There are numerous documents that are considered the founding documents of the United States of America. The primary documents are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, which is part of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.
The Declaration of Independence was a declaration to King George III of Great Britain that the 13 American colonies, which had been fighting the American Revolutionary War with Great Britain for more than a year, regarded themselves as thirteen newly independent sovereign states, and no longer a part of the British Empire. Instead they formed a new nation—the United States of America. The Declaration was unanimously approved and signed on July 2, 1776. The Declaration was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and subsequently published.
The Declaration was an explanation of why the Continental Congress had voted for independence from Great Britain, and listed the grievances of the colonies against their ruler King George III. The colonists had previously tried to reach a peaceful resolution of their differences with Great Britain, but had been ignored each time by King George III. They felt their only option was to declare their independence. The grievances included the following:
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States;
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance;
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation;
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent;
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation;
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us . . .;
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Do any of these grievances sound familiar?
Each July 4 we celebrate Independence Day, which commemorates our freedom from a tyrannical government by declaring the United States of America an independent and sovereign nation. Our freedom was gained by fighting the American Revolutionary War, which lasted one week shy of eight years, from 1775 – 1783. The Continental Army, commanded by Gen. George Washington, consisted of militias of the rebelling colonies. The 13 stripes of the American flag represent the thirteen British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain and became the first states of the United States of America.
In 1789, George Washington was elected first President of the United States.
The Constitution of the United States of America became effective in 1789. Prior to that, the Articles of Confederation served as the first Constitution. The Articles severely limited what the new central government could do, including providing no enforcement powers for decisions made by the Confederation Congress. Any amendments to the Articles had to be unanimously approved by all 13 states. Congress could print money, but by 1786 the money was worthless. Congress could borrow money, but could not pay it back.
The Articles provided little help to the United States in defending its sovereignty as an independent nation. Even some of the 13 states regularly violated the Articles.
In 1787, the Confederation Congress called for a convention to propose a plan of government. This convention was different from previous conventions, because it was for the “sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation”. The convention was intended to “render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.”
The Constitution was created on September 17, 1787, and was ratified on June 21, 1788. The Continental Congress passed a resolution on September 13, 1788, to put the new Constitution into operation with eleven states. North Carolina and Rhode Island ratified by May 1790. The Constitution went into effect in 1789.
The Constitution allows changes to be made to it through the amendment process. An amendment is proposed by Congress, then sent to the states for ratification by the state legislatures. If three-fourths of the states ratify an amendment within the timeframe specified, the Constitution is amended. So far, there have been 27 amendments to the Constitution.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights originally only applied to the federal government, however, most were subsequently applied to the government of each state by way of the Fourteenth Amendment. These amendments guarantee a number of personal freedoms, limit the government’s power in judicial and other proceedings, and reserve some powers to the states and the public.
The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 articles or essays advocating the ratification of the United States Constitution. Seventy-seven of the essays were published serially in The Independent Journal and The New York Packet between October 1787 and August 1788. The series’ correct title is The Federalist; the title The Federalist Papers did not emerge until the twentieth century.
The Federalist remains a primary source for interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, as the essays outline a lucid and compelling version of the philosophy and motivation of the proposed system of government. The authors of The Federalist wanted both to influence the vote in favor of ratification and to shape future interpretations of the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson called the Federalist Papers the best commentary ever written about the principles of government.