Why and how did the colonists declare independence?

    Think about colonies, states, or groups of people that have sought independence. Select one of these examples, or choose an example of your own:

    • India
    • The Confederate States of America
    • Romania
    • South Sudan

    Research your independence movement and answer the following questions:

    a. Why did this group want to be independent?

    b. What means did they employ to gain independence?

    c. Was the independence movement successful?

    The Colonies on Their Own

    What conditions prompted the American colonists to declare independence from Britain?

    For more than a century, relations between the colonies and Great Britain were peaceful. The colonists developed their political institutions without much interference. The colonists were British subjects, and as with other parts of the British Empire, the colonies were supposed to serve as a source of raw materials and a market for British goods. In the eyes of the British crown, the American colonies existed for the economic benefit of Great Britain.


    In practice, the colonies in America did pretty much as they pleased. The colonies were more than 3,000 miles (4,828 km) from Great Britain. News from America and orders from the monarch took two months or more to travel across the Atlantic Ocean. Given this distance, only the governors of the colonies and the colonial legislatures were actually in a position to deal with the everyday problems facing the colonies. As a result, the colonists grew accustomed to governing themselves. Until the mid-1700s, the British government was generally satisfied with this political and economic arrangement.

    Britain Tightens Control

    Two events changed the relationship between the colonies and Britain: the French and Indian War and the crowning of King George III.

    The French and Indian War started as a struggle between the French and British over lands in what is now western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Many Native American tribes sided with the French and fought with them against British troops led by George Washington. By 1756, several other European countries had become involved. Great Britain won the war in 1763 and gained complete control of the eastern third of the continent, essentially eliminating French power in North America.

    The war was very costly and Britain was left with a huge debt. The British believed the colonists had an obligation to pay that debt—after all, they were defending the colonies from the French. In order to defend against Indian rebellions after the war, Britain also maintained a standing army in the colonies, which was also a financial strain.

    Taxing the Colonies

    George III became king in 1760. To help pay for the war, the king and his ministers levied taxes on tea, sugar, glass, paper, and other products. The Stamp Act of 1765 imposed the first direct tax on the colonists. It required them to pay a tax on legal documents, pamphlets, newspapers, and even dice and playing cards. The British Parliament also passed laws regulating colonial trade in ways that benefited Great Britain but not the colonies.

    Britain’s revenue—the money a government collects from taxes or other sources—from the colonies increased. Colonial resentment, however, grew too. Political protests began to spread throughout the colonies and many colonists refused to buy British goods. The protests led to the repeal of the Stamp Act, but the British passed other tax laws and regulations to replace it, which came to be known as the Townshend Acts. The situation reached a boiling point in 1773. A group of colonists, dressed as Mohawk Indians, dumped 342 chests of British tea into Boston Harbor. This protest became known as the Boston Tea Party. In retaliation, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, which the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. One of these acts closed Boston Harbor. Another of the Coercive Acts withdrew the right of the Massachusetts colony to govern itself. By the early 1770s, revolution was not far off. Colonial Unity

    The harsh new British policies spurred an American sense of community in a way that had not existed before. Prior to the Intolerable Acts, most colonists thought of themselves as British subjects. At the same time, each colony had developed largely on its own and had unique resources and economies. Residents therefore thought of themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers or Georgians. By the 1760s, however, a growing number of colonists began to think of themselves as Americans united by their hostility toward British authority. At the same time, colonial leaders began to work together to take political action against what they felt was British oppression.

    Taking Action

    In 1765 nine colonies sent delegates to a meeting organized to protest the Stamp Act and King George’s actions. They sent a petition to the king, arguing that only colonial legislatures could impose direct taxes like the Stamp Tax.

    By 1773, colonists opposed to British rules were forming organizations to keep in touch with each other and to urge resistance to the British. These groups, called committees of correspondence, sprung up quickly. Within a few months after Samuel Adams formed the first committee in Boston, there were more than 80 such committees in Massachusetts alone. Virginia and other colonies soon joined this communication network, led by prominent members like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. Independence

    What complaints did the colonists list in the Declaration of Independence, and what freedoms did they want guaranteed?

