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Our American Heritage

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, visited the United States of America. He was so impressed by what he witnessed during his visit that when he returned to France he wrote his famous Democracy in America, which included his many observations of the American way of life. He was quite impressed with the educational system in America, stating that the history of this country and leading features of the U.S. Constitution were taught to every school child. He wrote: "it is extremely rare to find a man imperfectly acquainted with all these things, and a person wholly ignorant of them is a sort of phenomenon."

The following pages are dedicated to the eradication of any such "phenomenon" as may exist today regarding the leading features of our Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.

Our Colonial History | Read the Bill of Rights
Learn more about the Constitutional Convention

Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1776, the signing of the Declaration of Independence for American freedom from British rule marked the beginning of the official rebellion against England. Factors which led to this event included excessive taxation without representation, unfair trade practices, unwarranted search and seizure of property by agents of the Crown, trial by military judge rather than a jury of peers, and use of excessive force against American colonialists.

President George WashingtonBorn in Westmoreland County, Virginia, George Washington (1732-1799) was educated at home by his father and older brother. In his youth he worked as a surveyor. At the age of 20 he inherited large plantations from his brother, and was appointed to the rank of major in the Virginia militia. One year later, he obtained the office of Master Mason in the Freemasons, a position that would have a life-long influence. Washington's military experience was gained during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). In 1759, he married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, and they moved to his plantation, Mount Vernon where he continued as a prosperous planter owning more than 100 slaves. In 1775 he was appointed Major General of the Continental Army.

James MadisonJames Madison (1751-1836) was born in Port Conway, Virginia, son of a prosperous tobacco plantation owner. The plantation utilized as their labor force both indentured persons and slaves. Highly educated for his day, Madison graduated from what is known today as Princeton University, and continued with graduate studies. Serving in the Virginia state legislature from 1776-1779 he is probably best known as the author of the Virginia Plan, which became the working foundation of the U.S. Constitution. Madison's plan brought forth the revolutionary notion of a three-branched federal government. With Thomas Jefferson, Madison wrote the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom which accomplished separation of church and state, removed the law regarding compulsory church attendance, and disestablished the Church of England as Virginia's state-sanctioned religion.

Franklin reading

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a man of many talents. He was an author, newspaper editor, printer, inventor (developing the first phonetic alphabet), scientist, civic activist, politician, statesman, and diplomat. He formed the first public lending library in America and the first fire department in Pennsylvania. He also played a major role in establishing the University of Pennsylvania. As representative for the American cause before Parliament, he was able to get the House of Commons to repeal the Stamp Act. In June of 1776, he was appointed as a member of the "committee of five" that drafted the Declaration of Independence. At the signing of this Declaration he stated: "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Thomas JeffersonLike Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a polymath with diverse interests and skills. An author and inventor, he was also interested in architecture, horticulture, archeology, and paleontology. His political experience included being governor of Virginia, and statesman to France during their Enlightenment era. He was the first U.S. Secretary of State, America's second vice president under John Adams, and then served as America's third president. He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He favored state's rights, a strictly limited federal government, and separation of church and state, having co-authored Virginia's Declaration of Religious Freedom. As plantation owner, he held slaves as laborers. He was responsible for the founding the University of Virginia.

The Task Facing Our Founding Fathers

Today most people have no idea what took place in Philadelphia the summer of 1787 when our founding fathers gathered together to develop a constitution that would become the "law of the land" in the newly independent America. At the time of the war for independence, there were 13 separate colonies. After independence was won from England these became 13 separate states. With only an Article of Confederation giving them loose connection for commercial purposes, similar to the current European Union, these 13 states were independently self-governed. Most of the states had their own monetary system and were suspicious of the other states' financial stability (or instability) for, because of the war, most were deeply in debt. They would only deal with other states through specie (gold or silver), considering their paper money worthless. It was under these conditions that the fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia to consider necessary changes and additions to the Articles of Confederation, to create a document that would unite all the states under one common government.

The founders of our nation (the framers of the Constitutional government) were well aware of the history of the 13 colonies prior to 1776. They remembered the problems caused in Virginia when the state wanted all residents to support through taxation the state's Anglican church system. Baptists who were living there during this time strongly objected, and rightly so, to being taxed to support a church they didn't attend. Rhode Island was so fearful of losing its religious freedom that it wouldn't even send representatives down to the convention in Philadelphia. Rhode Islanders were highly suspicious about what was taking place there in the formation of a new "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Other issues such as states rights (or state sovereignty), federalism, equal representation of all citizens regardless of the size of the state in which they resided, and slavery as a part of the economy of the Southern states, were major issues to be considered and dealt with during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Page Two of Our American Heritage

Read a synopsis of the colonial history that the Founders knew and which informed them as they wrote our great Constitution of the United States. On the following pages you will learn more of America's colonial beginnings. Go there now.

To learn more about the American Constitutional Convention, read this page (coming soon!)

Sources for further study

  • "In God We Trust" The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers; written by Norman Cousins.
  • Miracle at Philadelphia, The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787; by Catherine Drinker Bowen.
  • The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America; Frank Lambert.
  • A Patriot's History of the United States, from Columbus's Great Discovery to the War on Terror; Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen.
  • The Heritage Guide to the Constitution; Edwin Meese, III, ed.
  • The American Pageant, A History of the Republic; Thomas A. Bailey.
  • The Words We Life By, Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution; Linda R. Monk.
  • The Constitutional Convention (from the notes of James Madison); narrated by Edward J. Larson and Michael P. Winship.

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