The Constitution of the United States of America
- Sign on the Dotted Line
- Three Branches, Checked and Balanced
- Remaining Articles & Making Amendments
- Picture the Founders
- Branching Out
- Amending the Lesson
- Featured Lessons
- Featured Websites
September 17th is Constitution Day, commemorating the day in 1787 when the Founding Fathers signed one of America’s most important documents. This year we’ve included a section on Spanish language resources as well.
The United States Constitution is the oldest written national constitution still in operation, and many of the nations that have established themselves in the decades since that day in 1787, have turned to this document as a model for their own constitutions. As a document which defines the structure of our federal government and delineates the rights of the states within the union, and individual citizens within the nation, the Constitution has become a symbol to Americans and to the world of the American government and way of life.
What better way to celebrate this important document, its place within our society and within our history, than to closely investigate the words and ideas contained in it. EDSITEment’s new worksheet “Understanding the U.S. Constitution” will help students read and interpret the original document by working their way through the text and answering questions about each section. After they examine the Constitution section by section, they can further engage with the text by writing an argumentative essay in which they defend their own understanding of the significance of the document. EDSITEment provides four engaging and thoughtful essay topics as well as a writing guide to help your students organize their ideas, evidence, and analysis. Teachers, parents, caregivers, and students, jump on board for a tour of the United States Constitution!
Sign on the Dotted Line
The Constitution opens with the Preamble, which reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Who were the men who represented “We the People of the United States” when they ratified the Constitution? You might want to begin your investigation with the man who is often most closely associated with the Constitution, James Madison. You can learn more about Madison and his role in creating the Constitution in the EDSITEment lesson plan James Madison: Madison Was There. Most Americans of all ages have heard of James Madison, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, but have they heard of Oliver Ellsworth? You and your students can learn about a few of the signatories of the Constitution with whom they may not yet be familiar in the EDSITEment lesson plan The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met. A number of the men who signed the Constitution went on to become president of the country. You and your students can delve into the biographies of these men who made history by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed website American President. You can also learn more about the Preamble of the Constitution from the EDSITEment lesson plan The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?
Three Branches, Checked and Balanced
One of the most important aspects of the Constitution is that is delineates the structure of the federal government into three branches, thereby dividing the power of the government amongst three bodies. This was established in the first three Articles of the Constitution, which can be read, both in a facsimile of the original text and in a transcript, by visiting the Charters of Freedom website, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital Classroom.
The first article established two bodies — the House of Representatives and the Senate — which together constitute the Congress, or the Legislative branch of government. This is the body that creates the laws that govern the country at the federal level. In order to be sure that the laws that were being created by the Legislative branch of the government were springing from the will of the country’s citizens, these seats of these two bodies are filled with men and women from each of the fifty states who have been elected by their state’s citizens to represent them at the federal level of government.
The second article created the Executive branch of government, which is charged with implementing the laws established by Congress. In order to carry out this responsibility, Article Two creates the office of President of the United States and the Vice President. Several EDSITEment lesson plans further explore the President’s role in the federal government, including The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Understanding the President's Job and The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Communicating with the President. Another EDSITEment lesson plan, Before and Beyond the Constitution: What Should a President Do?, helps students analyze how George Washington, the first official President of the United States, set an example of how to interpret the Constitution’s allocation of Presidential responsibilities.
The third branch of the federal government, the Judicial Branch, is established by Article Three of the Constitution. The Judicial Branch consists of one Supreme Court and a number of lower courts, and its main function is to interpret the laws made by the Legislative Branch. The EDSITEment lesson plan The Supreme Court: The Judicial Power of the United States considers the Judicial Branch’s superior court by looking at a Supreme Court case. Judicial Branch: Overview, a link from EDSITEment-reviewed website Digital Classroom, also provides a valuable resource for a more in-depth investigation of the Judicial Branch. As students learn more about the judicial branch of the federal government they should keep in mind that this branch, and the Supreme Court in particular, is responsible for interpreting the laws created by Congress. The process of interpretation is not always a simple one, and you and your students can learn more about the way in which the high court makes and records these difficult decisions by reviewing the EDSITEment lesson plan Regulating Freedom of Speech.
After enduring King George’s abuses of power in his dealings with the American colonies, many of the Founding Fathers were deeply wary of placing two much power into a single seat of government. This concern underlies the separation of power into the three branches of government, and also gave rise to the institution of checks and balances that each of the three branches have over each other. You and your students can learn more about this important system of check and balances from the EDSITEment lesson plan Balancing the Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances.
The Remaining Articles and Making Amendments
The Constitution contains an additional four articles which include a number of additional powers. Article Four outlines the position and role of state governments under the federal government and their responsibilities to other state governments. Article Five lays out the conditions for making Amendments, which are changes, corrections, or additions, to the Constitution. The next article, Article Six, establishes the Constitution as the “supreme Law of the Land.” And finally, Article Seven contains the qualifications for ratification, the date of signature, and the signatures of the representatives to the Constitutional Convention who approved the drafted Constitution.
