The Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, collectively known as the Charters of Freedom, are the fundamental Founding Documents that define the American form of government - a Constitutional Republic.
Creating the Charters of Freedom
The journey to creating the Charters of Freedom was born out of revolution. The American colonies' rebellion against the abuses of the British Crown culminated in the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. "No Taxation without Representation" became the rally cry of the patriots. It wasn’t until over a year later, however, that the Second Continental Congress appointed a Committee of Five to draft the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration formally announced to the world that the American colonies were breaking away from the British Empire.
Committee member Thomas Jefferson was selected to draft it, as he was already known to be an eloquent writer. The final version was adopted on July 4, 1776 - Independence Day - at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, in Philadelphia. Knowing their participation in this process was considered a treasonous act punishable by torture and death, 56 brave delegates risked their lives and fortunes by signing the Declaration.
Fighting continued another five years until British General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered to General George Washington at Yorktown, VA on October 19, 1781. The Americans and British signed the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783 bringing an official end to the war and the birth of a new nation.
The formation of this new nation, however, had only just begun. Free from the Crown, the Founding Fathers had to figure out how to set up a sustainable government that would not relapse into the same type of despotic regime they had revolted against. Since 1781, the 13 separate states (former colonies) had been loosely joined under the Articles of Confederation. But the Articles quickly proved to be deficient in managing commerce and trade, raising a national defense, and levying taxes to pay for it. In 1787, delegates met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia for a Convention with the initial purpose of simply revising the Articles. But delegate James Madison of Virginia knew that more radical change was necessary. He came prepared.
Before the Convention, he researched and made notes of every confederacy throughout history, both ancient and modern, listing both the strengths and weaknesses of each. He prepared another list of the vices of the then-current American political system. From his research, he developed what became known as the Virginia Plan, which served as the framework for the U.S. Constitution - the starting point for negotiations. Once introduced into the proceedings, the meeting’s focus shifted from amending the Articles to creating a whole new constitution. The meeting became known as the Constitutional Convention. Madison never missed a day of the Convention and took the most detailed Notes of any delegate.
After four months of deliberation, the final Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, then sent to the 13 states for ratification. Intense public debate ensued between 2 major camps - the federalists, who supported the Constitution and a stronger federal government versus the anti-federalists, who were wary of centralizing power. While states were deciding on ratification, members from each camp published their respective arguments in newspapers under pseudonyms.
The federalist authors, under the name "Publius," were later identified as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. They launched a coordinated defense of the Constitution through 85 essays, which became known as The Federalist Papers. The anti-federalist authors, who included Melancton Smith and Patrick Henry, published papers in an uncoordinated effort under both pseudonyms ("Centinel," "Brutus," "Cato," and the "Federal Farmer") and in the open. Those writing under pen names have never been identified with certainty. Their writings have been gathered by historians and published as The Anti-Federalist Papers.
Among the anti-federalists’ concerns was that the proposed Constitution did not contain a Bill of Rights. Once the federalists agreed to amend the Constitution to include such rights, the remaining number of states needed to cross the ratification threshold - 9 of 13 - voted in favor. The Constitution was ratified in June 21, 1788.
In accordance with the new U.S. Constitution, George Washington was elected the first President of the United States and inaugurated on April 30, 1789. He became known as the “Father of Our Country.” For his significant role in drafting, defending and documenting the Constitution and Bill of Rights, James Madison, who would be elected fourth President, became known as the “Father of the Constitution” in his own lifetime. To fulfill the promise to the anti-federalists, he drafted a Bill of Rights, which were modified and ratified on December 15, 1791.
These treasured documents, now damaged and faded, represent the soul of America. The Founding Fathers understood that the American Experiment would only survive if the people, guided by public virtue, took an active role in self-government. They proved that compromise could be reached even amongst citizens of vastly different political and economic ideologies. And most importantly, they showed that healthy public debate can lead to the best outcomes. After all, it was only through passionate dissent that we have the Bill of Rights.
Places to Visit
If you want to experience the Charters of Freedom in person, here are the places to visit. Read the article “Creating the Charters of Freedom” above to understand how each place fits into the big picture.
In Washington, DC
National Archives Museum - see the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights on view in the Rotunda.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial - a Memorial to the 3rd U.S. President and author of the Declaration of Independence located on the Tidal Basin. See the 19-foot bronze statue of Jefferson holding a rolled-up copy of the Declaration, excerpts from the Declaration inscribed on the interior wall, and a sculpture depicting the Committee of Five on the pediment capping the portico. There’s a small museum on the lower level of the Memorial.
Memorial to the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence at Constitution Gardens - a Memorial honoring the 56 men who risked their lives by signing the Declaration, located on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building - visit the James Madison Memorial Hall containing a Madison statue and quotations in honor of the Father of the Constitution and 4th U.S. President.
Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building - see Thomas Jefferson’s Library, the book collection that he sold to the Library of Congress. His books were his foundation of knowledge from which he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History - inside The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden exhibition is the portable wooden lap desk on which Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.
U.S. Capitol - see the famous John Trumbull painting titled Declaration of Independence in the Rotunda. The U.S. Capitol is, itself, the embodiment of the U.S. Constitution and a government of, by and for the people.
Montpelier - located near Charlottesville, VA, this is the plantation home of James and Dolley Madison, where the James researched and developed the framework of the U.S. Constitution before attending the Constitutional Convention. It is also the place where James and Dolley, after retiring from public service, assembled his historic papers, including his Notes from the Constitutional Convention, which Dolley sold to the Library of Congress after his death.
Yorktown Battlefield - where General George Washington defeated British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, ending the Revolutionary War.
In Philadelphia, PA
Independence Hall - formerly known as the Pennsylvania State House, this is where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were debated and signed.
National Constitution Center - located at Independence Mall across from Independence Hall, learn the history of the U.S. Constitution and present-day application through state-of-the-art, interactive exhibitions. Do not miss Signers Hall where you’ll see life-sized, bronze statues of the 39 Founding Fathers who signed the U.S. Constitution, plus 3 dissenters who did not sign. The statues were created by StudioEIS in Brooklyn, NY.
Declaration House - part of the Independence National Historical Park, this house is where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.