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From Loyal Subjects to Traitorous Rebels ~ A Royal Proclamation
When the last dutiful & humble petition from Congress received no other Answer than declaring us Rebels, and out of the King’s protection, I from that Moment look’d forward to a Revolution & Independence, as the only means of Salvation; and will risque the last Penny of my Fortune, & the last Drop of my Blood upon the Issue.
George Mason, October 2, 1778

In 1761, fifteen years before the United States of America burst onto the world stage with the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists were loyal British subjects who celebrated the coronation of their new King, George III. The colonies that stretched from present-day Maine to Georgia were distinctly English in character although they had been settled by Scots, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Africans, French, Germans, and Swiss, as well as English.

As English men and women, the American colonists were heirs to the thirteenth-century English document, the Magna Carta, which established the principles that no one is above the law (not even the King), and that no one can take away certain rights. So in 1763, when the King began to assert his authority over the colonies to make them share the cost of the Seven Years' War England had just fought and won, the English colonists protested by invoking their rights as free men and loyal subjects. It was only after a decade of repeated efforts on the part of the colonists to defend their rights that they resorted to armed conflict and, eventually, to the unthinkable–separation from the motherland.

A Proclamation by the King for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, August 23, 1775 learn more...
Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan, oil painting (reproduction) by William Walcutt, 1857 learn more...



Courage of the Founders ~ The Perilous Road to Independence
Perhaps our Congress will be Exalted on a high Gallows.
Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence, August 6, 1776

The sole governing authority presiding over the tumultuous events of the American Revolution between 1774 and 1789 was a body known as Congress. With no power to regulate commerce or lay taxes, and with little ability to enforce any of its decisions, this group, representing the thirteen colonies, declared independence, conducted a war that defeated one of the greatest military powers of its day, and invented a new political entity that became a sovereign independent nation. Its members pondered everything from the rightness of independence to the number of flints needed by the armies–sometimes with the enemy not far from their doorstep. Asserting their rights, they found themselves labeled as traitors.

The fifty-four men who composed the First Continental Congress represented different interests, religions, and regions; they held conflicting opinions as to how best restore their rights. Most did not know each other; some did not like each other. With no history of successful cooperation, they struggled to overcome their differences and, without any way of knowing if the future held success or nooses for them all, they started down a long and perilous road toward independence.

The Agreement of Secrecy, November 9, 1775 learn more...
In the Old Raleigh Tavern, a correspondence committee at work, hand-colored engraving (reproduction) after illustration by Howard Pyle, ca. 1896 learn more...



The Spirit of the Revolution ~ The Declaration of Independence
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
From the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4, 1776

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.




The First Constitution ~ The Articles of Confederation
We have it in our power to begin the world over again.
A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.
The birthday of a new world is at hand.
Thomas Paine, February 14, 1776

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.

Articles of Confederation, ratified March 1, 1781 learn more...
Assembly Room, Pennsylvania State House, later named Independence Hall, meeting place of Congress learn more...



Slavery and the American Revolution ~ Voices of Protest
I beheld a middle aged African raised and exposed on one of the stalls in the
shambles of Philadelphia market at Public Sale, as a Slave for life! 
and this is the capital of Pennsylvania, a land high in the profession of Liberty and Christianity.
Colonist quoted in Pennsylvania Packet, a Philadelphia newspaper, February 7, 1774

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.

Quaker petition to Congress, October 4, 1783 learn more...
Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, watercolor (reproduction) by Susan Anne Livingston Ridley Sedgwick, 1811 learn more...




The Constitutional Convention ~ Creating the Constitution
[The Constitution of the United States] was not, like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, 
the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.
James Madison, March 10, 1834

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 engrossed parchment shown in the Rotunda's centerpiece case.

First printed draft of the Constitution, August 6, 1787, selected pages learn more...
The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, oil painting (reproduction) by Howard Chandler Christy, 1940 learn more...



The Bill of Rights ~ The First Ten Amendments to the Constitution
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records.
They are written, as with a sun beam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of 
the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
Alexander Hamilton, 1775

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 that is on permanent display here 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.

Report of the Conference Committee, appointed to settle the differences between the House and Senate versions of the proposed bill of rights, September 24, 1789 learn more...
“In the Reading Room of an 18th Century New York Coffee House,” hand-colored engraving (reproduction) after illustration by Howard Pyle, ca. 1890 learn more...



Declaration of Independence
view a larger image of the Declaration of Independence read the transcript of the Declaration of Independence download high-resolution images of the Declaration of Independence more Declaration of Independence resources (below)

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776, the Declaration of Independence is at once the nation's most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson's most enduring monument. Here, in exalted and unforgettable phrases, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new; its ideals of individual liberty had already been expressed by John Locke and the Continental philosophers. What Jefferson did was to summarize this philosophy in "self-evident truths" and set forth a list of grievances against the King in order to justify before the world the breaking of ties between the colonies and the mother country. We invite you to read a transcription of the complete text of the Declaration.

visit the declaration in person
Learn More About the Declaration

The article "The Declaration of Independence: A History," provides a detailed account of the Declaration, from its drafting through its preservation today at the National Archives.

