"Every man, and every body of men on earth, possess the right of self-government."

Thomas Jefferson,

THE successful Revolution against England gave the American people an independent place in the family of nations. It gave them a changed social order in which heredity and privilege counted for little and human equality for much. It gave them a thousand memories of mutual hope and struggle. But most of all, it gave them the challenge to prove they possessed a genuine ability to hold their new place, to prove their capacity for self-government.

The success of the Revolution had furnished Americans with the opportunity to give legal form and expression to their political ideals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and to remedy some of their grievances through state constitutions. As James Madison, fourth President of the United States, wrote, "Nothing has excited more admiration than the manner in which free governments have been established in America; for it was the first instance ... that free inhabitants have been seen deliberating on a form of government, and selecting such of their citizens as possessed their confidence to determine upon and give effect to it."

Today, Americans are so accustomed to living under written constitutions that they take them for granted. Yet the written constitution was developed in America and is among the earliest in history. "In all free states, the constitution is final," wrote John Adams, second President of the United States. Americans everywhere demanded "a standing law to live by." As early as May 10, 1776, Congress passed a resolution advising the colonies to form new governments "such as shall best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents." Some of them had already done so and, within a year after the Declaration of Independence, every state but three had drawn up a new constitution.

Writing these documents provided a splendid opportunity for the democratic elements to remedy their grievances and to realize their ambitions for sound government. And most of the resulting constitutions showed the impact of democratic ideas, though none made any drastic break with the past, built as they were by Americans on the solid foundation of colonial experience, English practice, and French political philosophy. Indeed, it was actually in the drafting of these state constitutions that the revolution was accomplished. Naturally, the first object of the framers was to secure those "unalienable rights," the violation of which had caused them to repudiate their connection with England. Consequently, each constitution began with a declaration or bill of rights, and Virginia's, which served as a model for all the others, included a declaration of principles such as popular sovereignty, rotation in office, freedom of elections, and an enumeration of the fundamental liberties-moderate bail and humane punishments, a militia instead of a standing army, speedy trials by the law of the land, trial by jury, freedom of the press, of conscience, of the right of a majority to reform or alter the government, and prohibition of general warrants. Other states considerably enlarged this list to include freedom of speech, of assemblage, of petition, of bearing arms, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, inviolability of domicile, and equal operation of the laws. In addition, all the state constitutions paid allegiance to the theory of executive, legislative, and judiciary branches, each one to be checked and balanced by the others.

While the thirteen original colonies were being transformed into states and adjusting themselves to the conditions of independence, new commonwealths were developing in the vast expanse of land stretching west from the seaboard settlements. Lured by the finest hunting and the richest land yet found in the country, pioneers poured west of the Appalachian Mountains. By 1775, the far-flung outposts scattered along the waterways had tens of thousands of settlers. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of miles from the centers of political authority in the cast, the inhabitants established their own governments, and the communities throve lustily. Settlers from all the tidewater states pressed through into the fertile river valleys, the hardwood forests, and over the rolling prairies. By 1790, the population of the trans-Appalachian region numbered well over 120,000.

External link: to the Map Collection of the Hargrett Library at the University of Georgia Library