There is probably no need to point out that this page will be added to. Maps are provided from the Perry-Castañeda Map Library at the University of Texas and the Atlas Section of the History Department United States Military Academy.

1776 $ Common Sense [PDF]: Thomas Paine [1737-1809]

Published January 10, Common Sense is Paine's argument for revolution and independence.
For Paine, government is an evil made necessary by failings in human virtue; its object was therefore to add security to mankind's natural freedom. He wrote that no monarchy, but only representative government, can attain this end. Paine called the British Monarchy illegitimate, destructive and unnatural, and that continued submission to it would only bring disaster upon the colonies. Not only was the Monarchy incapable of providing good government to the colonies, it had no desire to do so. The Battle of Lexington, which had occurred in April of 1775, had proven that.
Moreover, he wrote, America was uniquely positioned in time, place and development for independence. Indeed, Paine believed independence was inevitable; it was up to his contemporaries only to choose how it would come about. He feared that waiting would produce chaos or an American monarch.
Common Sense was enormously influential in changing and solidifying public opinion in favor of the war; a fact remarked upon by his contemporaries, including Washington.
Attached is also Paine's Epistle to Quakers, in which he attacked their pacifism as hypocritical and self-serving, and warned against the mixing of religion and politics.
For a Loyalist response to Paine, read this abridged version of James Chalmers' Plain Truth.

1776 $ Lee Resolution

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee's resolution, seconded by John Adams, put the choice of independence squarely before the Second Continental Congress. (Just a year before, no one had seriously considered the idea.) The Congress debated it on the 10th, and because the unanimity of the colonies could not be assured - Pennsylvania and Maryland were still opposed - postponed it until July 1. Meanwhile, on June 11 a committee was chosen to draft a declaration of independence. On July 2 the resolution was taken up again and passed.

1776 $ The Declaration of Independence

The document is both a list of greivances against the English King and Parliament and a statement of principles declaring independence to be the only possible redress to those grievances. It was almost immediately forgotten until 'rediscovered' during the elections of the 1790s when it became a symbol of Jefferson's Republican party. By the 1820s - not least through the efforts of Jefferson, himself - the document had begun to assume the stature and meaning it has today; a fundamental statement of American identity. Forty years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln's understanding of it would make it a statement of American purpose as well.
Written in the main by Thomas Jefferson, the document had many antecedents and was ultimately the product of both the drafting committee - Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston - and of the Second Continental Congress itself. It was voted on and passed July 4.

1777 $ The Articles of Confederation

America's first attempt at the creation of a central government, the Articles maintained the sovereignty and independence of the individual states, with a weak federal government lacking the power to tax, regulate trade or make laws for its citizens. This structure hampered collective national action and left the union in constant danger of external threat and internal dissolution. Ratified May 1, 1781, the Articles were replaced by the Constitution March 4, 1789.

1783 $ The Treaty of Paris

Signed on September 3, the treaty ended the Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States.

1785 $ The Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments

Written in June, James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance opposed a bill pending in the Virginia Assembly to levy a tax to support teachers of religion. The bill eventually failed and the Assembly passed Thomas Jefferson's The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom the following year [see below].
While neither the Memorial nor the Act are national documents, they illustrate the Founders' thinkling on the matter of the state and religion.

1786 $ The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

Jefferson's act was passed by the Virginia Assembly in place of a proposal put forward by Patrick Henry, among others, to tax the citizens of the state in order to support religious instruction. The Act dates from Jefferson's first draft, written in 1779, and is, in part, a succinct statement of Jefferson's thinking on the relationship of the state to religion and to individual faith.

1787 $ The Northwest Ordinance

Passed by Congress on July 13, the Ordinance mandated the process by which the new territories north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississipi would eventually enter the union as states; first, that new states would enter the union on an equal footing with the old, and second, that their inhabitants would enjoy the same civil rights in the territories as elsewhere. Finally, by outlawing slavery in the Northwest, it was the first national document to limit slavery. The Ordinance set a seal on the way the nation would expand westward. Map

1787-1788 $ The Federalist Papers

Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, and published over a period of several months, the Papers made the case against the Articles of Confederation and for the Constitution. They clearly set out the thinking of pro-Constitution advocates, and in doing so cogently articluate a theory of American representative democracy.

1789 $ The Constitution

The Constitution creates the structure of the U.S. government and regulates the relationship between it and the states, and between individual states. Its first ten amendments - the Bill of Rights - both establish the rights of individuals and limit the power of government. The Constitution was submitted to Congress September 17, 1787, became effective March 4, 1789 and was ratified by the last state to do so May 29, 1790. (The thirteenth ratification made it unanimous, but only nine were necessary to its becoming law.)

1789 $ The Judiciary Act

Along with Article III of the Constitution, the Judiciary Act of 1789 created the federal court system. Rather dry reading, it is Section 25 which establishes the federal courts' power of judicial review, i.e., the power to judge the laws of the land by the standards of the Constitution.

1793 $ The Fugitive Slave Law

Passed due to Southern alarm over the gradual elimination of slavery in the North, the law was intended to guarantee the 'property rights' of slave-holders in the return of escaped slaves. The law allowed proof of ownership on the word of the slave-holder alone, denied the right of accused blacks to trial or any review process and levied a $500 fine on anyone harboring an 'escaped slave'. Oral proof allowed any northern Black to be accused, and denial of due process meant that even emancipated Blacks could offer no proof of their emanicipation. Northern states responded with "liberty laws" which guaranteed a right to trial, required written proof of ownership, denied the use of state facilities to slave-holders and provided for the prosecution of kidnapping. The South worked for decades to overturn the liberty laws, and finally succeeded 1850 with the Clay Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act [see also 19th Century].

1798 $ The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien Act provided that in time of war or threatened war, aliens of belligerent or potentially belligerent nations could be seized, interned and deported. (A further law extended the time aliens had to wait to become citizens from five to fourteen years.) The Sedition Act prohibited the "...writing, printing, uttering or publishing [of] any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States." Debate remains as to whether these laws were passed out of fear of potential war with France, or whether they were just useful tools for the Federalist Congress to silence their Democratic-Republican opponents. Not only the Sedition Act, but also the Alien Act suggest this, since recently naturalized aliens voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic-Republicans. Little doubt remains, however, that they were direct assaults on the First Amendment and clearly unconstitutional.
The most famous criticisms of the Acts were contained in the Virginia [1798] and Kentucky [1799] Resolutions, penned anonymously by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson respectively. The Resolutions asserted that when the Federal government passed laws that violated the Constitution, it was the right and duty of the states to "interpose" themselves between the federal government and the people, i.e., to annul the laws by barring their enforcement. Both the Acts and the Resolutions had a long legacy. Though the Acts were soon defunct, similar laws reappeared throughout the 19th and 20th century in response to immigration [Chinese Exclusion Act] and war [Espionage Act of 1917]. In an ironic turn, the Resolutions - products of the two men arguably most responsible for creating the nation - became the philospohical justification for the Southern "Nullifiers" in the years leading up to the Civil War [Exposition and Protest], and therefore instruments in other hands for tearing the nation apart.