The more than 60 entries include:
- Mayflower Compact
- Declaration of Independence
- Washington’s Farewell Address
- Missouri Compromise
- Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments
- Emancipation Proclamation
- Homestead Act
- Wilson’s Fourteen Points
- Brown v. Board of Education
- Voting Rights Act
- Resignation Speech of Richard Nixon
- …and more
By reading the essential documents of American government, and the viewpoints of the leaders and citizens who wrote them, you will gain a profound understanding of the United States and the men and women who built it.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Keys to American History
Understanding Our Most Important Historic Documents
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
* * *
The official history of our nation begins with the Declaration of Independence, but our roots here go back nearly 170 years earlier to the first European settlement at Jamestown. Many of the foundations of American government and political philosophy were laid during those years. As the colonies grew in population and prospered commercially, their collective conscience began to flower while England began to exercise more control and authority over the colonies via taxation. Through unity in opposition to their English mother country, they began to develop thoughts of a single entity, a republic formed from the individual colonies. Though the concept seems natural in retrospect, it was by no means a given at the time. Discarding the monarchy and introducing democracy was a great and weighty step. The Articles of Confederation, the first attempt at a national governing document, were a starting point but were not strong enough to propel the nation forward. The Constitution, which followed in 1787, was a powerful and comprehensive document that would help steer the nation through both good and trying times.
First Charter of Virginia
* * *
By 1606 it had already been more than one hundred years since Europeans first explored the New World. Since then a succession of explorers of many nationalities had come to the Americas in search of riches and an easy passage to the Pacific. They also excited interest in Europe about the possibility of settling in the New World. In fact, by the dawn of the seventeenth century, spices and gold were no longer a priority; rather, laying claim to the vast lands of the Americas was of critical importance. It was in England's interest to get settlers to the East Coast of North America quickly in order to legitimize the country's claim on land in the New World; a claim by itself was relatively abstract, but settlements were another thing entirely. The Spanish were already founding settlements to the south. Other countries were positioning themselves to enter the fray as well. The Dutch would soon occupy what is now New York, and the Swedish would claim land (in present-day Delaware) during the early part of the seventeenth century. But in the end, the English were able to control the entire Eastern Seaboard.
The original land patent from King James to the London Company and the Plymouth Company made possible the first English settlement in what would become the United States. Interestingly, recognition of the existing native population can be found within the patent in a reference to hopes that the colonists could bring the savages to "human Civility" and a "settled and quiet Government."
Pilgrims Sign the Mayflower Compact
* * *
The passengers of the Mayflower were under no illusions about their lives in the New World. They did not come here to escape from the yokes of government; they came for freedom to practice their religion without being persecuted. One of their first orders of business upon landing (at what would become Massachusetts but was then called "the northern parts of Virginia") was to create an understanding among themselves about the nature of their existence in America. The "Body Politick" they formed upon arrival represented the seeds of what would eventually grow into the great tree of American democracy. Though they found their own way and eventually split from the mother country, our founding fathers all had roots in England. Documents such as the Mayflower Compact are reminders that our democracy owes a great deal to the English system of government, beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta.
What They Were Saying
from a letter to the Pilgrims upon their departure for America, written by their pastor, 1620:
Note: Some of the spelling, punctuation, and capitalization has been changed for ease of reading.
Lastly, whereas you are to become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with persons of special eminency above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government; let your wisdom and godliness appear not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love, and will promote the common good; but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations, not beholding in them the ordinariness of their persons, but God's ordinance for your good; not being like the foolish multitude, who more honor the gay coat, than either the virtuous mind of the man, or the glorious ordinance of God. But you know better things, and that the image of the Lord's power and authority, which the magistrate beareth, is honorable, in how mean persons soever; and this duty you may the more willingly, and ought the more conscionably to perform, because you are (at least for the present) to have them for your ordinary governors, which yourselves shall make choice of for that work.
* * *
Three decades after the first European settlers arrived in the New World, citizens from Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford, three central Connecticut towns along the Connecticut River, met and devised a set of governing rules called the Fundamental Orders. That document was the first constitution of any colony in America and a very decent one at that. Though not as sophisticated as modern-day state constitutions, the Connecticut Constitution was robust enough that it stood the test of time for nearly two hundred years and served as a model and inspiration for other colonies.
