America's Founding Documents
declaration of independence
united states constitution

America's Founding Documents

Introduction to America’s Founding Documents

No documents have had a greater influence on the citizens of our country than the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. The Declaration of Independence marked the birth of our republic and set forth our “unalienable rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Later, the Constitution outlined our style of government and defined the rights that are protected from intrusion by government.

These documents have been a beacon to all men and women who value freedom. They are just as meaningful now as when they were written. As the American statesman Henry Clay said, “The Constitution of the United States was not made merely for the generation that then existed but for posterity – unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”

The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were written with the intent that they could be easily read and understood by ordinary citizens. The difficulty comes with the changes in the English language that have occurred since they were written, making both documents more difficult to decipher. Freedom Defined addresses this problem by providing instant access to the definitions of words and phrases used in these documents. The definitions are based on dictionaries used during the early years of the United States, the records of the Constitutional Convention, and the writings of the Founding Fathers.

The Declaration of Independence The Constitution of the United States    


 Benjamin Franklin, one of the few men to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, is among the greatest statesmen America has ever produced. He had only two years of schooling as a child, but as he grew to young manhood he taught himself through reading, writing, hard work, travel, and scientific experimentation. Through this program of self-education he eventually became an internationally acclaimed scholar and inventor, receiving honorary degrees from several universities on two continents.

In 1760, Franklin gave a young friend this advice about studying difficult books: “I think it would be well for you to have a good dictionary at hand, to consult immediately when you meet with a word you do not comprehend the precise meaning of. This may at first seem troublesome and interrupting; but it is a trouble that will daily diminish, as you will daily find less and less occasion for your dictionary, as you become more acquainted with the terms; and in the meantime you will read with more satisfaction, because with more understanding.”

To Teenagers Who Use Freedom Defined

Each time we pledge allegiance to the American flag, we also pledge our loyalty and support to “the republic for which it stands.” This resource will help you discover the meaning of that promise. We speak of our republic as “one nation, under God, . . . with liberty and justice for all.” But where did our liberty come from?  What can we do to guard against losing it?

To answer these two important questions, we must first understand the two great documents that have made America “the land of the free.” The United States became a nation in 1776 through the Declaration of Independence, which announced to the world that we were no longer part of the British kingdom. The Declaration says that all people are “created equal” and are born with certain God-given rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It also states that we have the right to organize whatever form of government we believe will best protect us and our freedoms.

To accomplish this, the American people adopted the Constitution of the United States. Building on the foundation principles set forth in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution went into effect in 1789 as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” It was a new kind of government, one that had never before been tried. It limited, divided, and balanced authority between the states and the three branches of the federal government so that no person or group would have enough power to trample on the people’s rights.

For more than two hundred years America has been viewed as the home of liberty by many nations of the world. Our constitutional system has been called “the great engine of freedom.” But, like any valuable machine, it requires careful and frequent attention to continue operating correctly. In a people’s government, it is the people themselves who must provide this attention. Each generation of Americans must earn again the rights and liberties passed on to them.

It will soon be your generation’s turn to protect the freedoms secured by the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. To do so, you must first read and understand these two vital documents. Although both of them were written for ordinary citizens, certain parts are not easy to read today because the English language has changed in some ways since the late 1700s. That is why this resource has been prepared.

By providing definitions of many difficult words and phrases, Freedom Defined can help you understand the documents that gave birth to our country. The definitions are based on dictionaries used during the early years of the United States, the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and the writings of the Founding Fathers and others who have studied the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. The great men and women who formed our nation created a wise and effective system of self-government that has made Americans the first free people in modern times. Their flame of freedom has now been passed to us. May we hold it high for future generations to see and follow.

To Adults Who Use Freedom Defined

No two political documents have had a more dramatic and far-reaching influence on human liberty than the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. They are inseparable parts of one whole: the first proclaims the philosophical ideals on which a free nation was founded, while the second provides the practical means by which those ideals may be implemented and perpetuated. The freedoms we now enjoy are the product, and thus depend on the preservation, of America’s unique system of self-government. For this reason, each new generation of Americans inherits an obligation to uphold and safeguard that system.

We owe our allegiance to the US Constitution, not to political candidates, parties, or programs. It is the “supreme law of the land” and should therefore govern us and our leaders. To safely utilize and maintain our free political process, we must know how to govern ourselves in accordance with correct constitutional principles. While serving as President, George Washington called for “the education of our youth in the science of government".  He said, "in a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? and what duty more pressing...than...communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

Parents and educators followed his advice and for many years thereafter virtually all Americans understood the Constitution and how it was designed to work. Alexis de Tocqueville, a distinguished French jurist who visited the United States in the 1830s, observed that “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic....  If you question [an American] respecting his own country, ...he will inform you what his rights are and by what means he exercises them.... In the United States, politics are the end and aim of education.”

It is now our generation’s turn to “preserve, protect, and defend” the principles set forth in our nation’s founding documents. To do so, we must first read and understand them. That is the purpose for which this resource has been prepared. The Declaration of Independence was authored by Thomas Jefferson. The US Constitution, based on an initial plan outlined by James Madison, was the product of many minds; but its final phrasing and its famous preamble came from the pen of Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. Unlike most legal documents of that era, these were written for ordinary citizens rather than for attorneys.

