The Charters of Freedom
Declaration of Independence
The U.S. Constitution
Bill of Rights
In 1761, fifteen years before the United States of America burst onto the world
stage with the Declaration of Independence, the American colonists were loyal British
subjects who celebrated the coronation of their new King, George III. The colonies
that stretched from present-day Maine to Georgia were distinctly English in character
although they had been settled by Scots, Welsh, Irish, Dutch, Swedes, Finns, Africans,
French, Germans, and Swiss, as well as English.
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As English men and women, the American colonists were heirs to the thirteenth-century
English document, the Magna Carta, which established the principles that no one
is above the law (not even the King), and that no one can take away certain rights.
So in 1763, when the King began to assert his authority over the colonies to make
them share the cost of the Seven Years' War England had just fought and won, the
English colonists protested by invoking their rights as free men and loyal subjects.
It was only after a decade of repeated efforts on the part of the colonists to defend
their rights that they resorted to armed conflict and, eventually, to the unthinkable–separation
from the motherland.
The sole governing authority presiding over the tumultuous events of the American
Revolution between 1774 and 1789 was a body known as Congress. With no power to
regulate commerce or lay taxes, and with little ability to enforce any of its decisions,
this group, representing the thirteen colonies, declared independence, conducted
a war that defeated one of the greatest military powers of its day, and invented
a new political entity that became a sovereign independent nation. Its members pondered
everything from the rightness of independence to the number of flints needed by
the armies–sometimes with the enemy not far from their doorstep. Asserting their
rights, they found themselves labeled as traitors.
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The fifty-four men who composed the First Continental Congress represented different
interests, religions, and regions; they held conflicting opinions as to how best
restore their rights. Most did not know each other; some did not like each other.
With no history of successful cooperation, they struggled to overcome their differences
and, without any way of knowing if the future held success or nooses for them all,
they started down a long and perilous road toward independence.