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Portions of this book were previously published as Words That Built a Nation: A Young Person’s Collection of Historic American Documents by Stonesong Press, LLC, in September, 1999.

This revised edition is published by Rodale Inc. by special arrangement with Stonesong Press, LLC.

Copyright © 2018, 1999 by Stonesong Press, LLC

Illustrations © Mary Kate McDevitt

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any other information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

Page number listed below refers to the print edition of this book.

Photo credits appear on page 224.

Interior design by Jessica Nordskog

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the publisher.

ISBN 978–1–63565–188–1 hardcover
ISBN 978–1–63565–189–8 e-book

For the next generation of Americans, whose words and actions will continue to build this nation.


The Mayflower Compact

Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin

Speech to the Second Virginia Convention, Patrick Henry

Common Sense, Thomas Paine

Letter to John Adams, Abigail Adams

The Declaration of Independence

Federalist No. 78, Alexander Hamilton

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Farewell Address, George Washington

The Star-Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key

The Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe

Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls Convention

The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro, Frederick Douglass

The Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln

The Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment

I Will Fight No More Forever, Chief Joseph

Statement on the Causes of Wounded Knee, Chief Red Cloud

Twenty Years at Hull-House, Jane Addams

The Sixteenth Amendment

The Fourteen Points, Woodrow Wilson

The Nineteenth Amendment

The Immigration Act

War Message to Congress, Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy

The Declaration of Indian Purpose

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

Speech at the Berlin Wall, John F. Kennedy

The March on Washington Address, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Ballot or the Bullet, Malcolm X

Speech to Striking Grape Workers, César Chávez

The Eagle Has Landed

I’d Rather Be Black Than Female, Shirley Chisholm

Letter of Resignation, Richard M. Nixon

Tear Down This Wall, Ronald W. Reagan

Speech at the United Nations Conference on Women, Hillary Rodham Clinton

Address to the Nation on the September 11 Attacks, George W. Bush

Speech on Race, Barack Obama

Obergefell v. Hodges



Every day, Americans look to a document that’s well over two centuries old, written by men wearing breeches and using a quill pen, for guidance in making and enforcing the laws that govern our lives—down to the rules about the information our Internet providers are allowed collect about our Google searches. America’s founders never could have foreseen the Internet, but somehow, the words and principles they lay down in the United States Constitution in 1787 remain as relevant today as they were when they were written.

The Constitution remains the basis for our government, but is only one of many documents that have shaped and defined the American character. This book looks at the words and ideas from forty-one of the most important documents and speeches in American history. These are words that capture the battles, the crises, the values, and the politics of a developing government. These words are living history, telling the story of a new nation whose destiny was far from certain—and which continues, in the twenty-first century, to unfold. The words in this book, compiled from speeches, pamphlets, letters, declarations, and even songs, represent the past, present, and future of our nation.

When the Mayflower left the shores of England in 1620, its passengers were seeking religious freedom and escape from the seemingly endless wars that were plaguing Europe at the time. They regarded the New World as virgin territory—although Native Americans had been living there for millenia. Some of the Europeans simply wanted better economic opportunity. The leaders on the Mayflower knew that with the king and English authority so distant, they would need a governing document if they were to succeed as a colony in the New World. Before they even touched land, they developed the compact that bound them together in obedience first to God and to the king—but most importantly for the American story, to each other. The authority of their government came from the consent of the governed, and the idea of self-government was planted on North American soil. So began the series of trials and errors that turned settlements into colonies, colonies into states, and states into a nation.

The Mayflower Compact and other documents connect our past to our present. Generations of Americans since then have developed, interpreted, and applied the concepts in these documents to changing events and social conditions. From the Declaration of Independence (1776), to the Declaration of Sentiments (1848), to the Declaration of Indian Purpose (1961), this country’s sense of government, freedom, and citizenship runs through its veins and finds its expression in print.

Besides these cornerstone documents, many of the other documents chosen represent turning points in American history. Their existence altered the course, or direction, of the nation by influencing popular opinion, or by giving expression to the evolving values of the American population. Afterward, the country and the people were forever changed. This was true of Frederick Douglass’s account of his life as a slave, which informed a still-skeptical society of the horrors of slavery. Douglass’s 1852 speech about the meaning of the Fourth of July to black Americans—most of whom were still enslaved—still reverberates today.

