We know documents run business. From sales proposals and contracts to employee offer letters, documents are at the core of every business transaction. But what about governments, schools, families, and even entire social movements? When you look at any defining changes or actions that have taken place throughout history, from the highest government levels all the way down to individual families, documents are at the core of each one.
We’re taking a look at ten monumental documents that have changed the course of history, from medieval ink on parchment, to the digital recordings of Supreme Court rulings.
Magna Carta, 1215
The first official document to broach the subject of human rights and liberties stems back to medieval England. The Magna Carta, which was created through negotiations between King John and his barons, included a famous clause that, for the first time, gave all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial. And while that applied to very few people at the time—most people in 1215 were unfree peasants ruled by their landlords—this single clause has influenced governments, lawmakers, and rulers of all kinds in the centuries that followed. Both the United States’ Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contain the ideals originated in the Magna Carta—the belief that everyone, including our leaders, must obey the law.
Gutenberg Bible, 1455
Religion aside, it’s an indisputable fact that the Bible is one of the most influential documents in our history. The Gutenberg Bible, named after its creator, Johannes Gutenberg, is the first complete book printed from movable type. This document set the stage for print production moving forward.
Declaration of Independence, 1776
Perhaps the most well-known document in American history, the Declaration of Independence was completed on July 4, 1776. This historical document granted Americans independence from the British Crown and to this day, American independence is still celebrated on July 4. The document is comprised of an introduction, a preamble, a body divided into two parts, and a conclusion, the contents of which bear great importance on human history. The Declaration of Independence marks the birth of a nation, with the threads of that nation’s history, its impact on the world and the growth of democracy all running back to this one single document.
Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, 1787 & 1791
The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation with a new form of government in 1787. It created a federal system with a national government composed of three separated powers, with principles covering checks and balances, individual rights, liberty, limited government, natural rights theory, republican government, and popular sovereignty. Not all states ratified the Constitution immediately, however. Many were calling for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties, which eventually led to the passing of the Bill of Rights in December of 1791 (which was, of course, inspired in part by the Magna Carta).
Emancipation Proclamation, 1863
While the American Civil War began as a conflict focused around the preservation of the Union, it eventually transformed into a battle for human freedom. Abraham Lincoln personally viewed slavery as abhorrent, and about a year into the war, abolition had become a sound military strategy. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that in all states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves free.
While the Proclamation itself was an effective war measure, Lincoln recognized it might have no constitutional validity once the war was over, meaning the legal framework of slavery would still exist. Lincoln and the Republican party then committed to creating a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. By December 18, 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified, which ensured that forever after “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States.”
Treaty of Versailles, 1919
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 officially ended World War I. The treaty was negotiated among the Allied powers, with little participation by Germany. The document was lengthy, consisting of 15 parts and 440 articles, which reassigned German boundaries, assigned liability for reparations, and reduced Germany’s armed forces to very low levels. Part I of the treaty created the Covenant of the New League of Nations, a diplomatic group created to solve disputes between countries before they escalated to war.
The 19th Amendment, 1920
The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, giving women in the United States the right to vote for the first time in the nation’s history. The women’s suffrage movement actually began in 1848, but it would take another 50 years for Nineteenth Amendment to pass. This was the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in U.S. history, achieved peacefully, through democratic processes and set into action with the signing of one document.
Brown v. Board of Education, 1954
This milestone Supreme Court decision ended racial segregation of children in public schools, nearly 60 years after the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision, which found separation on the basis of race to be unconstitutional, served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015
Another landmark civil rights Supreme Court case makes the list, with the ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The ruling enforces the same terms and conditions, as well as all the accompanying rights and responsibilities, that apply to marriages of opposite-sex couples to apply also to the marriages of same-sex couples.
The most important moments in history have been recorded, ratified, and overturned in documents, in one form or another. As technology continues to transform the way we document and consume information, it’s safe to assume that documents—even in digital formats—will remain at the core of all decisions.