The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Though slaves had been declared free by President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, their status after the American Civil War was uncertain. Amendment XIII was ratified by the required number of states on December 6, 1865. A transcript of the original document is available here.
Imprisoned in April, 1963 for protesting segregation, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote this letter to affirm that nonviolent civil disobedience was essential to achieving the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. Read the full text of the letter here.
Learn these 50 words to better understand the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
This introduction to the foundational document of our democracy lays out what we believe in as a country and who we aspire to be as a people.
Christopher Columbus embarked on the first of three voyages to the "New World" with three ships — the Niña, Pinta and Santa María — on August 3, 1492. On October 12th, Columbus and his crew arrived on the island known today as San Salvador. He kept a logbook in which he faked some entries to soothe a mutinous crew, and a private diary in which he described the journey that shaped the subsequent history of the western hemisphere. Upon his return to Spain, Columbus presented these records to Queen Isabella I of Castile. She had the diary copied and retained the original, then gave the copy to Columbus before his second voyage. The whereabouts of the original Spanish text remain a mystery — its location has not been known since 1504. Here are 14 words selected from the historic text.
Robert E. Lee's farewell to the Army of Northern Virginia was delivered at Appomattox Court House on April 10, 1865, one day after the surrender that effectively ended the Civil War. The speech is brief and eloquent. Lee thanks his men for their sacrifice and explains that the outcome is not due to their performance. For more on this speech and its important words, read the full article.
In 1951, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recruited thirteen parents to file a class action suit on behalf of their children. The named plaintiff, Oliver Brown, was the father of a third grader who, denied admission to a neighborhood white school, was forced to walk six blocks to take a bus to a black school. On reviewing the District Court's ruling based on the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decided that segregated public schools were unequal and unconstitutional. This led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. These words are from the unanimous opinion written by Earl Warren.
Also known as The Great Binding Law, this document established a representative confederacy of five tribes: Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca, Cuyuga, and Onondaga. Its exact date is uncertain (possible years are 1142, 1451, and 1525), but many historians agree that it is the first constitution in the New World. Here is a link to the full text: Iroquois Constitution Compare the words in these lists: Iroquois Constitution, Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, US Constitution
Just as "history is written by the winners," the historical record often skips over missteps or mistakes made by those same winners. The Articles of Confederation were the founding fathers' first attempt at establishing an central alliance of all the different states in 1777. Although a valiant effort, the provisions laid down in this document didn't quite work the way the writers wanted them to, and they soon realized they had to start again with a new document. That second try is known as The Constitution, and it endures to this day. Here are 43 vocabulary words from The Articles of Confederation. The entire document is available here.
The American National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, is sung at assemblies, before sporting events, and it has even been sung before all the presidential debates this year. The words were written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key during the Battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the war of 1812. Key's words embody a spirit of perseverance that has become essentially linked to the idea of American character and identity. Here are fifteen vocabulary from the entire Star-Spangled Banner, including words from the little-known three additional verses.
The full title of this declaration includes a focus on citizenship, and it was published two years after the declaration of rights for men and immediately after the National Assembly of France rejected a proposal to extend the rights to women. With an ironic tone, the writer and activist Olympe de Gouges dedicated it to Marie Antoinette, who -- as a woman -- was not seen as an equal. And, as a queen, she did nothing to promote gender equality (yet she was eventually given a trial and death sentence equal to that of King Louis XVI). While a postscript and form for a social contract are also included, the main structure and contents of this declaration parallel and parody its male counterpart. Compare these lists to hear the echoes. E-text available here. Here are links to our lists on rights: The Declaration of Independence, Declaration of the Rights of Man, Declaration of the Rights of Woman, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Coauthored by Thomas Jefferson and General Lafayette, this declaration was approved by the National Assembly of France in 1789. Unlike the American Declaration of Independence, its content consists more of philosophical principles rather than specific grievances against an abusive king. But similarly, it led to a revolution that inspired the hearts of individuals around the world. Read this list aloud to hear the echoes that unite humanity. E-text available here. Here are links to our lists on rights: The Declaration of Independence, Declaration of the Rights of Man, Declaration of the Rights of Woman, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, with a preamble by John Adams and editing by Benjamin Franklin and other members of Congress, it outlines the offenses of King George III to justify the vote for independence that had taken place two days earlier. With the colonies already one year into a war, the Declaration closed the door on reconciliation with Great Britain, paved the way for the creation of the United States of America, and continues to serve as an inspiration throughout the world. E-text available here.
