Trace the colonial, revolutionary, and founding-era experiences and events that led to the writing, ratification, and implementation of the United States Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1791).

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Focus Question: What were the experiences and events that led to the writing, ratification, and implementation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?

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See also

Burning of Stamp Act,  Postcard created 1902
Burning of Stamp Act, Postcard created 1902

Topics on the Page
Forces That Shaped the Constitution
  • Stamp Act Congress
  • Continental Congress
  • Shays' Rebellion
Ideas Behind the Constitution
  • Locke and Montesquieu
  • The Mayflower Compact
The Constitution
The Bill of Rights
  • Origins of the Bill of Rights
  • Massachusetts Body of Liberties
  • Religious Freedom

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the United States Constitution, provided by

multicultural.png In 1778, before the official Constitution was in place, the first Treaty between the United States Government and Indigenous Americans was The Treaty of Fort Pitt.

Forces That Shaped the Constitution

The Stamp Act Congress
Long before the signing of the Constitution, the Continental colonies had a history of cooperation.
  • Though inter-colony relations were tempered with regionalism, intense competition, and very distinct colonial cultures, American colonies of Britain united in the Stamp Act Congress, which was formed in direct response to a British-imposed tax on mailed and printed paper goods.
    • Though the Continental Congress had been in existence for a long time, the Stamp Act Congress was the first example of a pan-colonial effort with a united, single purpose against Britain, and the rules and regulations of that Congress informed the Constitutional convention later down the line.

Continental Congress
In 1774 the Parliament of Great Britain capped a series of abuses against the American colonies by imposing a tax on tea imports to the colonies.
  • The colonies quickly agreed to convene a Continental Congress, which in 1776 appointed two committees—one to draft the Declaration of Independence and the other to prepare a “form of confederation” among the colonies.
    • In 1778 this second committee produced the Articles of Confederation. They took effect in 1781 when Maryland the last holdout state, ratified them.

Image below is John Hanson, third President of the United States in Congress Assembled under the Articles of Confederation

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The Articles of Confederation

The Articles of Confederationestablished a league of friendship among the states, but not a political union. Each state remained separate and sovereign (under self-rule).

The central government consisted of a one-chamber Congress, in which each state had a single vote. Congress had few powers, lacking even the authority to impose taxes. Any congressional action required the approval of 9 of the 13 states. The government had no president and no central court.
primary_sources.PNGClick here for the text of the Articles of Confederation.

As a result, Congress in the 1780s could not deal with serious national problems, such as the repayment of about $40 million in domestic debt and $12 million in foreign debts incurred during the American Revolution (1775-1783).
  • States also incurred about $25 million in debt during the war. Small creditors, including soldiers who had lent money to the revolutionary cause, were starved for cash because the states were slow to repay.
  • Many of these creditors were forced to sell their repayment notes to speculators at greatly reduced values, and the states feared mob violence.
    • A depression in the mid-1780s threatened farmers in many states with foreclosures of their properties and jail.

external image Essener_Feder_01.png Click here for information on John Hanson, first President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation.

In May 1786, delegates from each state were called to a trade convention in Annapolis, Maryland, to find common ground on waterway navigation rights and other issues. Only fives states sent delegates, and they decided to postpone any action. Before adjourning, the delegates in attendance asked their state legislatures to call a national convention to meet in Philadelphia the following May to investigate “important [government] defects … of a nature so serious as … to render the situation of the United States delicate and critical.”

Engraving of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck
Engraving of Daniel Shays and Job Shattuck
Shays' Rebellion

Later in 1786 and in 1787, poor farmers led by Daniel Shays stormed several courthouses and tried to seize a federal arsenal.

Local militias suppressed the uprising, known as Shay's Rebellion, but it sent tremors through the 13 states.

Some legislatures began to enact laws relieving debtors of their debts, which angered many wealthy creditors. States with good seaports took advantage of merchants in other states by imposing large import and export taxes.

