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The Birth of the United States: The New Nation's Economy

The Birth of the United States: The New Nation's Economy

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The U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787 and in effect to this day, was in many ways a work of creative genius. As an economic charter, it established that the entire nation -- stretching then from Maine to Georgia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi Valley -- was a unified, or "common," market. There were to be no tariffs or taxes on interstate commerce. The Constitution provided that the federal government could regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the states, establish uniform bankruptcy laws, create money and regulate its value, fix standards of weights and measures, establish post offices and roads, and fix rules governing patents and copyrights. The last-mentioned clause was an early recognition of the importance of "intellectual property," a matter that would assume great importance in trade negotiations in the late 20th century.

Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation's Founding Fathers and its first secretary of the treasury, advocated an economic development strategy in which the federal government would nurture infant industries by providing overt subsidies and imposing protective tariffs on imports. He also urged the federal government to create a national bank and to assume the public debts that the colonies had incurred during the Revolutionary War. The new government dallied over some of Hamilton's proposals, but ultimately it did make tariffs an essential part of American foreign policy -- a position that lasted until almost the middle of the 20th century.

Although early American farmers feared that a national bank would serve the rich at the expense of the poor, the first National Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791; it lasted until 1811, after which a successor bank was chartered.

Hamilton believed the United States should pursue economic growth through diversified shipping, manufacturing, and banking. Hamilton's political rival, Thomas Jefferson, based his philosophy on protecting the common man from political and economic tyranny. He particularly praised small farmers as "the most valuable citizens." In 1801, Jefferson became president (1801-1809) and turned to promoting a more decentralized, agrarian democracy.

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Next Article: American Economic Growth: Movement South and Westward

This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.

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