Declaration of Independence

The National Archives and America's Founding Documents

Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It's also known as the frequency or recency illusion. It's the phenomenon when you hear or see something unusual and then hear and notice that something repeatedly.

Last week, I noticed that the earliest histories of the American Revolution virtually omitted the Articles of Confederation. Now, I see the omission of the Articles from nearly every place where I would expect to read and find more information about them, like the National Archives' website.[1]

The National Archives holds, conserves, and preserves the founding documents of the United States. When you visit its website, a menu bar at the top of the homepage prominently displays a link to "America's Founding Documents."

Screen shot of National Archives' Homepage

Click the link and you will find pictures for and links to the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

National Archives, "America's Founding Documents" webpage

The Articles of Confederation is conspicuously absent from the page.[2] In fact, it isn't even a sidebar or bottom-page link away. In this digital representation of "America's Founding Documents," the Articles of Confederation doesn't exist.

The National Archives houses the original, signed copy of the Articles of Confederation. But to find its digital copy, you have to search for it. And the first link you will find, "Welcome to," takes you to a completely different website, which has a far inferior display and web view for documents compared to the Archives' "America's Founding Documents" page.[3]

Articles of Confederation as displayed on ""


Archives and History

Archives shape the way we view and interpret history. It's something Jennifer Morgan and Peter Drummey reminded me of during our conversations for the "Doing History: How Historians Work" podcast series and something Karin Wulf talks about in her tweets and blog posts.

The National Archives plays a large role in how we view our nation's written record and what we view as historically important in that record. According to its interpretation, the Articles of Confederation is not a significant document. Therefore the document is hard to find on the National Archives' website--a casual browser would not find it--and the Archives has omitted it from the digital pantheon it created to highlight "America's Founding Documents."[4]

Of course, I disagree with the National Archives.

The Articles of Confederation is one of "America's Founding Documents." In fact, it shares the same lineage as the three documents the National Archives includes within its "Charters of Freedom."


The "America's Founding Documents" Family Tree

The Second Continental Congress agreed to draft articles of confederation on the same day it moved to draft a declaration to declare the colonies' independence from Great Britain.[5]

The fact that the Articles of Confederation placed too much sovereignty in the states caused the Constitutional Convention to convene and draft a new constitution in 1787. The Articles of Confederation directly informed the Constitution of 1787.

The Articles of Confederation also informed Madison's Bill of Rights. For example, Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation states that "Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."[6]

Amendment X of the Bill of Rights: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."[7]


Project Direction

The ultimate goal of my research into the drafting and ratification of the Articles of Confederation is to produce a multimedia/multi-platform book. In the poetic words of Robert Frost, I have "miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep"; I am years away from realizing this goal.[8]

One of the mistakes I made with my dissertation was I waited too long to start writing. Therefore, I'm thinking about writing an article. I have so much research to conduct for this project. Pursuing an article would both direct the directions I go in my research and ensure that I start writing sooner rather than later.

I have two article projects in mind. One article would explore the omission of the Articles of Confederation from histories of the American Revolution. I imagine the article would investigate the early histories of the American Revolution, why the Articles do not fit neatly within those nationalist interpretations of American history, and how the historiography of the Revolution has rarely looked back at the Articles since those early histories.

The second article would be to explore the settlement of the boundary between New York and Massachusetts. The article would explore issues over western land, cultural differences, and how Article 9 of the Articles of Confederation operated. I've wanted to write this article since grad school and I already have a fair amount of the research for it in my files. But I'm not sure I should write it. The article would deal with issues that affected the drafting and ratification of the Articles of Confederation, but it's not a piece I see fitting within a multimedia/multi-platform book focused on how the Second Continental Congress drafted and ratified the Articles.




[1] Alan Taylor's American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, is one place I expected to find the Articles of Confederation mentioned and it appeared. Taylor devoted three pages (pages 337-339) to summarizing the Articles  and the challenges the Second Congress experienced in drafting and ratifying them.

[2] The Articles of Confederation are also absent from the National Archives online gift shop. For the record, I would purchase a facsimile of the Articles to hang on my wall if one existed.

[3] A bit more searching and you will find the National Archives' wonderful high-resolution images of the signed copy of the Articles of Confederation.

[4] The National Archives also omits the Articles of Confederation from its physical pantheon to the United States' founding documents: the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.

[5] Richard Henry Lee's Resolution, June 7, 1776.

[6] It's important to note the importance of Article 2. It appears after Article 1, which states "The Stile of this confederacy shall be, "The United States of America." Transcript of the Articles of Confederation, OurDocuments.Gov.

[7] U.S. National Archives, "The Bill of Rights: A Transcription."

[8] Robert Frost, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

The American Revolution Comes to Albany, New York, 1756-1776

On Thursday, August 14, 2014, the Journal of the American Revolution posted "The American Revolution Comes to Albany, New York, 1756-1776." This article began as a conference paper, which came out of my dissertation. The Albanians' experiences with quartering will appear in much more detail in my future book AMERICA'S FIRST GATEWAY. I wrote "The American Revolution Comes to Albany" not only to share this great story with a wider audience, but also to experiment with how an historian could re-purpose their conference papers into other formats. I incorporated some of the feedback I received on my conference paper and added a bit of explanation for a non-specialist audience to this piece.

