Closer Readings Commentary

Seven Ways of Looking at the U.S. Constitution

Constitution of the United States
Photo caption

Constitution of the United States

On September 17 every U.S. educational institution that receives federal grant money is required by law 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 it has evolved into a robust minisite of many lessons, vetted websites, games, and videos.

We offer a Common Core ready worksheet to help students do a close reading of the document and an essay outline worksheet for them to define and defender their own understanding of the significance of “the Supreme Law of the Land.”

1. The Bill of Rights

For teachers who wish to focus on the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the original Constitution, we recommend the historical overview Retouching the Canvas the Creation of the Bill of Rights and the interactive map of the state ratification debates. If your focus is the First Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and assembly, try these lessons.

2. The Constitutional Convention

The original Constitution, the one that was signed by the framers in September 1787 and sent to the states for ratification, is well worth exploring on its own terms. EDSITEment has lessons on the road to the convention, and the illuminating debates during the convention over representation and the establishment of the office of the presidency.

In addition there are the illuminating debates between the supporters of the Constitution, the Federalists, and their opponents, the Anti-Federalists, over the size, scope and powers of the proposed new government. The issues raised in these debates recur throughout our history and continue to be vital to our public discourse.

3. Constitution USA Videos

How do you respond to a question about how an 18th-century document can still be relevant in 21st? The NEH-supported documentary series Constitution USA with Peter Segal explains. This four-hour online series 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, presidential power in the post-9/11 world, to name just a few—and shows how they turn on interpretation of provisions of the document.

4. 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. This year as NEH launches Created Equal we thought it would be most interesting to face head-on the most controversial part of the original Constitution, the provisions having to do with slavery, and show how these provisions became the subject of heated debate in the decades before the Civil War. To begin with, there is Slavery and the Founding, which offers a survey of a range of views of the founders about the evils of slavery and the difficulties of emancipation. This 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 for its compromises with the slavery.

5. Anti-Slavery Interpretations

Garrison’s esteemed abolitionist colleague, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass, dissented. In his most important speech What to the Slave is the 4th of July? Douglass held that” there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; 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.”

At the beginning of that same speech, Douglass linked the “eternal principles” of the Declaration with the proper interpretation of the Constitution. This idea that the principle “all men are created equal” should inform interpretation was one that Abraham Lincoln insisted upon during the decade before the Civil War. In a little-known “fragment” written on the Constitution in early 1861, Lincoln said:

The assertion of that principle [all men are created equal], at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.”

6. The Reconstruction Amendments

The advocacy of abolitionists like Douglass and Garrison along with President Lincoln and the Congress contributed to the end of slavery during and following the Civil War. Together, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), as well as the Thirteenth (1865), Fourteenth (1868), and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and declared that American citizenship and the right to vote could not be restricted on the basis of race.

7. The Fourteenth Amendment: A New Constitution?

While these Reconstruction amendments were not much protection for black people in the 19th and early 20th century, they laid the groundwork for a constitutional revolution establishing new notions of citizenship, equal protection, due process, and personal liberty, altering the relationship between the federal government and the states. In many ways, it is this “Second Constitution” that governs the nation we live in today, and it is the Fourteenth Amendment that underlies many landmark Supreme Court decisions that have reshaped the contours of American society.