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Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789

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summary of resources

The 274 broadsides in Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, chronicle the founding of our nation from Colonial resistance to British rule and the Revolutionary War, through the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. The collections include the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, drafts of the Constitution, resolutions, proclamations, and treaties.

special presentations
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

To Form a More Perfect Union: An Introduction to the Congressional Documents
Timeline: America during the Age of Revolution
Timeline: Colonial Period

historical eras
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

The American Revolution, 1763-1783
The New Nation, 1780-1815

related collections and exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation, 1774-1873
Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents
The George Washington Papers, 1741-1799
Map Collections, 1500-2004
Memory section, American Treasures of the Library of Congress
Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation
Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827

other resources
Recommended additional sources of information.

Manuscripts: Congress
Manuscripts: Founding of a Nation
Read More About It! - A bibliography

search tips
Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Search for items using keywords, or by browsing the Subject Index.

Searches for individuals with common first names (such as James, John, George, and Thomas) result in large hit lists. To narrow results, search on last name only or look for exact matches with an individual's first and last name.

Generally, broadsides do not cite authors. Searching for famous patriots will produce results if the name appears within the full text of a document, if the individual was a signer of the document, or if the individual was cited in the bibliographic record.

For help with search words, go to Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention Subject Index and the Synonym List.

For help with search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.

viewing tips

You can read and search all of the text in this collection without special viewers. However, to see images of broadsides or the SGML version of the text, you may need special viewers. For help with viewers, go to American Memory Viewer Information.

Note: Illustrations in Learn More About It! are taken from the Special Presentation To Form a More Perfect Union: An Introduction to the Congressional Documents and the exhibit Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents.

u.s. history

A broadside (or broadsheet) is a large sheet of paper, usually printed on one side. Citizens would read posted broadsides and gather to discuss their content. Broadsides set the stage for the open public debate and free press that became ideals in our society. These broadside collections document the hopes, fears, motivations, and interests of Americans who fought the Revolutionary War and created the United States Constitution.

1) The collection contains classic documents of the Revolutionary War era including the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.

Congress Search on Articles of Confederation, Bill of Rights, Constitution, and Declaration of Independence.
In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776.
2) The broadsides document debate on issues such as states rights, balance of power, and branches of government. The broadsides record hallmark events in American history such as the call for the first presidential election and the establishment of the Supreme Court.

[The First Assembly of Congress]. François Godefroy (c.1743 - 1819). Mixed method, in Essais Historiques et Politiques sur la Revolution de l'Amerique Septentrionale, 1782.

Search on election, Congress, president, states rights, and Supreme Court for text such as:

Be it therefore ordained by the United States in Congress assembled, that a supreme court of appeals, for the United States of America, in all cases of captures, shall be constituted and established, and it is hereby constituted and established, to consist of three judges, to be chosen by ballot from time to time by Congress and commissioned by the president ... .

From the broadside: "The committee to whom the several ordinances relating to captures on water, were committed, report the following ordinance : In pursuance of the power vested in Congress by the Articles of Confederation ... it becomes necessary that a supreme court of appeals, in all cases of captures, should be constituted and established,..."1782?"

3) These broadsides present diverse views on how and why the Revolutionary War wasfought. The broadsides paint a picture of how colonists became convinced to fight a war for independence.

Join or Die

JOIN, or DIE. Artist unknown. Woodcut, in The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 9, 1754.

Search on broadsides and broadsheets to find rallying cries for the war for Independence. For example, search on broadsides for text such as:

A Plan was carried on by the British Ministry for several Years in a systematic Manner to enslave you to that Kingdom. After various Attempts in an artful and insidious Manner to bring into Practice the laying you under Tribute, they at last openly and decisively asserted their Right of making Laws to bind you in all Cases whatsoever.

From the broadside: "The representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, to the people in general, and particularly to the inhabitants of Pennsylvania, and the adjacent states." 1776.

4) These documents trace the legislative process. Many of the broadsides appear in several drafts. These drafts highlight the process of negotiation and compromise during this era. Debate over the new Constitution is well chronicled in the Constitutional Convention Broadsides.

Search on laws or legislation combined with specific topics.

  • For example, to study the development of the American monetary system, search on legislation, money for text such as:

    The weight, size or value of the several pieces of money that shall be made, or rather the most convenient value of the money unit, is a question not easily determined, considering that most of the citizens of the United States, are accustomed to count in pounds, shillings and pence; and that those sums are of different values in the different states...

    From the broadside: "Propositions respecting the coinage of gold, silver, and copper." 1785.

