A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873
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;...to purchase for them a quantity of Albany peas, and to furnish as much biscuit as may be necessary..."
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:
- Thursday, October 20, 1774 (page 76),
- Wednesday, December 6, 1775 (page 411 and 412),
- Friday, June 7, 1776 (page 1087 and 1088), and
- Friday, June 28, 1776 (page 493).
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:
- Mason's Objections to this Constitution of Government;
- John Jay's Address to the People of the State of New York; and
- Edmund Randolph to the Speaker, October 10, 1787.
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.