Founding Documents

The most famous document in the fight for American independence from Great Britain, the Declaration of Independence, was issued more than a year after hostilities between the colonists and British troops had already commenced. British-American relations had been in decline since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, after which the British government tried to recoup some of its costs by passing a number of unpopular measures, perhaps most notably the Stamp Act of 1765. Organized American opposition began soon after that, with the Stamp Act Congress that convened in New York City and which issued the first of a number of declarations articulating American objections to British colonial policies, foremost among them the levying of taxes on the colonists, who had no representation in the British Parliament.

The leadership of the growing colonial opposition included the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, in whom the colonies had an enormous reservoir of political and intellectual talent to draw from. These leaders, many of them lawyers and original political theorists, were careful at every stage of the brewing conflict to clearly articulate their positions and intentions, in the form of resolutions, declarations, and, eventually constitutions—of the individual states and the United States as a whole. For at least a decade after the French and Indian War, they sought compromise and accommodation with Great Britain—initially appealing directly to King George III as loyal subjects seeking redress for injustices suffered at the hands of Parliament. Only when it became apparent that the king and a majority in Parliament were united in the view that the colonies needed a firm hand rather than accommodation—was the final decision taken to declare independence. And in that document, the king, not Parliament, was named as the party trampling on the colonists’ rights.

With the bold step to declare independence, the colonies had the opportunity to launch a novel experiment in republican government—one in which the government consisted of representatives elected by the people, and removable by the people, and with no hereditary monarch as the head of state. Despite its popular name, the American Revolution was not a revolution in the sense of completely dismantling existing political and social institutions and replacing them with new ones. The colonies had, after all, elected colonial legislatures, since their founding, and their hereditary monarch had always been an ocean away. What was new was the effort to bind the thirteen rebellious colonies together to act in concert for their own defense and welfare under a national representative government. This had not been tried before in this way (or at least, not since ancient Rome and Athens, of whose examples the Founders were keenly aware).

The United States’ first attempt at a national government was laid out in the Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1781 during the Revolutionary War and in effect for only eight years. A weak central government with extremely limited powers of taxation led to the Articles’ replacement in 1789 by the United States Constitution, a document that created a considerably stronger government, though with carefully crafted checks and balances to guard against the abuse of its power. Nonetheless, this prospect filled Americans, so many of whom had just fought and bled to get out from under a strong central government, with anxiety. Accordingly, when the first president, George Washington, took office the same year, he pledged in his inaugural address to uphold limited government and act only in service to the people of the United States, and he called on all others in the fledgling government to do the same.