In June 1776, as Thomas Jefferson composed a draft of the Declaration of Independence from a second floor parlor of a bricklayer's house in Philadelphia, the largest invasion force in British military history was headed for New York Harbor. By the time the last of the fifty-six signers had affixed their names to the final, edited document months later, an invading force of British soldiers had landed at Staten Island, the British had taken New York City, and the American patriots had committed themselves to a long and bloody struggle for liberty and independence.
The Declaration announced to the world the separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain and the establishment of the United States of America. It explained the causes of this radical move with a long list of charges against the King. In justifying the Revolution, it asserted a universal truth about human rights in words that have inspired downtrodden people through the ages and throughout the world to rise up against their oppressors.
Jefferson was not aiming at originality. The Declaration articulates the highest ideals of the Revolution, beliefs in liberty, equality, and the right to self-determination. Americans embraced a view of the world in which a person's position was determined, not by birth, rank, or title, but by talent, ability, and enterprise. It was a widely held view, circulated in newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, and schoolbooks; but it was Thomas Jefferson, the 33-year-old planter from Virginia, who put the immortal words to it.
On July 4, 1776, Congress completed its editing of the document that reduced the text by 25 percent ("mutilations" is what Jefferson called it) and formally adopted the Declaration; on July 19, Congress ordered that a formal copy of the Declaration be prepared for members to sign; and on August 2, the final parchment–the one presently displayed in the nearby case–was presented to Congress and the signing began.
Throwing off the British monarchy on July 4, 1776, left the United States with no central government. It had to design and install a new government–and quickly. As early as May 1776, Congress advised each of the colonies to draw up plans for state governments; by 1780, all thirteen states had adopted written constitutions. In June 1776, the Continental Congress began to work on a plan for a central government. It took five years for it to be approved, first by members of Congress and then by the states. The first attempt at a constitution for the United States was called the Articles of Confederation.
This first constitution was composed by a body that directed most of its attention to fighting and winning the War for Independence. It came into being at a time when Americans had a deep-seated fear of a central authority and long-standing loyalty to the state in which they lived and often called their "country." Ultimately, the Articles of Confederation proved unwieldy and inadequate to resolve the issues that faced the United States in its earliest years; but in granting any Federal powers to a central authority–the Confederation Congress–this document marked a crucial step toward nationhood. The Articles of Confederation were in force from March 1, 1781, until March 4, 1789, when the present Constitution went into effect.
The Revolution's ideals of liberty and equality existed side by side with the brutal realities of human slavery. By the time of the Revolution, slavery existed in all the colonies, slaves made up 20 percent of the population, and their labor had become a vital contribution to the physical and economic development of the colonies. The existence of slavery created tensions that would strain the integrity of the United States for many decades to come.
The Society of Friends, a religious group also known as the Quakers, formed the first formal antislavery society in 1775. Throughout the Revolution, as the states struggled to find common ground, the issue of slavery was so divisive that it threatened to shatter their fragile union. Some prominent leaders of the Revolution raised their voices to oppose slavery on moral grounds. Slaves and free Africans embraced the principles of liberty and equality embedded in the Declaration as their own best hope for freedom and better treatment. Many, fighting as soldiers in the American armies, helped to defeat the British, while earning their freedom and gaining the respect and gratitude of some whites. And clinging to their own understanding of "all men are created equal," they pushed the country closer to living out the full promise of its words.
Eleven years after the Declaration of Independence announced the birth of the United States, the survival of the young country seemed in doubt. The War for Independence had been won, but economic depression, social unrest, interstate rivalries, and foreign intrigue appeared to be unraveling the fragile confederation. In early 1787, Congress called for a special convention of all the states to revise the Articles of Confederation. On September 17, 1787, after four months of secret meetings, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention emerged from their Philadelphia meetingroom with an entirely new plan of government–the U.S. Constitution–that they hoped would ensure the survival of the experiment they had launched in 1776.
They proposed a strong central government made up of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial; each would be perpetually restrained by a sophisticated set of checks and balances. They reached compromises on the issue of slavery that left its final resolution to future generations. As for ratification, they devised a procedure that maximized the odds: the Constitution would be enacted when it was ratified by nine, not thirteen, states. The Framers knew they had not created a perfect plan, but it could be revised. The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times and stands today as the longest-lasting written constitution in the world.
On September 17, 1787, two days after the final vote, the delegates signed the Constitution.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to a fair and speedy trial–the ringing phrases that inventory some of Americans' most treasured personal freedoms–were not initially part of the U.S. Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, the proposal to include a bill of rights was considered and defeated. The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments on December 15, 1791.
The fact that the Constitution did not include a bill of rights to specifically protect Americans' hard-won rights sparked the most heated debates during the ratification process. To the Federalists, those who favored the Constitution, a bill of rights was unnecessary because the Federal Government was limited in its powers and could not interfere with the rights of the people or the states; also, most states had bills of rights. To the Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the Constitution, the prospect of establishing a strong central government without an explicit list of rights guaranteed to the people was unthinkable. Throughout the ratification process, individuals and state ratification conventions called for the adoption of a bill of rights.
The First Federal Congress took up the question of a bill of rights almost immediately. Congress proposed twelve amendments to the states. Ten of these were added to the Constitution on December 15, 1791.
The Bill of Rights is the Joint Resolution passed by Congress on September 25, 1789, proposing twelve–not ten–amendments. The first article, concerning the ratio of constituents to each congressional representative, was never ratified by the states; the second article listed, concerning congressional pay, was ratified in 1992 as the Twenty-seventh Amendment.