Analyze and interpret central ideas on government, individual rights, and the common good in founding documents of the United States.

Examples: The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Massachusetts Constitution (1780), the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), the Northwest Ordinance (1787), the United States Constitution (1787), selected Federalist Papers such as numbers 1, 9, 10, 39, 51, and 78 (1787–1788), the Bill of Rights (1791), President Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), and President Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (1801)

Focus Question: What are the main ideas in the founding documents of the United States?

primary_sources.PNGVirginia Declaration of Rights (1776)

Home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights
Home of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights

SECTION I. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

SEC. 2. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

SEC. 5. That the legislative and executive powers of the state should be separate and distinct from the judiciary; and that the members of the two first may be restrained from oppression, by feeling and participating the burdens of the people, they should, at fixed periods, be reduced to a private station, return into that body from which they were originally taken, and the vacancies be supplied by frequent, certain, and regular elections, in wh ich all, or any part, of the former members, to be again eligible, or ineligible, as the laws shall direct.

SEC. 6. That elections of members to serve as representatives of the people, in assembly, ought to be free; and that all men, having sufficient evidence of permanent common interest with, and attachment to, the community, have the right of suffrage and cannot be taxed or deprived of their property for public uses without their own consent, or that of their representatives so elected, nor bound by any law to which they have not, in like manner, assented for the public good.

primary_sources.PNGDeclaration of Independence (1776)
Signing of Declaration of Independence, Armand-Dumaresq, c1873
Signing of Declaration of Independence, Armand-Dumaresq, c1873

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new guards for their future security — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. — The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

primary_sources.PNGMassachusetts Constitution (1780)

For more, see United States History I.5
John Adams, drafter of the Massachusetts Constitution
John Adams, drafter of the Massachusetts Constitution

  • Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. [Annulled by Amendments, Art. CVI.]

  • Article II. It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshiping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship. [See Amendments, Arts. XLVI and XLVIII.]

  • Article III. [As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.

Miniature portrait of Thomas Jefferson at age 33 by John Trumbull, 1788
Miniature portrait of Thomas Jefferson at age 33 by John Trumbull, 1788

primary_sources.PNGThe Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786). Click here for an annotated transcript. from the Virginia Historical Society.

Thomas Jefferson wrote "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions on physics or geometry." Moreover, the bill he proposed to the Virginia Assembly in 1779 stated: "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever . . . nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion . . .

Northwest Territory of the United States, 1787
Northwest Territory of the United States, 1787

primary_sources.PNGNorthwest Ordinance of 1787

Considered to be one of the most significant achievements of the Congress of the Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 put the world on notice not only that the land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would be settled but that it would eventually become part of the United States. Until then this area had been temporarily forbidden to development.

primary_sources.PNGU.S. Constitution

Section 1. All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

Section 2. The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.

No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that state in which he shall be chosen.

primary_sources.PNGFederalist Papers such as numbers 1, 9, 10, 39, 51, and 78 (1787–1788).

For more on the Federalist Papers, see United States History I.8

primary_sources.PNG Bill of Rights(1791)

For more on the Bill of Rights, see United States History I.9

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a 9 minute video on the US Constitution, the federalist and antifederalist arguments, and the Bill of Rights.

primary_sources.PNGPresident Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

The Jefferson Statue at the Jefferson Memorial
The Jefferson Statue at the Jefferson Memorial

For more on the presidencies of Washington and Jefferson, see United States History I.22

primary_sources.PNGPresident Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address (1801)

primary_sources.PNGArticles of Confederation

For more on the Articles, see USI.6