved streets, spread diseases of the worst sort. Smallpox was common. Yellow fever in the great cities was of almost annual occurrence, and often raged with the violence of a plague.

LACK OF CONVENIENCES. - Few appliances which increase comfort, or promote health, or save time or labor, were in use. Not even in the homes of the rich were there cook stoves or furnaces or open grates for burning anthracite coal, or a bath room, or a gas jet. Lamps and candles afforded light by night. The warming pan, the foot stove (p. 97), and the four- posted bedstead (p. 76), with curtains to be drawn when the nights were cold, were still essentials. The boy was fortunate who did not have to break the ice in his water pail morning after morning in winter. Clocks and watches were luxuries for the rich. The sundial was yet in use, and when the flight of time was to be noted in hours or parts, people resorted to the hour glass. Many a minister used one on Sundays to time his preaching by, and many a housewife to time her cooking. [6]

No city had yet reached such size as to make street cars or cabs or omnibuses necessary. Time was less valuable than in our day. The merchant kept his own books, wrote all business letters with a quill pen, and waited for the ink to dry or sprinkled it with sand. There were no envelopes, no postage stamps, no letter boxes in the streets, no collection of the mails. The letter written, the paper was carefully folded, sealed with wax or a wafer, addressed, and carried to the post office, where postage was paid in money at rates which would now seem extortionate. A single sheet of paper was a single letter, and two sheets a double letter on which double postage was paid. Three mails a week between Philadelphia and New York, and two a week between New York and Boston, were thought ample. The post offices in the country towns consisted generally of a drawer or a few boxes in a store.

NEWSPAPERS could not be sent by mail, and there were few to send. Though the first newspaper in the colonies was printed in Boston as early as 1704, the first daily newspaper in our country was issued in Philadelphia in 1784. Illustrated newspapers, trade journals, scientific weeklies, illustrated magazines, [7] were unknown. Such newspapers as existed in 1789 were published most of them once a week, and a few twice, and were printed by presses worked by hand; and no paper anywhere in our country was issued on Sunday or sold for as little as a penny.

BOOKS. - In no city in 1790 could there have been found an art gallery, a free museum of natural history, a school or institute of any sort where instruction in the arts and sciences was given. There were many good private libraries, but hardly any that were open to public use. Books were mostly imported from Great Britain, or such as were sure of a ready sale were reprinted by some American publisher when enough subscribers were obtained to pay the cost. Of native authors very few had produced anything which is now read save by the curious. [8]

SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES. - In education great progress had been made. There were as yet no normal schools, no high schools, no manual training schools, and, save in New England, no approach to the free common school of to-day. There were private, parish, and charity schools and academies in all the states. In many of these a small number of children of the poor, under certain conditions, might receive instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic. But as yet the states did not have the money with which to establish a great system of free common schools.

Money in aid of academies and colleges was often raised by lotteries. Indeed, every one of the eight oldest colleges of that day had received such help. [9] In each of these the classes were smaller, the course of instruction much simpler, and the graduates much younger than to-day. In no country of that time were the rich and well-to-do better educated than in the United States, [10] and it is safe to say that in none was primary education - reading, writing, and arithmetic - more diffused among the people. [11]

TRAVEL. - To travel from one city to another in 1789 required at least as many days as it now does hours. [12] The stagecoach, horseback, or private conveyances were the common means of land travel. The roads were bad and the large rivers unbridged, and in stormy weather or in winter the delays at the ferries were often very long. Breakdowns and upsets were common, and in rainy weather a traveler by stagecoach was fortunate if he did not have to help the driver pull the wheels out of the mud. [13]

THE INNS AND TAVERNS, sometimes called coffeehouses or ordinaries, at which travelers lodged, were designated by pictured signs or emblems hung before the door, and were given names which had no relation to their uses, as the Indian Head, the Crooked Billet, the Green Dragon, the Plow and Harrow. In these taverns dances or balls were held, and sometimes public meetings. To those in the country came sleigh-ride parties. From them the stagecoaches departed, and before their doors auctions were often held, and in the great room within were posted public notices of all sorts.

THE SHOPS were designated in much the same way as the inns, not by street numbers but by signs; as the Lock and Key, the Lion and the Glove, the Bell in Hand, the Golden Ball, the Three Doves. One shop is described as near a certain bake-house, another as close by the townhouse, another as opposite a judge's dwelling. The shop was usually the front room of a little house. In the rear or overhead lived the tradesman, his family, and his apprentice.

METHODS OF BUSINESS. - For his wares the tradesman took cash when he could get it, gave short credit with good security when he had to, and often was forced to resort to barter. Thus paper makers took rags for paper, brush makers exchanged brushes for hog's bristles, and a general shopkeeper took grain, wood, cheese, butter, in exchange for dry goods and clothing.