    In the First and Second Continental Congress, the colonists passed a series of measures, culminating in their declaration of independence from Great Britain.

    The First Continental Congress

    On September 5, 1774, delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. Their purpose was to decide what to do about the relationship with Great Britain. Colonial leaders like Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and George Washington debated the merits of different proposals. They finally imposed an embargo, an agreement prohibiting trade, on Britain and agreed to boycott (not to buy) British goods. They proposed a second meeting the following year if Britain did not change its policies.

    Soon after, the king and British Parliament adopted stronger measures, and events then moved quickly. “The New England governments are in a state of rebellion,” George III firmly announced. “Blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”

    The first blow fell early on the morning of April 19, 1775, when British Redcoats clashed with colonial minutemen at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. This skirmish was the first battle of the Revolutionary War.

    The Second Continental Congress

    Within three weeks, delegates from all thirteen colonies gathered in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. The Continental Congress immediately assumed the powers of a central government and chose John Hancock of Massachusetts as president. Hancock was a well-known colonial leader, but he was also a wealthy merchant and thus well-placed for helping to raise funds for an army. The Congress also organized an army and navy, made plans to issue money, and appointed George Washington as commander of the Continental Army.

    The Second Continental Congress served as the acting government of the colonies throughout the war. It purchased supplies, negotiated treaties, and rallied support for the colonists’ causesDeclaring Independence

    At this point, the colonies had not yet declared their independence from Great Britain, but a movement for independence was growing rapidly. Thomas Paine, a onetime British corset maker, advocated for independence and influenced many colonists. In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine argued that monarchy was a corrupt form of government and that George III was an enemy to liberty:

    “The powers of governing still remaining in the hands of the [king], … And as he hath shown himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty, and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power, is he, or is he not, a proper man to say to these colonies, ‘You shall make no laws but what I please!’”

    —Thomas Paine

    Samuel Adams of Boston also influenced many colonists with his essays, letters, and articles on the struggle with the British. Adams was a natural-born politician with an independent mind. In April 1776, with the war almost a year old and no declaration of independence from the colonies, Adams was bewildered and frustrated. In a letter to a friend, he wrote:

    “Is not America already independent? Why then not declare it? … Can Nations at War be said to be dependent either upon the other? … Upon what Terms will Britain be reconciled with America? … [S]he will be reconciled upon our abjectly submitting to Tyranny, and asking and receiving Pardon for resisting it. Will this redound to the Honor or the Safety of America? Surely no.”

    —Letter from Samuel Adams, April 3, 1776

    In June of 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” The Congress approved Lee’s resolution on July 2 and the colonies officially broke with Great Britain.

    After Lee’s resolution, the Congress named a committee of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman to prepare a written declaration of independence. The committee asked Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia planter known for his writing skills, to write the draft. When they reviewed his draft, there was considerable debate. A few passages were removed and some editorial changes were made. On July 4, the Congress approved the final draft. John Hancock, the president of the Congress, was the first to sign the document, which eventually held the signatures of all 56 delegates. Key Parts of the Declaration

    The American Declaration of Independence is one of the most famous documents in history. At the time, it stirred the hearts of the American colonists. To that point, no government had been founded on the principles of human liberty and consent of the governed.

    In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson drew on the ideas of John Locke and other philosophers to explain the colonists’ need for freedom. The Declaration explained the reasons the American colonies were angry with the British government and confirmed why revolution was justified.

    The Declaration consists of four parts. The first paragraph, or Preamble, describes the source of the basic rights Americans enjoy as “the Laws of Nature” and “Nature's God.” In philosophy, the law of nature, or natural law, is a system of moral principles regarded as the basis for all human conduct. Jefferson’s statement means that the rights set forth in the Declaration are not created by people or granted by government, and so cannot be taken away by the actions of people or their governments.

    The Preamble is followed by a statement of purpose and basic human rights derived from the laws of nature. This section on the declaration of natural rights defines and explains the unalienable rights that cannot be taken away and the right of people to resist illegitimate government and change or abolish it.

