Reading List: Foundations of the American System of Government


The Internet in general, and WikiSource in particular, is a wonderful thing. This is a mostly chronological reading list on the foundational documents of the American system of government.

The Magna Carta (The Great Charter), 1297
The 1215 version imposed upon John was repealed shortly after being signed. The 1297 version remains in legal force in England and Wales to this day. It records the rights of the nobility and of freemen and restricts the rights of the King and his Government by holding them subject to the Law.
The Law of Nations
The Law of Nations is the science which teaches the rights subsisting between nations or states, and the obligations correspondent to those rights. States (be they city states or later nation states) have attributes that they get as larger parts above normal society. The Law is distilled from the historical actions of states that behaved admirably, tempering justice with mercy and reinforcing faith with reason. The Law of Nations is voluntary. Yet by becoming a state, the nascent state takes on the attributes of a state, like it or not: attributes such as embassies, treaties, truces, declarations, taxes, import duties, armies, militias, a mint, internal laws, etc. The Law informed the American founding documents, which left implicit many of its premises and conclusions.
The Articles of Association, 1774
The Articles of Association were a petition of grievances against Great Britain by the American colonies, and a compact among them to collectively impose economic sanctions to pressure a resolution. The Articles were drafted by the First Continental Congress in 1774 and were an important formative document in the history of the United States that perhaps hastened the American Revolution, though they were intended instead to alter Britain’s policies towards the colonies without severing allegiance. [link]
United States Declaration of Independence, 1776
The first of three Charters of Freedom declared the colonies independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain and explained the reasons why this must be. It was ratified on July 4, 1776. This is why July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day in the USA.
Articles of Confederation, 1777
The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, or, more commonly, just the Articles of Confederation, was the first governing document of the United States of America. The articles, which combined the 13 colonies of the American Revolutionary War into a loose confederation, were adopted by the Second Continental Congress on November 15, 1777, after 16 months of debate. The articles were ratified three years later on March 1, 1781. [link]
Constitution of the United States of America
The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the United States of America. It was completed on September 17, 1787, with its adoption by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was later ratified by special conventions in each state. It created a federal union of sovereign states, and a federal government to operate that union. It replaced the less defined union that had existed under the Articles of Confederation. It took effect on March 4, 1789 and has served as a model for the constitutions of numerous other nations. The Constitution of the United States of America is the oldest written national constitution in use. [link]
The Federalist Papers
The Federalist Papers are a series of 85 pseudonymous articles written mostly by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison arguing for the ratification of the United States Constitution. They were first published serially in New York City newspapers. A compilation, called The Federalist, was published in 1788. The Federalist Papers serve as a primary source for interpretation of the Constitution, as they outline the philosophy and motivation of the proposed system of government. [link]
Antifederalist Papers
The Antifederalist Papers were written pseudonymously by several patriots who believed that the Constitution without any enumeration of individual rights at all would be a prescription for tyranny. It was highly influential in the passage of the Bill of Rights and its attachment to the Constitution. They are arranged in one-to-one correspondence to the Federalist paper against which they argue. See here for more.
United States Bill of Rights, 1789
In the United States, the Bill of Rights is the term for the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. These amendments explicitly limit the Federal government’s powers, protecting the rights of the people by preventing Congress from abridging freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religious worship, and the right to bear arms, preventing unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment, and self-incrimination, and guaranteeing due process of law and a speedy public trial with an impartial jury. In addition, the Bill of Rights states that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” and reserves all powers not specifically granted to the Federal government to the citizenry or States. [link]

Additional amendments to the United States Constitution
These are additional amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America added after the first ten amendments on the United States Bill of Rights (ratified in 1791) have been ratified . There are 17 additional amendments to date, ratified from 1795 to 1992.
Some Unsuccessful attempts to amend the United States Constitution
There have been over ten thousand attempts to amend the United States Constitution. This is a list of a few of the more recent or interesting ones.



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5 responses to “Reading List: Foundations of the American System of Government

  1. The National Archives concludes its analysis of the Magna Carta like this:

    In 1215, when King John confirmed Magna Carta with his seal, he was acknowledging the now firmly embedded concept that no man–not even the king–is above the law. That was a milestone in constitutional thought for the 13th century and for centuries to come. In 1779 John Adams expressed it this way: “A government of laws, and not of men.” Further, the charter established important individual rights that have a direct legacy in the American Bill of Rights. And during the United States’ history, these rights have been expanded. The U.S. Constitution is not a static document. Like Magna Carta, it has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the years. This has allowed the Constitution to become the longest-lasting constitution in the world and a model for those penned by other nations. Through judicial review and amendment, it has evolved so that today Americans–regardless of gender, race, or creed–can enjoy the liberties and protection it guarantees. Just as Magna Carta stood as a bulwark against tyranny in England, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights today serve similar roles, protecting the individual freedoms of all Americans against arbitrary and capricious rule.

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