Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

[Detail] Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States

Collection Overview

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873, contains records and acts of Congress from the Continental Congress through the Forty-second Congress. The records of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress comprise a rich documentary history of the construction of the nation, the development of the federal government, and its role in the national life.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The American Revolution, 1763-1783
  • The New Nation, 1780-1815
  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

You may search all law titles. The three congressional Journals and the Journal of William Maclay are available as searchable texts. The Annals of Congress has searchable page headings (subject headings) and indexes. For a complete description of how to search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873, see Using the Collection.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


A Century of Lawmaking presents the legislative debates that shaped our nation. These documents record the progression toward Revolutionary War, the drafting of the Constitution and the creation of national political institutions. Although the collection is difficult to search, with guidance students can decode the historic language and learn from these extraordinary primary sources.

1) Causes of the Revolutionary War: Colonists' Grievances

Students can use documents from Journals of the Continental Congress to identify colonists' grievances against Great Britain. For example, have students review the entries for Monday, September 5, 1774 (page 17), Saturday, September 17, 1774 (page 33, item 3 et. al.), and Wednesday, October 5, 1774 to compile a list of colonists' protests.

Have students create a broadside to post in a colonial town hall that convincingly itemizes complaints against the British. To find more material on events leading to the Revolution, search on Association, rights, or taxation.

2) Causes of the Revolutionary War: British Soldiers

Have students learn about strained relations between British soldiers and colonists. For example, in the Journal for Friday, October 7, 1774, students will discover

". . .that the soldiers under his excellency's command, are frequently violating private property, and offering various insults to the people, which must irritate their minds, and if not put a stop to, involve all America in the horrors of a civil war."

A common complaint among colonists was quartering of British troops in American homes. [See Journals of the Continental Congress for Friday, October 14, 1774.]

On way to illustrate quartering, would be to designate half of the class as British soldiers and the other half as colonists. Have "soldiers" sit in the seats of "colonists." Conduct class while the colonists stand. Suggest that the soldiers will use the colonists' school supplies and eat their lunches. Students can then discuss how they think colonists might have felt about the actions of British soldiers.

To find more material on events leading to the Revolution, search on Association, rights, or taxation.

3) Preparing for War

Ask the class to play the role of colonists who must prepare an armed force where one did not exist before. Brainstorm a list of steps to take in order to build an army. Next, have students use the collection to see how colonists actually prepared for the Revolutionary War.

Students can locate relevant documents by browsing Journals of Continental Congress Principle Contents Volume II. Or, print out selections such as Instructions to General Washington, Declaration on Taking Arms: Jefferson's Drafts (page 128 et. al.), and Report on Articles Necessary for the Army (page 451 et. al.).

Share examples of war preparations such as instructions to the Commissioner General for

". . .supplying the army there with fresh provisions; purchase for them a quantity of Albany peas, and to furnish as much biscuit as may be necessary..."

in Report on Articles Necessary for the Army.

Have students compare how the colonists' preparations match with the list they generated.

4) Declaring Independence

You can use the collection to illustrate the progression toward a formal Declaration of Independence. Search on Declaration of Independence or print out the following entries from the Journals of the Continental Congress:

Mask out the date for each selection. Reproduce enough sets of documents for small groups of students. Collate document sets in random order. Have groups read the selections, then organize the documents in chronological order. Ask students to explain their organization by highlighting phrases or sections that influenced them. Students might contrast colonial allegiance to the King on Wednesday, December 6, 1775:

"We view [the King] as the Constitution represents him. That tells us he can do no wrong. The cruel and illegal attacks, which we oppose, have no foundation in the royal authority..."

with the outright rebellion expressed in the Declaration of Independence adopted on Friday, June 28, 1776:

"The history of his present majesty is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations."

5) Fighting the Revolutionary War

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, 1774-1873, contains first hand accounts of the Revolutionary War including reports from the battle at Lexington/Concord. Print out depositions from colonial soldiers, a female colonist, and one British soldier in the Journal from Thursday, May 11, 1775 (pages 28 through 41; woman's account/page 39; British soldier's account/page 40). Have students create an exhibition telling the story of the battle at Lexington/Concord, using the accounts above, and researching to find illustrations or creating their own. Once the exhibition has been put up in your classroom, discuss the letter from the Continental Congress "To the Inhabitants of Great Britain" that begins on page 42 of Journal from Thursday, May 11, 1775. Ask students to discuss what they think the colonists hoped to accomplish with this letter.

Search on Green Mountain Boys, Ticonderoga, siege of Boston, Bunker Hill, state of the colonies in southern department, army northern department, and conduct of the enemy to find out more about the course of the Revolutionary War.

6) Adopting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The collection provides a record of how colonists sought to correct flaws in the Articles of Confederation by creating a federal Constitution. Use a mock debate to set the stage for a discussion of how the Bill of Rights was established. Stage a debate for and against ratification of the Constitution using the following documents:

Have one student play Mason who objects to the Constitution because it fails to protect freedom of the press and trial by jury. (See Objections , page 640 et. al.) Have another student play John Jay, who argues for the Constitution in spite of these objections. Jay suggests that no explicit bill of rights is necessary (See Address, bottom of page 497 and page 498). A third student can play Randolph who objects to the adoption process because it prohibits amendments to the proposed Constitution (See Randolph, bottom of page 125 and page 126). Take a class vote on the most convincing argument.


Critical Thinking

Through careful selection, documents in A Century of Lawmaking can lead students to think critically about historical events that shaped our nation.