    “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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it . . .”

    —Declaration of Independence

    The third section of the Declaration lists specific complaints or grievances against George III, and each item describes a violation of the colonists’ political, civil, and economic liberties. These paragraphs were designed to justify the break with Great Britain.

    The conclusion states the colonists’ determination to separate from Great Britain. Their efforts to reach a peaceful solution had failed, leaving them no choice but to declare their independence. The Declaration was rarely mentioned during the debates creating the Constitution. Yet, as time passed, the Declaration had come to be seen by many as the key guide to understanding the Constitution and the values embodied in it. This was a view shared by Abraham Lincoln, who declared the Declaration to be the foundation of his own political philosophy. In later years, Jefferson himself wrote:

    “I did not consider it any part of my charge to invent new ideas, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…. It was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

    —Thomas Jefferson

    The First States and the First State Constitutions

    The Declaration of Independence recognized the changes taking place in the colonies. One of the most important of these was the transformation of the colonies into states subject to no higher authority. Thus, the states saw themselves as independent and sovereign.

    About two months before the Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress had instructed the colonies to form “such governments as shall … best conduce [lead] to the happiness and safety of their constituents.” By the end of 1776, 10 states had adopted written constitutions. Within a few years, each state had a new constitution or had converted old colonial charters into a constitution.

    Most of the new state constitutions contained a bill of rights defining citizens’ personal liberties. All recognized the people as the sole source of authority in a limited government. There was not yet a formal government uniting all the states or a United States of America.



    CHAPTER 2 Lesson 4

    Creating the Constitution

    ESSENTIAL QUESTION What influenced the development of our government institutions?



    What influenced the development of our government institutions?

    Assume that you move to an island that has never been inhabited before now. Several thousand other people have also moved there in the past year. Everyone agrees that the island needs to have some rules and someone needs to be in charge. You must create a plan to choose the leaders in the fairest way possible. Consider the following questions as you create your plan:

    a. Who should get to decide what the rules should be? Options include: only the people who have been there the longest and know the island well, only the most educated people, only those above a certain age, or everyone.

    b. Should families vote as a unit, or can each person in the family get his or her own vote?

    c. Should all families get one vote, regardless of their size? Or should families with six children get more votes than families with two kids?

    Once you have developed a plan that you think is fair, discuss it with your classmates. Try to reach a consensus about how the island’s leaders will be chosen.


    The Constitutional Convention: Agreements and Compromises

    How did the Constitutional Convention reflect compromises between the states’ competing interests?

    In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention began the daunting task of crafting a new system of government. The state legislatures sent 55 delegates to Philadelphia, many of whom had a great deal of practical experience in politics and government. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin both played active roles in the debates at the convention. Two other Pennsylvanians made important contributions, too. Gouverneur Morris wrote the final draft of the Constitution, and James Wilson did important work on the details of the document. James Madison of Virginia was the author of the basic plan of government that the convention eventually adopted. His careful notes are our major source of information about the convention’s work.

    The convention began by unanimously choosing George Washington to preside over the meetings. It was decided that each state would have one vote on all questions, and a simple majority of the states present would make decisions. The public and press were prevented from attending the sessions, in the hope that the private setting would enable the delegates to talk freely.

    Key Agreements

    After deciding to abandon the Articles of Confederation, the delegates reached a consensus on many basic issues of forming a new government. They all favored the ideas of limited and representative government and agreed that the powers of the national government should be divided among legislative, executive, and judicial branches. They all believed it was necessary to limit the power of the states to coin money or interfere with creditors’ rights. And all of them agreed that they should strengthen the national government.

    The great debates and compromises of the convention were not over these fundamental questions—rather, they dealt with how to put these ideas into practice. The Virginia Plan

    The debates opened with a proposal from the Virginia delegation, which laid out a plan for a strong national government. The plan proposed a government based on three principles. First, the government would have a strong national legislature with two chambers—the lower one to be chosen by the people and the upper chamber to be chosen by the lower. The number of legislators would vary from state to state and would be determined by how many people lived in the state. Furthermore, the legislature would have the power to bar any state laws it found unconstitutional. Second, a strong executive would be chosen by the national legislature. Third, a national judiciary would be appointed by the legislature.