As writer Edwin Newman observed, the US Constitution is “a remarkable example of straightforward, economical English...astonishingly free of legalese.” Nevertheless, present-day Americans find it considerably more difficult to read and understand the Constitution and the Declaration than did our forebears in the time of Washington and Tocqueville. This is true for several reasons.  Both documents necessarily contain a number of technical terms; some English expressions have acquired new meanings over the last 230 years; and a few others have passed from our language altogether. Furthermore, the United States has experienced significant educational and demographic changes in this century. Many Americans, up until the early 1900's had better reading habits and larger vocabularies than we do in this age of television, the internet, and video games; moreover, they were not as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as we are today.

Freedom Defined recaptures the meaning of the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence for modern readers. It is essentially a dictionary of words and phrases used in America’s founding documents. You will notice that descriptive subheadings have been added to each article, section, and clause to give a brief summary of its contents. The paragraphing of the original printed text of the Declaration has been slightly altered, and in both documents the paragraphs have been numbered (article and section numbers appeared in the original Constitution). Square brackets have been inserted in the Constitution to identify passages that are now obsolete or have been modified by later provisions.

The most notable feature of Freedom Defined is its extensive system of words containing tool-tips. These tool-tips provide simple, clear definitions of difficult words and phrases; no attempt is made to supply interpretive commentary, nor is any historical context reviewed beyond what is necessary to define a term or explain the status of a constitutional provision no longer in force. Simply hover over a hyper-linked word to see its definition.

To establish as nearly as possible the meaning intended by those who framed and adopted these two vital documents, the definitions are based on English and American dictionaries used during the Founding era, the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and commentaries by the Founders themselves as well as those of reputable modern scholars. (See “Suggestions for Further Reading” below.)

In the final years of his life, Thomas Jefferson called upon the American people to “preserve inviolate [the] Constitution, which, cherished in all its chastity and purity, will prove in the end a blessing to all the nations of the earth.” Similarly, James Madison wrote that the men and women who founded our nation “accomplished a revolution which has no parallel in the annals of human society. . . . They formed the design of a great confederacy, which it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate.” We are their successors. And we can keep alive their grand experiment by becoming an enlightened citizenry and earning anew the “blessings of liberty” they sought to secure for themselves and all mankind.

The Fire of Freedom

America’s Founding Fathers, who authored and fought for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, had very clear ideas about freedom. Here are a few representative quotations from their speeches and writings.  They provide important insights into the nature and the source of our liberty, the dangers that can threaten it, and how we may remain a free people today.

Patrick Henry: “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!”

Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”


Benjamin Rush: “Political freedom includes in it every other blessing. All the pleasures of riches, science, virtue, and even religion itself derive their value from liberty alone. No wonder...those illustrious souls who have employed their pens and sacrificed their lives in defense of liberty have met with such universal applause.”

John Dickinson: “Honor, justice, and humanity call upon us to hold, and to transmit to our posterity, that liberty which we received from our ancestors. It is not our duty to leave wealth to our children; but it is our duty to leave liberty to them.”

George Washington: “A government of as much vigor as is consistent with the perfect security of liberty is indispensable. Liberty itself will find in such a government, with powers properly distributed and adjusted, its surest guardian.”

Alexander Hamilton: “Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments.”

Thomas Jefferson: “The way to have good and safe government is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many. . . . What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.”

George Mason: “The right of the people to participate in the legislature is the best security of liberty, and the foundation of all free government; for this purpose elections ought to be free and frequent.” Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

James Iredell: “The only real security of liberty in any country is the jealousy and circumspection of the people themselves. Let them be watchful over their rulers.”

Thomas Jefferson: “What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that [the] people preserve the spirit of resistance?”

Thomas Jefferson: “To preserve [our] independence, we must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt.”

Richard Henry Lee: “The first maxim of a man who loves liberty should be never to grant to rulers an atom of power that is not most clearly and indispensably necessary for the safety and well-being of society.”

James Madison: “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as by the abuses of power.”

Samuel Adams: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who, so far as his power and influence extend, will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man.”

Benjamin Franklin: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are . . . the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”

John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Alexander Hamilton: “An inviolable respect for the Constitution and laws . . . is the vital principle, the sustaining energy, of a free government.”

Thomas Jefferson: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. . . . [The people] are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, . . . it expects what never was and never will be.”

James Madison: “It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people.”

George Washington: “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty . . . [is] staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

Suggestions for Further Reading

Corwin, Edward S. The Constitution and What It Means Today. 7th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941. 

Cullop, Floyd G. The Constitution of the United States: An Introduction. 2d ed. rev. New York: New American Library, Mentor Books, 1984. 

Dumbauld, Edward. The Bill of Rights and What It Means Today. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957. 

------. The Constitution of the United States. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. 

------. The Declaration of Independence and What It Means Today. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950. 

Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. 2d ed. rev. 5 vols. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1907. 

Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. Rev. ed. 4 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1937. 

Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; and Jay, John. The Federalist Papers. 1788. New York: New American Library, Mentor Books, 1961. 

Jensen, Merrill; Kaminski, John P.; and Saladino, Gaspare J., eds. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. 8 vols. by 1988. Madison, Wis.: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976-.  

Norton, Thomas James. The Constitution of the United States: Its Sources and Its Applications. New York: World Publishing Co., 1922.  

Peltason, J. W. Understanding the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. 

Skousen, W. Cleon. The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Constitutional Studies, 1986. 

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 1833. Reprint. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1987.