  • And text such as:

    [Resolved] That the money unit of the United States, being by the resolve of Congress of the 6th July, 1785, a dollar, shall contain of fine silver, three hundred and seventy-five grains, and sixty-four hundredths of a grain.

    From the broadside: "By the United States in Congress assembled. August 8, 1786 : On a report of the Board of Treasury..."

  • And the broadside: "An ordinance for the establishment of the mint of the United States of America, and for regulating the value and alloy of coin." Oct. 16, 1786.

5) Broadsides on the Revolutionary War effort are prevalent. The documents reveal the details and financial difficulties of organizing 13 separate governments and militias into a united fighting force.
George Washington

General Washington (1732-1799). Painted by John Trumbull (1756- 1843). Engraved by Valentine Green 1739-1813). Mezzotint, 1781

Search on continental, army, war, or George Washington to find out about the war effort. For example, search on continental for text such as:

And whereas great confusion hath arisen from the manner in which officers and soldiers have been paid for rations and parts of rations allowed to, but not drawn by, them respectively: Resolved, That the parts of a ration be estimated as follows, viz. For the daily allowance of beef, pork, or fish, Four-Ninetieths of a Dollar; of bread or flour, Two-Ninetieths; of pease or beans, One-Ninetieth; of milk, One-Ninetieth; of beer, One-Ninetieth; of rice, One-Half of a Ninetieth; and of soap, One-Half of a Ninetieth; making in the whole Ten-Ninetieths of a Dollar for each ration...

From the broadside: "In Congress, June 10, 1777 : Resolved, I. That for supplying the Army of the United States with provisions..."

6) Under the treaty of Paris (1783) which ended the war, Britain relinquished a large tract of land in the west. The collection traces Congressional debate over division, distribution, and governance of these territories. For example, Congress designated some of the territory lands as rewards for soldiers of the Continental Army.

Search on western territory for text such as:

Be it further ordained, That the secretary at war issue warrants for bounties of land to the several officers and soldiers of the late continental army who may be entitled to such bounties, or to their respective assigns or legal representatives, certifying therein the rank or station of each officer, and the line, regiment, corps and company in which the officer or soldier served.

From the broadside: "By the United States in Congress assembled. July 9, 1788: A supplement to an ordinance entitled An ordinance for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the Western Territory'."

7) As part of the debate over western territories, the early congress also debated treatment of and relationships with Native Americans. The collection covers Native American issues such as treaty formation, trade, and settlement of Native American lands.

Mohawk Indian

JOSEPH THAYENDANEKEN, Artist unknown. Mixed method, in The London Magazine, July 1776<P></TD>


Search on Indian, treaty, and the names of specific tribes (such as Shawnee, Cherokee, Mohawk and Wabash). For example, search on Indian for text such as:

[And be it further ordained,] That no person, citizen or other, under the penalty of five hundred dollars, shall reside among or trade with any Indian or Indian nation, within the territory of the United States, without a license for that purpose first obtained from the superintendant of the district...

From the broadside: "By the United States in Congress assembled. August 7, 1786 : An ordinance for the regulation of Indian affairs."

8) These broadsides do not present history from the perspective of the common citizen. The documents were written by patriot leaders steeped in the ideology of freedom and equality. While the broadsides do not commonly cite authors, many famous patriots are named in or are signers of the documents.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin

Detail from Signing of the Declaration of Independence. John Trumbull (1756-1843). Oil on canvas, c. 1819.

Search on James Monroe, John Adams, George Washington, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and others. For example, search on Benjamin Franklin for text such as:

The solemn ratifications of the present treaty, expedited in good and due form, shall be exchanged between the contracting parties, in the space of six months, or sooner if possible, to be computed from the day of the signature of the present treaty. In witness whereof, we the undersigned, their ministers plenipotentiary, have in their name and in virtue of our full powers, signed with our hands the present definitive treaty, and caused the seals of our arms to be affixed thereto.
DONE at Paris, this third day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-three.

From the broadside: " By the United States in Congress assembled, a proclamation : Whereas definitive articles of peace and friendship, between the United States of America and His Britannic Majesty, were concluded and signed at Paris, on the 3rd day of September, 1783 ..."

critical thinking

Chronological Thinking

The Broadside Collection can be used to create a detailed time line of the Revolutionary era and the formation of the new nation. Students can use their textbooks or other sources to create an initial time line of Revolutionary events. Students can illustrate events in their time line using documents from the collection. In the process of their research, students probably will discover supporting examples for the time line not mentioned in textbooks.

Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents, the Library of Congress Exhibit, provides a helpful starting time line.