    The delegates debated the Virginia Plan for more than two weeks. Delegates from the smaller states quickly realized that the larger, more populous states would be in control of a strong national government under this plan. The smaller states wanted a less powerful government with more independence for the states.

    The New Jersey Plan

    The delegates for the small states made a counterproposal. The New Jersey Plan called for keeping two major features of the Articles of Confederation. First, the government would have a unicameral legislature with one vote for each state. This made all states equally powerful, regardless of their population. Second, the nation would continue as a confederation of sovereign states.

    Congress, however, would be strengthened by having the power to impose taxes and regulate trade. A weak executive, consisting of more than one person, would be elected by Congress, and a national judiciary with limited power would be appointed by the executive.

    As the summer wore on, the convention became deadlocked over the question of the representation of states in Congress. The debate was bitter, and the convention was in danger of dissolving. The Connecticut Compromise

    Finally, a special committee designed a compromise. Called the Connecticut Compromise, or the Great Compromise, this plan was adopted after a long debate. The compromise suggested that the legislative branch be bicameral, or have two houses—a House of Representatives, with the number of representatives based on each state’s population, and a Senate, with two members from each state. The larger states would have an advantage in the House of Representatives, where representation would be based on population. Congress would be able to impose taxes, and all laws concerning taxing and spending would originate in the House. The smaller states would be protected in the Senate, with equal representation and state legislatures electing the senators.

    Compromises About the Presidency

    There was further disagreement over whether the president should be elected directly by the people, by the Congress, or by state legislatures. As a compromise, the delegates finally settled on the Electoral College system, which is still used today. In this system, voters from each state select electors to choose the president. The president’s four-year term was a compromise between those who wanted a longer term and those who feared a long term would give a president too much power. Disputes Over Slavery

    How did the Constitutional Convention deal with slavery, one of the most divisive issues of the period?

    James Madison’s notes tell us that the delegates disagreed about how to handle slavery. At the time of the convention, several Northern states were working on plans to abolish slavery. Many delegates were opposed to slavery and some wanted it abolished, but it was clear that the Southern states would never accept the Constitution if it interfered with slavery. In the end, the delegates did not deal with the issue. The Constitution mentions the slave trade and escaped enslaved persons but does not address the legality of owning slaves. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t include the word slave anywhere. Instead of saying “slave” or “slavery,” the Constitution refers to the “importation” of people, and “persons held to service or labor.”

    The delegates were under no illusions that their compromises on slavery had permanently solved the question. While they compromised in order to create the new government, their refusal to deal with slavery left it to later generations of Americans to resolve.

    The Three-Fifths Compromise

    There was profound disagreement about how to count enslaved persons in matters of representation and taxation. Almost one-third of the people living in the Southern states were enslaved African Americans. Delegates from these states wanted enslaved persons to be counted the same as free people to give the South more representation in Congress. At the same time, the Southern states did not want enslaved persons counted at all for the purpose of levying taxes. Because few enslaved persons lived in the North, Northern states took the opposite position. They wanted enslaved persons counted for tax purposes but not for representation.

    The Three-Fifths Compromise settled this deadlock. Instead of counting all of the enslaved people, only three-fifths were to be counted for both tax purposes and for representation. Enslaved people were counted in this manner until 1868. By that date, the three-fifths provision had been nullified by the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment, which required counting a state's entire population for purposes of representation. Commerce and the Slave Trade

    A third compromise resolved a dispute over commerce and the slave trade—not slavery itself, but the continuing trade of enslaved people. The Northern states wanted the federal government to have complete control over trade with other nations, but the Southern states were afraid that the federal government would interfere with the slave trade. Depending heavily on agricultural exports, the Southern states also feared that business interests in the North would have enough votes in Congress to impose export taxes or ratify trade agreements that would hurt the South.

