University of Wisconsin–Madison

Foundational Documents of American Constitutionalism

Richard L. Perry noted that “The liberties of the American citizen depend upon the existence of established and known rules of law limiting the authority and discretion of men wielding the power of government.” The drama of how those rules of law developed is often the basis of much debate. One dispute centers on the question of the exact origins of these ideas. Many scholars trace this heritage back to the ancient world, focusing on the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Polybius. Others emphasize the English struggle over governance and how it directly impacted how Americans thought about constitutionalism. Perhaps among the best compilations of the British and American colonial documentary record illustrating this evolution are Richard L. Perry and John C. Cooper’s Sources of Our Liberties and Donald S. Lutz’s Colonial Origins of the American Constitution. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner have assembled a five volume series titled The Founders’ Constitution which combines the British background through the Early American National documentary record.  Certainly the monumental Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution is the definitive source for documents relating to the Federalist/Antifederalist debates. To a large extent, these debates were a continuation of the debates about political power since time immemorial.

As with any list purporting to be “the essentials,” there is and should be a debate over the selections. While we are not asserting that our selections be considered settled canon, we do propose the list below be considered a proposal of sorts as to what we might consider the essentials of the documentary record of the development of American constitutionalism.

The British Background and Colonial Period Documents

Magna Charta, 1215 (pdf)
The Petition of Right, 1628 (pdf)
The Nineteen Propositions, 1642 (pdf)
The English Bill of Rights, 1689 (pdf)
The First Charter of Virginia, 1606 (pdf)
The Mayflower Compact, 1620 (pdf)
Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, 1639 (pdf)
Massachusetts Body of Liberties, 1641 (pdf)
Maryland Act of Toleration, 1649 (pdf)
The Albany Plan of Union, 10 July 1765 (pdf)

American Revolutionary Period Documents

Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, 19 October 1765 (pdf)
The Declaration of the Cause and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, 6 July 1775 (pdf)
Virginia Bill of Rights, 12 June 1776 (pdf)
Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776 (pdf)
The Articles of Confederation, 1777 (pdf)
Washington’s Circular Letter to the States, 8 June 1783 (pdf)
Madison’s Vices of the Political System, April 1787 (pdf)
Harrington, 30 May 1787 (pdf)
The Northwest Ordinance, 13 July 1787 (pdf)
Recommended Amendments to the Articles of Confederation 6 August 1786 (pdf)

Ratification Period Documents

Washington’s Letter to the President of Congress, 17 September 1787 (pdf)
The Constitution, 17 September 1787 (pdf)
James Wilson Speech, 6 October 1787 (pdf)
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, 24 October 1787 (pdf)
Cato III, 25 October 1787 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 1, 27 October 1787 (pdf)
Old Whig IV, 27 October 1787 (pdf)
Old Whig V, 1 November 1787 (pdf)
Cincinnatus II: To James Wilson Esquire, 8 November 1787 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 10, 22 November 1787 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 39, 16 January 1788 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 51, 6 February 1788 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 69, 14 March 1788 (pdf)
Brutus XV, 20 March 1788 (pdf)
Aristocrotis: c. 27 April 1788 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 78, 28 May 1788 (pdf)
Publius: The Federalist 84, 28 May 1788 (pdf)
Massachusetts Form of Ratification, 6-7 February 1788 (pdf)
Virginia Recommendatory Amendments, 27 June 1788 (pdf)
New York Recommendatory Amendments, 26 July 1788 (pdf)

Early National Period Documents

James Madison’s Speech, 8 June 1789 (pdf)
The Bill of Rights, 15 December 1791 (pdf)