Declaration of Independence
On July 4, 1776 church bells rang out over Philadelphia announcing the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence. This important document proclaimed the independence of the American colonies from Great Britain. Although it is difficult to read, you can view the original document that is housed at the National Archives. In addition, you are invited to read a transcription of the complete text of the Declaration. If you want to learn more about this important document, check out The User's Guide to the Declaration of Independence. This site discusses many topics, but if you still have questions, be sure to Ask an Expert. Check out the lyrics to the song Fireworks - SchoolHouse Rock's musical explanation of this important document.
After the 13 states won independence in the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), they faced the problems of peacetime government. The states had to enforce law and order, collect taxes, and regulate trade among themselves. Leading statesmen, such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, began to discuss the creation of a strong national government under a new constitution. Hamilton helped bring about a national convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. The articles granted each of the 13 original states independence in 1781, but they lacked the authority to make the states work together to solve national problems. Each state acted almost like an independent country. This is why a majority of the delegates at the convention decided not to revise the Articles of Confederation, but to write a new plan of government - the Constitution of the United States.
The convention was supposed to open on May 14, 1787. But few of the 55 delegates had arrived in Philadelphia by that date. Finally, on May 25, the convention formally opened in Independence Hall. Twelve states had responded to the call for the convention. Rhode Island refused to send delegates because it did not want the national government to interfere with its affairs. The delegates, or framers of the Constitution, included some of the most experienced and patriotic men of the new republic. George Washington served as the president of the convention. Benjamin Franklin, at the age of 81, represented Pennsylvania. James Madison of Virginia was referred to as the "Father of the Constitution" with his speeches, negotiations, and attempts at compromise. After five weeks of debate, the Constitutional Convention gave Governor Morris the task of putting all of the convention's decisions into a polished form.
Of the 55 delegates, 39 delegates signed the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. After a farewell banquet, most delegates returned to their homes to organize support of this proposed charter. Before the Constitution could become the law of the land, nine states had to ratify or adopt it. Article VII of the Constitution detailed a four-stage ratification process. Less than three months after the Constitution was signed, Delaware became the first state to ratify it and New Hampshire was the ninth state, putting the Constitution into effect on June 21, 1788. It was not until May 29, 1790 that the last state, Rhode Island, finally accepted the Constitution.
The United States Constitution describes the structure of the government and the rights of the American people. It consists of a preamble, 7 articles, and 27 amendments. The Preamble describes the purpose of the document and of our government. The Articles establish how the government is structured and how the Constitution can be changed. The framers of the Constitution knew that issues would arise in the future that they could not anticipate, so they provided in the Constitution itself a mechanism to amend or change it. Today, there are 27 Amendment. The process of amending the Constitution was designed to be difficult, so that the nation would have to think carefully about any proposed changes before adopting them.
Have a little fun with the Constitution by completing a crossword puzzle and word search. Or, test your knowledge of the Constitution with this online quiz. If you like to sing, you can join the SchoolHouse Rock folks and sing the Preamble.
When the Constitution was adopted in 1788, many people were concerned that it did not protect certain freedoms. They thought that the Constitution should be changed or amended to protect these freedoms. On December 15, 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. These amendments guarantee certain freedoms and rights, so they are known as the Bill of Rights. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed December 15 as Bill of Rights Day in 1941. Its purpose is to make Americans increasingly aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens.
The Amendments contain the fundamental rights of every citizen. The First Amendment is the most important of the Bill of Rights. There are five different, yet very important parts to this amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, Press, Expression, and Freedom of Assembly. Today, courts and citizens must consider many challenging first amendment issues. To learn more about this amendment, go to the Citizens' Rights section of this web site.
The Second Amendment involves the question of who can bear arms. Many people, including legal scholars, disagree about its meaning. Some people argue that the amendment grants ordinary citizens the right to own guns. Other people claim the amendment only grants the states the right to organize some of their citizens into state-run militias.
The purpose of the Third Amendment was to require the military to receive home owners' consent before housing soldiers. Today this is not a concern, but at the time many citizens were resentful that the British military used their homes to house their soldiers. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure by law enforcement. This amendment was included because many colonists were resentful of British officials who entered many homes and seized belongings. The Fifth Amendment is one of the more well-known in the Bill of Rights. It protects people against self-incrimination.
The Sixth Amendment gives important rights to people who have been accused of a crime. One of these rights is to a trial by jury. The Seventh Amendment protects the rights of citizens in civil cases and guarantees the right to a trial by jury. The Eighth Amendment simply states that bail, fines, and punishments must not be unreasonable. These first 8 amendments contain the fundamental rights and freedoms of every citizen. The last two define the relationship among the people, the State governments, and the Federal Government. The Ninth Amendment forbids the government to limit freedoms and rights that are not listed in the Constitution. The Tenth Amendment limits the powers of the federal government to those that are granted to it in the Constitution.
Since the adoption of the Bill of Rights only 16 more amendments have been added to the Constitution. Although a number of these revised the federal government's structure and operations, most focused on expanding individual rights and freedoms.