Early Democratic Traditions

Influential Documents

A series of historical documents from England and the British colonies provided ideas that shaped the government of the United States.

The English Bill of Rights

After the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, the king met regularly with the nobles. This group eventually included representatives of the common people. By the late 1300s the group became a lawmaking body, or legislature. It became known as Parliament. This style of governing was an early form of representative government in which people elect others to rule for them.

During the 1600s, many political struggles took place between the king, Parliament, and the people. Parliament passed the Bill of Rights in 1689. It stipulated, or demanded, that the rulers rule by the consent of the governed, who were represented by Parliament. It also stated that people have the right to a fair trial by a jury of their peers, or equals, and that people should not suffer cruel or unusual punishments.

The Mayflower Compact

The Church of England was a state church. This meant that anyone who did not belong to the church went to jail. The Pilgrims separated from the church and left England. They sailed on the Mayflower and arrived at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in December 1620. During the voyage, all was not peaceful among the passengers. Realizing that they needed to work together to form a system of government, they created a document known as the Mayflower Compact. This agreement was signed by the 41 adult males on the Mayflower. In the compact, they promised to follow laws and rules.

The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut

Later some English settlers went to nearby Connecticut. In 1639, representatives chosen from three towns in that colony met. They created a civil charter, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. A charter is a written code of rules or laws.

One interesting feature of the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut is that the document does not mention the king of England or any existing government. Another feature is that, unlike the rules in other colonies, it extended voting rights to community members who owned land even if they were not members of the church. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut seems to be the first constitution written to create a government. A century and a half later, those who wrote the US Constitution had a model to use.

Declaration of Independence

In 1776, after the American Revolution had begun, a group of men met in Philadelphia to consider the question of independence. They began working on the document that became the Declaration of Independence. In less than a month, the document was presented to the entire assembly, or group. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia wrote most of the document. The declaration, or statement, begins by stating its purpose and defining basic rights. Next it states the charges against George III, king of England. The document ends with the declaration of freedom.

Jefferson stated that the Declaration of Independence contained no new political ideas. It borrowed the idea of a social contract, the idea that government is a contract between the governing authority and the people. The role of government is to protect the people’s liberty, property, and lives. In return, the people give up some freedom and agree to follow the government ‘s decisions. On July 2, 1776, twelve of the thirteen colonies voted to approve the document. Two days later, it was officially adopted.

Articles of Confederation

Following the end of the American Revolution, the new country needed a government. The first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, guided the country from 1781 to 1789. The men who wrote the Articles did not want a strong central authority. They were afraid of repeating the harshness they had endured under Great Britain. There was no president. The Articles also created a unicameral legislature. This means that the legislature had only one chamber, unlike Parliament, which had two chambers. The legislature had the power to control war and foreign affairs, borrow money, and control the postal service. In reality, it could not force the states to pay taxes or to send troops.

The states were not unit ed. Every state made its own rules and printed its own money. Most states had their own navies. States taxed goods from other states, making commerce between the states difficult. People’s loyalty was to their state, not to the country.