Some of the documents included here expanded the idea of citizenship by letting more voices be heard in our society. This was not done without struggle. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment secured the vote for African-American men. Fifty years later, in 1920, the approval of the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the same right. In 2015, the Supreme Court extended the guarantees of equal treatment under the law to same-sex couples in the landmark Oberǵefell v. Hodǵes decision.

The nation’s expansion took economic forms as well. Although it began as a nation of farmers, the United States ultimately became a great industrial power. By the end of the nineteenth century, waves of immigrants searching for jobs entered the United States in greater numbers than before. Most of the newcomers settled in cities, where they added to the richness and diversity of American life. Included in this collection is a 1910 account by reformer Jane Addams of the poor conditions immigrants had to face. Indeed, as reformers like Addams tried to include newcomers in American life, prejudice against immigrants and minorities was widespread, and many Americans were concerned that immigrants would take their jobs away. In 1967, César Chávez’s moving words to striking Mexican farmworkers in California gave notice that the question of immigrants’ rights was far from resolved. Chavez’s speech led to dramatically improved working and living conditions for thousands of immigrant workers.

The Civil Rights movement was perhaps the defining movement of U.S. history in the latter part of the twentieth century. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. the Board of Education that segregated schools favored whites at the expense of blacks, because black schools simply didn’t get the resources that white schools did. The ruling overturned the idea of “separate but equal,” which had been the law of the land, and which had allowed segregation to keep blacks from receiving opportunities for education and economic success equal to whites. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream’ speech built upon this assertion and led inexorably to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964—a crucial milestone in the ongoing struggle for blacks to gain equal treatment under the law. Barack Obama’s speech on race, given when he was an Illinois senator campaigning for the presidency in 2008, provides a more recent picture of where that struggle stands.

Some words resound beyond a nation’s borders. John F. Kennedy admitted in his speech at the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1963 that “freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect,” but, pointing to the poor conditions in which the Soviets were effectively imprisoning East German citizens with the wall, went on to say that “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” Just over two decades later, Ronald Reagan gave a rousing speech in the same location, signaling the end of the Cold War, just as surely as Kennedy’s had marked its peak.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke at the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, China, in 1995, she made the case that women’s rights and human rights are one and the same thing, strengthening the bulwark for combating the oppression of women in many parts of the world—while also acknowledging the less-than-perfect record of the United States on the rights of women. In many ways, her speech owed its existence to the work and words of those who fought for women’s right to vote, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in the 1800s.

The same words that govern the personal freedoms of America’s citizens also define the United States to the rest of the world. Indeed, in the eyes of the Eastern bloc citizens who flocked to the West during and after the Cold War in the middle of the twentieth century, and from the point of view of civil rights activists in South Africa who fought against apartheid (a policy of total racial discrimination) America is freedom. To refugees from civil wars from the Sudan to Syria, the United States represents safety and prosperity. Our documents, our words inspire their actions, and this is why people from around the world flock to the United States to live, in many cases risking their lives just to get in, and frequently making great sacrifices, like living apart from family, just to stay.

Yet the state of the union is far from perfect. If anything, these documents make it clear that individual rights and the institutions of government and the rule of law must be nurtured and protected. The documents in this book will be interpreted and reinterpreted by each generation, including yours. There is no better way of protecting your own rights and interests than by understanding what they are, where they came from, and with your participation, where they are headed.

Senator Barack Obama, then a presidential hopeful, delivers a speech in 2007 at the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma to commemorate the anniversary of “BloodySunday,” the 1965 civil rights demonstration in that city that turned violent. Some of those listening to Obama had been present 42 years earlier, when state troopers used tear gas and batons to break up the otherwise peaceful protest as marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (See Speech on Race)

After 65 days on rough seas, with 102 people aboard, the sailing ship Mayflower approached Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Storms and errors had forced the ship far off course from Virginia, its original destination. During the long voyage the passengers had overcome many crises. Now, exhausted and weakened by poor diet and illness, they faced a new challenge.

