Access Five of the Most Important Documents in American History
Today, there is no shortage of resources available online and elsewhere to help students appreciate the essentials of an education in American History. No longer are textbooks and in-class lectures the only means a person has to learn about the history of our great country. In fact, students and American history buffs alike now have the opportunity to easily access and read some of the most important documents drafted throughout the country’s history, all at the click of a button.
The sheer number of historical documents available to read (often showcased in their original form) can be daunting without knowing which ones are considered the most important. Documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution (including its various amendments throughout history), the Bill of Rights, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Truman Doctrine are each documents that were drafted during pivotal moments in the country’s history. Therefore, no education in American history is complete without an in-depth familiarity with the various documents that have helped to shape the United States into what it is today.
Five of the Most Important Documents in American History
The Declaration of Independence
The American Declaration of Independence is known the world over as one of the most important nation-building documents, if not the most important. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence was then reviewed and approved by the Continental Congress in 1776, thereby setting into motion a chain of events that would win the United States its independence from Great Britain.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” is perhaps the most important sentence from the Declaration of Independence. Although the United States has yet to fully live up to this proclamation in its consideration of its own citizens as a whole, the statement itself is recognized throughout the world as being a crucial step towards accepting all people for who and what they are, and offering them the protections they deserve under the law.
The United States Constitution
As the first legal document of its kind, the U.S. Constitution, like the Declaration of Independence, is a foundational document in the creation of the United States as a fledgling, independent nation. The document was drafted and ratified at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia following a series of governing problems resulting from the relatively weak legal scope of the previous Articles of Confederation.
The drafting of the document was mostly influenced by James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton’s philosophical debate about the need for a strong central government in what is today known as the Federalist Papers. Since then, the U.S. Constitution has been a model for new democracies and republics that have sprouted up throughout the world ever since. Moreover, several key amendments have been added to the Constitution in order to grant protections for people whom the Founding Fathers had little reason or foreknowledge to consider equal under the law at the time, such as women and African-Americans.
The Bill of Rights
As the first series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights was an attempt to enumerate the various unalienable rights citizens of the United States held that weren’t already laid out in the Constitution. These rights include the right to free speech, the protection from unreasonable search and seizure (or the right to privacy) and the right to have a trial by jury, just to name a few.
Since then, the Bill of Rights has done much to shape the American people’s concept of freedom under the law. While it took nearly two centuries for many citizens of the United States to be covered equally under the bill, many citizens still struggle each day to have their rights respected and their voices heard. Fortunately, the Bill of Rights still exists in its original form and provides an excellent basis for many to successfully petition the government if they feel their rights are being infringed upon.
The Emancipation Proclamation
On the eve of January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that would legally emancipate slaves in the states that were rebelling against the Union during the Civil War. This was not only important for being the first highly publicized action taken by a United States president to end slavery, but an important step in healing the country’s international reputation, which had long suffered due to the country’s continued acceptance of slavery at the Federal level. It was also a crucial step taken on the part of Lincoln to reaffirm the power of the central Federal government during a time when the United States’ dissolution into chaos seemed more and more certain.
While the document itself is extremely important and hangs inside of the White House on display, many feel Lincoln’s proclamation did little to help the lot of African Americans during this tumultuous period. In fact, because the Southern Confederacy was at war with the Northern Union, the proclamation had little to no impact in offering safety to emancipated slaves in the Confederate regions. Moreover, the proclamation did not affect several of the border slave states such as Missouri and Kansas“”both of which were still part of the Union. These critiques aside, because the document was the first major step towards recognizing African Americans as free and equal citizens of the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation must be considered one of the most critical historical documents in American history.
The Truman Doctrine
Two years following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States’ place as one of the most powerful nations on Earth was all but ensured. President Harry S. Truman had viewed the United States’ resounding success during the war as a call to action for the country to begin participating more heavily in global affairs. The Truman Doctrine of 1947 documented this intent, and was the first major policy enacted by a U.S. President that would specifically “support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
What the Truman Doctrine did, in the immediate sense, was give the president the political power needed to contain the spread of Soviet Communism into Greece as the country became weakened by civil war. The Doctrine set in motion an era of American exceptionalism, wherein the United States’ foreign policy would assist groups militarily throughout the globe in the fight against incompatible ideologies, such as totalitarianism and communism.
While the Marshall Plan, which almost immediately followed the Truman Doctrine in 1948, did much more to prove that America had the wealth and resources to help reconstruct both Western Europe and East Asia, the Plan would not have been possible without the intent on the part of President Truman to get involved “”by force or otherwise””in mid-20th century global affairs. As a result, the Truman Doctrine was key to setting the stage for the American foreign policy of today.
There are several ways to read the five document discussed above online or in print, and everyone with even a passing interest in American history should commit some time to reading them. The National Archives of the United States is a great place to start. Not only do the Archives offer excellent quality images of documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the site also includes background information and a listing of resources having to do with each document. Ourdocuments.gov is also an excellent resource to find images and transcripts of important American historical documents.
With the sheer number of resources available to assist in your investigation of the most important documents in American History, getting a fuller perspective of the history and discourse that have shaped American society is truly just as easy as clicking a button.