Of course, it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, so it is not surprising that not everyone approved the newly-drafted Constitution. Debates over individual and states’ rights led to the drafting and adoption of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, collectively called the Bill of Rights, the text of which is available through the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. You and your students can take an in-depth look at the first of these amendments through the EDSITEment lesson The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country. You will also find a summary of EDSITEment resources specifically relating to the Bill of Rights. This feature includes an EDSITEment Launchpad for K-5 students, and another EDSITEment Launchpad for students in grades 6-12. Finally, since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, seventeen more amendments have been added to it, making the current number of amendments total twenty-seven. You can view Amendments 11-27 through a link on Digital Classroom.
The system of checks and balances, the general language in which it is written, and the provision for making amendments all allow the Constitution to adapt and be re-interpreted in all situations that are presented by innovation and change. This flexibility seen throughout the Constitution has preserved it as the “supreme Law of the Land” for over 200 years.
Picture the Founding Fathers
Visit the painting by Chandler Christy that recreates the scene of the Constitutional Convention.
Find the following figures in the painting:
- Benjamin Franklin
- James Madison
- George Washington
All three of these men signed the Constitution. What else do they have in common? (Hint: They once all held the same job, but at different times).
Choose one of the delegates of the Constitution from the list of signatories available here. Next, find the delegate in the interactive painting of the Constitutional Convention. Click on that delegate’s picture, and then click to learn more about him. Once you’ve read his biography, write a page explaining, based on what you have learned about the delegate from his biography and what you have learned about the Constitution, why you believe this delegate voted to ratify this document.
Branching Out: The Three Branches of Government and Our System of Checks and Balances
- What are the three branches of government?
- Who is the executive in the executive branch?
- How many bodies are their in the legislative branch and what are they called? What are they called when you add them together?
- What does the judicial branch do?
- The practice of dividing the legislative branch into two separate bodies is called bicameralism. Why do you think that the Founding Fathers chose a bicameral (the prefix bi- means two) rather than a unicameral the prefix uni- means one, so a unicameral legislature would only have one body)?
- Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently stepped down from the Supreme Court, leaving one of the court’s nine seats open. Who has the power, according to the Constitution, to appoint a new justice to fill that seat? Which branch of the government has a check on the power of appointment, and what is that check? How does this process balance the power of the other two branches against the Judicial branch?
- What happens if Congress passes a law that contradicts another law or rights that exist in the Constitution and its Amendments? Imagine that Congress has just passed a law outlawing newspapers. Which Constitutional right would this law violate? Which branch of government could check this legislative action, and how would that branch perform that check?
Amending the Lesson
- Do you know what an amendment is?
- Why do you think that there have been amendments to the Constitution?
- The first amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Why is this so important that they needed to write an amendment to make sure that this right was guaranteed?
- Choose one amendment from the Bill of Rights that directly affects you or your family. Write twp paragraphs comparing what your life would be like in America without this amendment was passed to how you live now.
- Choose a different amendment from amongst Amendments 11-27. Consider how this amendment has affected the United States as a whole. Is the amendment an improvement to the original Constitution? Write one to two paragraphs explaining how your believe this amendment has an impact on American life and how you believe it is (or is not) an improvement to the original Constitution.
NEH Constitution Day Celebration
NEH, led by the staff of EDSITEment and the We the People program, has assembled documents, background essays, and a bibliography to help celebrate this day (September 17) and deepen our understanding of the United States Constitution. This year we’ve included a section on Spanish language resources as well.
Extending the Lesson
- Although we vote for the president and vice-president every four years, the office is actually filled through the votes of the Electoral College. While this is an important process to understand, many Americans are unaware of how this process works. You can learn more about this process through the EDSITEment resource The U.S. Electoral College, which gives a detailed account of the Electoral College and its role in electing the President.
- Exactly how does the Supreme Court interpret the law? You can find many Supreme Court decisions on EDSITEment-reviewed Oyez Project: A Supreme Court Multimedia Database. For advanced readers, you may enjoy reading through the Constitution and a few Supreme Court decisions and then considering, based on the text of the Constitution, if you would interpret these issues in the same way as the Supreme Court Justices. In a classroom setting, this activity could be made into a lively, informative debate in which students could be grouped together to argue for or against the constitutionality of a specific law. This could be followed up with a reading of the actual decision handed down by the court.
- Balancing Three Branches at Once: Our System of Checks and Balances
- Before and Beyond the Constitution: What Should a President do?
- The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met
- The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said
- Declare the Causes: The Declaration of Independence
- The Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on Diversity and the Extended Republic
- The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments
- The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country?
- James Madison: Madison Was There
- The Preamble to the Constitution: How Do You Make a More Perfect Union?
- The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Communicating with the President
- The President's Roles and Responsibilities: Understanding the President's Job
- Regulating Freedom of Speech
- The Supreme Court: The Judicial Power of the United States
- American Memory Project (Library of Congress)
- American President
- The Bill of Rights Institute
- Constitution Day
- The Constitution: A Bicentennial Chronicle
- Digital Classroom (National Archives and Records Administration)
- The National Constitution Center
- Oyez Project: A Supreme Court Multimedia Database
- Papers of George Washington