The documents listed below are the foundational documents of Liberty & self-government in Western civilization & Anglo-American civilization in particular. They are the “DNA” of the American experiment in self-governance. A study of these documents will illuminate the source of the awesome inheritance of Liberty & limited Constitutional government by which we have been blessed.
Why is this important?
When representatives of the young republic of the United States gathered to draft a constitution, they turned to the legal system they knew and admired–English common law as evolved from Magna Carta. The conceptual debt to the great charter is particularly obvious: the American Constitution is “the Supreme Law of the Land,” just as the rights granted by Magna Carta were not to be arbitrarily canceled by subsequent English laws.
Magna Carta’s American Legacy
Before penning the Declaration of Independence–the first of the American Charters of Freedom–in 1776, the Founding Fathers searched for a historical precedent for asserting their rightful liberties from King George III and the English Parliament. They found it in a gathering that took place 561 years earlier on the plains of Runnymede, not far from where Windsor Castle stands today. There, on June 15, 1215, an assembly of barons confronted a despotic and cash-strapped King John and demanded that traditional rights be recognized, written down, confirmed with the royal seal, and sent to each of the counties to be read to all freemen. The result was Magna Carta–a momentous achievement for the English barons and, nearly six centuries later, an inspiration for angry American colonists.
The Mayflower Compact is a written agreement composed by a consensus of the new Settlers arriving at New Plymouth in November of 1620. They had traveled across the ocean on the ship Mayflower which was anchored in what is now Provincetown Harbor near Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Mayflower Compact was drawn up with fair and equal laws, for the general good of the settlement and with the will of the majority. The Mayflower’s passengers knew that the New World’s earlier settlers failed due to a lack of government. They hashed out the content and eventually composed the Compact for the sake of their own survival.
Declaration of Independence Background
The Declaration of Independence is seen as that document that established the new nation of the United States. The date of its formal acceptance by the Continental Congress, July 4, 1776, is celebrated each year in the U.S. with fireworks, parties, citizenship ceremonies, and baseball games. 1976, the two-hundredth anniversary of that date, was a giant party, the bicentennial, with a special quarter minted that year to help celebrate.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights
This was the precursor of The Bill of Rights. It was penned by George Washington’s neighbor, George Mason with assistance of James Madison in 1776. There is conjecture that the Virginia Declaration of Rights also served as a model of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man & the Citizen.
The Articles of Confederation
The first constitution in our nation’s history was the U.S. Articles of Confederation. Under the U.S. Articles of Confederation we took “baby steps” as a nation. The government conducted the affairs of the country during the last two years of the Revolutionary War, helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and produced two monumental pieces of legislation in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
While the U.S. Articles of Confederation was a plan of government based upon the principles fought for in the American Revolutionary War, it contained crucial flaws. It had no power of national taxation, no power to control trade, and it provided for a comparatively weak executive. Therefore, it could not enforce legislation. It was a “league of friendship” which was opposed to any type of national authority. The Articles of Confederation’s greatest weakness, however, was that it had no direct origin in the people themselves–it knew only state sovereignty. Each state, therefore, had the power to collect its own taxes, issue currency, and provide for its own militia. The government could not govern efficiently because of a general lack of power to compel states to honor national obligations. The government’s main activity was to control foreign policy and conclude treaties.
It would have been very difficult for our country to have created a stronger second constitution without learning from the mistakes of the first. The Articles of Confederation served as a “transition” between the Revolutionary War and the Constitution
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Bill of Rights
The conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.
The Principles of ’98 – The Virginia & Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 – A Statement of Limited Government
Conspicuously absent from the list of universally revered charters are Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s Kentucky and Virginia resolutions. For their lucid reasoning and peerless prose, they merit inclusion as much as the Constitution itself. Unfortunately, the Resolves of 1798, lest they be tempted to reclaim the decentralized republic of the Constitution’s framers.
Though much has changed since Jefferson and Madison penned the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions, the nature of power remains the same — power can be checked only by power. The Resolves point to the states as the natural depository of the power to check the national government. Madison came to that realization long before he wrote the Virginia resolution. In Federalist 51, he described the horizontal and vertical checks and balances established by the Constitution and plainly stated that the state and national governments “will controul each other; at the same time each will be controulled by itself (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay  1982, 264). If the American people are once again to gain control of the national government, it will be through the states. No new theories are needed; the intellectual giants of the founding era have done the work for us.
Which Assembled at the City of Annapolis on the Eighth Day of May, Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-seven, and Adjourned on the Seventeenth Day of August, Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-seven, and was Ratified by the People on the Eighteenth Day of September, Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-seven, with Amendments through Two Thousand and Eight (including amendments proposed by the General Assembly and ratified by the voters through November 4, 2008)
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