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Significant Documents of the U.S. Government

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The U.S. government is well-defined by certain documents. In this lesson we'll explore a few documents that define the government's shape and power, as well as its ideology.

The United States Government

Next year, the United States government will look pretty much the same as it does now. Sure, we may have elected new leaders and representatives, but overall the actual government will be the same. We'll still have a President, a Congress with two chambers, and a Supreme Court. How do I know? Because we don't just make this stuff up year-by-year. The United States government is defined by the Constitution, which was itself influenced by other documents that came before it. So, let's take a look through American history and the documents that made the U.S. government what it is today.

The Mayflower Compact

When we look back at important documents in U.S. history, a great place to start is in 1620 with the signing of the Mayflower Compact. This document established the government that would rule over the Plymouth Colony and was the first such document written in the United States. So, here's how it came to be. When the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower first set sail for the Americas, they had a charter from the king that established their rights and system of colonial government. However, the Mayflower ship was blown off course and landed in the wrong place, making the original charter void. So, the Pilgrims had to write their own charter and they did. In the Mayflower Compact, they set forth their own system of colonial government. This system was one in which they would elect their own officials and agree to obey the laws created by those leaders. It was the first attempt at a representative government in America.

The Signing of the Mayflower Compact
Mayflower Compact

The Declaration of Independence

Our tour of major American documents now jumps ahead into the mid-18th century. After several attempts to negotiate with England and secure their rights, the American colonists decided they'd had enough. On July 4, 1776, representatives from the colonies formally signed the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration formally severed the colonies from England, and 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. It's important to realize that while the Declaration made the colonies independent, it did NOT give them a government. That job fell to the 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. The Articles of Confederation laid out the framework of our government and was essentially the first constitution of the United States. The words and concepts of the Articles of Confederation were later used in the formal U.S. Constitution when it was first compiled.

The United States Constitution and Bill of Rights

After the Revolutionary War, the citizens of the new nation quickly realized that the Articles of Confederation did not create a strong enough government. They decided they needed a stronger central government and so, representatives from each state met in 1787 to draft a formal constitution. The resulting document, the United States Constitution, outlined a government with three separate but equal branches of government that respected the rights of the states to draft their own laws. It was ratified in 1788, and went into effect in 1789.

The Signing of the Constitution
US Constitution

The Bill of Rights

The Constitution also laid out a process for creating amendments or additions to the Constitution itself, which actually came in handy right away. In 1789, ten amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution, with the aim of protecting the personal liberties of the American people. These ten amendments are collectively called the Bill of Rights, and included things like the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to an impartial jury. These amendments were ratified and formally added to the Constitution in 1791.

The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights

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