Americans have a lot of fun celebrating the United States of America on Independence Day every year. But do you know exactly what it is you’re celebrating? A lot of time, effort, and loss went into making this the greatest country on earth. Read about some of the most important documents in American history. The next time you see the flag flying high, you’ll know how it came to be.
The Mayflower Compact
In 1620, 102 Pilgrims set out for the New World on the Mayflower. They were traveling to Virginia to establish a colony, but storms threw them off course, and they landed near Cape Cod in Massachusetts instead. Although they ended up in a new destination, the Pilgrims realized they needed a set of rules to live by if they were going to survive and flourish. This led to some discontent among the group and leaders at first, but ultimately, they wrote and signed the Mayflower compact and established the Plymouth Colony. Yes, the document predates America, but it was important in bringing the colonists together and played a large role in their survival. Think about everything that would be missing from America today if they hadn’t signed the Mayflower Compact. Without that early attempt at democracy there would be no America, no Pilgrims, no “can do” spirit, and no Thanksgiving to celebrate every year.
The Declaration of Independence
America is a land of historic firsts, and the United States was the first nation to declare independence from their government. At this point, no other group of people in the world had sent a formal document stating their desire for freedom. This document started the Revolutionary War and the fight for the rights of the colonials. The movement continued to grow, and more people wanted their freedom from England. To achieve this, our founding fathers composed the Declaration of Independence, which citizens formally adopted on July 4, 1776. King George II of England tried to stamp out the revolution with his massive army and navy, but we all know how that worked out for him. Lady Liberty and her bald eagle of freedom were too strong for the English, and America was officially born.
The Articles of Confederation was America’s first constitution, but it didn’t give the central government enough authority to keep things in order. At that time, the states were a loose confederation that acted as independent countries. Luckily, leaders recognized this to be a problem. Shortly after smashing the English in the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton called a constitutional convention to discuss the matter. In May of 1787, the framers gathered to discuss, plan, and write the greatest collection of words ever put to paper. The Constitution established our form of government and the separation of powers among three branches of government.
The Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are collectively known as the Bill of Rights. James Madison introduced 19 amendments to the House of Representatives, Congress adopted 12, and the states ratified 10 of them. And on September 25, 1791, they became part of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees certain basic freedoms to everyone in the United States. For example, freedom of religion, speech, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to a fair and speedy trial. Most Americans don’t know all the Amendments and what they provide to the populace. However, every red-blooded American is aware of the most important Amendment—the one that gives us the right to bear arms, The Second Amendment! There have been thousands of proposed amendments over the years, but because the process is so long, one rarely makes it through. To put it into perspective, an amendment introduced in 1789 for congressional pay raises did not become ratified until 1992.
The Monroe Doctrine
This document is important because it is an early example of why no one should mess with America. During a routine annual message to Congress in 1823, President James Monroe addressed the rest of the world. Specifically, he warned European powers to not interfere in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. To further establish this demand, leaders drafted the Monroe Doctrine. It plainly says the U.S. will not tolerate any further colonization or puppet regimes in the Americas or the Western Hemisphere. However, this document didn’t just help America. In 1865, the United States exerted diplomatic and military pressure to support Mexican president Benito Juarez and cited the Monroe Doctrine. The support allowed Juarez to lead a revolt against Emperor Maximillian—a powerful member of the French government.
The Louisiana Purchase
Many scholars hold the Louisiana Purchase as one of the most important documents in American history, on par with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. In December of 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte abruptly sold 830,000 square miles of land to the United States. Upon signing the deal, the country doubled in size. The land sold was the size of France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and the British Isles combined. President Thomas Jefferson paid the French $15 million for the land—roughly four cents an acre. No matter which way you look at it, that’s a good deal. The sweetest berry in that bunch, of course, was the acquisition of what would become New Orleans. Without this important city, there would be no Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras—America would be a lesser place without it.
The Check for the Purchase of Alaska
The United States always pays its bills… or at least it used to. Secretary of State William Seward bought Alaska from the Russians for $7 million. The sale price came out to less than two cents an acre, which was cheaper than the Louisiana Purchase. However, many citizens criticized the purchase. They called it Seward’s Folly, or Seward’s Ice Box. But it wasn’t long before people changed their minds about the acquisition of Alaska. Although it took some time, once someone found gold in the Klondike region in 1898, people flooded Alaska and quickly changed their minds. As such, the check the U.S. treasury wrote to Russia is an important piece of paper, even though there is some confusion surrounding it. The canceled check resides in the national archives in Washington, D.C. The odd part, though, is there is a stamp on the check that says “PAID.” However, there is no word on who cashed or where the money ended up.
The United States’ history is full of passion, pride, and patriotism, and these are just a few moments worth celebrating. As Americans, it’s important we educate ourselves on the history of our country and the documents that made it the great place it is today. We’re confident your next Fourth of July get-together is sure to be something special. Break out your red, white, and blue baseball jersey, grab a case of beer, and share your knowledge about the most important documents in American history with other proud citizens.