(October 31) Colonists rush a tax stamp distributor, protesting "taxation without representation."
(December 16) Massachusetts colonists stage the Boston Tea Party in protest of the recently passed Tea Act.
(September 5) The First Continental Congress convenes at Carpenters Hall in Philadelphia. Congress sends a "petition for redress of grievances" to King George III of England.
THE REVOLUTIONARY WAR (1775–1785)
(April 19) Fighting breaks out at Lexington and Concord, known as "the shot heard 'round the world." This is generally thought of as the opening salvo in the Revolutionary War between the colonies and Britain.
(May 10) The Second Continental Congress convenes and creates the Continental Army virtually from scratch by assembling local colonial militias. This army is placed under the command of a man from Virginia, George Washington, and faces the seemingly insurmountable task of taking on the first-rate army and navy of the world's largest empire. Debate over the prospect of independence begins.
(January 10) Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense, making a case for independence and sparking debate across the colonies.
(June 11) Congress appoints the Committee of Five to draft a final statement declaring the case for America's independence. These are the writers of the Declaration of Independence and include John Adams, Robert Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.
(July 4) Late in the afternoon, church bells ring out in Philadelphia as the Declaration of Independence is adopted, declaring the 13 colonies to be 13 states. However, there is no establishment of one central government at this time.
(July 8) An official reading of the Declaration of Independence is given at the Philadelphia State House, and the document is published for all to read. Word quickly spreads throughout the colonies that America is declaring independence from England.
(August 2) Members of Congress sign the Declaration of Independence. However, not everyone supports independence. A controversy is beginning to stir here that will extend to the Constitutional Convention. A certain faction of state leaders, known as anti-Federalists, are concerned about the potential strength of a centralized American government (the Federalists support a strong central government).
(December 25) Washington leads troops across the Delaware River and launches a surprise attack at Trenton, New Jersey, restoring American morale.
(October 7) The Battle of Saratoga results in the first major American victory of the Revolutionary War. This decisive victory leads to French support of American independence.
(November 15) The Articles of Confederation are proposed and sent to the states for ratification, essentially providing the first constitution of the U.S. and legally establishing the Union of the states. Ultimately, this takes four years to ratify. Significant here is a controversy over conflicting claims of western lands in the Ohio River Valley. Maryland, which has no such claims, holds out until other states renounce their claims and concede their lands to the national government.
(February 5) South Carolina is the first to ratify the Articles of Confederation.
(February 6) American and French representatives sign two treaties in Paris confirming that France now officially recognizes the United States and will provide military supplies in support for their bid for independence.
(May 12) The worst American defeat of the Revolutionary War occurs as the British capture Charleston along with the entire southern American army, four ships, and a military arsenal.
(October 17–19) The last major battle of the Revolutionary War at Yorktown is concluded as the British send out a flag of truce and surrender.
(March 1) Maryland is the last state to ratify the Articles of Confederation, and the document goes into effect. The 13 individual states essentially set up a federal government under this document.
(November 30) A preliminary peace treaty is signed in Paris, acknowledging recognition of American independence and the boundaries of the United States, and confirming British withdrawal from America.
(March 10–15) Unrest occurs among senior members of the Continental Army. Many are urged to defy the authority of Congress for its failure to honor past promises to the army. This is put to rest on March 15, when General Washington gathers his officers and talks them out of rebellion.
(September 3) Britain officially recognizes the independence of the United States at the Treaty of Paris.
(January 14) Congress ratifies the Treaty of Paris.
THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION (1786–1787)
(August 7) Some members of Congress attempt to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but due to division among delegates, the attempt fails. Apparent problems at this time include those within the states themselves; violations of the Articles of Confederation and of national treaties by the states; and the lack of power on the part of Congress to get states to comply with the Articles and acts of national legislation. One of the most pressing issues at this time is the states' disregard for Congressional requests for funds to pay for national defense.
(September 11–14) The Annapolis Convention meets in Maryland to discuss the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Participating here are 12 delegates from five states: Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. They make a recommendation that defects in the federal government need to be addressed.
(February 21) Congress authorizes a convention to be held in Philadelphia for the purpose of recommending changes to the Articles of Confederation. As the various states start to commission delegates, different opinions begin to form about what should be accomplished there and how drastic the changes to the Articles of Confederation should be.
(May 25) The Constitutional Convention is convened in Philadelphia. Fifty-five representatives from the 13 states attend. While the initial intention is to reform the Articles of Confederation, delegates end up drafting the Constitution, a document meant to establish a central government for the newly established states. Many controversies plague this four-month convention, including the question of selecting representatives to Congress, the relationship of the national and state governments, and the powers of the president. Another prominent controversy is slavery, for which many northern states have already passed a gradual emancipation law. Southern states not only want to continue the practice, but they want slaves counted in their population, effectively boosting their representation in Congress.