Stamp Act & Stamp Act Congress Declaration of Rights
* * *
American colonists in the mid-1760s were unhappy with new laws enacted by the English government. One law, the Quartering Act of March 1765, mandated that Americans offer lodgings to British officers. Another unpleasant law was the Stamp Act, also enacted in March 1765. The colonists were angry. They did not accept that these taxes were necessary for "defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing" the colonies. Many colonists believed the Stamp Act to be excessive — it included taxes on everything from newspapers to playing cards to university degrees. Almost every conceivable product made of paper was taxed, and fines were laid out for those who failed to follow the provisions of the act. Most importantly, it amounted to taxation without representation — the colonists did not have any say in the government that controlled them, so they felt they should not have to pay taxes.
In October 1765 a special congress was convened in New York City, consisting of twenty-eight representatives from nine colonies. Their fruitful fifteen-day meeting resulted in the creation of a document of remonstrances against Great Britain, a precursor to the Declaration of Independence eleven years later. It was also a new experience for the colonies — working together as one united body in opposition to their oppressor. The outcry helped lead to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, signaling the beginning of the end for England's reign over the colonies. Rather than exerting more control over the American territory, England began to lose its grip on the New World.
What They Were Saying
Lord Camden, of the House of Peers (British Parliament), 1765:
My position is this. I repeat it, I will maintain it to my last hour; taxation and representation are inseparable. This position is founded on the laws of nature. It is more, it is itself an eternal law of nature. For whatever is a man's own, it is absolutely his own. No man has a right to take it from him without his consent. Whoever attempts to do it, attempts an injury; whoever does it, commits a robbery.
William Pitt, of the House of Commons (British Parliament), 1765:
You have no right to tax America. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of our fellow subjects so lost to every sense of virtue, as tamely to give up their liberties, would be fit instruments to make slaves of the rest ... Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the house what is really my opinion. It is, that the stamp-act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned, because it is founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies, be asserted in as strong; terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever. That we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent!
from the New York group Sons of Liberty, 1766:
Resolved: That we will go to the last extremity and venture our lives and fortunes effectively to prevent the said Stamp-Act from ever taking place in this city and province. Resolved: That any person who shall deliver out or receive any instrument of writing upon stamped paper ... agreeable to the said act shall incur the highest resentment of this society, and be branded with ever-lasting infamy. Resolved: That the persons who carry on business as formerly on unstamped paper ... shall be protected to the utmost power of this society ... Resolved: That we will to the utmost of our power maintain the peace and good order of this city so far as it can be done consistently with the preservation of our rights and privileges
* * *
During the eighteenth century, tea was a more valuable commodity than it is today. Tea plants only grew in warm climates in distant lands and had to be transported by ship across thousands of miles to get to America. Though earlier taxes from the 1760s had been repealed, England retained a small tax on tea and granted a monopoly for selling tea to America to the East India Company. Even though their tax was lower than what British citizens paid for their tea, the colonists rebelled. They refused to buy the tea that was to be taxed and were angry over being taxed without representation. They were also upset about being forced to buy through the East India Company. Tea-carrying East India Company ships approaching New York and Philadelphia were not allowed to dock. In Boston, however, the governor prevented the people from sending the newly arrived ships away. Samuel Adams and other patriots argued for the rejection of the tea ships, but the governor held firm. After days of tension, a few dozen men dressed as Native Americans boarded the ships and dumped 342 crates (45 tons) of precious tea into the Boston Harbor, in what became known as the Boston Tea Party. In response, an angry Parliament devised a bill that shut down the port of Boston for business until the city repaid what had been lost in tea (one of the so-called Intolerable Acts passed by a furious English government). A year later, in September 1774, the first Continental Congress met to show support for Massachusetts and to proclaim their right of self-government.
