The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution
The American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution of the United States (ratified 1789) are the foundational documents of the United States. They capture the philosophy of the young republic as well as reflect changing attitudes in the country at large to the present. A clear understanding of each document is an essential part of one's education as a citizen, but they are also complex historical texts which yield fascinating glimpses of the past.
In both documents, the authors lay out their political philosophies and, most importantly for our purposes in this course, draw the frontier and boundary lines which come to govern American political life. When reading each document, spend some time examining the underlying meaning of the language which the authors use, and be careful to distinguish between contemporary uses of those terms -- like "citizen" or "nation" -- and historical uses. Also, consider the questions below, which will illustrate some issues for examination in the texts.
- Questions to Consider:
- 1) Outline the claims for justification of the colonies' separation from England in the Declaration of Independence. What are the foundations of these claims? What are the assumptions which lie behind them?
- 2) Think about Turner's "Frontier Thesis," and then examine these claims. To what degree are the colonists acting "like Americans" in Turner's sense? To what degree are they claiming that they are more "civilized" than the England they are leaving behind?
- 3) What are the borders which are drawn in the Declaration of Independence? Are they geographical borders, or philosophical ones?
- 4) Compare the claims of the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution; in what ways does the latter text continue and in what ways diverge from the claims and goals of the former? To what do you attribute these continuities and divergences?
- 5) What are the borders and frontiers drawn in the Constitution? Who "counts" in the Constitution, and who does not? In what ways does being on the "wrong" side of a frontier or border result in one's not "counting"?
- 6) Examine the Constitution, and then examine the "Bill of Rights." What excesses of government do the first ten amendments prevent? What borders are drawn in these amendments?
- Further Readings:
- Joseph J. Ellis, What Did the Declaration Declare? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999).
- Edward Countryman, What Did the Constitution Mean to Early Americans? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999).
- Wilbourn E. Benton, ed., 1787: Drafting the U.S. Constitution (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1986).
- J. R. Pole, ed., The American Constitution, For and Against: The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers (New York : Hill and Wang, 1987).
- Richard G. Stevens, The American Constitution and Its Provenance (Lanham, Md. : Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).
- Barbara Lamm, The American Constitution in Context (Commack, N.Y. : Nova Science Publishers, 1996).
- Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September, 1787 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1966).
- Further Resources:
- The National Archives's "Declaration of Independence Page, including images of the original document and background information about the signers.
- The National Archives's, "Constitution Page," including images of the original document and background information about the convention and ratification.
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (American Frontiers and Borderlands), Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Tuesday 5 September 2000.