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Section 4: Colonial Period and Independence

In adopting the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution, the American Founding Fathers built on and expanded traditions of liberty they had learned from their experience as English colonists and settlers. The Articles of Confederation, their first attempt at a post-British government, proved incapable of successfully structuring the United States, which required replacement of the Articles by the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Framers of the Constitution sought to preserve the liberties and limited government ideals of the American Revolution while creating a more effective government that could effectively govern. Of course, these ideals were not always extended to everyone living in America, for example, the slaves and the Native Americans remained outside the American political community.

Section 4: Colonial Period and Independence 

Study Guide

Section 4.1: Arriving in North America

British colonists came to America for a variety of reasons—often more than one.

Not only did the Church of England persecute members who had different religious beliefs, including different Christian beliefs, but the political situation in 17th century Britain was unstable. There would be both a civil war and a revolution by 1700. Land was also far scarcer than in America, and the distance from Britain meant the colonists experienced the benefits of local control and self-government. Thus, moving to the British colonies in America offered colonists a variety of benefits, especially religious freedom and economic opportunity. As such, many colonists were willing to make the journey, even though doing so often required selling oneself into temporary servitude to afford transportation across the ocean.

When Europeans began arriving in North America, they encountered a variety of different communities, nations, tribes, and political confederations of people who already lived here. Since the early explorer Christopher Columbus mistakenly believed he had reached Asia, he called these people Indians, which later became American Indians. Today, they are also referred to as Native Americans or indigenous peoples.

The arrival in Jamestown, Virginia of a ship carrying African slaves initially captured by a coalition of Portuguese and local Africans from Angola marked the beginning of African slavery in the mainland North American English colonies in 1619.

Slavery had already existed in much of the world, but the exact status of these first captured Africans who had arrived in colonial America was initially unclear—were they considered indentured servants who could become free or slaves bound for life? Over the next two and a half centuries, the American system would layer legal and cultural reinforcements to the system of race-based and heritable slavery, exploiting the labor of captured Africans and their descendants. European and eventually American slave traders would work with African allies and merchants to traffic in Africans who were either kidnapped or taken as prisoners of war, supplying the New World with a steady supply of cheap labor. In addition, Americans sold slaves between the colonies (which then became the states).

“The American Constitution is, so far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

- William Gladstone, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1878)

Section 4.2: Independence from Britain

Over the course of the 1760s and 1770s, many colonial Americans came to believe the British government violated many of the traditional liberties and rights of Englishmen that the colonists believed they were entitled to. The colonists further argued that their natural rights as human beings were being violated by the actions of the British government. Once it became clear the British would not honor these traditionally understood rights, the colonists decided to fight for independence from Britain.

For example, colonists believed it was unjust for Parliament to impose taxes on the colonists without their participation in Parliament—what the Americans dubbed “taxation without representation.” Foreshadowing their commitment to federalism, colonists also argued that the far-away British Parliament could control international issues but did not have authority to regulate the colonies’ local affairs. Finally, British techniques to suppress the rebellion involved increasingly oppressive measures such as stationing British army soldiers in private houses, called quartering soldiers, which only strengthened claims that the British had become tyrannical.

The Second Continental Congress assigned a committee to draft the document that would declare the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain, as well as explain why. The committee assigned to draft the declaration also included John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston, but the primary author of the Declaration of Independence was Thomas Jefferson. After revisions from the other members of the Continental Congress, Jefferson’s Declaration was adopted on

July 4, 1776.

For the Declaration of Independence to be remembered by history, however the Patriot army had to win on the battlefield, or at least outlast the British. Among the most famous battles were the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 1775), in which American soldiers helping relieve the siege of Boston inflicted serious casualties among British soldiers before retreating; the Battle of Trenton in Christmas 1776, after George Washington led his soldiers in a daring crossing of the icy Delaware River; and the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, a massive victory and arguably the turning point in the war. The Battle of Yorktown, in which French naval forces cut off escape by the British army besieged by George Washington, marked the effective end of the war in 1781.

Quick fact: 

The thirteen stripes on the American flag represent the colonies that became the first thirteen states. They include New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

Section 4.3: From the Articles of Confederation to the US Constitution

The defects of the Articles of Confederation that first governed the states after the Revolution soon became apparent. It soon became clear that a new document—one that would provide a stronger federal government than existed under the Articles, but that would still clearly and carefully limit governmental power—was necessary.

Thus, the assembly of the Founding Fathers, which came to be called the Constitutional Convention, wrote the Constitution in 1787.

Although most agreed that the Articles of Confederation had significant problems, many feared that the proposed Constitution created too strong of a central government.

Defenders of the Constitution began writing in support of the Constitution, arguing that the Constitution created a stronger central government but still one carefully limited by federalism and the separation of powers. In other words, these writers claimed, the Constitution actually created the kind of government sought by its critics.

The most important and famous of these writings were the Federalist Papers, which were written to convince New York to ratify—agree to—the proposed Constitution. Three important Founders-- James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay – wrote the Federalist Papers, using the joint pen name Publius. The Federalist Papers explained to readers the logic of the Constitution, and they remain a key tool in interpreting the Constitution today.

Section 4.4: The Founding Fathers

George Washington

George Washington is celebrated as the “Father of our Country.” Not only was he the commanding general of the American armies during the Revolution, but he presided over the Constitutional Convention and was unanimously chosen as our first president. He famously declined to run for re-election after his second term, retiring quietly to civilian life, as he had once before at the end of the Revolution. Washington voluntarily handing back power reportedly led Britain’s George III to declare Washington the greatest man in the world.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson’s accomplishments were such that the famous epitaph on his tombstone omits achievements that would be highlights of most lives. Jefferson believed his three most important accomplishments were writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and authoring the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which disestablished an official state church in his home state, guaranteeing religious freedom and eliminating mandatory individual support of a church one did not wish to. In addition to these, he served George Washington as our first Secretary of State, was one of the founders of the Democratic-Republican Party, and became our nation’s third president, during which time his administration doubled the size of the nation when negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the most famous American of his day, achieving success in a variety of fields. He was a scientist, writer (most famously of Poor Richard’s Almanac), organizer of the first free libraries in the colonies, and a U.S. diplomat during and after the Revolution. He was also postmaster general of the United States, participated in the Second Continental Congress that passed the Declaration of Independence, and was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention.

James Madison

Although the finished product was quite different than the one Madison proposed, his influence in first developing the Constitution and then defending it as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and in the Virginia ratifying convention mean he is often celebrated as the “Father of the Constitution.” During the First Congress, Madison led the effort to consider constitutional amendments. Although all of Madison’s proposed amendments were not ratified, he drafted the amendments that, with some revisions, became the Bill of Rights. As a member of the early Congresses, Madison was initially a close ally of George Washington before becoming more closely aligned with Thomas Jefferson’s views on the Constitution and policy and helping to found the Democratic-Republican Party. Madison eventually succeeded Jefferson as the fourth president of the United States and led the country during the War of 1812.

Alexander Hamilton

The young Hamilton quickly became a trusted aide to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton participated in the Constitutional Convention but won few debates there, as most delegates preferred a more decentralized government than Hamilton sought; nonetheless, Hamilton vigorously defended the proposed Constitution as an author of the Federalist Papers and as a member of the New York ratifying convention. Hamilton remained one of Washington’s closest allies and became the first Secretary of the Treasury, where he convinced Congress to establish the first Bank of the United States.   

Section 4: Colonial Period and Independence 

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Section 4: Colonial Period and Independence

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The 1800s