Few of the modern methods of extending business, of seeking customers, of making the public aware of what the merchant had for sale, existed, even in a rude state. There were no commercial travelers, no means of widespread advertising. When an advertisement had been inserted in a newspaper whose circulation was not fifteen hundred copies, when a handbill had been posted in the markets and the coffeehouses, the means of reaching the public were exhausted.

THE WORKINGMAN. - What was true of the merchant was true of men in every walk in life. Their opportunities were few, their labor was hard, their comforts of life were far inferior to what is now within their reach. In every great city to-day are men, women, and boys engaged in a hundred trades, professions, and occupations unknown in 1790. The great corporations, mills, factories, mines, railroads, the steamboats, rapid transit, the telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, the sewing machine, the automobile, the postal delivery service, the police and fire departments, the banks and trust companies, the department stores, and scores of other inventions and business institutions of great cities, now giving employment to millions of human beings, have been created since 1790.

The working day was from sunrise to sunset, with one hour for breakfast and another for dinner. Wages were about a third what they are now, and were less when the days were short than when they were long. The redemptioner was still in demand in the Middle States. In the South almost all labor was done by slaves.

SLAVERY. - In the North slavery was on the decline. While still under the crown, Virginia and several other colonies had attempted to check slavery by forbidding the importation of more slaves, but their laws for this purpose were disallowed by the king. After 1776 the states were free to do as they pleased in the matter, and many of them stopped the importation of slaves. Moreover, before Congress shut slavery out of the Northwest Territory, the New England states and Pennsylvania had either abolished slavery outright or provided for its extinction by gradual abolition laws. [14]

INDUSTRIES. - In New England the people lived on their own farms, which they cultivated with their own hands and with the help of their children, or engaged in codfishing, whaling, lumbering, shipbuilding, and commerce. They built ships and sold them abroad, or used them to carry away the products of New England to the South, to the ports of France, Spain, Russia, Sweden, the West Indies, and even to China. To the West Indies went horses, cattle, lumber, salt fish, and mules; and from them came sugar, molasses, coffee, indigo, wines. From Sweden and Russia came iron, hemp, and duck.

The Middle States produced much grain and flour. New York had lost much of her fur trade because of the British control of the frontier posts; but her exports of flour, grain, lumber, leather, and what not, in 1791, were valued at nearly $3,000,000. The people of Pennsylvania made lumber, linen, flour, paper, iron; built ships; carried on a prosperous commerce with foreign lands and a good fur trade with the Indians.

In Maryland and Virginia the staple crop was still tobacco, but they also produced much grain and flour. North Carolina produced tar, pitch, resin, turpentine, and lumber. Some rice and tobacco were raised. Great herds of cattle and hogs ran wild. In South Carolina rice was the most important crop. Indigo, once an important product, had declined since the Revolution, and cotton was only just beginning to be grown for export. From the back country came tar, pitch, turpentine, and beaver, deer, and bear skins for export.

THE FUR TRADE. - The region of the Great Lakes, where the British still held the forts on the American side of the boundary, was the chief seat of the fur trade. Goods for Indian use were brought from England to Montreal and Quebec, and carried in canoes to Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, Mackinaw, Sault Ste. Marie (map, p. 194), and thence scattered over the Northwest. [15]


1. In 1789 the states had governments less democratic than at present; in general only property owners could vote and hold office.

2. The states were all in debt, and Congress had incurred besides a large national debt.

3. The population was less than 4,000,000, mostly on the Atlantic seaboard.

4. Cities were few and small, without street cars, pavements, water works, gas or electric lights, public libraries or museums, letter carriers, or paid firemen. Everywhere many of the common conveniences of modern life were unknown.

5. Travel was slow and tiresome, because there were no railroads, steamboats, or automobiles.

6. Occupations were far fewer than now, wages lower, and hours of labor longer. Slavery had been abolished, or was being gradually stopped, in New England and Pennsylvania, but existed in all the other states; and in the South nearly all the labor was done by slaves.

7. New Englanders were engaged in farming, fishing, lumbering, and commerce; the Middle States produced much wheat and flour, and also lumber; the South chiefly tobacco, rice, and tar, pitch, and turpentine.


[1] The states ratified the Constitution on the dates given below: -

  1. Delaware......... Dec. 7, 1787 
  2. Pennsylvania..... Dec. 12,1787 
  3. New Jersey....... Dec. 18, 1787 
  4. Georgia.......... Jan. 2, 1788 
  5. Connecticut...... Jan. 9, 1788 
  6. Massachusetts.... Feb. 7, 1788 
  7. Maryland......... April 28, 1788 
  8. South Carolina... May 23, 1788 
  9. New Hampshire.... June 21, 1788 
  10. Virginia........ June 26, 1788 
  11. New York........ July 26, 1788 
  12. North Carolina.. Nov. 21, 1789 
  13. Rhode Island.... May 29, 1790

[2] In New Jersey any "person" having a freehold (real estate owned outright or for life) worth £50 might vote. In New York each voter had to have a freehold of £20, or pay 40 shillings house rent and his taxes. In Massachusetts he had to have an estate of £60, or an income of £3 from his estate.

