Key Documents that Inspired and Informed 
the Struggle for Independence

Ordered by Date | Ordered by Title | Major Collections

These are the documents that inspired the demand for independence,
maintained courage during the struggle, and codified, extended and helped spread
individual liberties throughout the world. Several key treaties are included.

Before the Revolution 

1100 - Coronation Charter
1215 - Magna Charta
1520 - Concerning Christian Liberty (Luther)

1620 - Mayflower Compact
1628 - Petition of Rights
1663 - Charter of RI
1679 - Habeus Corpus Act
1689 - Act of Toleration
1689 - English Bill of Rights
1689 - Two Treatises (Locke)

1748 - Spirit of the Laws (Montesquieu)
1762 - Social Contract (Rousseau)
1763 - Treaty of Paris 1763

During the Revolution

1774 - Declaration of Rights
1775 - Declaration of Causes
1775 - Common Sense (Paine)
1776 - Thoughts on Government (Adams)
1776 - Inquiry into Wealth (Smith)
1776 - VA Declaration of Rights

1776 - Declaration of Independence
1778 - Treaty of Alliance (Military)
1778 - Treaty of Amity and Commerce
1781 - Articles of Confederation
1783 - Treaty of Paris 1783

After the Revolution (before 1850)

1787 - Federalist Papers
1787 - Northwest Ordnance
1787 - U.S. Constitution
1789 - Declaration of Rights (France)
1791 - Bill of Rights
1792 - A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
1795 - Treaty Greenville

1823 - Monroe Doctrine

Go to top of page

Documents Ordered by Title 

(Ignoring any initial A, An, or The)