"The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence" by Stephen Lucas. By closely examining its language, this perceptive article sheds light on the Declaration as a work of literature and of persuasion. From Prologue, Spring 1990.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the first part of the Declaration of Independence. It later provided the foundation for the Bill of Rights.

Learn about Our National Treasure, interesting and informative facts about the Declaration and its history.

...and on other web sites...

Learn more about the Writing and Publicizing of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States by visiting the Independence National Historical Park (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) web site.

View documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, part of the Library of Congress' American Memory web site. This site also provides related manuscript, printed, and iconographic materials.

Choose a pen and  add your name to the Declaration of Independence alongside our Forefathers
Displayed in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, these immense murals have been restored to their original beauty



Constitution of the United States
view larger images of the Constitution read the transcript of the Constitution download high-resolution images of the Constitution more Constitution resources (below)

The 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 at first present, the members adjourned from day to day 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, the Convention would draft an entirely new frame of government. All through the summer, in closed sessions, the delegates debated, and redrafted the articles of the new Constitution. 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 work of many minds, the Constitution stands as a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise.

visit the constitution in person
Learn More About the Constitution

The article "A More Perfect Union" is an in-depth look at the Constitutional Convention and the ratification process.

"Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution" presents dozens of fascinating facts about the Constitution.


Page two of the U.S. Constitution was unveiled in its new encasement on September 15, 2000. Read remarks issued at the ceremony by John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States, and Dr. Michael Beschloss.

Meet America's Founding Fathers: Learn about George Washington and the 54 other Delagates to the Constitutional Convention

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Constitutional Amendments
Constitutional Amendments 1-10 are in the Bill of RIghtsAmendments 1-10: The Bill of Rights Amendments 11-27

Amendments 1-10 constitute what is known as the Bill of Rights.


Discover the otherchanges and additionsthat have been made to the Constitution over the past 200+ years.

constitution constitution constutition
constitution constitution constitution
Displayed in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom, these immense murals have been restored to their original beauty



Bill of Rights
view larger image of the Bill of Rights read the transcript of the Bill of Rights download high-resolution images of the Bill of RIghts more Bill of Rights resources (below)

During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a "bill of rights" that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered.

On September 25, 1789, the First Congress of the United States therefore proposed to the state legislatures 12 amendments to the Constitution that met arguments most frequently advanced against it. The first two proposed amendments, which concerned the number of constituents for each Representative and the compensation of Congressmen, were not ratified. Articles 3 to 12, however, ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, constitute the first 10 amendments of the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

visit the bill of rights in person
Learn More About the Bill of RIghts

The article "A More Perfect Union" provides an in-depth look at the Constitutional Convention, the ratification process, and the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

A Voice of Dissent: George Mason

As the delegates gathered at the Pennsylvania State House in May 1787 to "revise" theArticles of Confederation, Virginia delegate George Mason wrote, "The Eyes of the United States are turned upon this Assembly and their Expectations raised to a very anxious Degree." Mason had earlier written theVirginia Declaration of Rights that strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson in writing the first part of the Declaration of Independence. He left the convention bitterly disappointed, however, and became one of the Constitution's most vocal opponents. "It has no declaration of rights," he was to state. Ultimately, George Mason's views prevailed. When James Madison drafted the amendments to the Constitution that were to become the Bill of Rights, he drew heavily upon the ideas put forth in theVirginia Declaration of Rights.

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The Power of the Courts ~ Marbury v. Madison, 1803
The people made the Constitution, and the people can unmake it. 
It is the creature of their will, and lives only by their will.
Chief Justice John Marshall, 1821

Although most of the Framers of the Constitution anticipated that the Federal judiciary would be the weakest branch of Government, the U.S. Supreme Court has come to wield enormous power with decisions that have reached into the lives of every citizen and resolved some of the most dramatic confrontations in U.S. history. The word of the Supreme Court is final. Overturning its decisions often requires an amendment to the Constitution or a revision of Federal law.

The power of the Supreme Court has evolved over time, through a series of milestone court cases. One of the Court's most fundamental powers is judicial review–the power to judge the constitutionality of any act or law of the executive or legislative branch. Some of the Framers expected the Supreme Court to take on the role of determining the constitutionality of Congress's laws, but the Constitution did not explicitly assign it to the Court. Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 landmark Supreme Court case, established the power of judicial review. From the modest claim of William Marbury, who sought a low-paying appointment as a District of Columbia Justice of the Peace, emerged a Supreme Court decision that established one of the cornerstones of the American constitutional system.

Order served on Secretary of State James Madison by the U.S. Supreme Court, March 22, 1802learn more...
John Marshall, oil painting (reproduction) by Rembrandt Peale, 1826 learn more...




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