The “Pilgrims,” as about 40 of the passengers became known, had received a charter allowing them to establish a colony in Virginia. Now they were about to build a colony far to the north, where they had no legal right to settle. They realized that for their settlement to survive they must immediately agree on an orderly way to govern it. So, on November 11, 1620, 41 of the adult males on board signed an agreement called the Mayflower Compact.

They pledged to form a Christian government that would make just and equal laws on behalf of their community that the members of their settlement agreed to obey. The Mayflower Compact was the first document of self-government for North America.

In the image at the beginning of this section, the Pilgrims gather around a table to sign the Mayflower Compact. The Compact was used to govern the settlement until Plymouth became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. The baby in the cradle, Peregrine White, was the first English baby born in New England. White was born on board the Mayflower on November 20, 1620, as the ship sailed off Cape Cod Harbor.

The colonists came ashore on December 26, 1620, at Plymouth. William Bradford, one of their leaders, later recalled that “the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a savage hue.”

About 40 of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower were English Separatists—men and women who had separated themselves from the Church of England because they believed it was hopelessly corrupt. Most Separatists were farmers and craftworkers. The Separatists referred to themselves as “Saints,” and by openly supporting a break with the Church of England, they were risking their lives.

The secular, or nonreligious, passengers on the Mayflower were called “Strangers.” They joined the voyage for a variety of reasons—some for better economic opportunity, some to escape difficult family circumstances, still others to escape a criminal conviction.


In the name of God Amen. We whose names are under-written, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord King James by the grace of God, of great Britaine, France, & Ireland king, defender of the faith, &c.

Haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutualy in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick; for our better ordering, & preservation & furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame shuch just & equall lawes, ordinances. Acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for the general good of the Colonie: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

In witnes whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap-Codd the • 11 • of November, in the year the raigne of our soveraigne Lord King James of England, France, & Ireland, the eighteenth and of Scotland the fiftie fourth, An°: Dom. 1620.

John Winthrop was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded nine years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Mayflower’s exact specifications are lost to time, but it is known that the hand-built wooden ship was a galleon or carrack, square-rigged, and about 80 to 100 feet from stern (back) to bowsprit (the pointy thing on the front). The Mayflower was a merchant ship, not meant for passengers, so the Pilgrims’ quarters were on the mid-level gun, or “tween” deck, which was only about 5½ feet in height. The ship had already seen a long life as a merchant vessel when the Pilgrims embarked in 1620 and was somewhat weather-beaten.


There were 102 men and women aboard the Mayflower. The adult male signers did not include the servants and seamen. Women could not sign because they had no political rights. As was the case with nearly all European settlers’ governing documents, no mention was made of Native Americans.


The new colony was too small and too far away for a great European power such as England to pay attention to it. During town meetings the local colonial government relied on the authority given them in the Mayflower Compact to pass laws, elect assistants to the governor, and add new voters.

Explorer John Smith was one of the leaders of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. In 1614 he sailed along the northeast coast and in 1616 made this map of the region he named New England.

Benjamin Franklin published this annual almanac in Philadelphia. It contained a calendar, weather predictions, recipes, medical advice, farming tips, and an astrological guide. Franklin also included Poor Richard’s proverbs—brief, clever sayings related to daily life. These sayings reflected the value of hard work and common sense. The following proverbs are from Franklin’s almanac.

When he was twelve years old, Franklin began working for his brother James. Soon he was writing essays for James’s newspapers. The young Franklin never signed his own name to these essays but used made-up names. This was a common practice in his day.

Franklin did not use his own name in publishing the almanac. Rather, he wrote under the fictional name of Richard Saunders. Unlike the sophisticated Franklin, Saunders was supposed to be a simple man, the “Poor Richard” ordinary readers could relate to.

Benjamin Franklin, at right, works as an apprentice in Boston in the printer’s shop of his older brother James. During colonial times, apprentices training for a job did not receive a salary but did get food and lodging.


He that waits upon a Fortune, is never sure of a Dinner. Keep thy shop, and thy shop will keep thee.

Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.

Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy wealthy and wise.

Diligence is the Mother of Good-Luck.

