The first written constitution in the then-British colonies was the "Fundamental Orders" adopted by the settlements of Wethersfield, Windsor and Hartford, Connecticut in 1639. The statutes in this document continued to be used until 1818. Most of the colonies adopted some form of constitutional governing document before or during the early days of the Revolutionary War. In November 1777, more than a year after the 13 colonies declared independence from Great Britain, delegates to the Second Continental Congress met to discuss the need for a document establishing a common federal government for the new nation.

Articles of Confederation

The Second Continental Congress tasked Delaware delegate John Dickinson with drafting the nation's first governing document, the Articles of Confederation. Congress debated and made many changes to Dickinson's draft. The original document called for the federal government to be vested with all powers not specifically granted to the states by the Articles. The version which was finally approved by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777 put greater restrictions on the power of the national government, granting all powers not specifically granted to the central government to the states. The Articles of Confederation officially became the law of the land on March 1, 1781, after being ratified by all 13 colonial governments and remained in force until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. While the Articles of Confederation only survived eight years, they did leave a lasting legacy as the first legal document to refer to the new nation as "The United States of America."