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Great American Documents

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Iroquois Constitution

Also known as the Gayanashagowa and as The Great Binding Law, the Iroquois Constitution, originally oral, was the founding document of the Iroquois Confederacy and a forerunner to colonist democratic principals. Importantly, it is believed to have influenced concepts in the United States Constitution, and many historians place the Iroquois Constitution alongside the Mayflower Compact and the Fundamental Orders as the most important early New World governing documents.

Initially five tribes, the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cuyuga and Onondaga constituted the confederacy. Under the constitution, each tribe was allowed a certain number of representatives in a body called the Great Council of Sachems. They ceded certain powers to the council while reserving the power to handle issues involving the inner workings of their own tribe. Later the Tuscarora tribe moved into the area controlled by the Iroquois and became subject to the constitution as a non-voting member.

The exact date of the Iroquois Constitution is unknown, or even the exact century, but some historians believe it to be as early as August 31, 1142 A.D., and codified on a series of wampum belts, while many others believe the date to be closer to 1451 or as late as 1525.

The founder of the Iroquois Confederacy is believed to be Dekanawida, born near the Bay of Quinte in southeastern Ontario, Canada. His spokesman was a Mohawk tribal lord he named Hahyonhwatha (Hiawatha). One legend says Dekanawida had a speech impediment and needed Hiawatha to do his public speaking. Later in the nineteenth century Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used the latter's name in his famous poem, The Song of Hiawatha, but as a completely different character.

Mayflower Compact (1620)

The Mayflower Compact is the written covenant of the new settlers arriving at New Plymouth after crossing the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower. It is the first governing document of Plymouth Colony and established the first basis in the New World for written laws.

Earlier New World settlements had failed due to a lack of government, and the compact was hashed out by the pilgrims, led by William Bradford, for the sake of their own survival. It was signed aboard ship November 11, 1620 OS (November 21, 1620 NS) by all 41 of the Mayflower’s adult male passengers.

Many of the settlers were fleeing religious persecution in Europe, desiring the freedom to practice Christianity according to their own determination, while others were simply in search of commercial success. About half the colony failed to survive the first winter, but the remainder lived on and prospered.

Fundamental Orders (1639)

Also known as the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, and consisting of a preamble and 11 orders (laws), the Fundamental Orders created a common government between three towns on the Connecticut River, Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield, in modern day Connecticut.

The Fundamental Orders are widely considered to be the first written constitution in the Western tradition and a forerunner of the modern form of representative government the United States has today. However, it should be noted that many historians cite the Iroquois Constitution, which also embraced representative government, as the first constitution in the New World.

The Fundamental Orders were agreed to January 14, 1639 by the Connecticut Colony council meeting in Hartford, and was the basic law of the colony until 1662. Thomas Hooker, John Haynes and Roger Ludlow were most influential in framing the document which was transcribed into the official colony records by secretary Thomas Welles.

Stamp Act (British, 1765)

Also known as the Duties in American Colonies Act, the Stamp Act was the Parliament of Great Britain's first attempt to impose a direct tax on the American colonies. For the first time the Americans would pay tax not to their own local legislatures, but directly to England.

It was imposed to help defray growing expenses the Crown incurred from the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and administering and policing its vast new territories acquired in North America. To prove the tax was paid, the Stamp Act required the use of stamped paper for legal documents, diplomas, almanacs, broadsides, newspapers and playing cards.

The Stamp Act was agreed to by the British Parliament by a large majority March 22, 1765 and was set to take effect November 1, 1765. However, the tax met great resistance in the colonies, including the passage of the Resolutions of the Stamp Act, and fueled a growing movement that eventually became the American Revolution.

The Stamp Act was repealed March 18, 1766 as a matter of expedience, and against the objections of King George III (1760–1820). But that did not deter the resolve of either the British or the colonists.

Resolutions of the Stamp Act (1765)

Also known as the Declaration of Rights and Grievances of the Stamp Act Congress, the Resolutions of the Stamp Act was passed in response to the Parliament of Great Britain's first attempt to impose a direct tax on the American colonies. For the first time Americans would pay tax not to their own local legislatures, but directly to England.

To prove the tax was paid, the Stamp Act required the use of stamped paper for legal documents, diplomas, almanacs, broadsides, newspapers and playing cards. Set to take affect November 1, 1765, it met great resistance in the colonies and fueled a growing movement that eventually became the American Revolution.

As part of this resistance a Stamp Act Congress was convened October 7, 1765 in New York City with representation from 9 of the 13 colonies, and the Resolutions of the Stamp Act, including 14 points, were agreed to October 19, 1765.

The Stamp Act Congress met in the building that would become Federal Hall in New York City, which was also the first capitol of the United States and the site where George Washington took the oath of office as the first President.