  Act of Toleration (1689) [The Jacobite Heritage] -- The Act of Toleration extended religious freedom to Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics.
  Articles of Confederation (1781) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- This established the framework of a national government made up of thirteen sovereign states. Originally drafted by John Dickinson of Delaware in 1776, all states but Maryand had signed by 1777. Maryland held out for four years -- until seven other states agreed to give up their claims to western land.
  Bill of Rights (1791) [U.S. National Archives] -- Demanded by delegates to the Constitutional Convention as essential and as the basis for the Revolution, the first ten amendments addressed major elements of personal liberty. Later amendments refined these rights and liberties at various dates.
  Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- The second paragraph specified that the inhabitants would have freedom of religion (as long as it did not disturb the civil peace). This was remarkable because 1) it was signed by the English king (Charles II) who served as head of the church of England and 2) other colonies routinely and harshly cast out people who did not conform to their religious views. Rhode Island was founded by Baptists and some of the earliest Quaker and Jewish communities in America were established here in the shelter of that charter.
  Common Sense, by Thomas Paine (1775) [] is the most widely-printed and read pamphlet of the American Revolution, persuading many colonists that independence was desirable.
  Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther (orig. 1520, reprint by The Harvard Classics, 1909-14) [] links liberty to the acceptance of God's grace, freeing us to respond through service to the community. "Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbour voluntarily...".
  Constitution of the United States (1787) [U.S. National Archives] -- The basis for our form of government. See also Bill of Rights
  Coronation Charter (1100) [National Humanities Institute] -- At his coronation king Henry I agreed to be bound by explicit, writtten rules, preparing the way for rule under laws and constitutions.
  Declaration of Independence (1776) [U.S. National Archives] -- Thomas Jefferson noted that nature's laws permit a people to declare independence from a corrupt government. He went on to specify the corrupt actions of England that had led the United States of America to declare their independence.
  Declaration of Rights (1774) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- The First Continental Congress claimed the right of each colonial assembly to draw up laws on everything but foreign trade.
  Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms (1775) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- John Dickinson informed the world of the reasons why the colonies had taken up arms against England.
  Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen [French] (1789) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- Written by Lafayette (assisted by Thomas Jefferson) and adopted by the French National Assembly just prior to the French Revolution.
  The English Bill of Rights (1689) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- was a contract between the English Parliament and William and Mary, prince and princess of Orange, providing that powers of the titular (royal) rulers of England, France, and Ireland were secondary to the powers of Parliament through its freely elected members and to the courts. [Note: England had no significant land holdings in France at this time, but ruled all of Ireland.]
  Federalist Papers (1787-1788) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- A series of 85 newspaper articles through which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay used both logic and prejudice to convince New York citizens to support ratification of the United States Constitution.
  Habeus Corpus Act (1679) [Modern History Sourcebook] -- required the government to provide to all who were arrested a trial in a court of law, an opportunity to post bail, and freedom from sentencing if there was no proof of guilt
  An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith (1776) [Liberty Fund, Inc.] -- presented the idea that when individuals can conduct business without government restrictions their own self interest will lead to an orderly and fair marketplace. Government is needed mainly to ensure law and order.
  Magna Charta (1215) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- This was the first governance document that clearly stated that the authority of a nation's ruler was limited by certain rights of other people in that nation.
  Mayflower Compact {1620} [Constitution Center] -- The first Pilgrims were "Loyal Subjects of .. King James" but pledged to "enact ... just and equal Laws .. for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience."
  Monroe Doctrine (1823) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- Stated that the policy of the United States was to prevent further colonization of the continent by European powers.
  Northwest Ordinance (1787) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- Provided for the founding of self-governing states in the area that is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a bit of Minnesota.
  Petition of Rights (1628) [National Humanities Institute] -- Parliament forced King Charles I to reaffirm that taxes could only be raised with the consent of Parliament and guaranteed that English subjects could not be forced to house and feed soldiers in their homes.
  The Social Contract or the Principles of Political Rights, by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1762) [The University of Adelaide Library] transcribed by Steve Thomas for the Electronic Texts Collection -- (original in French, "Contrat social ou Principes du droit politique"), presented the idea that the proper basis for governance is a social contract negotiated between all members of society, while "natural" rights or "divine" rights are not the proper basis for governance.
  The Spirit of the Laws, Charles de Secondat (Baron de Montesquieu), (1748) [The Constitution Society] transcribed by Jon Roland -- (original in French), presented the idea that laws are the basis for the divine world, the natural world, and human affairs, and that discovering what these laws are can make our lives easier.
  Thoughts on Government, by John Adams (1776) [] -- discusses how a government should be structured to avoid the most common problems of self-governance.
  Treaty of Amity and Commerce (1778) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] Prior to 1783 France was the only nation to recognize United States independence. Through this treaty the U.S. was treated as an independent nation and increased commerce with France was anticipated.
  [*] 1778 Treaty of (Military)Alliance between The United States and France; February 6, 1778, [Avalon School of Law, Yale] This secret (for a brief time) treaty provided for the U.S. and France to come to each other's aid in case of war with Great Britain. Since France had many more troops and funds and people than the U.S. most of the immediate benefits flowed to the U.S.
  Treaty of Greenville (1795) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- This ended the open hostility in Ohio between the Wyandots, Delawares, and other native American tribes and colonial settlers, which had started when England ceded the land to the United States as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
  Treaty of Paris (1763) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- This ended the French and Indian War between Great Britain and France (known in Europe as the Seven Years War). It ceded Canade to the Great Britain all land east of the Mississippi.
  Treaty of Paris (1783) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- This ended the state of war between the United States, Great Britain, and France. It ceded to the United States all land east of the Mississippi.
  Two Treatises of Government (1689) [The Lonang Institute] -- presented the idea that the people have a right to revolt against any government that does not protect their rights.
  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) [] was the first great feminist treatise.
  Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776) [Avalon Project at Yale Law School] -- The Virginia legislature adopted the first Bill of Rights in a state constitution. This served as the basis for the first ten amendments to the U. S. Constitution.

Go to top of page

Major Collections of Related Documents 

The American Colonist's Library (by Richard Gardiner) is an annotated list of some 500 books (with links to the full on-line text) ) that were well-known to the leaders of European and American legislatures and churches and thus affected the social order and the way that colonists' responded to Great Britain's dictates. The works range from classical Greek poetry to treaties with Amerindians.

The U. S. National Archives has posted an enormous range of documents (or descriptions of documents) in its possession, many of which deal with the struggle for independence.

The Avalon Project at Yale Law School posts documents in law, history, and diplomacy. They have many
18th century documents (1770s) beyond those listed in the table above.
-- The American [sic, U.S.] Constitution - A Documentary Record
-- Colonial Charters, Grants and Related Documents
-- American Revolution - A Documentary Record
-- Madison's Notes on Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
-- State Constitutions 1776 -

The University of Oklahoma Law Center has a similar collection of
U.S. Historical Documents in chronological order

The Library of Congress has posted timelines and many documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.

Special Collections: Classics of Liberty [Liberty Fund, Inc.] posts online the full text of books by dozens of authors, including Burke, Cicero, Hamilton, Hume, Jefferson, Kant, Locke, Mill, Montesquieu, Paine, Smith (Adam), and Voltaire.

American Archives, by Peter Force (1820), is a set of four volumes of rare documents published during 1774-76. The documents were collected in order to preserve the broadsides and debates used to generate public interest in and support for the cause of liberty and independence. The volumes were scanned and indexed by the Univ. of Chicago and made available online by Northern Illinois Univ.

Go to top