What They Were Saying
Samuel Adams (patriot, future Declaration of Independence signer), circa 1769:
We will not submit to any tax, nor become slaves. We will take up arms, and spend our last drop of blood before the King and Parliament shall impose on us, and settle crown officers in this country to dragoon us. The country was first settled by our ancestors, therefore we are free, and want no king. The times were never better in Rome than when they had no king and were a free state; and as this is a great empire, we shall have it in our power to give laws to England.
from a letter by John Dickinson, a patriot whose nickname was "the Penman of the Revolution," 1773:
I am very sorry for the Piece of Intelligence you were pleased to communicate to me in your last, five Ships, loaded with tea, on their Way to America, and this with a View not only to enforce the Revenue Act, but to establish a Monopoly for the East-India Company, who have espoused the Cause of the Ministry; and hope to repair their broken Fortunes by the Ruin of American freedom and Liberty! No Wonder the Minds of the People are exasperated, as you say, to a degree of Madness....
The Monopoly of Tea, is, I dare say, but a small Part of the Plan they have formed to strip us of our Property. But thank GOD, we are ... British Subjects, who are born to Liberty, who know its Worth, and who prize it high. We are engaged in a mighty Struggle. The Cause is of the utmost Importance, and the Determination of it will fix our Condition as Slaves or Freemen. It is not the paltry Sum of Three-Pence which is now demanded, but the Principle upon which it is demanded, that we are contending against. Before we pay any Thing, let us see whether we have any Thing we can call our own to pay ...
Our Houses, Stores and Wharves are at our own Disposal. Resolve, therefore, nobly resolve and publish to the World your Resolutions, that no Man will receive the Tea, no Man will let his Stores, nor suffer the Vessel, that brings it, to moor at his Wharf, and that if any Person assists in unlading, landing or storing it, he shall ever after be deemed an Enemy to his Country, and never be employed by his Fellow Citizens. I am sure, from what I have formerly known of our porters, there is not a Man among them, that will lend a Hand; and I question, whether among the whole Class of Labourers that ply about the Wharves, there will be found One, who would not rather go without his Dinner than, for double Wages, touch the accursed Trash. Believe me, my Friend, there is a Spirit of Liberty and a love of their Country among every Class of Men among us, which Experience will evince, and which shew them worthy the Character of free-born Americans.
Thomas Paine's Common Sense
* * *
Common Sense, by Thomas Paine, was a stirring pamphlet about the monarchy of England and the future of the colonies. Born in 1737, political philosopher and activist Thomas Paine was a newcomer to the colonies. He had arrived in 1774 after having met Benjamin Franklin in London. The British-born Paine was soon to become a fervent supporter of American independence. Paine's Common Sense (originally published anonymously) was a fiery piece in which emotional pleas were put forth alongside political facts. Common Sense was the perfect name for Paine's work, as it embraced everything that colonists wished to say. After he wrote Common Sense and another pamphlet supporting American independence, he received a sum of three thousand dollars from the government in 1785 in thanks for his support of the struggle for independence. He returned to Europe in 1787 and published a defense of the French Revolution in 1791. Called The Rights of Man, it was a fervent rebuttal to a work by Edmund Burke that opposed the French Revolution and criticized the British government. Paine was forced to leave Britain in 1792 and spent many years in France, hoping for a British revolution. He finally returned to the United States in 1802, where he died in 1809.
What They Were Saying
from Memoirs of the Reign of George III, 1796:
This extraordinary production [a piece written by the British Edmund Burke] gave rise to numberless replies, of which by far the most memorable was that written by Thomas Paine, the author of the famous pamphlet styled COMMON SENSE, which by its almost magical effect: on the minds of the people of America, at a most important crisis, paved the way for the declaration of independency. His present work, RIGHTS OF MAN, was written with no less power of intellect and force of language; and made a correspondent, perhaps an indelible, impression upon the public mind. Not content with pointing out and exposing with the most sarcastic severity the absurdities and misrepresentations of Mr. Burke — not content with painting in just and striking colors the abuses and corruptions of the existing government, he with daring and unhallowed hand attacked the principles of the [British] constitution itself — describing it in terms the most indecent as radically vicious and tyrannical; and reprobating the introduction of aristocracy or monarchy, under whatever modifications, into any form of government, as a flagrant usurpation and invasion of the unalienable rights of man.
Excerpted from The Keys to American History by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2008 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Questions to Consider,
3 Young Republic,
4 The Seeds of Trouble,
5 Civil War,
6 Progress and Expansion,
7 America at War,
8 The Modern World,
Web Sites for References,