History Of Freedom

From Loyal Subjects to Traitorous Rebels — A Royal Proclamation

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.

By the spring of 1775, peaceful protest gave way to armed conflict at Lexington and Concord. Ignoring one last, futile plea for peace in a message known as the Olive Branch Petition, the King proclaimed in this document that the colonies stood in open rebellion to his authority and were subject to severe penalty, as was any British subject who failed to report the knowledge of rebellion or conspiracy.

The Proclamation by the King for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, August 23, 1775. This document literally transformed loyal subjects into traitorous rebels.

The Agreement of Secrecy, November 9,1775

“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

Three months after the King declared every rebel a traitor, and with a reward posted for the capture of certain prominent rebel leaders, the delegates to Congress adopted these strict rules of secrecy to protect the cause of American liberty and their own lives.

National Archives collection: Image of the Agreement of Secrecy document and signatures. The document bears the signatures of eighty-seven delegates.

Courage of the Founders — The Perilous Road to Independence

“Perhaps our Congress will be Exalted on a high Gallows.” — Abraham Clark, 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.”

In the Old Raleigh Tavern, a correspondence committee at work. A hand-colored engraving (reproduction) after illustration by Howard Pyle, ca. 1896

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.

While none of the members of the Continental Congress was actually tried for treason, fifteen who signed the Declaration of Independence had their homes destroyed, four were taken captive, and one spent the winter of 1776 in the woods, pursued by British soldiers who had burned his home. Before the end of the Revolutionary War, many of those who served in the Continental Congress suffered direct, personal consequences for their support of American liberty and independence.

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.” — Declaration of Independence

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.

Barry Faulkner’s Declaration Founders and Framers mural (1936; restored). At the Rotunda for the Carters of Freedom.

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 summarized 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. In exalted and unforgettable phrases, Jefferson expressed the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The Declaration articulates the highest ideals of the Revolution, beliefs in liberty, equality, the right to self-determination. For 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.

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 Declaration of Independence at once became the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson’s most enduring monument.

An image of the Declaration taken from the engraving made by printer William J. Stone in 1823 — the most frequently reproduced version of the document. This print suggests what the original parchment looked like when it was presented to Congress for the delegates to sign on August 2, 1776.

John Hancock, the President of Congress, was the first to sign; his signature is larger than any other on the page and directly centered below the text. The signatures of the other delegates are arranged from right to left, according to the geographic locations of their states, beginning with New Hampshire, the northernmost, on the right, and ending with Georgia, the southernmost, on the left. Eventually, fifty-six delegates signed, although not all of them were present on August 2; some who were present for the vote on July 4 never signed.

The original, signed Declaration shows signs of fading, handling, and aging. As a symbol of the Revolution’s highest ideals, it has been lovingly handled and proudly displayed over many years. Its present condition is evidence, not of indifference or neglect—but of extreme devotion. To preserve it for future generations, today it is on display, sealed in the most scientifically advanced housing that preservation technology can provide.

After hearing the news about independence on July 9, 1776, people in New York City celebrated by pulling down a statue of King George III at Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. Oil painting by Willam Walcutt, 1857 (reproduction).

The First Constitution — The Articles of the Confederation

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.

“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

Articles of Confederation, ratified March 1, 1781

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.

During the more than five thousand days that the Articles were in effect, the United States fought and won the War for Independence, negotiated a brilliant peace settlement, and created a functioning bureaucracy. The crowning achievement of the government under the Articles of Confederation was the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which provided for the orderly expansion of a republican form of government into the western territories.

The Constitutional Convention — Creating the Constitution

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.

This was George Washington’s own working copy and shows his annotations. Here, the preamble began “We, the people of the States, . . .”

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.

“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

The Constitution of the United States

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 meeting room 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.

Page one (of four) of the Constitution of the United States

In drafting the Constitution, the delegates consulted the wisdom of the ages, sifting through the contemporary political tracts of their own day, as well as the histories of ancient civilizations. They understood power to be corrupting and humans to be subject to their worst instincts.

The Scene at the Signing of the Constitution, Oil painting (reproduction), Howard Chandler Christy, 1940

The debates inside the meeting room were heated and contentious. The delegates examined every phrase of the constitution through the prism of the conflicting interests they represented: large states and small states, states with commercially based economies versus states with slave-based agricultural economies. History, political theory, their own interests, and devotion to the American experiment, all informed their thinking, as they hammered out a practical scheme of government

On September 17, 1787, two days after the final vote, the delegates signed the engrossed parchment shown in the Rotunda’s centerpiece case.

The Bill of Rights — The First Ten Amendments to 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

The Bill of Rights — added to the Constitution as the first ten amendments on December 15, 1791.

“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

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