[3] In Maryland 50 acres; in South Carolina 50 acres or a town lot; in Georgia £10 of taxable property.

[4] When Congress was forced to assume the conduct of the war, money was needed to pay the troops. But the Congress then had no authority to tax either the colonies or the people, so (in 1775-81) it issued bills of credit, or Continental money, of various denominations. A loan office was also established in each state, and the people were asked to loan Congress money and receive in return loan-office certificates bearing interest and payable in three years. But little money came from this source; and the people refused to take the bills of credit at their face value. The states then made them legal tender, that is, made them lawful money for the payment of debts. But as they became more and more plentiful, prices of everything paid for in Continental money rose higher and higher. From an old bill of January, 1781, it appears that in Philadelphia a pair of boots cost $600 in paper dollars; six yards of chintz, $900; eight yards of binding, $400; a skein of silk, $10; and butter, $20 a pound. In Boston at the same time sugar was $10 a pound; beef, $8; and flour, $1575 a barrel. To say of anything that it was "not worth a continental" was to say that it was utterly worthless.

[5] In New England it was valued at six shillings; in New York at eight; in Pennsylvania at seven and six pence; in South Carolina and Georgia at four shillings and eight pence.

[6] The hour glass consisted of two small glass bulbs joined by a small glass tube. In one bulb was as much fine sand as in the course of an hour could run through the tube into the other bulb. At auctions when ships or real estate were for sale it was common to measure time by burning an inch or more of candle; that is, the bidding would go on till a certain length of candle was consumed.

[7] The Massachusetts Magazine was illustrated with occasional engravings of cities and scenery; but it was not what we know as an illustrated magazine. Read a description of the newspapers of this time in McMaster's History of the People of the U. S., Vol. I, pp. 35-38.

[8] Franklin is still the most popular of colonial writers. His autobiography, his Way to Wealth, and many of his essays are still republished and widely read. The poetry of Philip Freneau, of John Trumbull, and Francis Hopkinson is still read by many; but it was in political writing that our countrymen excelled. No people have ever produced a finer body of political literature than that called forth by the Revolution. Read McMaster's History of the People of the U. S., Vol. I, pp. 74-80.

[9] Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, and Dartmouth. In a lottery "drawn" in 1797 for the benefit of Brown University, 9000 tickets were sold at $6 each - a total of $54,000. Of this, $8000 was kept by the university, and $46,000 distributed in 3328 prizes - 2000 at $9 each, 1000 at $12 each, and the rest from $20 to $4000.

[10] In the convention which framed the Constitution twenty of the fifty- five men were college graduates. Five were graduates of Princeton, three of Harvard, three of Yale, three of William and Mary, two of Pennsylvania, one of King's (now Columbia), and one each of Oxford, Edinburgh, and Glasgow.

[11] The writings of men who were not college graduates - Washington, Franklin, Dickinson, and many others - speak well for the character of the early schools.

[12] The journey from Boston to New York by land consumed six days, but may now be made in less than six hours. New York was a two days' journey from Philadelphia, but the distance may now be traversed in two hours.

[13] One pair of horses usually dragged the stage eighteen miles, when a fresh team was put on, and if no accident happened, the traveler would reach an inn about ten at night. After a frugal meal he would betake himself to bed, for at three the next morning, even if it rained or snowed, he had to make ready, by the light of a horn lantern or a farthing candle, for another ride of eighteen hours.

[14] In 1777 Vermont forbade the slavery of men and women. In 1780 Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition act. Massachusetts by her constitution declared "All men are born free and equal," which her courts held prohibited slavery. New Hampshire in her constitution made a similar declaration with a like result. In 1784 Connecticut and Rhode Island adopted gradual abolition laws, providing that children born of a slave parent after a certain date should be free when they reached a certain age, and that their children were never to be slaves. These were states where slaves had never been much in demand, and where the industries of the people did not depend on slave labor.

[15] The departure of a fleet of canoes from Quebec or Montreal was a fine sight. The trading canoe of bark was forty-five feet long, and carried four tons of goods. The crew of eight men, with their hats gaudy with plumes and tinsel, their brilliant handkerchiefs tied around their throats, their bright-colored shirts, flaming belts, and gayly worked moccasins, formed a picture that can not be described. When the axes, powder, shot, dry goods, and provisions were packed in the canoes, when each voyager had hung his votive offering in the chapel of his patron saint, a boatman of experience stepped into the bow and another into the stern of each canoe, the crew took places between them, and at the word the fleet glided up the St. Lawrence on its way to the Ottawa, and thence on to Sault Ste. Marie, to Grand Portage (near the northeast corner of what is now Minnesota), or to Mackinaw.