The Magna Carta, signed in 1215, is 800 years old on June 15, 2015. The Magna Carta settled the rebellion of some barons against the king. Although some of the language is still obscure, the document is widely credited as being the first statement of individual rights under kingly rule. Among other things, it put a limit on payments that could be made to a king and ensured swift justice, guaranteed by a board of peers, in this case 25 barons. Here are 35 words from the English translation of the original Latin of this document that is the forerunner of democratic expressions like the Declaration of Independence.
On 24th September 1996, the nations of the world convened to sign a treaty that banned the testing and development of all nuclear weapons in a massive step towards harmony and peace. This list of vocabulary is taken straight from the Treaty itself.
On April 9, 1865, after a final battle that failed to break through Union forces, Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. As a brigadier general and secretary to Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Porter witnessed and recorded this event. In his report, Porter included detailed observations, letters between the opposing generals, and personal opinions—all of which served to emphasize the humanity of the moments leading up to and surrounding the formal ceremony that is now seen as the end of the Civil War. E-text available here.
The Declaration of Sentiments was presented in July 1848 at the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. Composed by the abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it deliberately echoes the Declaration of Independence by casting women in the role of the oppressed and men in the role of the tyrant. This led to much heated dispute, but it is now recognized as the first step towards the addition of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. E-text available here.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948 to reflect the commitment of the international community to prevent any repeat of the atrocities of World War II. Drafted by the Commission on Human Rights, which consisted of 18 members from various political, cultural, and religious backgrounds, it recognizes the value and rights of every individual everywhere. In addition to influencing many subsequent national constitutions, laws, and treaties, it serves as a tool to apply moral pressure on abusive governments. E-text available here.
John L O'Sullivan, the columnist who coined the term "Manifest Destiny," puts forward the case for The United States as the chosen nation. O' Sullivan contrasts nations with bloody histories which oppress them with America, which he sees as free of such hindrances and therefore free to march towards the future- the future being America's rightful domain. E-text available here
As you read Thomas Paine's “Common Sense” (etext found here), learn this word list of 50 words.
From Japan Told to Order End of Hostilities, Notify Allied Supreme Commander and Send Emissaries to Him.
From Nixon and Khrushchev Argue In Public As U.S. Exhibit Opens; Accuse Each Other Of Threats, the story of the "kitchen debates," from July 24, 1959.
The Stamp Act was an act passed by the British Parliament in 1765 in order to collect revenue in the American colonies. The act upset many colonists, since it was passed without the colonists' consent and thus there were widespread protests. The protests were so effective that the tax was never collected in any meaningful way. Full text: http://ahp.gatech.edu/stamp_act_bp_1765.html This list is based on the introductory paragraph, which explains the taxes.
The Quartering Act of 1765 was an act passed by British Parliament, which forced people in the US colonies to house and feed British soldiers during times of peace if there was no room in barracks. The symbolic power of this act was great, as it implied that there would now be a British standing army in the colonies during peace time. The act was largely ineffective and expired in 1767, however, it was amended in 1774 as part of the Intolerable Acts. Even though it was rather ineffective, the act had such high symbolic value and was so unpopular that it is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence and in the US Constitution. Full texts: http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/related/quartering.htm This list is based on paragraph 2, which explains the core aspect of the act.
The Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act of 1887, was a law that allowed the U.S. government to take Native American tribal lands and divide them into 40 acre lots for individual Native Americans. The goal was to break up communal tribal lands and speed the assimilation of Native Americans into American society. The Dawes Act caused great suffering with much of the land winding up in the hands of white settlers.