Declaration of Arms (1775)

Also known as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, the Declaration of Arms was a statement by the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia setting forth the causes and necessity of their taking up arms but, importantly, did not declare immediate independence.

It was agreed to July 6, 1775 following the breakout of fighting at Lexington and Concord, and the battle of Bunker Hill. The Declaration of Arms is primarily a combination of the writing of Thomas Jefferson, John Dickinson and possibly John Rutledge.

Declaration of Independence (1776)

America's most cherished symbol of liberty, the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson with the assistance of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin and Robert R. Livingston. It announced to the world that the 13 American colonies, then at war with Great Britain for more than a year, were no longer part of the British Empire or under the rule of King George III (1760-1820), and provided a formal explanation for their actions.

On June 7, 1776, at the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution urging independence which was agreed to July 2, 1776. The Second Continental Congress then approved the Declaration of Independence two days later, July 4, 1776, and it was signed by most delegates August 2, 1776. Five delegates, Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean and Matthew Thornton, signed on a later date.

Colonel John Nixon gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence July 8, 1776, to a crowd at Independence Square in Philadelphia.

Articles of Confederation (1777)

Also known as the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the Articles of Confederation was drafted by the same Second Continental Congress that passed the Declaration of Independence, and established a firm league of friendship between and among the 13 American states.

Individual states retained sovereignty, freedom and independence, and instead of setting up executive and judicial branches of government, there was a national legislature composed of representatives from each state comprising the Congress of the Confederation (also known as the United States in Congress Assembled).

The Congress was responsible for conducting foreign affairs, declaring war and peace, maintaining an army and navy and a variety of other smaller functions, however, the Articles of Confederation denied Congress power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws.

The Articles of Confederation were submitted July 12, 1776, eight days after the Declaration of Independence, and agreed to November 15, 1777. Comprised of a preamble and 13 articles, they became the ruling document of the new nation after ratification by the last of the 13 American states, Maryland, March 1, 1781.

In the end the Articles of Confederation failed because the national government had too little jurisdiction over states and individuals. As noted by George Washington, a government was established that was "little more than the shadow without the substance."

Treaty of Paris (1783)

Also known as the Paris Peace Treaty, the Treaty of Paris signed by American and British representatives ended the American Revolutionary War, recognized United States independence and granted the new country significant western territory.

It was signed at the Hôtel de York September 3, 1783 with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay representing the United States and David Hartley, a member of British Parliament, representing King George III (1760–1820). The Treaty of Paris was ratified by the Congress of the Confederation January 14, 1784 and by Great Britain April 9, 1784. Ratified versions were exchanged in Paris May 12, 1784.

Northwest Ordinance (1787)

Also known as An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and as the Freedom Ordinance, the Northwest Ordinance is considered one of the most significant achievements under the Articles of Confederation. It told the world that the land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would be settled and eventually become part of the United States.

Daniel Webster said about the Northwest Ordinance, "We are accustomed to praise lawgivers of antiquity … but I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced the effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787."

It provided for the creation of not less than three nor more than five states and, importantly, prohibited slavery in the new territory as well as guaranteed inhabitants a bill of rights and addressed education.

The Northwest Ordinance was agreed to by the Congress of the Confederation July 13, 1787 and later reaffirmed with slight modifications August 7, 1789 under the new United States Constitution.

The land area opened up by the Northwest Ordinance was based on lines originally laid out by Thomas Jefferson in his March 1, 1784 Report of Government for Western Lands. He wanted to divide the territory into ten states, two of which would be called Cheronesus and Metropotamia, both located in what is currently Michigan.

United States Constitution (1787)

Also known as the Constitution of the United States of America and commonly abbreviated as U.S. Constitution or US Constitution, the United States Constitution is the supreme law of the nation. It defines the three branches of the federal government, a legislative branch with a bicameral Congress, an executive branch led by the President and a judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court, and carefully outlines the powers and jurisdiction of each. The constitution also reserves numerous rights for the individual states and lays out the basic rights of citizens.

A federal convention was convened in Philadelphia May 14, 1787 (known as the Philadelphia Convention, as the Constitutional Convention and as the Grand Convention at Philadelphia) to amend the failing Articles of Confederation, and a quorum of seven states was achieved May 25, 1787. Over the summer the delegates decided to abandon the old Articles and fashion a new government framework. The resulting constitution was agreed to September 17, 1787 and ratified June 21, 1788.

Former British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone in 1887 said the United States Constitution was "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man."

It had a preamble and seven articles and was later ratified by conventions in each the 13 American states. The United States Constitution is the oldest federal constitution still in existence and has been amended 27 times since ratification, the first ten amendments being known as the Bill of Rights.

The first national Thanksgiving Day November 26, 1789 was established by George Washington as a way of "giving thanks" for the United States Constitution.

