Our Founding Documents

Three primary Founding Documents form the “Charters of Freedom,” the original documents that capture the philosophy and foundation of the American democratic republic:

The Declaration of Independence

Passed without objection by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, and ratified on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence stated that the thirteen American colonies were no longer part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and would henceforth be thirteen individual sovereign states. These thirteen independent colonies would later confederate to form the United States of America.

On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered an “engrossed copy” of the Declaration, which was primarily signed on August 2 of that year. This is the copy that you can view in the National Archives by clicking here 🔗.

The Constitution of the United States

Consolidating the thirteen independent states that declared independence in 1776 into a single nation, the Constitution was the product of the First and Second Continental Congresses, working from 1774 until 1781 as a provisional government. In 1781, the original unifying document, the Articles of Confederation, came into effect, and a very limited central government stood until 1787. This government, overseen by the Confederation Congress, was plagued with functional problems, leading to the 1787 drafting of a new, replacement document: The Constitution.

On September 13, 1788, the new Constitution went into effect for eleven of the thirteen original states, and the new American government began functioning in 1789, including the swearing in of the first President of the United States, George Washington. North Carolina and Rhode Island later adopted the Constitution, in 1789 and 1790, respectively.

The original copy of the Constitution of the United States is viewable in the National Archives by clicking here 🔗.

The Bill of Rights

The Constitution was designed explicitly to include a process for appealing to the government for change, and enacting that change. In order to ensure that the rights of the citizen were protected, the first ten amendments to the Constitution were crafted, largely by James Madison, and ratified on December 15, 1791. At the heart of civil discourse and the enumeration of rights, the Bill of Rights is among the most often-discussed and often-debated pieces of American law.

One of the original “engrossed copies” of the Bill of Rights is available to view in the National Archives by clicking here 🔗.