(May 29) Edmund Randolph of Virginia introduces the Virginia Plan, which establishes two Houses of Congress, where the "lower" House representatives would be elected directly by the people of each state and the "upper" House representatives would be selected by members of the lower House. In both cases, the number of representatives would be determined by the population of each state. This plan also recommends the creation of a national executive to be chosen by Congress for a single limited term.
(June 15) William Paterson of New Jersey introduces a more conservative reform plan for the Articles of Confederation. Known as the New Jersey Plan, it proposes to enlarge some of the powers of Congress but otherwise leaves the scheme of representation unchanged. This plan also recommends the creation of a federal executive, consisting of more than one person, to be chosen by Congress. The executive would remain without the power of veto and be easily impeachable.
(June 18) Alexander Hamilton proposes a plan for a bicameral Congress whereby lower House representatives would be directly elected and Senate members would be appointed by electors chosen by the people. In his proposal, Hamilton calls for the creation of a supreme executive to hold office indefinitely and be chosen by election.
(July 13) The Confederation passes the Northwest Ordinance, which details the carving up of the northwestern wilderness of North America and granting the South fugitive slave rules.
(July 16) The Connecticut Compromise, drafted by Roger Sherman, is reached over the rule of suffrage in Congress. There has been heated debate over the question of equal versus proportional representation. Some delegates fear that proportional representation would result in the domination of larger states, whereas others fear that equal representation would allow smaller states to reallocate resources toward themselves. Resolution is found in the idea that lower House representation can be based on population, while the Senate representation is fixed and equal.
(August 24) The idea of what has become known as the Electoral College is introduced.
(September 6) Delegates approve the electoral system and agree to a four-year term for a president who would be impeachable and eligible for re-election.
(September 17) Representatives sign the Constitution of the United States of America and send it to the Continental Congress, bringing the convention to a close. Only three delegates at the convention refuse to sign it. The Constitution seeks balance between Federalist and anti-Federalist posturing, creating a strong new national government but limiting its powers by dividing them between state and federal, and also among the government's three branches. Also included is the Three-Fifths Compromise, whereby slave trade remains legal until 1808, fugitive slaves are to be returned, and each slave will count as three-fifths of a person.
(September 28) The Continental Congress sends the new Constitution to the states for ratification. Nine of the 13 states must ratify it in order for it to become law.
RATIFICATION OF THE CONSTITUTION AND THE BILL OF RIGHTS (1787–1799)
(November 20) Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the first of the Federalist Papers is published in a New York newspaper, calling for a Bill of Rights.
(December 1) Alexander Hamilton points to the "melancholy situation," that all in government is not well.
(December 7) Delaware becomes the first state to approve the Constitution, gaining distinction as the "First State."
(December 12) Pennsylvania is the second state to ratify, in effect becoming the second state.
(December 18) New Jersey becomes the third state to ratify the Constitution.
(January 2) Georgia is the fourth state to ratify the Constitution.
(January 9) Connecticut becomes the fifth state to ratify.
(February 6) Massachusetts is the sixth state to ratify the Constitution.
(April 28) Maryland is the seventh state to ratify the Constitution.
(May 23) South Carolina ratifies the Constitution, becoming the eighth state to do so.
(June 21) New Hampshire becomes the ninth state to approve the Constitution, leading to ratification and making it the law of the land.
(June 25) Virginia ratifies the Constitution and becomes the 10th state admitted to the Union.
(July 26) New York ratifies and becomes the 11th state admitted to the Union.
(February 4) The Electoral College unanimously elects George Washington the first president of the United States of America.
(April 1) The United States House of Representatives holds its first full meeting in New York City.
(April 21) John Adams is sworn in as the first vice president of the United States.
(April 30) George Washington is sworn in as the first President of the United States of America at Federal Hall in New York City. He is sworn in by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of the State of New York.
(September 24) The Judiciary Act organizes the federal court system.
(September 25) The United States Congress adopts the Bill of Rights, which contains the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, and sends it to the states to be ratified. This is included as a concession to the anti-Federalists, who are deeply unhappy with the Constitution; it is intended to keep the new government from trampling on individual freedoms. Included are the right to freedom of speech and religion (the First Amendment), the right to bear arms (the Second Amendment), and the right to due process (the Fifth Amendment).
(September 29) The United States Army is established.
(November 21) North Carolina becomes the 12th state to be admitted into the Union.
(February 2) The first Supreme Court is assembled in New York City. John Jay is named the first Chief Justice.
(April 3) The United States Coast Guard is established.
(May 29) Rhode Island is the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the Constitution and be admitted to the Union.
(July 10) A congressional act officially locates the future United States capital in the District of Columbia.
(December 12) Congress charters the first bank of the United States. This is one of many instances where the founding fathers disagree on how the Constitution should be interpreted. On one side, those such as Alexander Hamilton argue that the Constitution gives Congress the power to charter a national bank, whereas others like Thomas Jefferson say Congress has no such authority.
