US Historical Documents Through the Years


The United States and its people are very protective and rightly proud of the historical documents that define the nation. The original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights rest in a place of honor at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. American Citizens and visitors from around the world can visit the archive and see these Charters of Freedom, as well as many other important historical documents. More importantly for the vast majority, an enormous number of the important documents that trace the country's history from its inception to the present day are freely available online. Through their websites, federal and state government entities, educational institutions and historical associations offer access to scanned original copies, texts, images, and transcripts, plus audio and video of more recent historically important events and speeches.

1700's

  • Albany Plan For A Union: A proposal for unifying the American colonies written by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Hutchinson in 1754. Though never adopted, it did serve as the basis for writing the Articles of Confederation.
  • Treaty of Paris: When this document was signed in 1783 by the American colonies and Great Britain, it brought a close to the American Revolution and recognized the independent nation, called the United States.
  • First Continental Congress: Convened on September 5, 1774, and attended by representatives of all the 13 colonies except Georgia, this meeting was called to discuss a unified response to the British "Intolerable Acts." 
  • Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death-Patrick Henry: Closing words of a speech by Patrick Henry before the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775.
  • Virginia Declaration of Rights: Adopted on June 12, 1776, by the colonial constitutional convention of Virginia, this document that enumerated the inherent rights of men became the inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's first paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Declaration of Independence: The revered document upon which the United States of America is founded.
  • Jefferson's Notes on Slavery: Thomas Jefferson's thoughts on slavery, published in Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782.
  • Common Sense-Thomas Paine: This extraordinarily influential pamphlet published on January 10, 1776, called for an American declaration of independence from Great Britain.
  • Articles of Confederation: Document that served as the first U.S. constitution, was adopted on November 15, 1777, and ratified on March 1, 1781. 
  • U.S. Constitution: The Constitution of the United States was signed on September 17, 1787.
  • Rights of Man-Thomas Paine: Document that asserts the "natural rights of man" and espoused political rights of each man upon which government should be based.
  • Alien and Sedition Acts: Four controversial laws passed by Congress in 1798, tightened restrictions on American foreign-born citizens and imposed free speech restrictions.

1800's

  • Monroe Doctrine: Policy document that proclaims the Western Hemisphere and the American states are free from colonization by European countries.
  • Famous Supreme Court Cases: These landmark cases, which include Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education, have shaped the legal rights of American citizens.
  • Fugitive Slave Act: Part of the Missouri Compromise, this controversial law stated that all fugitive slaves were to be returned to their masters.
  • Gettysburg Address: This short speech dedicated to the freedom of all, given by President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863, has become one of America's best-known speeches. 
  • Emancipation Proclamation: The executive orders that freed the slaves in all Confederate states. 

1900's

  • Espionage Act: Passed by Congress at the beginning of World War I, this law laid out the definitions of espionage and the penalties for those crimes.
  • Neutrality Acts: Laws passed in the 1930s as a means of addressing non-intervention in the affairs of Europe and Asia before the beginning of World War II.
  • Atlantic Charter: Document that is the text of a statement issued on August 14, 1941, by the United States and Great Britain that laid the foundations of the United Nations.
  • Truman Doctrine: Collection of documents related to the Truman Doctrine which laid out the policy of the Truman administration on Communism, the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
  • North Atlantic Treaty: The document upon which NATO was established is based, signed April 4, 1949.
  • I Have A Dream-Martin Luther King: Iconic speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, given in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.
  • Civil Rights Act-1991: This act amended and strengthened the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted on November 21, 1991.

2000's

  • Patriot Act: Statute passed by Congress and signed by President Bush on October 26, 2001. Resulting from the 9/11 attacks, the act was intended to strengthen and expand the nation's ability to fight terrorism. 
  • President Bush to Congress: President George Bush's address to a Joint Session of Congress on September 20, 2001, after the events of September 11.
  • Executive Order Establishing Homeland Security: Document signed on October 8, 2001, in response to the 9-11 attacks, which established the Department of Homeland Security and reorganized many governmental departments under a new structure.
  • 9-11 Commission Report: The final report of what is commonly known as the 9-11 Commission, which addresses its findings of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorism attacks on the United States.
  • Barack H. Obama Inaugural Address: The historic presidential inaugural address on January 20, 2009, by the first black president of the United.