What are the 10 Most Important Documents in American History?

tags: pedagogy, teaching, HNN polls, documents, curriculum, historiography, HNN surveys



Announcing the winners in the reader poll "What are the 10 Most Important Documents in American History?" Nearly 800 readers voted -- the most important document in American history is the Marshall Plan!*

Note: The Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights were specifically EXCLUDED from the poll, since they'd be in the top three practically by default. We wanted to give other documents a chance!

Thomas Paine's Common Sense, first published in January 1776, didn't make the National Archives list ten years ago, but it was named by HNN readers as one of the the most important documents in U.S. history -- one reader wrote that Common Sense, which laid out the case for American independence from Great Britain, was "important for its immediate impact. More important because of the consequences of its impact."
The Federalist Papers, (#20 on the People's Vote list) a series of essays written between 1784 and 1788, argued for the necessity of a stronger federal government. "Countless political scientists," wrote a reader, "have dedicated their careers to understanding these documents, and judges still use them as a guide to understanding the language and meaning of the Constitution. Beyond that, they also persuaded a great many anti-Federalists to support ratification of the Constitution."
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (#38 on the People's Vote list) created the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States and provided the precedent for future western expansion (and ended once and for all the competition between the original states over land claims). To quote a reader, "it determined how the land sold through the Land Ordinance [of 1785] would be governed and allowed into the United States as new states
The Seneca Falls "Declaration of Sentiments" (which did not appear on the People's Vote list) was the product of the first women's rights convention, which met at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Primarily written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and structurally based on the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration, as one reader wrote, "led slowly but surely to dramatic changes in gender relations in the United States."
What more can be said about the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863? The document, written by Abraham Lincoln and #5 on the People's Vote list, proclaimed all slaves in Confederate-held areas "perpetually" free, and fundamentally altered the nature of the Civil War by making the abolition of slavery a primary Union war aim. The document, as it only applied to areas not under federal control, has been criticized for being a stop-gap or temporary measure, but recently -- especially given the 150th anniversary of the Proclamation -- it has enjoyed a renewed reputation as one of the most radical documents in American history.
The Gettysburg Address (#8 on the People's Vote list) is perhaps the most famous speech in American history. Given by President Lincoln at the dedication of the Gettysburg national cemetery on November 19, 1863, the speech initially met with a mixed reception (the anti-Lincoln Chicago Times wrote, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States"), but it has since become universally acclaimed as distilling the essence of the Civil War into a handful of sentences.
Unlike the Gettysburg Address, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868; #13 on the People's Vote list) is no statement of eloquence, but it is an important statement of American principles and a critical extension of American jurisprudence. The Citizenship Clause guaranteed the citizenship of newly-emancipated slaves, the Due Process Clause -- for the first time -- applied the protections of the Bill of Rights to the states (prior to the 14th Amendment, the restrictions on government outlined by the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government) and the Equal Protection Clause extended equal protection of the law to all citizens. Of course, not all of the provisions of the 14th Amendment were applied equally at all times -- Jim Crow, anyone? -- but the Amendment still provides the legal framework of civil rights down to the present day.
Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points (#48 on the People's Vote list), with its unabashed espousal of liberal internationalism, has been a guiding principle in American foreign policy -- for good or ill -- ever since they were listed by Wilson in 1918. One reader wrote, "Once the Iraq War’s popularity with the public began to wane, a lot of historians began comparing George W. Bush and his foreign policy to Wilson’s, but one could draw the same parallel with every President since FDR."
When George Marshall gave the commencement address for Harvard University on June 5, 1947, he outlined a policy (which had been in the planning stages for months) that would rebuilt war-torn Europe. The Marshall Plan speech "set in motion a chain of events that resulted in the greatest foreign aid program in history," wrote a reader, and for that alone it merits nomination, but, as another reader wrote, the result of that program would be to "usher in one of the greatest periods of prosperity in modern history."
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, ranked by scholars as the greatest speech of the twentieth century (and which appeared in an oblique way in the People's Vote list -- #76 as the "Official Program for the March on Washington") remains iconic to this very day (and in fact was referenced by President Barack Obama in his second inaugural address, given on the opposite end of the National Mall. The most famous part of the speech, where King describes his dream, was largely improvised on the spot.

* * * * *

Nearly a decade ago, the National Archives teamed up with U.S. News and World Report and National History Day for the "People's Vote" project, which asked ordinary citizens to vote on the 100 most important documents in American history from before the American Revolution through 1965.

Nearly 40,000 people participated, casting nearly 300,000 ballots. The top ten documents, according to the voters, were:

1) The Declaration of Independece
2) The U.S. Constitution
3) The Bill of Rights
4) The Louisiana Purchase Treaty
5) The Emancipation Proclamation
6) The 19th Amendment to the Constitution
7) The 13th Amendment to the Constitution
8) The Gettysburg Address
9) The Civil Rights Act
10) The Social Security Act

With the NARA/History Day/U.S. News list nearly ten years old, with the perennial debate on the U.S. history curriculum in elementary school, high school, and college, and with the recent uptick in interest in Civil War history and the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, it seems to be an appropriate time for historians to revisit the question: What are the 10 most important documents in U.S. history? Do American historians generally agree or disagree with the results of the NARA/History Day/U.S. News poll?

*Admittedly, the Marshall Foundation had been promoting the poll on Facebook.


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