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Founding Documents

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of IndependanceOn July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, in which the American colonies set forth a list of grievances against the British Crown and declared that they were breaking from British rule to form free and independent states. On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved that the Declaration passed on the 4th be “fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile [sic]: ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America’…and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” The engrossing was most likely done by Timothy Matlack, an assistant to Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress. Although it bears the date “July 4, 1776,” the engrossed Declaration was signed on August 2, 1776, by members of the Continental Congress who were present that day and later, by other members of Congress. A total of 56 delegates eventually signed the document.

The Constitution of the United States

Constitution GatheringThe Federal Convention convened in the State House (Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on May 14, 1787, to revise the Articles of Confederation. Because the delegations from only two states were present initially, the members adjourned from one day to the next until a quorum of seven states was obtained on May 25. Through discussion and debate it became clear by mid-June that, rather than amend the existing Articles of Confederation, the convention would draft an entirely new framework for the government. All through the summer, the delegates debated, drafted, and redrafted the articles of the new Constitution in closed sessions. Among the chief points at issue were how much power to allow the central government, how many representatives in Congress to allow each state, and how these representatives should be elected–directly by the people or by the state legislators. The Constitution was the work of many minds and stands as a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise.

Bill of Rights

On September 25, 1789, the First Federal Congress of the United States proposed to the state legislatures twelve amendments to the Constitution. The first two, concerning the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified.* Articles three through twelve, known as the Bill of Rights, became the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution and contained guarantees of essential rights and liberties omitted in the crafting of the original document.

*Note: The original second amendment proposed by the First Federal Congress dealt with the compensation of members of Congress. Although rejected at the time, it was eventually ratified on May 7, 1992, as the 27th amendment

Additional Amendments to the Constitution

Federalist PapersThe Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers consist of eighty-five letters written to newspapers in the late 1780s to urge ratification of the U.S. Constitution. With the Constitution needing approval from nine of thirteen states, the press was inundated with letters about the controversial document. Celebrated statesmen Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay weighed in with a series of essays under the pseudonym “Publius,” arguing that the proposed system would preserve the Union and empower the federal government to act firmly and coherently in the national interest. These articles, written in the spirit both of propaganda and of logical argument, were published in book form as The Federalist in 1788.

Anti-Federalist Papers Index

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