1) Chronological Thinking

Maclay's Journal provides a personal account of the First Congress. Use Maclay's words to trace the debate over a permanent home for Congress. Have small groups make a story board for a television miniseries about the debate.

  • Who are the lead characters?
  • How did the tone of the debate change over time?
  • Why do you think Virginia/Maryland won out over Pennsylvania and New York?

Build a story board using excerpts from the list below.

Visit the online exhibit Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation to explore how the Capitol was finally constructed.

2) Comprehension

Use the collection to explore the content of early Congressional debates. Search on Association, taxation, proportional representation, state sovereignty, separation of powers, federal powers, veto, and slavery to identify hotly contested issues.

Ask students to identify two sides of a debate of one of these issues in the historical Congress. Have them list key points for each side of the debate. With which side do you agree? For example, compare Joseph Galloway's Resolution which suggested the First Continental Congress reconcile with Britain to the Association decision, which resulted in a colonial boycott on British goods.

You might also have students complete the same assignment using to examine Congressional today. How has debate changed and stayed the same since Galloway tried to influence the first Congress?

3) Analysis and Interpretation

Farrand's Records contains notes of the 1787 Federal Convention from two different sources, James Madison and Robert Yates. Discuss with your students the issue of reliability in the historical record. Use the collection to illustrate how different points of view can affect what is recorded.

From the Navigator select two versions of events from the same day. For example, Thursday May 31, 1787 covers debate over how to elect the Legislature. Compare Madison (page 48, from Mason to the vote tally on page 50) and Yates (page 56, from Mason to the vote tally, also page 56).

Ask students to assume the role of a news reporter. Using the notes above, have them write a newspaper headline and article about what happened that day. Whose notes were most useful for the article? Why?

4) Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

Use A Century of Lawmaking to analyze how the issue of freedom of religion was addressed in the Bill of Rights. Assign the following, "You are a time traveler who has landed in 1778. Write an editorial for a 1778 newspaper. In your opinion, why has the Freedom of Religion provision in the Bill of Rights proven important up to this point in history?"

Search religious freedom to find how representatives tried to protect religious freedom. For example, review Journals of the Continental Congress for Thursday, July 6, 1775 (pages 129 and 142), Elliot's Debates for Tuesday, June 10, 1788 (Randolph's statements on page 204), and Elliot's Debates for Thursday, June 12, 1788 (Madison's statements on page 330).

Visit the National Archives Charters of Freedom exhibit to read the full text of the Bill of Rights.

5) Research

Use the collection to launch a research project on the position of Quakers during American wars. The collection shows that during the Revolutionary War period, Quakers were accused of being traitors because of an anti-war publication. Ask students to research how Quakers have responded to wars throughout American history. Have students include the government's response to Quaker beliefs.

Search on Quaker to find documents including Journals of the Continental Congress, Thursday, August 28, 1777 that states,

"…Quakers, render it certain and notorious, that those persons are, with much rancour and bitterness, disaffected to the American cause: that, as these persons will have it in their power, so there is no doubt it will be their inclination, to communicate intelligence to the enemy, and, in various other ways, to injure the councils and arms of America;"

and Wednesday September 3, 1777 that states,

"Resolved, That Congress approve of the Quakers prisoners being sent to Virginia, and, in the opinion of Congress, that Staunton, in the county of Augusta, is the most proper place in the State of Virginia for their residence and security."


Arts & Humanities

A Century of Lawmaking records a time in our nation when written and spoken words alone were used to influence and change the national political scene. The collection can be used to launch rich language arts experiences for students.

1) Retelling the American Story

Ask older students to write and illustrate a children's story book about the Declaration of Independence, Revolutionary War, Constitution, or Bill of Rights. Have students sift through the collection to find easy-to-understand quotations to use in their story. Help students excerpt the quotations for simplicity.

Search for Declaration of Independence, Continental Army, Constitution and Bill of Rights to find documents such as "Gradual Approaches Towards Independence," Elliot's Debates, Volume I (pages 42-60).

Students might use the quotation about the appointment of General George Washington (page 47) which says,

"On the 15th of June, it was resolved, that a general should be appointed to command all the Continental forces ...for the defence of American liberty; ...George Washington was unanimously elected."

2) Poetry

Read aloud Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. Discuss why struggle, such as America's fight for independence, inspires poetry. Have students select a document from the collection and write a poem about its contents.

Students might find poetic inspiration in colonial discontent with British rule. Search on Association, taxation or rights to find selections such as "An Address To The People Of Great-Britain" in Journals of the Continental Congress for Friday, October 21, 1774, (page 82).

3) Historical Voice

After students have worked with the collection on other projects, ask them to think about whose voices are represented in the collection and whose are not heard. Search on women, mother, daughter, slave, and Indian to find references to these silent groups.

Students might find Hannah Bradish's account of the Lexington/Concord battle in the Journals of the Continental Congress, Thursday, May 11, 1775 (page 39); the debate over the status of slaves during the war with Great Britain on Friday, October 13, 1786 (page 863 - 865); and the debate over Congress regulating Indian trade on July 26, 1776.

4) Persuasive Writing

Ask students to identify and rewrite a debate or speech from the Constitutional Convention in today's language. Search the collection for issues that have contemporary relevance such as state sovereignty, federal power, judicial review and separation of powers.

For example, students might rewrite James Madison's thoughts on separation of powers that appear in Elliot's Debates on Thursday, July 19, 1783, (page 337). Encourage students to use modern examples that highlight the importance of separation of powers in today's government.

You might also have students work in teams, and rewrite opposing views and stage the debate.