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BIG IDEA: The American Revolution led to different outcomes for different groups of people. It was good for landowners and artisans, but not good for loyalists, slaves and Native Americans.

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. The introduction laid out basic ideas about human freedom and the meaning of America. Over time we have expanded our idea of what the Declaration means and who it applies to. For example, in the beginning the phrase “all men are created equal” only applied to White men who owned property. Today, we include men and women of all races and all stations in life.

Soldiers who fought in the War for Independence had a difficult time. In the beginning of the war, the American army was made up of various volunteer militias. As the war progressed, Washington fashioned a professional army, but they were poorly paid and poorly equipped by Congress and mutinies and desertion were common. At the end of the war, the army was a powerful force and the people and the government were suspicious that military officers might try to take power for themselves.

Loyalists were treated poorly throughout the war and especially afterward. Many fled to Britain or Canada.

The Revolution was not an advancement in freedom for African Americans. The British offered freedom for slaves who agreed to fight for the British army, so the Americans were effectively fighting to perpetuate slavery. There was a rise in the population of free African Americans in the North during the war and institutions such as churches developed. The ideas of liberty expressed in the Declaration were embraced by African Americans in later generations who used it as a rallying cry for emancipation and civil rights.

Although women contributed a great deal to the success of the war effort, they were not included in the new governments that followed. Women did become the primary teachers of revolutionary ideas to their children, thus gaining the position of preservers and perpetuators of the essential nature of the American experiment.

Native Americans lost badly. Tribes had almost universally supported the British who had promised to help secure their land rights against encroaching American settlers. The British loss contributed to efforts by Native American leaders to form intertribal alliances between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River area against the new American nation.

Because the Founding Fathers gave voting rights to White men who owned land, small farmers came out of the Revolution as victors.  Artisans such as silversmith Paul Revere also came out of the Revolution well.  Of course, most of the Founding Fathers were wealthy landowners and they also benefited from the Revolution.


BIG IDEA: For the first few years of American independence, the federal government was weak and ineffective at dealing with major problems. A rebellion in Massachusetts eventually pushed leaders to seek a new system of government.

During the War for Independence the states and Congress formed new systems of government. These formed the basis for ideas that would eventually become part of the Constitution.

The national government was organized under a set of rules called the Articles of Confederation. It emphasized state power, giving only limited responsibility to the national congress. This was because the Revolution had been prompted by conflicts with a powerful national government in Britain that Americans believed had too much authority. Having a weak central government led to problems down the road.

There were some important political agreements made during the Articles of Confederation government. Most notably, Congress agreed to a set of laws laying out the process for the lands of the Old Northwest (today’s Midwest) to become states. Within these laws were the seeds of the Civil War since they banned slavery in the territory. The laws ignored Native Americans.

An economic crisis in the 1780s increased social problems and showed the weaknesses of the government. In Massachusetts, poor farmers could not afford to pay back loans and found themselves in danger of losing land or going to debtor’s prison. Daniel Shays led a rebellion of these farmers against that state government. His rebellion failed, but it showed the rift between the wealthy who dominated government, and the people. It also showed the need for a strong federal government to maintain domestic security.


BIG IDEA: The creation of the Constitution and our current system of government was due to problems that existed in the late 1780s and was the result of a series of compromises. The Founding Fathers tried to enshrine the ideals of the Revolution in a functioning system of government.

Colonial leaders met in Philadelphia to find solutions to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Their first important decision was to discard the Articles altogether and start over.

George Washington served as the Constitutional Convention’s president, but James Madison was the intellectual leader and primary author of the new system of government.

One important debate was the nature of the legislature. Populous states wanted a legislature that would have representation based on population. Smaller states promoted a plan for equal representation for each state. The Great Compromise produced our current Congress with a House of Representatives and a Senate.

The Founding Fathers were concerned about too much democracy. They created the Electoral College as a forum for debate in the selection of the president, thus insulating the president from the fickle will of the people. Our strange system of electing presidents today in a winner-take-all system is due to this early decision.

The Constitution protected slavery. It included requirements that states help return runaway slaves and gave slaves states extra representatives in the House. Slaves could be counted as 3/5 of a person.

The Preamble lays out the purpose of government. Its opening words “We the People” emphasize the idea that government represents the people’s wishes and is chosen by the people.


BIG IDEA: The debate about ratification of the new Constitution divided the nation’s leaders but led to the creation of the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution could not take effect until 9 of the 13 states ratified it. This led to an important period during which the public debated the merits of the new form of government. Central to this debate was the balance of power between the states and the federal government. Also important was the idea of individual freedom and the power of government over people.

Federalists liked the new more powerful federal government. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were Federalists. With John Jay they wrote the Federalists Papers to explain the virtues of the new Constitution. Their work remains an important explanation of the ideas that underlie our system of government.

Anti-Federalists saw the new Constitution as dangerous. They believed that states should hold more power than the federal government. Thomas Jefferson led this faction. Their most important objection was that the Constitution had no protections for individuals. The Federalists argued that separating power between three branches would prevent the government from becoming too powerful and taking away people’s rights. However, the Anti-Federalists won the argument.

In the end, the Constitution was adopted as the Federalists wanted, and a Bill of Rights was added as the Anti-Federalists wanted. The Bill of Rights protects many of the basic freedoms that the British had violated before the Revolution. These include the right to free speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. It guarantees the right to a trial by jury, protection from warrantless search and seizure and the right to own a gun.