Historical Comprehension

All age groups can comprehend the documents at some level. Younger students can understand the main arguments for independence such as no taxation without representation and the right to liberty. Older students can understand how the founding generation built their government around terms such as liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The variety of broadsides allows students to examine the intentions of our nation's founders. By studying the collection, students can learn how a government of checks and balances arose from leaders who feared tyrrany and believed in individualism, equality, and the natural rights of mankind.

Search on tyranny for text such as:

By the union of the several states they have rescued themselves from the tyranny of a powerful nation, and established constitutions on the free consent of the people, which are the admiration of the intelligent and virtuous part of mankind, and the firm support of the civil and religious rights of all who live under the shadow of their influence. But these constitutions cannot long outlive the fate of the general union.

From the broadside: Impressed with a sense of the sacred trust committed to them, and with an anxious and affectionate concern for the interest, honor and safety of their constituents, the United States in Congress assembled, have on various occasions, pointed out the dangerous situation of this nation ..." 1783.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Older students can be challenged to compare their interpretation of the broadsides with interpretations of the era found in textbooks and in other secondary sources. Many sources, for example, describe creation of the Constitution as a response to weaknesses of the Confederation and the need for a strong federal government. In the collection, students are exposed to the arguments of those against a strong federal government. Students can trace fear of tyranny from the crown in earlier broadsides to fear of tyranny from strong central government in later broadsides.

Search on oppose federal government to find evidence of opposition views and for text such as:

We dissent, secondly, because the powers vested in Congress by this constitution, must necessarily annihilate and absorb the legislative, executive, and judicial powers of the several states, and produce from their ruins one consolidated government , which from the nature of things will be an iron handed despotism, as nothing short of the supremacy of despotic sway could connect and govern these United States under one government .

From the broadside: "The Address and reasons of dissent of the minority of the convention, of the state of Pennsylvania, to their constituents.", 1787, which contains Journals of the Conclave.

Historical Research Capabilities

This collection provides a rich source for a research project. Students will probably need secondary source accounts to provide context, but the documents alone can be used to build a detailed understanding of the era. Students can trace powerful ideas that led people to take part in a war for independence. They can consider how ideas and ideals can become a cause of war. Students can review the actions and reactions between Great Britain and the colonists that led to war. By studying the broadsides, students can compare points of view on issues such as how to treat Native Americans or how to defray war debts.

Search on finance, war, and taxation for text such as:

In the last year, some of the late city-members (in the Minority ) proposed to abolish the present system of taxation , and attempted to substitute in its place a POLL-TAX; by means of which the poorest mechanic in the State was to pay as heavy a tax, as the wealthiest citizen: for all estates, however great, were to be free from taxation .--Our heads were to have been taxed, and all alike too; whilst the rich man's property was to have been exempt!

From the broadside: "Friends, countrymen and fellow-citizens : The present crisis demands your serious attention. You are now about giving your suffrages for members of the General Assembly ..." 1787.

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

Students might consider what a collection like this cannot tell about the past. They might answer questions such as, "Who is not represented in this collection?" and "Where might one find different perspectives on this era?"

Using this collection, student can analyze why the colonists wanted to fight a war for independence. Students might be asked to find evidence to answer questions such as, "How did the founding fathers create a system of government that could adjust to changing social and economic conditions?" and "What led the colonists to decide to break with Britain?"

Search on Britain for text such as:

The conduct of those serving under the King of Great-Britain hath, with some few exceptions, been diametrically opposite. They have laid waste the open country, burned the defenceless [sic] villages, and butchered the citizens of America. Their prisons have been the slaughter-houses of her soldiers, their ships of her seamen, and the severest injuries have been aggravated by the grossest insult.

From the broadside: "By the Congress of the United States of America. Manifesto : These United States, having been driven to hostilities by the oppressive and tyrannous measures of Great-Britain ... they declared themselves free and independent. ..."1778.

arts & humanities

The collections can be used to support discussions of literary themes such as courage and risk, achieving independence, vision and ideals, growth and change, and conflict and resolution.

Persuasive Argument

This collection is an excellent resource for studying persuasive literature and the techniques used to put forth an argument. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is an excellent source for examining the presentation of an ordered argument. Using the documents, students can analyze the strength and persuasiveness of a broadside's argument. Students can search in other parts of the collection or other sources for evidence that a broadside's arguments bore fruit over time.

Creative Writing

Using the collection, students might write and produce their own broadsides on contemporary issues of importance to them. Students can test the persuasiveness of their arguments on their classmates.

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Last updated 09/26/2002