July 4th is Independence Day in the United States. On this day in 1776, fifty-six representatives of the thirteen British colonies in North America declared that “by the authority of the people” they were establishing a new nation. It would take another six years of war with Britain, then the world's foremost military power, before American independence was won.
In 1782, the United States of America was far from united. It was, in fact, a loose confederation with a weak central government. Real power lay with the state governments. But the states differed widely in religious practice, political opinion, and economic interests. States erected tariff and trade barriers against each other. Currency was inflated and crippling tax burdens were imposed. Economic chaos led to civil unrest. Conflicts arose between the states over boundaries. The national government lacked military forces to deal with security threats. Americans began to look for ways to address these problems.
The answer was a new constitution that would establish a national government strong enough to deal with the country's needs, while reserving certain powers to the states. But Americans were divided about the form the new government should take. Small states wanted equal representation with large states. Many citizens feared that a strong national government would suppress individual liberties.
The issues were resolved only after years of debate and compromise. The new constitution was ratified in 1789 only after ten amendments were added guaranteeing fundamental rights, including freedom of religion, speech, and press, the right to trial by jury, and other protections against government abuse of citizens.
“The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people,” said Patrick Henry, a leader of America’s fight for independence, “it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government, lest it come to dominate our lives.” More than two-hundred years after its adoption, the U.S. Constitution remains every American’s guarantee of freedom.