Seven Ways to Teach the U.S. Constitution

Tools

Preamble to Constitution

On September 17,  every U.S. educational institution that receives federal funds is required to teach about the United States Constitution. EDSITEment was one of the first federal agencies to establish a Constitution Day feature, and over the years this feature has evolved into a robust mini-site of over 30 lessons, vetted websites, games, and videos. This year, we offer new Common Core lessons on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and on the Preamble to the Constitution.

The original Constitution

The original Constitution, the one that was signed by the members of the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, is the oldest working constitution in the world. Some have called it a "bundle of compromises", others such as the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone saw it as the “most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” The great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison denounced it as “a covenant with death…and an agreement with hell" because of the protections it gave to the institution of chattel slavery. Such disagrement make clear that we should never take the goodness of the Constitution for granted, but rather try our best to understand its logic and its history, as well as its limitations. 

EDSITEment offers lessons on the road to the convention and the illuminating debates during the convention over the principle of representation and the establishment of the office of the presidency.

Then there are the classic debates between the Federalists, who supported the Constitution, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists. The issues raised in these debates over the size, powers, and scope of the proposed new government and how it was expected to secure the goals of the Preamble seem to recur throughout our history and understanding them is vital to our public discourse.

The Bill of Rights

For many teachers, the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the original Constitution, is the preferred focus for a C-Day lesson. We offer a historical overview, The Creation of the Bill of Rights and an interactive map of the state ratification debates. This lesson raises the question of whether or not these amendments were necessary to safeguard the principles of limited government called for by the Declaration of Independence. If your focus is the 1st Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and assembly, try these lessons.

Slavery

As much as we honor the framers and their work, we must not ignore the dissenters who have also made the Constitution what it is today. The greatest dissenters were the abolitionists who denounced the protection for the institution of slavery in the Constitution. In Slavery and the Founding, the founders’ views on slavery are examined. This lesson can be paired with Slavery Opponents and Defenders, which includes a student activity centering on one of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s representative speeches in which he denounced the Constitution as “a covenant with death…and an agreement with hell.”

Frederick Douglass on the Constitution

Garrison’s esteemed abolitionist colleague, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, originally accepted this position but soon came to think it historically and politically unsound. In his remarkable speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?" he went so far to argue that:

[T]here is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing [slavery]; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? Or is it in the temple? It is neither.

Abraham Lincoln, the Union, and 13th Amendment

Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the relationship between the Constitution and the ruling principle of “liberty to all” is the subject of “Fragment on the Constitution and Union—The Purpose of the American Union,” in which he argues that the principles of the Declaration are the goal of the Union secured by the Constitution.

The advocacy of abolitionists like Douglass and Garrison along with President Lincoln and the Congress all contributed to the ending of slavery during the Civil War. The story is told in the NEH-supported film series The Abolitionists, available to stream in your classroom via NEH’s Created Equal. This film ends with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which is 150th years old this year.

For more on the 13th Amendment, see the National Constitution Center's illuminating discussion of Lincoln's Legacy: The 13th Amendment 150 Years Later, with a number of distinguished scholars including Allen Guelzo and Lucas Morel.

6. The 14th Amendment: a "Second Founding"?

The Reconstruction—the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments— were not much protection for black people until the mid-20th century, as the film Slavery By Another Name makes clear. Yet they laid the groundwork for a constitutional revolution establishing new notions of citizenship, equal protection, due process, and personal liberty that altered the relationship between the federal government and the states.  As the NEH-supported documentary Constitution USA makes clear, it took a century for the ideal of equality embedded in the 14th amendment to the Constitution to be taken seriously.

7. Constitution USA videos

This bring us finally to the overriding question: how can an 18th-century document still be not only relevant to, but also binding, for us today? The already mentioned series Constitution USA with Peter Segal introduces students to some of today’s major debates—free speech in the digital age; same-sex marriage; voting rights; separation of church and state; and presidential power in the post-9/11 world (to name just a few)—and shows how they turn on contested clauses of the Constitution and the different ways these clauses can be interpreted.

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