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Societal Impacts of the American Revolution

12c. Political Experience

The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights

Every society needs a set of rules by which to operate. After the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, they had to write their own constitutions. Impassioned with the republican spirit of the Revolution, political leaders pointed their ideals toward crafting "enlightened" documents. The result was thirteen republican laboratories, each experimenting with new ways of realizing the goals of the Revolution. In addition, representatives from all the colonies worked together to craft the Articles of Confederation, which itself provided the nascent nation with invaluable experience.

The state constitutions had much in common with each other. Fearful of a strong monarch, the states were reluctant to grant sweeping powers to a new government. Most governors were kept purposefully weak to deter an individual from aspiring to regal status or power. The legislative and judicial branches were elected regularly, so voters could hold them regularly accountable for their actions. Most states granted their people a Bill of Rights to protect treasured liberties from the threat of future despotism. Property requirements were still maintained, but in many cases they were lowered. Although the wealthy maintained a disproportionately large percentage of legislative seats, their influence was diminished. This is reflected in the post-Revolutionary transfer of state capitals from wealthy seaboard towns to the interior. At least seven states moved their centers of government. The most notable changes occurred in Pennsylvania, which moved its capital from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, and in New York, which transferred its governing seat from New York City to Albany.

Massachusetts developed an idea that would soon be implemented by the entire nation. They made any changes to their constitution possible only by constitutional convention. This inspired the nation's leaders to ratify changes in the Articles of Confederation the same way. Truly political ideals of equality were set into place in the states before the war even came to a close.

On the Web
Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
The idea of a convention of delegates to amend a constitution originated in Massachusetts, and the idea took root in the federal constitution as well. This text of the Massachusetts constitution has links to its amendments, so the reader can trace its development over time.
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union
The Articles of Confederation, the first "constitution" of the united states, were drafted by the Continental Congress in 1777. This page from the Archiving Early America website gives an overview of the document which established a "firm league of friendship" and provides a link to the full text.
The Right to Bear Arms: Development of the American Experience
This essay examines the right to bear arms as it developed from the early obligation of colonists to bear arms (Virginia statute of 1623), through colonial charters and early state constitutions, and finally to the Bill of Rights.
Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography
Thomas Jefferson's personal recollections of some of the most important events in American history are the subject of his autobiography. He discusses the drafting of many of our historical documents, including the Stamp Act Resolutions, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, all with links to the full texts. Use your browser to search for a keyword, or jump ahead to the Articles of Confederation.
Jefferson's recollections of the debate on the Articles of Confederation
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Get it straight from the man who was there. At age 77, Thomas Jefferson wrote his autobiography. There is a lot of personal information here as well as his recollections of some of the most important events in American history. Great reading!
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The Articles of Confederation gave Congress the power to declare war or make peace, to conduct foreign affairs, and to maintain an army and navy, but it could not collect taxes or enforce laws!
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