At some point I may repurpose the story of how Albany became revolutionary for an academic article--although I also like the idea about an article on loyalism in Albany.


The American Revolution Comes to Albany, New York, 1756-1776 

"The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world…He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation: For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”Declaration of Independence

On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed its Committee of Five to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston composed a document that proclaimed why the thirteen colonies had no other recourse but to separate from the British Empire. They declared that “The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.” The committee added weight to the colonists’ claims by providing a long list of specific examples of the king’s injustices towards them. Among the enumerated grievances: King George III had given his “assent” “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”

The colonists experienced the king’s unjust quartering throughout the French and Indian War (1754-1763). It all started when John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun assumed command of the British forces in 1755. Loudoun lamented how the British soldiers had lost the 1755 campaign to the French because his predecessor William Shirley could not find winter quarters for them near the front lines. Loudoun sought to rectify this situation by ordering the governors of Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania to erect barracks in Boston, New York City, Albany, and Philadelphia. The governors either refused or informed Loudoun that their colonial assembly would provide only some of the funds needed to build barracks or rent rooms in inns and public houses within those cities. Eventually, each city built at least some of the barracks Loudoun had demanded, but only in Albany, New York did Loudoun resort to forcibly quartering his troops in private homes.

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Colonial Printing Press 101

printingpressHave you ever operated an 18th-century printing press? On June 30, 2014, I took a couple of friends around Boston’s Freedom Trail. We stopped in the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, a recreation of the printing office where Benjamin Edes and John Gill printed The Boston Gazette and Country Journal between 1755 and 1798.

In this post you will learn about the colonial printing press and what it was like to print a copy of the Declaration of Independence on one.


Brief Overview of Colonial Printing

Reverend Joseph Glover brought the first printing press to English North America in 1638. After Glover died enroute to Massachusetts Bay, his widow Elizabeth Glover inherited his press and established a print shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts Bay. Glover's indentured servant Stephen Daye operated the press on her behalf.

Scholars believe The Freeman’s Oath broadside was the first tract printed in English North America.

By 1777, the 13 British North American colonies had nearly 100 master printers living in 25 towns.


How the Colonial Printing Press Worked: An Overview


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA printer uses a composition stick to place the letters of his text in the order he wishes them to appear.

He places the stick in his left hand and picks up type from his cases with his right hand. As the printer has memorized the location of all the characters in his type chests, he does not look at the letters as he places them in his stick. Instead, he relies on feel and memorization to guide him through the composition stage.

The printer must compose his text upside down and backwards (right-to-left) so that it will appear right-side-up and left-to-right on the printed page.

The printer composes his text one line at a time. After he has composed his line, he sets the type in a large tray known as a galley. The galley allows the printer to view several lines of text at once and to correct any mistakes he made when composing his lines.

After the printer is satisfied with his composition, he moves his type from the galley into an iron frame known as a chase. He places wedges and fillers in this frame to tighten it up before he places the form on to his press.


Printing Press Labeled 1The printer inks his type with an oil-based ink. He applies the ink evenly across his type with inking balls.

After he applies the ink, the printer attaches a damp piece of paper to the tympan, or the part of the press that folds over the type. A frame called the “frisket” holds the paper in place on the tympan.

The printer folds the tympan over the type. Once folded, the printer refers to the paper-over-type combination as the “coffin.”

The printer turns a handle on the side of the press to bring the type and paper (the coffin) under the press platen or stone.

The printer pulls the bar (the Devil’s Tail) connected to the platen to apply pressure evenly across the coffin. Depending on the press and the type he has set, the printer may have to move his coffin under the platen several times. Once he is satisfied that all parts of the coffin have been pressed, he pulls it out from under the platen and removes his printed page.

Printing Press Labeled 2

Liz the Printer

On June 30, 2014, the recreated print shop of Edes & Gill had set the type of its printing press to print copies of the Declaration of Independence.

After the informative talk where I learned how printers ran their shops and used their presses, I asked to purchase one of the freshly printed copies of the Declaration.

Liz the PrinterThe interpreter must have sensed that a “history geek” stood in his presence because he asked me if I wanted to print my own copy.

I said “yes” without any hesitation.

With the type set, I rolled the two ink balls in the oil-based ink on the inking block. The ink proved very sticky, which the printer attributed to the air conditioned room.

Once I coated the balls, I rolled them together to make sure I spread the ink over them evenly.

I took the ink balls and inked the press. As you can see from the picture, I took the job of coating all parts of the type seriously.

As I inked the type, the printer placed my damp paper on the tympan and secured it with the frisket.

I took the liberty of forming the coffin, which I then cranked under the platen.

I used the “Devils Tail” to evenly apply pressure to the coffin.

I performed the tasks of a printer perfectly until I opened the coffin and dropped my Declaration on the type. (A rookie mistake.)

Regardless, I am pleased with my slightly flawed copy of the Declaration of Independence.


Share Your Story

What experiences have you undertaken in an effort to better understand the history you study and love?


*Labeled press pictures courtesy of Common-Place Object Lessons by Jeffery D. Groves