These and other problems required national solutions that neither the states nor the Confederation Congress had the political will to confront. The continuing crisis and the threat of further rebellions spurred the states to call a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation.

rotating gif.gifFor more on Shays' Rebellion, see Grade 5.21

Click here for more in depth description on the Articles of Confederation, the creation of the Bill of Rights, and the ratification of the Constitution.

Ideas Behind the Constitution

Many of the contributors, especially James Madison, studied history and political philosophy. Two political theorists had great influence on the creation of the Constitution.
  • John Locke, an important British political philosopher, had a large impact through his Second Treatise of Government (1690). Locke argued that sovereignty resides in individuals, not rulers. A political state, he theorized, emerged from a social contract among the people, who consent to government in order to preserve their lives, liberties, and property. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, which also drew heavily on Locke, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Locke also pioneered the idea of the separation of powers.

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The French writer Baron de Montesquieu, who was the second major intellectual influence on the Constitution, further developed the concept of a separation of powers in his treatise The Spirit of the Laws (1748).

Mayflower Compact

Image to the right shows a Memorial Bas Relief of the Signing of the Compact on Bradford Street in Provincetown below the Pilgrim Monument. Image on Wikimedia Commons by Peter Whitlock.

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Colonial charters such as the Mayflower Compact of 1620 provided another inspiration for the Constitution.
  • These charters seemed to give authority to the people to govern the territories to which they had migrated.
  • Throughout the 18th century a vigorous debate raged over whether these charters permitted self-rule or subjected the colonists to the whims of royal governors. At their most radical, the colonial charters created autonomous legislatures with broad powers.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution sought a fundamental change from these earlier notions in two important ways.
  • First, they put the Constitution above legislative power—indeed, above all governmental powers. The Constitution, particularly the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, establishes the “rule of law,” the idea that the government itself, including the president and Congress, must abide by the law.

The framers also rejected a basic assumption held by many democratic theorists, including Montesquieu, that true democracy was possible only in tiny territories with small, homogeneous populations.
  • In famous passages in The Federalist Papers, Madison and Hamilton brilliantly argued that the old philosophers were wrong. Democracy could flourish, they reasoned, only in large territories with sizable populations and a diversity of interests that would block the ambitions of citizens to control the government.
  • Individual interests and liberties could be most effectively protected in a system of representative government that was open to the voices of all. The people who agreed with this view of government and supported ratification became known as Federalists.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.47.54 AM.pngPBS details the development of the Constitution and Hamilton's involvement as a Federalist here. However,
  • Hamilton was only one of many Founding Fathers.
    • This quiz determines which of the founders you are most like, and would be a great resource in a lesson plan on the creation of the Constitution.

How much do you know about the Constitution. Take this Constitution I.Q. quiz to find out!

Multimedia.pngClick icon to view Crash Course video on the Constitution and Federalism!

The Constitution

The Constitution of the United States is vastly different from other Constitutions for democratic countries in that it serves as a treaty between different states with different economies and cultures. The Constitution marks the first time disjointed parts of a colonial power's holdings had actively come together to form a Union.

Where the Articles of Confederation had not mandated certain activities from states, the Constitution guaranteed certain powers (especially the right to tax on a federal level for the federal benefit) to the central government, and not leaving all powers up to the states. Whichever powers the Constitution did not claim specifically for the federal government, however, were left to the states until the Constitution was amended actively.

primary_sources.PNGArchival image of the Constitution!

multicultural.png The Constitution does not directly address slavery, as part of an ongoing (and contradictory) conflict between states over the place of slavery in a democracy. Instead, the Constitution refers to slaves as "persons in service" and other oblique ways. Either way, the Constitution explicitly protects the right to personal property (per its Lockean inspirations), which was read as a protection of slavery by slaveholders, but would come under criticism and scrutiny in later years, as the United States came closer and closer to conflict over slavery.

womens history.jpg The Constitution guaranteed suffrage to white men of property (landowners, specifically), which meant that the poor, women, and people of color were expressly forbidden from political participation. Women (such as Abigail Adams) did participate in the political landscape, but had to find ways around the barriers in their ways. Often, women would publish under pseudonyms, or under their husbands' names, or would express their political goals in missives to their husbands, fathers, brothers, other female friends and family members.

