Americans had significant experience with self-government before the writing of the Constitution in 1787, and this experience shaped the political views of the framers who wrote the Constitution and factored into the formation of the first government. A constitution is a set of rules that determines how power will be used legitimately in a state. Contrary to popular belief, few governments have been created by written constitutions.

The Colonies

Europeans settlers had been living in America for more than 250 years by the time independence from England was declared. Although the colonists were subjects of the British crown, the colonies functioned more or less independently and thus had extensive experience in self-government. Many towns held meetings to discuss public business, for example, and residents had some input into their colonies’ governments.

The colonists rebelled, in part, because they felt that the British were increasingly taking away their powers of self-government. Prior to the 1750s, the colonists paid few taxes to Britain. But when the British Parliament passed a number of taxes on the colonists, the colonists decried the measures as taxation without representation. In the 1760s, for example, the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act enraged many colonists because the acts levied taxes on certain commodities but gave the colonists no say in how the money would be spent.

Angered by the taxes, representatives from the colonies gathered at the First Continental Congress in 1774 and called for a total boycott of British goods. When the British sent troops to enforce the new taxes, many colonists began to agitate for independence. War between the British and the American colonists broke out in 1775.

The table on the next page lists the major events during the early years of the United States.




1607First permanent British colony at Jamestown, Virginia
1620Pilgrims land in Massachusetts
1620–1732Founding of the thirteen colonies; colonists govern themselves and develop idea of limited government
1641Massachusetts Body of Liberties passed; it protects rights of individuals
1764Sugar Act taxes sugar
1765Stamp Act taxes a variety of goods
1770Boston Massacre
1773Boston Tea Party
1775Revolutionary War begins
1776Second Continental Congress convenes; Declaration of Independence is written
1781Ratification of the Articles of Confederation
1783Treaty of Paris ends the Revolutionary War
1786Shays’ Rebellion begins in western Massachusetts
1786Annapolis Convention calls on Congress to convene a meeting to fix the Articles
1787Constitutional Convention
1787–1789Battle to ratify the Constitution
1789Constitution ratified; the new United States government takes power

Popular pages: The Founding and the Constitution