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Although the Constitution of the United States seems somehow self-evident after being successfully in effect for more than two hundred years, it emerged in the late 1780s from a complex situation. The thirteen colonies that united against England in the War of the American Revolution had all been ruled at various times under different forms of imposed government. When they declared independence, most of them, but not all, drafted new forms of self-governance that they embodied in sets of rules they called constitutions. Those initial constitutions varied a great deal, so the rules of government were quite different in Pennsylvania, for example, than they were in South Carolina. Also troubling were various overlapping colonial land claims. In the Treaty of Paris (1783), England recognized the independence of the thirteen rebellious colonies and abandoned claims to all of the land south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River. But the newly independent governments themselves differed sharply over who owned which portions of the land England was giving up. The first map in this module, Governments and Land Claims, 1783, depicts the situation of the independent former colonies following the Treaty of Paris.

From the Revolution to the late 1780s, the thirteen former colonies operated together under a loose and ineffective set of rules known as the Articles of Confederation. Many of the revolutionary leaders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, came to believe that the thirteen independent colonies would never reach their economic or political potential without a more cohesive governmental structure that transcended their separate commercial and territorial interests. Accordingly, they organized a convention of state delegates to draft a national constitution. The document hammered out in 1787 by the convention created the United States of America, but that Constitution had to be ratified by the people of the independent states in order to take effect. The second map in this module, Ratification of the National Constitution, depicts that process.