There’s no question that most Americans understand and appreciate the vast importance of the Constitution, but for all the rhetoric, debates, and discussions about the document, few Americans truly appreciate how America’s form of government, as laid out on paper by James Madison, came to be.

On July 4th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The document (which wouldn’t be signed by all parties for another month or so) stated plainly that the 13 American colonies would no longer recognize British rule. Unbeknownst to many today, however, was that it also stipulated that each of the 13 original colonies were henceforth to be recognized as independent and sovereign states. Without an existing national constitution, it would be another year before a formal establishment of government would be ratified.

This is where high school history class starts to get foggy. In the minds of many Americans, the Declaration of Independence was the birth of our nation, but it wouldn’t be until September 17th, 1787 that the U.S. would sign our constitution, as we know it, into law. This leaves an 11-year gap that tends to be glossed over on midterms, but is vital to fully understanding the reasoning behind America’s constitution.

Prior to the signing of the Constitution, the United States operated under a form of government laid out in the Articles of Confederation. These articles were adopted by the Continental Congress in 1777 and established formally that each state, formerly a colony, was now sovereign unto itself. Each of these sovereign states would send representatives to Congress for the purpose of resolving disputes. The fierce fight for independence from England’s monarchy had left many of the fledgling nation’s leaders reluctant to accept any significant centralized authority. Congress was given the power to make treaties or alliances, maintain the armed forces, and print money, but it did not possess the authority to levy taxes on citizens or initiate regulations that would affect the commerce between states.