(December 15) The Bill of Rights, containing the first 10 amendments, is ratified by three-quarters of the states and is added to the U.S. Constitution.
(February 20) The United States Postal Service is established.
(April 2) The United States Mint is established.
(May 8) Congress establishes the United States Military Draft.
(October 13) The cornerstone of the White House is laid.
(December 5) George Washington is re-elected president and John Adams is re-elected vice president.
(September 18) The cornerstone of the Capitol is laid.
(March 27) The United States Navy is established.
(May 8) The United States Post Office is established.
(February 7) Congress ratifies the 11th Amendment of the Constitution. In effect, this limits the power of the federal courts.
(September 19) George Washington announces that he will step down, putting to rest Convention fears that a president might stay in office for life.
(March 4) Federalist John Adams is inaugurated as the second President of the United States. Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as the second vice president.
ADDITIONAL AMENDMENTS TO THE CONSTITUTION (1800 - PRESENT)
(December 12) Washington, D.C., becomes the official capital of the United States.
(March 4) The Constitution passes a major test as Thomas Jefferson is sworn in as president and John Adams peacefully steps down. This comes on the heel of a volatile campaign that pitted John Adams' Federalists against Jefferson's Republicans (otherwise known as the anti-Federalists, who believe in states' rights above all). Ironically, Jefferson is quietly sworn in by Chief Justice John Marshall, his bitter enemy and opponent in this debate.
(June 15) Congress ratifies the 12th Amendment, requiring separate election of the president and vice president.
(January 1) Congress abolishes the African slave trade. This is in accord with the Three-Fifths Compromise, which said that the slave trade could not be made illegal until this time.
(March 6) Chief Justice John Marshall supports the power of the Constitution and national government over states' rights in McCulloch v. Maryland. Essentially, Maryland's taxing of the Baltimore branch of the national bank is determined to be unconstitutional.
(March 2) The Supreme Court, led by Marshall, rules that the federal government has broad power to regulate interstate commerce, dealing another blow to states' rights.
(July 20) The Seneca Falls Convention is held, where women demand equal civil and political rights publicly for the first time.
(September 18) Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, which requires the return of escaped slaves. This is part of the Compromise of 1850 that quells a four-year controversy between the slave states of the South and the free states of the North, avoiding imminent succession.
(March 6) The Supreme Court declares that Dred Scott has no right to sue in federal court because no black American can be a U.S. citizen, whether slave or free. This only serves to fuel tensions over slavery.
(January 1) President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in rebel states.
(January 31) Congress passes the 13th Amendment, effectively abolishing slavery. This comes at the end of the Civil War, when Robert E. Lee surrenders to General Ulysses S. Grant. Soon after, John Wilkes Booth assassinates Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater. The amendment is ratified and formally added to the Constitution on December 6.
(June 13) Congress passes the 14th Amendment, granting rights of citizenship to all people born in the U.S. or naturalized, including former slaves. The amendment is ratified on July 9, 1868, as the idea of equality formally makes its way into the Constitution.
(February 3) The 15th Amendment is ratified, granting male citizens the right to vote regardless of color or race. Notably, women are not mentioned in this piece of legislation.
(September 17) The United States celebrates the centennial birthday of the Constitution.
(February 3) States ratify the 16th Amendment, establishing a federal income tax system.
(April 8) The 17th Amendment is ratified, allowing for the direct election of senators by each state.
(January 16) Congress ratifies the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol. This is commonly referred to as the temperance movement, or Prohibition.
(August 18) Women are given the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment after Tennessee becomes the 36th state to ratify it. After initially rejecting the amendment in 1920, Mississippi finally ratifies it on March 22, 1984.
(December 10) The Equal Rights Amendment is introduced to Congress, requiring government to treat men and women with exact equality. Written by Alice Paul, this amendment passes both houses of Congress in 1972 but is never ratified.
(January 23) The 20th Amendment changes the presidential inauguration date from March to January.
(December 5) Congress ratifies the 21st Amendment, effectively ending Prohibition.
(February 27) The office of the presidency is limited to two terms with the ratification of the 22nd Amendment.
(March 29) With the ratification of the 23rd Amendment, voting rights are extended in presidential elections to residents of the District of Columbia.
(January 23) The 24th Amendment passes Congress, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections.
(July 2) Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation that outlaws unequal application of voter requirements and racial segregation.
(February 10) With the ratification of the 25th Amendment, presidential succession is clarified.
(July 1) With the 26th Amendment, the minimum voting age is lowered from 21 to 18.
(September 17) The Constitution's bicentennial birthday is celebrated.
(May 7) The 27th Amendment, first proposed back in 1789, is finally ratified, limiting Congressional pay raises.