    To compromise, the delegates determined that Congress would have the power to regulate both interstate commerce (trade between the states) and commerce with foreign countries, but Congress could not ban the slave trade before 1808. To protect the South’s exports, Congress was also prohibited from imposing export taxes. As a result, the United States is one of the few nations in the world today that does not directly tax the goods that it exports. Ratifying the Constitution

    How did supporters and opponents of the Constitution argue for and against its adoption?

    By September 17, 1787, the Constitution was complete. Thirty-nine delegates signed the document, including the aging Ben Franklin, who had to be helped to the table to sign. Before the new Constitution could become law, however, it had to be ratified by 9 of the 13 states.

    The Constitution went into effect in June 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify it. However, the political debate over ratification lasted until May 29, 1790, when Rhode Island became the last state to ratify.

    Lesson 4

    Creating the Constitution

    ESSENTIAL QUESTION What influenced the development of our government institutions?


    The Federalists and Anti-Federalists

    The question of ratification quickly divided the people in the states. One group, known as the Federalists, favored the Constitution and was led by many of the Founders. Their support typically came from merchants and others in the cities and coastal regions. The other group, called the Anti-Federalists, opposed the new Constitution and drew much of their support from the inland farmers and laborers, who feared a strong national government. The Anti-Federalists criticized the Constitution for having been drafted in secret. They claimed the document was extralegal, not sanctioned by law, because Congress had authorized the convention only to revise the old Articles of Confederation and not to form a new government. They further argued that the Constitution took important powers from the states.

    The Anti-Federalists’ strongest argument, however, was that the Constitution lacked a bill of rights to protect citizens from their own government. The convention had, in fact, considered adding a list of people’s rights. In their discussions, they concluded logically that it was not necessary to have a bill of rights, reasoning that the Constitution did not authorize the government to violate the rights of the people.

    This was not good enough for the Anti-Federalists, who warned that without a bill of rights, a strong national government might take away the rights that were won in the Revolution. They demanded that the new Constitution clearly guarantee the people’s freedoms. One of the strongest opponents of the Constitution was Patrick Henry, the passionate delegate from Virginia. He voiced his position eloquently:

    “The necessity of a Bill of Rights appears to me to be greater in this government than ever it was in any government before…. All rights not expressly and unequivocally reserved to the people are impliedly and incidentally relinquished to rulers…. If you intend to reserve your unalienable rights, you must have the most express stipulation; for … If the people do not think it necessary to reserve them, they will be supposed to be given up.”


    The Federalists, on the other hand, claimed that only a strong national government could protect the nation from enemies abroad and solve the country’s internal problems. The Federalists also pointed out that eight states already had bills of rights in their state constitutions. Eventually, however, the Federalists promised to add a bill of rights as the first order of business when the new government met.

    Progress Toward Ratification

    With the promise of a bill of rights, the tide turned in favor of the Constitution, as many small states ratified it quickly because they were pleased with equal representation in the new Senate. By 1788, the legislatures in Virginia and New York had not yet held a vote on the new Constitution. Everyone knew that without the support of those two large and powerful states, the Constitution would not succeed. The Federalists won in a close vote in Virginia on June 25, 1788.

    To help win the battle in New York, vocal supporters published more than 80 essays defending the new Constitution. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison wrote most of the essays, called The Federalist Papers. In The Federalist No. 39, Madison defined a republic as "a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices. . .  for a limited period." Madison brilliantly answered the opposition’s fears that a republic had to be a small government. In The Federalist No. 10, he wrote: “Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” On July 26, 1788, the Federalists in New York won by three votes.

    The New Government Begins Its Work

    Once the new government was established, George Washington was elected president and John Adams vice president. Voters also elected senators and representatives. On March 4, 1789, Congress met for the first time in Federal Hall in New York City, the temporary capital. To fulfill the promises made during the fight for ratification, James Madison introduced a set of amendments during the first session. Congress approved 12 amendments and the states ratified 10 of them in 1791, which became known as the Bill of Rights.