Documents

June 15, 1215

Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is a charter that established the principle that everyone is subject to the law, even the king, and guarantees the rights of individuals, the right to justice, and the right to a fair trial. These ideas were used by America’s founding fathers as they created a new governmental system. It was agreed to by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor.

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The Trial of Red Jacket painting by John Mix Stanley.
Unknown date

Iroquois Constitution

The Iroquois Constitution, originally oral, was the founding document of the Iroquois Confederacy and a forerunner to colonist democratic principles. 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.

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Portrait of a Man, Said to be Christopher Columbus; by Sebastiano del Piombo (Sebastiano Luciani).
February 15, 1493; postscript added March 4, 1493

Christopher Columbus Letter on the First Voyage

While off the Azores aboard the caravel Niña, on his return voyage, Christopher Columbus wrote an account of his voyage and discoveries, in this letter, intended for King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I. A post-script was added upon his arrival in Lisbon. This letter is the earliest published narrative of Columbus’ first voyage and was published in Barcelona in April 1493.

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Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620 painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.
November 11, 1620 OS (November 21, 1620 NS)

Mayflower Compact

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.

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The Signing of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut 1638—39 painting by Albert Herter.
January 14, 1639 OS (January 24, 1639 NS)

Fundamental Orders

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.

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Cecil Calvert Presenting the Acts of Toleration to Gov. William Stone painting by Tompkins Harrison Matteson.
April 21, 1649

Maryland Toleration Act

The Maryland Toleration Act granted freedom of conscience to all Trinitarian Christians in Maryland. It was the second law requiring religious tolerance in the British North American colonies and created one of the pioneer statutes passed by the legislative body of an organized colonial government to guarantee any degree of religious liberty.

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October 28, 1701

Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges

The Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges established an unusually democratic form of government for the time. Although the British monarchy and parliament still held ultimate power, William Penn’s frames of government marked a significant shift towards democracy in the American colonies. The 1701 frame stood as the Pennsylvania’s governing document until the Revolution in 1776.

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The Repeal, or the Funeral Procession, of Miss America Stamp; illustration by Benjamin Wilson.
March 22, 1765

Stamp 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.

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Burning of Stamp Act, Boston; illustration.
October 19, 1765

Resolutions of the Stamp Act

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.

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July 6, 1775

Declaration of 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 against Great Britain but, importantly, did not declare immediate independence.

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June 12, 1776

Virginia Declaration of Rights

The Virginia Declaration of Rights is a document drafted in 1776 to proclaim the inherent rights of men, including the right to reform or abolish “inadequate” government. It influenced a number of later documents, including the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

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July 4, 1776

Declaration of Independence

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.

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Part of the handwritten Articles of Confederation.
November 15, 1777

Articles of Confederation

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.

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Signing the Preliminary Treaty of Peace at Paris, November 30, 1782; illustration by Carl Wilhelm Anton Seiler.
September 3, 1783

Treaty of Paris

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.

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July 13, 1787

Northwest 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 River would be settled and eventually become part of the United States.

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Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States painting by Howard Chandler Christy.
September 17, 1787

United States 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.

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Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffrède Duplessis.
February 3, 1790

Petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society

The Petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was a formal request to the United States Congress in 1790 to ban slavery. It was signed by Benjamin Franklin who at the time was the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

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December 15, 1791

Bill of Rights

The Bill of Rights is the name commonly 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.

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A map showing the Louisiana Territory.
April 30, 1803

Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the Louisiana territory (828,000 square miles or 2.14 million km2) by the United States from France in 1803. It is considered the greatest real estate deal in history and doubled the size of the United States.

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Part of an Our Roll of Honor broadside listing women and men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments.
July 20, 1848

Declaration of Sentiments

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.

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January 1, 1863

Emancipation Proclamation

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.

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Part of a broadside announcing a 1769 sale of a cargo of 94 black slaves in the United States.
December 6, 1865

13th Amendment

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.

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Illustration shows African-Americans facing violent attacks led by white Confederates after the Civil War ended.
July 9, 1868

14th Amendment

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.

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February 3, 1870

15th Amendment

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.

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Suffragists campaigning for the right to vote in 1920.
August 18, 1920

19th Amendment

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.

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