Influential Documents for the U.S. Constitution Video

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  • 0:00 The Constitution's Family Tree
  • 1:09 European Heritage
  • 3:01 American Heritage
  • 5:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The U.S. Constitution is a very important document, but the ideas within reflect centuries of innovative ideas about government and society. Explore various documents that influenced the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution's Family Tree

I have my mother's eyes and my father's nose. I also have my grandpa's knee problems. My point is that all of us are just scrapbooks of our ancestors, with parts from various relatives on each side of the family. Ever tried to figure out exactly whose traits you inherited? Tracing the family tree can be pretty fun. But did you know that we can do this with documents, too? It's true - documents have family trees, which bring us to the very root of where documents come from.

You see, when a mommy document and a daddy document love each other very much - oh wait, that's a different lesson. For this lesson, we're just going to trace the family history of a single document - the United States Constitution. Our Constitution was created in 1787, ratified by the states in 1788, and since then has been the governing law over our country. So, it's a big deal, and it didn't just magically appear. The U.S. Constitution has a long and proud family tree.

European Heritage

Like many people in the United States, the U.S. Constitution can trace at least half of its ancestry back to Europe. If we follow this side of the Constitution's family tree, we can go all the way back to the year 1215 and the Constitution's great-great-grandfather, the Magna Carta. This English document was originally drafted to protect the rights of barons but was later interpreted to guarantee certain rights to all English people. In many ways, this was the first legal code of rights. The Magna Carta had several children and grandchildren in England, one of which was the English Bill of Rights, created in 1689 to legally establish the power of parliament versus the powers of the monarch, thus guaranteeing the rights of English citizens to elect parliamentary representatives.

So, that's one side of the Constitution's European heritage. But, our Constitution's ancestry also includes a philosophical side. Here's one of the Constitution's philosophical grandfathers: Two Treatises of Government, written by John Locke in 1689, the same year as the English Bill of Rights. The document outlines important ideas about government. Most notably, the Two Treatises state that all men are created equal, and that a government is only legitimate as long as it has the consent of the people. This means that any government not supported by the people is illegitimate and can be overthrown.

The Two Treatises had a French cousin who is also part of the Constitution's family tree, a document called The Spirit of the Laws, written by the Baron de Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat in 1748. This document argues that people should be protected from government by separation of powers into legislative, executive, and judicial branches. See where the Constitution gets it from?

American Heritage

So, the U.S. Constitution clearly has some impressive family history on its European side, but this document is American, and that means its family had to immigrate to the colonies. The first American document in the Constitution's ancestry was the Mayflower Compact, which created the first government of Plymouth Colony, written by Pilgrims in 1620. This document established America's first colonial government, giving the Pilgrims the right to create their own laws to govern the colonies.

As the American colonies became more and more tired of being controlled by the English Crown, the desire for independence grew. On July 4, 1776, that desire was attached to one of the Constitution's parents, The Declaration of Independence. The Declaration formally severed the colonies from England and formally committed them to the beliefs that all men are created equal and that all people have the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Declaration made the colonies independent, but it did not give them a government. That job fell to the Constitution's other parent, The Articles of Confederation, drafted in 1777 and ratified in 1781. This document legally made the 13 separate colonies into a single confederation of states, governed by the Continental Congress. So, it created a nation and a government, making this the first Constitution. The Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation are the parents of the U.S. Constitution, where the ideas and phrasing of the final document were first formally compiled.

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