Human Rights Day Observed
Magna Carta: Cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution
We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either justice or right.
—Magna Carta (1225)
The "Great Charter" drawn up on the field at Runnymede on June 15, 1215 between King John and his feudal barons failed to resolve the crisis that had been brewing in England ever since the death of John's brother King Richard I. Over the long term, however, Magna Carta served to lay the foundation for the evolution of parliamentary government and subsequent declarations of rights in Great Britain and the United States. In attempting to establish checks on the king's powers, this document asserted the right of "due process" of law. By the end of the 13th century, it provided the basis for the idea of a "higher law," one that could not be altered either by executive mandate or legislative acts. This concept, embraced by the leaders of the American Revolution, is embedded in the supremacy clause of the United States Constitution and enforced by the Supreme Court.
On completion of this lesson, students should be able to: Explain what is meant by the rule of law and why it is necessary in a free and democratic society.
Explain what is meant by higher law and the relationship between Magna Carta and the evolution of constitutional government.
Describe the role of Magna Carta in shaping the thinking of American colonists and explain how this document was used to justify independence from Great Britain.
Define the concept of due process of law, list the constitutional provisions that guarantee due process, and explain their importance in assuring a just society.
In what respects did Magna Carta provide the justification for American independence from Great Britain?
To what extent did the principles and provisions of the Great Charter find expression in the U.S. Constitution?
The Creation of the Bill of Rights: “Retouching the Canvas”
This lesson will focus on the arguments either for or against the addition of a Bill of Rights between 1787 and 1789. By examining the views of prominent Americans in original documents, students will see that the issue at the heart of the debate was whether a Bill of Rights was necessary to secure and fulfill the objects of the American Revolution and the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Students will also gain an understanding of the origins of the Bill of Rights and how it came to be part of what Thomas Jefferson called "the American mind," as well as a greater awareness of the difficulties that proponents had to overcome in order to add the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.
When the Constitutional Convention completed its work in September of 1787, the document submitted to the people for ratification did not include a bill of rights. The lack of an enumeration of reserved rights and powers proved to be a source of great debate between Americans, who had long been accustomed to the idea that such declarations were essential to protect the liberties of the people against the abuses of government.
In the state ratification debates that followed the Convention, Federalists (who supported the proposed Constitution) and Anti-federalists (who opposed it) offered their arguments for or against the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. Federalists generally believed that a bill of rights was unnecessary, if not dangerous to the liberties of the people. Anti-federalists, on the other hand, launched vociferous objections to the Constitution, claiming that without a declaration of reserved rights, no people could long remain free, even under a well-constructed system of government established with good intentions.
Thomas Jefferson, although not an Anti-federalist, believed that a bill of rights was necessary to "retouch the canvas" of the proposed Constitution, thus creating a system of government that would best fulfill the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which states that the first object of good government is to secure the rights of its citizens. James Madison, one of the chief authors of the Constitution, eventually agreed that a Bill of Rights should be added, although for reasons different from those of Jefferson. Madison understood that such an addition would build confidence among the people in their new government, and allay their fears that, without a bill of rights, all that Americans had fought for during the Revolution – limited self-government, equality and liberty – would be jeopardized.
Identify the origins of the idea of a Bill of Rights.
Articulate the key similarities and differences between the English Bill of Rights and the declarations of rights contained in the original state constitutions.
Understand how the American idea of a bill of rights was influenced by the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
Was a Bill of Rights necessary to secure the principles of the American Revolution and complete the work of the Constitutional Convention?
The Declaration of Independence: "An Expression of the American Mind"
In an 1825 letter to Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, discussed who deserved credit for the ideas contained in that document. Looking back to the early years of the American Revolution, Jefferson related how the decision "to resort to arms for redress" of American grievances led patriots of the American cause to issue "an appeal to the tribunal of the world" with an eye towards explaining and justifying the American actions.
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, not yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All it's [sic] authority rests on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, & c.
Reflecting back forty-nine years after the fact, did Jefferson accurately portray the process that went into the creation of the Declaration of Independence? If so, what were those "harmonizing sentiments of the day" to which he referred? This lesson plan looks at the major ideas in the Declaration of Independence, their origins, the Americans' key grievances against the King and Parliament, their assertion of sovereignty, and the Declaration's process of revision. Upon completion of the lesson, students will be familiar with the document's origins, and the influences that produced Jefferson's "expression of the American mind."
This lesson plan is divided into two parts; teachers can choose to use one or both of them:
- Activity 1: The structure of the Declaration: introduction, main political/philosophical ideas, grievances, assertion of sovereignty
- Activity 2: The ideological/political origins of the ideas in the Declaration
After completing this lesson, students should be able to understand the structure of the Declaration—its four component parts
Identify the key ideas in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence: natural rights, the social contract, the right to revolution, popular sovereignty, and the right of self-determination
Identify the chief grievances advanced by the American patriots and explain how they related to the events that preceded the Constitutional Convention
Understand the Americans' assertion of sovereignty in the concluding section and their determination to fight for it
Identify a variety of sources for the specific language that made its way into the Declaration of Independence
What are the major ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence?
What are some of the sources for the language and ideas found in the Declaration of Independence?
The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country?
Young people have a profound sense of the importance of fairness. "It's not fair" is often used as a one-size-fits-all argument when a child feels victimized. In situations where the child has an interest in protecting his or her actions, "It's a free country!" is often the argument of choice. On the other hand, children are very sensitive about speech and policies they consider to have a negative effect on their well-being. Almost every day on the playground, the difficult issues surrounding our right to free speech and our responsibility to avoid harming someone else with our speech are debated with as much emotion — if not as much impact — as they have been in the courts, legislatures, and meeting halls of this land.
Balancing rights and responsibilities is difficult, even for the Supreme Court. This lesson demonstrates to students that freedom of speech is an ongoing process.
Summarize the contents of the First Amendment
Give examples of speech that is protected by the Constitution and speech that is not protected by the Constitution.
How does the right to free speech conflict with our responsibility to consider the rights of others?
How is the First Amendment interpreted differently in different contexts?
Under what conditions is some speech limited and other speech protected?