Do not do that which you would not have known.

Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it. God helps them that help themselves.

Don’t throw stones at your neighbours, if your own windows are glass.

The cover of the first edition of Poor Richard’s Almanack shows the author as “Richard Saunders,” pen name used by Ben Franklin.


Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), a coauthor and signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is considered one of the founding fathers of the United States—not bad for the self-educated son of a candle- and soap-maker. Franklin apprenticed as a young man to his brother, a printer, and later became a successful author, patriot, politician, diplomat, inventor, scientist, and philosopher. Born in Boston, Franklin abandoned his printing apprenticeship and moved to Philadelphia in 1723, where he began printing his own newspaper, books, and Poor Richard’s Almanack. Franklin was so successful that he was able to give up active control of his printing business in 1848, when he was forty-two years old. For the rest of his life he devoted himself to other interests.


Almanacs were extremely popular colonial reading matter. Of all the colonial almanacs, Franklin’s is the best known, even though Franklin did not make up all the proverbs and sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack. He borrowed many from popular sayings and the Bible, often rewriting them. More colonists read Poor Richard’s Almanack than any other publication except the Bible.

Patrick Henry was a leader in the revolutionary cause. On March 23, 1775, he made a stirring speech at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. Henry urged his listeners to support arming Virginia’s militia to fight against England. The speech’s greatness lies in its powerful statement of the ideals of liberty that make up the heart of American democracy, and for its inspiring call to action. Subsequent generations of American schoolchildren were often required to memorize the entire speech or parts of it, especially the electrifying closing words, “give me liberty, or give me death.” The following selection is from Henry’s famous speech.

In 1765 the English Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The act gave the British the power to tax all printed colonial documents, including newspapers, almanacs, and legal documents. Many colonists were furious because they felt they should not be taxed without their consent. Patrick Henry spoke in the Virginia legislature against the act. His speech was interrupted by cries of “Treason! Treason!” from legislators loyal to the king. Henry immediately replied, “If this be treason, make the most of it.”

Henry refused to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, saying he “smelt a rat.” Later, after the new Constitution was published, he complained, “Who authorized them to speak the language of We the people?” Henry also criticized the document for not containing a bill of rights. People listened. In 1789 in Virginia, James Madison presented to Congress the amendments that became the Bill of Rights.

One observer Said about Patrick Henry, “He is by far the most powerful speaker I ever heard. Every word he says not only engages, but commands the attention.…”


I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves and the House. Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these warlike preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motives for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer on the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves longer. Sir, we have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on.…There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free—if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending—if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

They tell us, sir. that we are weak; …Sir, we are not weak, if we make a proper use of the means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise friends to fight our battles for us.

The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable—and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come!

It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry Peace, Peace—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

Patrick Henry was known by contemporaries for his impassioned nature and his ability to sway listeners with strong emotions.


Patrick Henry (1739–1799) became a member of the Virginia legislature in 1763. Born to a wealthy Virginia family, he tried farming and storekeeping before becoming a lawyer in 1760. In the legislature, he spoke out passionately against British tyranny and demanded colonial independence. Henry was also a delegate to the First Continental Congress in 1774 and the Second Continental Congress in 1775. During and after the Revolution, he served five times as Virginia’s governor, and was among the leading advocates of adding a Bill of Rights to the new Constitution (which he opposed) in 1787.


Henry’s fiery speech helped move many colonists closer to the idea of independence from England.

Patrick Henry made his famous 1775 speech to the Second Virginia Convention while they met in a church, not in their official building. The English governor of the colony had shut down the legislature in 1769, in part responding to Henry’s defiant leadership against the hated Stamp Act, but the legislators continued to meet on their own. Above, the Assembly reacts to Henry’s speech.

When Thomas Paine’s 50-page pamphlet Common Sense was published, he had been in America for only a little more than a year. Paine, who had emigrated from England, had quickly become sympathetic to the colonial cause. Many colonists wanted to fight back against being unfairly taxed, but agreed that if Great Britain surrendered to their demands, they were willing to remain English colonists. But Paine took things one step further. He advocated total independence from Great Britain. He presented his arguments in Common Sense.