Bill of Rights


Bill of Rights, first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

It is one of the most important documents in the American government.

The Bill of Rights establishes basic American civil liberties that the government cannot violate.

The states ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, three years after the Constitution was ratified. Originally the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, but in a series of 20th-century cases, the Supreme Court decided that most of its provisions apply to the states.

Many countries have used the Bill of Rights as a model for defining civil liberties in their constitutions.

The Bill Rights gives all United States citizens the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to own firearms, protections against illegal search and seizure, the right to trial by jury, and protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Bill of Rights includes a wide range of protections with a common theme and purpose—to define the scope of individual freedom in the United States and to make the political system more democratic. They are not the only rights contained in the Constitution. For example, Sections 9 and 10 of Article I of the Constitution prohibit the states and the federal government from passing an ex post facto law—a law that subjects a person to punishment for an act that was not unlawful when committed. But as a group the rights provided in the first ten amendments are the cornerstones of democracy in the United States.

Origin of the Bill of Rights

When English immigrants came to the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, most assumed that they would have the same protections against governmental abuses of power that they had in England.

The most important of these were the right to trial by jury and the right of habeas corpus, which prevented the government from jailing people arbitrarily. Other personal liberties brought from England to America included the right of accused persons to have legal assistance at trials, and a ban on excessive fines and bail.

These rights came from several centuries of English legal tradition, recorded in documents such as the Magna Carta of 1215, the Petition of Right of 1628, and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, from which the American Bill of Rights took its name. The assumption of basic legal rights of citizens also came out of the English common law, a body of English court-made law that evolved from the 12th century.

English settlers in America included many of these protections in colonial laws. The English Americans decided to codify (write into law) some parts of the common law and to make additions suited to the colonial society. The 1632 charter for the Maryland colony, for example, declared that all people who were born or who moved there were entitled to 'all Privileges, Franchises and Liberties' of a native Englishman. By 1639 the Maryland General Assembly had passed an act for 'the liberties of the people.'

Massachusetts Body of Liberties
primary_sources.PNGResidents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony created the Body of Liberties in 1641, a forerunner of the American Bill of Rights. The Body of Liberties granted limited religious freedom, assured landowners of the equal protection of the laws, the right to petition the government for change, and the use of the writ of habeas corpus. It also banned punishments considered 'inhumane, Barbarous or cruel' and recognized the right of an accused person to have legal assistance under some circumstances. The Body of Liberties also required the presence of several witnesses to a crime before a person could be sentenced to death. It also granted citizens the right to travel and settle abroad, an important freedom often denied in England.

Rotating_globe-small.gifThe Body of Liberties also allowed the legalized taking and holding of individuals for forced labor, making the Massachusetts Bay Colony the first of the British territories in North America to legalize the practice of slavery. The Body of Liberties also allowed people to be condemned to bondage as punishment for crimes. By 1680, there were as many as 5,000 Blacks in Massachusetts, most of whom were likely enslaved ("Our Black History," George Claxton, The Recorder, November 20, 2010, p. D1).

Religious Freedom
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Some colonies created religious protections stronger than those in Massachusetts, even though religious freedom was not part of the English legal tradition.

Religious intolerance in the Massachusetts Bay Colony spurred some people, including clergyman Roger Williams, to flee to other areas.

primary_sources.PNGWilliams went to Rhode Island in 1636, where he started a new colony based on religious freedom and political equality. Eventually these freedoms were incorporated into the Rhode Island Charter of 1663. This charter banned government repression of religious groups and guaranteed individuals the right to their own beliefs. The strong religious protections in Rhode Island marked out a significant new limit on government power.

Multimedia.pngThe history channel provides a short video clip on the background to the formation of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Multimedia.pngexternal image 200px-Hebrew_timeline2_rus.svg.pngThe National Constitution Center created an interactive multimedia timeline students can use to explore the context of the Constitution.