-1800: THE CONSTITUTION
The United States knew what they didn't like about British rule, but what were they going to do about their own government? The first try was the Articles of Confederation in 1777 (not to be confused with Confederacy that came along 84 years later with the Civil War). The Articles called for more voluntary cooperation than was ever likely to happen in real life. The federal government had to politely ask the states for money because it had no power to tax on its own. Each state got one vote in Congress, and it took 9 of the 13 votes to pass any laws. With this weak government, the organization of the territory from Ohio north and west under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is amazing.
In the same year, with much wrangling and a few drinks, Congress produced the U.S. Constitution, under which the nation is still governed. At that time, the average U.S. male had about 600 drinks a year — the first thing most of the Congressmen did after they passed the Constitution was to adjourn to the nearest tavern. A few years later, President Washington and Alexander Hamilton personally led a large army into Pennsylvania to put down the Whiskey Rebellion — not to get rid of whiskey, but to try to enforce a tax on this popular form of booze. Somehow, the nation sobered up enough to get organized.
The addition of the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) in 1791 strengthened the Constitution even further. Since then, the U.S. has made only 27 additional Amendment changes in more than 200 years. It took years of tough debate and friendly drinking to finish the original Constitution, but the results have lasted longer than any barroom promise in history.
-1840: DEMOCRACY AND MANIFEST DESTINY
Although plenty of drinking and tobacco-chewing went on in the early 1800s, politics was more of a gentlemen's game. The nation had been through an early attack on civil liberties in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and was settling down to enjoy its freedom.
European powers provided pesky challenges that resulted in the War of 1812, but for the most part the new United States was an increasingly prosperous one-party country. The time from 1815 to 1824 was even called the Era of Good Feelings.
Early 1800s U.S. democracy had one little catch: Only white males who owned a house or a farm could vote. Even people who could vote didn't always bother; many figured the system would take care of itself.
All that changed with the contested election of John Quincy Adams in 1824. This was the first election in which all white males in most states got to vote whether they owned property or not. In a four-way race, war hero Andrew Jackson got the most votes, but John Quincy Adams got to be president because he made a deal with the other losers. That ticked off Jackson and his many followers, and they came back in force for the next election.
Jackson was president for eight years, and several of the subsequent presidents — Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, and James Polk — were all Jackson followers.
Jacksonian democracy meant the end of rich guys controlling a central Bank of the United States. It also meant moving the American Indians out to make way for Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. Jackson invited ordinary people to be part of government, rewarding his friends with government jobs (through the spoils system) and pushing for full democracy for everyone (as long as they were white males). Jackson kept the government out of business because he thought that most of the time the government just ended up helping rich people.