The Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation and the Constitution
When studying and researching American history it is essential that one review the documents that essentially founded the nation and has allowed the country to survive and flourish. These three documents are, of course, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Each of these documents represents the stages of organization that has led, for better or worse, to the American that exists today. They represent an evolution of a new life; devised to be a free-nation that is based on the wants of the people, especially when the people call for new change. Most people know very little about these founding documents. The Declaration established our desire to separate from Britain inciting the American Revolution, the Constitution, of course, outlines our most basic and national rights, and the Articles of Confederation is probably the least familiar to a general member of the modern American public. However, these documents, the purpose, intentions and reasons that they were replaced or amended is relevant to the American story and worthy of greater discussion in greater individual detail.
The 13 original colonies that were built on what, today, we call the East Coast were peoples who had felt persecuted and too heavily controlled by the English government. These colonies were both dependent and beholden to Britain; they grew from little more than forts to many of the first states and cities we associate as all-American today, Philadelphia and Boston to name a few. They still required goods and wares to be imported, but were also still required to serve a purpose to Britain, for example growing crops that benefitted and could be exported back to Britain. However, over time those living in the New World had been living in a mostly wild American under far harsher conditions that most likely expected, between the harsh winter weather and the years of negative relationships that had evolved with many Native American tribes, these immigrants no longer felt supported or felt the need for control from Britain. In the 1770s the first sparks of what would be called the American Revolution began to ignite. No longer satisfied with the government control of Britain, the New World colonists resented the heavy taxes levied by the sovereign land and wanted to establish a new and free nation independent from the mother country (United States History Organization, 2014).To this end, it is what inspired the drafting of the first of the three most significant documents to the founding of the United States of America, and led the way for the later significant documents to follow. Understanding the three best it is wisest to discuss each individually.
The Declaration of Independence
Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were among those who were the most outspoken advocates of an American split from British rule and participating in finalizing the document that would be agreed upon; which was put into effect in 1776 and would establish no end to the Revolutionary War until 1783. Due to his particular gift with words it was Thomas Jefferson who was asked to draft the words that would reflect the new American intention. The list of statements that we know as the Declaration of Independence was more or less a list of grievances against King George (The United States History Organization, 2014). It argues that men have the right to life, liberties and freedoms and these things had already been violated and therefore requires the United States to separate from the British Kingdom. The content of the Declaration was voted upon and some of what Jefferson had attempted to establish and were excluded from the final document. The first had to do with the treatment of the “English” in the United States, most likely referencing those loyal to the crown. The second regarded the ending of slavery as part of the founding efforts; this was voted down by, what would later be the Southern states (Painter, 2010).
The Articles of Confederation
Unlike the Declaration which, again, established founding principles and acted as a listing of grievances against British rule, the Articles of Confederation were essentially the first acting constitution of the United States. It established the union of the American colonies and territories. The Declaration was simply not the document capable of maintaining unity and enforcing centralized goals and powers against the early states. The British did not acknowledge America’s Declaration and therefore continued to send troops (The United States History Organization, 2014).It became clear that there was a need for a stricter document that would benefit American as a whole. The Articles of Confederation were first drafted and considered in the late 1770s, but was not put into effect until 1781.Some of the greatest strengths of the Articles of Confederation included the ability to declare war, to operate post offices, to make alliances and arrangement with foreign countries and the ability to coin and mint government monies. Unfortunately, the benefits of the Articles proved not to outweigh its weaknesses. The Articles could not force the states to follow laws established, they could not levy taxes on states, and it allowed for no national law or court system, could not prevent states from printing their own money, no national army and, finally, it could not intervene on states attaching taxes and tariffs on other states. In March of 1789 the Articles were voted out and a new, more functional document was chosen to take its place (Rosen & Rubenstein, 2014).
The Constitution was first the time that the United States of America had referred to itself a singular, united country. Prior to this, neither the Declaration nor the Articles of Confederacy had defined America as a country, but instead as a confederation of free nations (Painter, 2010). The Constitution established the founding laws, nature of the democracy and a singular republic. It allowed for the government to be more centralized and have greater control over individual states, to establish a federalized money system and laws that apply to both state and federal levels. The Constitution established not just the governing rights and freedoms of its citizens, but also played a role in establishing the nature of the American government and the branches that would outline its organization (The History Channel, 2009).What has made the United States Constitution so significant is that it is, in many ways, when necessary a flexible document. Throughout the decades, as America changed, so did the Constitution. This has always been a controversial point of the U.S. Constitution for many people. Some feel that the purpose of a “constitution” is to act as an immutable document that cannot be bent or twisted. However, as America became a more and more progressive country it is the freedom to make changes to a “peoples” government is highly beneficial.
There are a number of prime examples of this, including the 18th Amendment, in 1919, which prohibited to sales, possession and consumption of alcohol products, the era known as prohibition. However, in 1933, the 21st Amendment countermanded the 18th and reestablished the legality of alcoholic beverages. However, there are a number of landmark changes made to the Constitution that has made America the diverse and “free” county that it is. The 13th Amendment ended the institution of slavery, in 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War. The 14th Amendment, in 1868, defined citizenship and the 15th Amendment, in 1870, acknowledge the right to vote of African American men. The women’s right to vote was added with the 19th Amendment in 1920 (Rosen & Rubenstein, 2014).
The different documents are quite different but have all served a purpose in building the America of today. The Declaration of Independence allowed for the founding fathers and all of their supporters take the plunge and leave English rule behind. The Articles of Confederation were an effort to unify and preserve a fledgling government that was still fighting for independence throughout this early process (Painter, 2010). The Articles were established and the weaknesses of those articles were identified, reconsidered and rectified when the Constitution was enacted. There are many today that would argue that the Articles allowed freedom to individual states without federal governances, which is preferred by some political ideologies. However, by and far, most Americans and American history scholars agree that the United States government, laws and basic citizen rights are far more progressive than most other places in the world. However, while the Constitution may be the standard, it would not exist without the documents that came before it, both the Declaration and Articles of Confederation.
Ultimately, it is easy to compare and contrast these founding documents; what are their purposes, strengths and weaknesses? However, it is through addressing such issues, making reforms and then improving issues that has been accomplished. Without the Declaration of Independence there would be no America, without the Articles of Confederation the new United States may not have won their war for independence and without both documents, the American Constitution would not exist as it does today. Again, after reviewing the relevant research it becomes very clear that the document may be quite different and separate, but together they combine as part of the evolution of the country of justice, freedoms and rights that is enjoyed by more than 300,000,000 people today.
Painter, A.L. (2010).Constitution versus the articles of confederation. Tarascopes. 1-18.
Rosen, J. & Rubenstein, D. (2014). What is the relationship between the declaration of
independence and the constitution? The National Constitution Center.1. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2014/12/what-is-the-relationship-between-the-declaration-of-independence-and-the-constitution/
The History Channel. (2009). The U.S. Constitution. The History Channel. 1. Retrieved July 7,
2015, from http://www.history.com/topics/constitution#
The United States History Organization.(2014). The foundations of american government. The
US History Organization.1. Retrieved July 7, 2015, from http://www.ushistory.org/gov/2b.asp