The pamphlet became one of the most influential pieces of revolutionary writing. It persuaded ordinary colonists to fight for their independence from England. During Paine’s lifetime and afterward, the pamphlet’s fame spread beyond the American colonies. It inspired oppressed people in many nations to fight for their own freedom.

Paine Stopped going to school at the age of thirteen, when he became an apprentice in his father’s corset shop in England. In 1757, after an unsuccessful attempt to run away to sea, he opened his own shop.

In 1774 Paine met Benjamin Franklin in London. That year Franklin sent him to the American colonies with letters introducing Paine to Franklin’s friends in Philadelphia.

Although Paine was a recent immigrant, he felt at home in colonial America and even served in the revolutionary army. Said Paine, “Where liberty is, there is my country.”


I have heard it asserted by some, that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thriven upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true; for I answer roundly, that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power taken any notice of her. The commerce by which she enriched herself are the necessaries of life, and will always have a market while eating is the custom of Europe.

But she has protected us, say some. That she hath engrossed us is true, and defended the continent at our expense as well as her own is admitted.…

Alas! we have been long led away by ancient prejudices, and made large sacrifices to superstition. We have boasted the protection of Great Britain without considering that her motive was interest, not attachment: and that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account, from those who had no quarrel with us on any other account., but who will always be our enemies on the same account. Let Britain waive her pretensions to the continent, or the continent throw off the dependence, and we should be at peace with France and Spain were they at war with Britain.…

But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore, the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach: but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low, papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of a mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.…

I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap, by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge, not a single advantage is derived. Our corn will fetch its price in any market in Europe, and our imported goods must be paid for, buy them where we will.…

Every quiet method for peace hath been ineffectual. Our prayers have been rejected with disdain: and have tended to convince us that nothing flatters vanity or confirms obstinacy in kings more than repeated petitioning—and nothing hath contributed more than that very measure to make the kings of Europe absolute [have total power].… Wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child.

To say they will never attempt it [English violations of the colonists’ rights and property] again is idle and visionary: we thought so as the repeal of the stamp act, yet a year or two undeceived us; as well may we suppose that nations which have been once defeated will never renew the quarrel.

As to government matters, it is not in the power of Britain to do this continent justice: the business of it will soon be too weighty and intricate to be managed with any tolerable degree of convenience, by a power so distant from us, and so very ignorant of us; for if they cannot conquer us, they cannot govern us.…

Small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet; and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverse the common order of nature, it is evident that they belong to different systems. England to Europe: America to itself.…

But where, say some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is.

A government of our own is our natural right; and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.…

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.


Thomas Paine (1737–1809) worked as a corset maker and as a tax collector in England before immigrating to Philadelphia in 1774. There, he became a journalist. After Common Sense, he wrote a series of pamphlets defending the American Revolution (1775–1783). One of these pamphlets, The Crisis, began with the famous phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine was an early and vocal opponent of slavery, and a critic of organized religion—views that hurt his reputation in his day.


Only three months after its publication in January 1776, 120,000 copies of Common Sense had been sold. The American population then numbered 2.5 million. One of every 20 people had a copy. Almost every colonist read this bestseller or heard it discussed. It remains widely read today.

The two-line poem on the bottom of the title page of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense reads “Man knows no Master save creating Heaven,/Or those whom choice and common good ordain.” The poem suggests that the American colonies should be ruled by only God or rulers they freely choose and who iron out what is best for most people. Here Paine is clearly saying that the colonists should not accept English rule because the common good of the colonies is of no interest to Great Britain.

In this engraving, British troops arrive in Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. Later, the troops met colonial Minutemen on the North Bridge. The battle that followed began the Revolutionary War.

In March 1776 John Adams was in Philadelphia attending the Continental Congress. He left his wife, Abigail, and children behind at their Massachusetts farm. In this letter, Abigail gently but firmly reminds her husband that women should also have rights in the new nation, including the right to vote. When she wrote that women should vote, Abigail Adams was 154 years ahead of her time. American women gained this right in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Abigail Adams had a gift for writing. But it was almost impossible for colonial women to publish anything. She, like many of her female contemporaries, expressed herself in letters.


…I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.