Bill of Rights (1791)

The Bill of Rights is the name given to the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution. They limit the powers of the federal government and protect the rights of all citizens, residents and visitors on United States territory.

They were introduced by James Madison to the first United States Congress June 8, 1789, and were agreed to September 25, 1789 as a series of 12 proposed constitutional amendments. After 10 of the 12 amendments were ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, with Virginia casting the deciding vote, the Bill of Rights came into effect December 15, 1791.

The first newspaper appearance of the Bill of Rights that was offered to the states for ratification was the October 3, 1789 issue of the Gazette of the U.S.

Declaration of Sentiments (1848)

Also know as the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, the Declaration of Sentiments for women’s rights follows the form of the United States Declaration of Independence, and called for equality with men before the law, in education and in employment.

It was drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and introduced at the first woman's rights convention held July 19–20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. The Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 68 women and 32 men at the Seneca Falls Convention July 20, 1848.

The Declaration of Sentiments is considered by many to be the most important document of the nineteenth-century American woman's movement.

A great achievement was made by the women’s rights movement August 18, 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution which extended nationally voting rights to the female gender.

Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War is considered the most important act of his presidency. It declared freedom for all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to the Union by January 1, 1863.

Lincoln announced his plans at a Cabinet meeting July 22, 1862 and issued a preliminary draft September 22, 1862. His warning was ignored by the confederate states, and Lincoln signed a final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863, freeing the southern slaves forever.

Slavery was finally abolished in the Union with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution ratified about three years later.

The original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation was sadly destroyed in the Chicago fire of 1871. Photographs of the document show it was primarily written in Lincoln's own hand.

13th Amendment (1865)

Also spelled out as the Thirteenth Amendment or Amendment XIII, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution officially ended slavery, and with limited exceptions, such as those convicted of a crime, prohibits involuntary servitude.

The 13th Amendment completed legislation to abolish slavery in America begun with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. By the time of the amendment, slavery only existed in five states, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and New Jersey.

The United States Senate voted 38 to 6 in favor April 8, 1864, but the House of Representatives was against adding the amendment to the constitution. However, Lincoln insisted on including support for it in the 1864 Republican Party platform, and the House finally agreed to the 13th Amendment January 31, 1865 on a vote of 119 to 56. It was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states and in force December 6, 1865, with Georgia casting the deciding vote.

The thirteenth was the first of the three constitutional amendments commonly referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments, the other two being the 14th Amendment (1868) and 15th Amendment (1870).

14th Amendment (1868)

Also spelled out as the Fourteenth Amendment or Amendment XIV, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution was specifically intended to overrule Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford (Supreme Court, March 6, 1857) and guarantee American citizenship, civil liberties, due process and equal protection to former slaves and their descendants.

The 14th Amendment was agreed to by the United States Senate June 8, 1866 and by the House of Representatives June 13, 1866. During a controversial ratification process it was rejected by most Southern states, but the amendment received support from the required three-fourths of the states July 9, 1868.

In subsequent years the 14th Amendment, especially the equal protection clause, has been used numerous times by African Americans, women and other groups to advance rights under the law. In a 2005 Supreme Court case, Justice David Souter called it "the most significant structural provision adopted since the original framing [of the constitution]."

The fourteenth was the second of the three constitutional amendments commonly referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments, the other two being the 13th Amendment (1865) and 15th Amendment (1870).

15th Amendment (1870)

Also spelled out as the Fifteenth Amendment or Amendment XV, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits states from denying voting rights to citizens based on race, color or previous condition of servitude (meaning slavery). It was specifically intended to guarantee suffrage to former male slaves and their male descendants.

The 15th Amendment was agreed to by the United States House of Representatives February 25, 1869 and by the Senate the following day. It was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states and in force February 3, 1870.

The fifteenth was the last of the three constitutional amendments commonly referred to as the Reconstruction Amendments, the other two being the 13th Amendment (1865) and 14th Amendment (1868).

19th Amendment (1920)

Also spelled out as the Nineteenth Amendment or Amendment XIX, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits states from denying voting rights to citizens based on gender, and was specifically intended to extend suffrage to women.

The 19th Amendment followed a long battle by women to gain these rights dating back at least to the Declaration of Sentiments from the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.

The 19th Amendment was agreed to by the United States Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified by the required three-fourths of the states and in force August 18, 1920.

Tennessee cast the deciding vote when Assemblyman Harry T. Burn changed his vote. He said he was following the advice of his mother, Mrs. J. L. Burns of Niota, Tennessee, expressed in a letter he had in his pocket. It said, "Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt [Carrie Chapman Catt] put the "rat" in ratification. Your mother."

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

From the Declaration of Independence.