Below is a general overview of the events leading up to the American Revolution and the events that subsequently established the United States of America. To download a more detailed version of the timeline, click here.
- 1764 - 1767
- The British Parliament passed a series of Acts against the Colonists, such as the Sugar Act, Stamp Act and Townshend Acts, which taxed Colonists to pay for British expenses.
- The Colonists held the Boston Tea Party, in which they rebelled against the British tax on tea by boarding ships carrying the taxed tea and dumping cases of tea overboard into Boston Harbor in Massachusetts.
- In response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts to punish Massachusetts, and Boston Harbor was closed to commerce. The First Continental Congress met at Carpenters' Hall in September 1774 to draw up a Declaration of Rights and Grievances and an appeal to King George III. This was in response to the Colonies' outrage towards the British Parliament over punishing Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. It was at Carpenters' Hall during the First Continental Congress that Patrick Henry stated, "The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, New Englanders are no more. I am not a Virginian but an American."
- The Revolutionary War began with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April. In May, the Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia and later appointed George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. The Second Continental Congress continued to meet until 1781 and during its tenure, the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence and adopted the Articles of Confederation, the first governing document (see below under 1777).
- In January, Thomas Paine published Common Sense in Philadelphia. This pamphlet fostered support against the British. In June, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence at the Jacob Graff House (also known today as the Declaration House) in Philadelphia. The Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, America's birthday.
- The British soldiers occupied Philadelphia from September 1777 to June of 1778. During their occupation, the British pillaged the City, and many American prisoners of war died and were buried in Washington Square, one block from Independence Hall. After almost a year of debate, the Second Continental Congress approved the Articles of Confederation, establishing the first form of American government.
- Benjamin Franklin formed an alliance between the United States and France, against Great Britain; France and Great Britain would then go to war against one another.
- In March, the Articles of Confederation went into effect after ratification by the states.
- The United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris to officially end the American Revolutionary War. Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States and withdrew its troops.
- Shay's Rebellion occurred in Massachusetts. Due to the lack of a Federal response to this armed uprising, there were newly energized calls to reevaluate the Articles of Confederation. Further, this rebellion gave strong impetus to the Constitutional Convention, which began in May 1787.
- The Constitutional Convention met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia during the hot summer of 1787 to draft, debate and then sign The United States Constitution on September 17th, 1787.
- The United States Constitution went into effect, establishing the three branches of government (Executive, Judicial and Legislative) that still oversee our country today.
- The first Congress under the new (and current) Constitution met in New York City. George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States.
- On April 17, Benjamin Franklin died at the age of 84. Philadelphia became the nation's temporary Capital while the permanent site in Washington, D.C. was developed near the Potomac River.
- Ten Amendments, also known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the new Constitution of the United States. The First Bank of the United States was chartered by Congress and President Washington in Philadelphia, under the direction of the First Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.
- George Washington was inaugurated into his second term as President of the United States.
- John Adams was inaugurated into his first and only term as the second President of the United States at Congress Hall in Philadelphia.
- The United States Government relocated from Philadelphia to its new home in Washington, D.C., which is bordered by the states of Maryland and Virginia.
Signing of the United States Constitution by Junius Brutus Stearns, oil on canvas 1856
The transition from the Articles of Confederation to the United States Constitution wasn't a seamless one, and fixing the problems of the Articles of Confederation required a series of lengthy debates both during and after the convention. But one thing was certain, something had to be changed. Fifty-five Delegates met at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to determine how best to adjust the existing document.
The Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation were:
- Each state only had one vote in Congress, regardless of size
- Congress didn't have the power to tax, or to regulate foreign and interstate commerce
- There was no executive branch to enforce any acts passed by Congress
- There was no national court system
- Amendments to the Articles of Confederation required a unanimous vote
- Laws required a 9/13 majority to pass in Congress
These weaknesses introduced a great deal of interstate conflict, something that delegates, through the drafting of the Constitution, tried their best to solve. However, under the Articles, when the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution in 1787, it needed the ratification from nine states before it could go into effect. This was not easy. And the push for ratification brought on a seemingly endless barrage of documents, articles, and pamphlets both supporting and opposing it.
There were two sides to the Great Debate: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. The Federalists wanted to ratify the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists did not. One of the major issues these two parties debated concerned the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. The Federalists felt that this addition wasn't necessary, because they believed that the Constitution as it stood only limited the government not the people. The Anti- Federalists claimed the Constitution gave the central government too much power, and without a Bill of Rights the people would be at risk of oppression.
James Madison, Father of the Constitution
Led by Alexander Hamilton, albeit secretly at first, the Federalists were the first political party of the United States. They supported the Constitution, and attempted to convince the States to ratify the document. Hamilton, along with John Jay and James Madison, anonymously published a series of essays known as the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius."
Both Hamilton and Madison argued that the Constitution didn't need a Bill of Rights, that it would create a "parchment barrier" that limited the rights of the people, as opposed to protecting them. However, they eventually made the concession and announced a willingness to take up the matter of the series of amendments which would become the Bill of Rights. Without this compromise, the Constitution may never have been ratified by the States.
Surprisingly enough, it was Federalist James Madison who eventually presented the Bill of Rights to Congress despite his former stance on the issue.
Patrick Henry, Opposer of the Constitution
In the ratification debate, the Anti-Federalists opposed to the Constitution. They complained that the new system threatened liberties, and failed to protect individual rights. The Anti-Federalists weren't exactly a united group, but instead involved many elements.
One faction opposed the Constitution because they thought stronger government threatened the sovereignty of the states. Others argued that a new centralized government would have all the characteristics of the despotism of Great Britain they had fought so hard to remove themselves from. And still others feared that the new government threatened their personal liberties.
During the push for ratification, many of the articles in opposition were written under pseudonyms, such as "Brutus," " Centinel", and "Federal Farmer," but some famous revolutionary figures such as Patrick Henry came out publicly against the Constitution.
Although the Anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in the prevention of the adoption of the Constitution, their efforts were responsible for the creation and implementation of the Bill of Rights.
Reaction in the States
In Rhode Island resistance against the Constitution was so strong that civil war almost broke out on July 4, 1788, when anti-federalist members of the Country Party led by Judge William West marched into Providence with over 1,000 armed protesters.
Although not all of the States underwent the extreme of the Rhode Island case, many of them had a bit of difficulty deciding which side they were on. This uncertainty played a major role in the ratification convention in Massachusetts. Finally, after long debate, a compromise (the "Massachusetts Compromise") was reached. Massachusetts would ratify the Constitution, and in the ratifying document strongly suggest that the Constitution be amended with a bill of rights.
Four of the next five states to ratify, including New Hampshire, Virginia, and New York, included similar language in their ratification instruments. As a result, after the Constitution was enacted, Congress sent a set of twelve amendments to the states. Ten of these amendments were immediately ratified into the Bill of Rights.
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