10 Important Documents of American History
The history of the United States is filled with powerful documents that helped shape the nation. At the heart of American history, there are ten highly influential documents known for both their profound statements and their impact on the history of the nation.
1776—Declaration of Independence
Huddled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, representatives from the thirteen colonies came together to officially declare their intent to separate from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson’s words created some of the most memorable lines in American history when he wrote about the equality of humanity and inalienable rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence alongside a committee including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.
The Declaration of Independence’s impact stretched beyond the United States. Not only did it serve as a battle cry for the new nation, but it provided a rallying point for freedom that resonated with other nations around the globe.
1791—Bill of Rights
The Constitution was a controversial document, with many of the large states fearing the power of the new government. Faced with a crisis, James Madison stepped forward with a compromise: a clearly defined set of freedoms and protections that enumerated as the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights ensured the passage of the Constitution by giving large states a list of rights and freedoms on which the government could not infringe.
1803—Louisiana Purchase Treaty
By the turn of the 19th century, the United States was looking to expand. The roots of Manifest Destiny were taking hold, and Americans seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for land. When Napoleon needed cash to fund his wars in Europe, Thomas Jefferson jumped at the opportunity to buy the Louisiana Territory.
The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was the first step in America’s drive to fulfill its Manifest Destiny and develop the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The new territory purchase doubled the size and power of the nation.
During the early days of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln hesitated to make the conflict explicitly about slavery. He feared of losing the support of moderate Republicans and his control over the “border states”.
His hesitation subsided in January 1863, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation and changed the nature of the war. All slaves held in Confederate states would be considered free if they were liberated by the Union Army or escaped to the North. More importantly, by changing the focus of the war from preserving the Union to slavery, Lincoln effectively stopped any chance of European intervention on the side of the Confederacy.
1896—Plessy v. Ferguson
The end of slavery was just the beginning of the struggle for racial equality for African Americans. Black codes and Jim Crow laws attempted to keep the institution of slavery alive, and limited economic opportunities forced former slaves to live in abject poverty.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson set back many advancements made in racial equality after the war. The decision established the “separate but equal” provision, allowing for segregation throughout the country. It would take another 50 years for African Americans to overturn this case.
After the passage of the 15th amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote, women believed they would gain the right to vote. When the change didn’t occur, women like Susan B. Anthony took up the charge for change.
The 19th Amendment broke new ground by expanding the right to vote to all people of age in the United States. It was a monumental accomplishment for the women’s rights movement and spurred further action towards pay equity, more educational opportunities, and a discussion of women’s health issues.
1935—Social Security Act
The stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover’s failure to address the problem swept Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) into office with a mandate for change. Roosevelt’s three-pronged plan of “Relief, Recovery, and Reform” stabilized the economy until the wartime production of World War II reversed the losses of the Depression.
The Social Security Act was a cornerstone of Roosevelt’s three-pronged plan for the New Deal. It provided a minimum level of income for America’s seniors who were devastated by the Depression. The act also opened the door for other federal benefits, including Medicare and Medicaid, later in the century.
1944—Serviceman’s Readjustment Act
Millions of servicemen returning from World War II faced financial and employment challenges: there were too many men looking for work for the number of jobs available. FDR signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the GI Bill, as a way to alleviate some of the problems.
The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act is largely responsible for the economic boom of the 1950s. Veterans were able to attend college and enter the middle class at rates far faster than any generation before or since. Housing allowances caused a sharp increase in home ownership, and a rosy economic future led to the baby boom.
1954—Brown v. Board of Education
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAACP) began actively fighting discrimination in the field of education in the 1930s with an array of court cases. With a focus on education, these cases aimed to attack the racially discriminating Jim Crow laws, which were upheld by the Supreme Court until 1965.
Brown v. Board of Education was a milestone decision by the Supreme Court, declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. This decision paved the way for the future, pivotal civil movements.
1964—Civil Rights Act
As the United States descended into racially charged violence, President Lyndon Johnson took a stand to end segregation with the Civil Rights Act. Though the Southern Congressional delegation fought with all its might, the Act passed and overturned 100 years of post-Civil War segregation.
The Civil Rights Act was important on two levels. First, it began the process of eliminating outdated laws and practices in the United States. Second, it served as a rallying point for a political realignment between Republicans and Democrats in 1968.
Each of these ten documents represents an essential and important time in American history and will continue to be taught and studied as the framework of the modern United States.
Norwich University is an important part of American history. Established in 1819, Norwich is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States.
With Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History, you can enhance your awareness of differing historical viewpoints while developing the skills you’ll need to refine your research, writing, analysis and presentation skills. The program offers two tracks – American History and World History, allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.
American’s Founding Documents, National Archives
Declaration of Independence, The History Channel
The Bill of Rights: A Transcription, National Archives
Bill of Rights of the United States of America (1791), Bill of Rights Institute
Transcript of Louisiana Purchase Treaty (1803), OurDocuments
Louisiana Purchase, Monticello
The Emancipation Proclamation, National Archives
Emancipation Proclamation, The History Channel
Plessy v. Ferguson, Legal Information Institute
Plessy v. Ferguson, The History Channel
19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote, National Archives
The Nineteenth Amendment, National Constitution Center
The Social Security Act of 1935, Social Security Administration
Social Security Act (1935), OurDocuments
Transcript of Servicemen’s Readjustments Act (1944), OurDocuments
History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment: The Plessy Decision, United States Courts
Voting Rights, Library Clerk House
Civil Rights Act (1964), OurDocuments
Declaration of Independence, Library of Congress