Famous Historical Documents: Themes & Rhetorical Strategies

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine foundational documents in American history. We will identify the importance of these documents, and analyze their place in American history.

The Importance of Social Contract Theory

On November 11, 1620, 41 members of a religious sect, called the Pilgrims, signed a document on-board the Mayflower. These religious dissenters had come to North America to escape religious persecution under King James of England. The document they signed on-board the Mayflower has come to be known as the Mayflower Compact. The purpose of the Mayflower Compact was to establish a legal form of self-government and a system of law and order. See, the Pilgrims were supposed to settle in what is now Virginia, but finding themselves in Massachusetts, they were outside the legal jurisdiction granted to them. They needed a system of self-government in order to preserve unity and order.

The Mayflower Compact set the precedent for a long line of historical documents in which the people establish self-government and systems of law and order. In this lesson, we will be examining important documents in American history. We'll take a look at the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and others. But first, we need to understand one foundational concept.

The guiding force behind both the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration of Independence is an Enlightenment concept called social contract theory. Social contract theory, or the social contract, was developed by John Locke and argued that government itself is a contract between the masses (or the people) and their leaders. Basically the government leaders have an obligation to rule justly, just as the masses have an obligation to obey the law. Furthermore, under social contract theory, if the government abuses its power, the people have the right to 'tear the contract up' and form a new government based on the will of the people. The concept of social contract provides the foundation for a government 'of the people, by the people, for the people.' Our government and many of its important documents are rooted in this idea of a social contract.

Early Republican Documents

America's 'Founding Fathers' were big fans of John Locke and his social contract ideas. They also believed that all men had a God-given 'natural right' to be free, another concept closely tied to social contract theory. America's Founders believed British authorities had refused them their natural-born rights as Englishmen, and as a result, revolted against British rule. On July 2, 1776, 56 revolutionaries signed the Declaration of Independence in which they declared the formation of new nation, independent from Great Britain. It was ratified two days later, on July 4th. The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson. Among the most famous passage of the document is the statement:

'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.'

The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson.
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Signers of the Declaration include John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many other prominent revolutionaries. As the leaders of a new nation, America's Founders drafted another document called the Articles of Confederation. It was created in 1777. The Articles of Confederation were America's first constitution. It outlined the relationship the states had to the central government. Soon, however, America's Founders realized the government they created under the Articles of Confederation was weak. It did not grant enough power to the central government. As a result, they moved to draft a new and improved constitution.

The U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788. The U.S. Constitution outlines the powers of the government. Under the Constitution, the power of the American Republic is divided into three branches: the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch. Each branch has its own role, and the Founders devised a system of 'checks and balances' so that no branch could dominate the others. Called the Preamble to the Constitution, the U.S. Constitution begins with the statement:

'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.'

The U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788.
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The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. They protect specific individual rights. Currently there are twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution.

Civil War Era Documents

A number of important documents originated during the administration of Abraham Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address is probably the most famous speech in American history. It was given by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, when he visited the Battle of Gettysburg battlefield. The opening of his speech reads:

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