In this module, you will examine the form of government established by the American Revolution and the Constitution, and its key ideas—including natural rights, popular sovereignty, and the rule of law. By examining the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, you will learn how these two documents set the foundation for American democracy.
The founders were children of the Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement beginning in the late 1600s. The ideas that fueled this period were a celebration of reason, the power through which human beings might understand the universe and improve their condition. Overall, the movement strived for knowledge, freedom, and happiness. These ideas sparked transformational changes in art, philosophy, and politics. When crafting a new constitution, the founders followed this Enlightenment model and drew lessons from history and from their own experiences. Between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the American people were governed at the national level by the Articles of Confederation and at the state level by state constitutions. From the founders’ perspective, these frameworks of government were noble experiments, but also deeply flawed. With the U.S. Constitution, the Founding generation established a new national government designed to address the deficiencies in these forms of government—creating a new government that was strong and deliberative enough to achieve common purposes and check mob violence but also restrained enough to protect individual liberty.
In the summer of 1787, delegates gathered for a convention in Philadelphia, with the goal of revising the Articles of Confederation—the nation’s existing governing document. However, rather than simply revising the Articles of Confederation, they wrote an entirely new framework of government: the U.S. Constitution. This new government was more powerful than the national government established by the Articles of Confederation, but the Constitution also limited the powers of this new government. In this module, you will explore the debates and compromises that occurred at the Constitutional Convention and explore the key arguments during the battle over ratification.
Shortly after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Founding generation added the Bill of Rights—the Constitution’s first 10 amendments. These amendments guarantee many of our most cherished liberties, including the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right to a jury trial. After the Constitutional Convention, the absence of a bill of rights emerged as a key part of the debates over ratification. Anti-Federalists—those who opposed the Constitution —pointed to the missing bill of rights as a fatal flaw in the new document. Several states ratified the Constitution with an understanding that amendments would be promptly added by the new government. This module will explore the origins of the Bill of Rights, explain its importance to the debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and walk through the specific rights enshrined in each of the first 10 amendments.
When crafting the Constitution, one of the central concerns of the Founding generation was how best to control government power. With the new Constitution, the Framers looked to strike an important balance—creating a new national government that was more powerful than the one that came before it while still protecting the American people’s most cherished liberties. They settled on a national government with defined but limited powers. Instead of placing authority in the hands of a single person (like a king), a small group of people (like an aristocracy), or even the whole people (like a direct democracy), the Framers divided power in two ways. At the national level, the Framers divided power between the three branches of government—the legislative branch, the executive branch and the judicial branch. This process of dividing power between different branches of government is called the separation of powers. From there, the Framers further divided power between the national government and the states under a system known as federalism. In this module, students will explore the key functions of the different parts of government and the role that the Constitution plays in controlling government power.
The Constitution grants Congress—our nation’s legislative branch—the power to make laws. The legislative branch is outlined in Article I of the Constitution. The Constitution divides Congress into two houses—the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The House of Representatives is composed of representatives proportionate to each state’s population. At the same time, the Senate is organized under the principle of equal state representation—with each state, regardless of its population, receiving two Senators.
In this module, students will examine primary and secondary sources to learn about the legislative branch’s structure, functions, and powers as granted by the Constitution and defined by the courts over time. Students will also explore the legislative process and the role that civil dialogue and political compromise play in crafting national laws.
Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch of the national government, headed by a single President. Article II outlines the method for electing the President, the scope of the President’s powers and duties, and the process of removing one from office. The President’s primary responsibility is to carry out the executive branch’s core function—namely, enforcing the nation’s laws. From the debates over how to structure the Presidency at the Constitutional Convention to modern debates over executive orders, this module will explore the important role of the President in our constitutional system.
Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the national government, which is responsible for interpreting the laws. At the highest level, the judicial branch is led by the U.S. Supreme Court, which consists of nine Justices. In the federal system, the lower courts consist of the district courts and the courts of appeals. Federal courts—including the Supreme Court—exercise the power of judicial review. This power gives courts the authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed (and actions taken) by the elected branches. The Constitution also promotes the principle of judicial independence—granting federal judges life tenure (meaning that they serve until they die, resign, or are impeached and removed from office).
This collection of videos developed by the National Constitution Center and featuring distinguished scholars and museum experts focus on a wide variety of concepts related to the US Constitution and government. Videos could easily be utilized for a short "Constitution Day Lesson" or a more in-depth look at our founding documents. Topics include: the Constitutional Convention and ratification; separation of powers; federalism; each of the 3 branches; amending the Constitution; landmark court cases; significant in-depth looks at individual amendments; and much more.
This lesson introduces students to different viewpoints and debates surrounding the 2nd Amendment by using the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution. Students will build understanding of the resources and methods used by justices on the Supreme Court and Constitutional scholars when analyzing and forming opinions about articles, sections, and clauses of the Constitution. Using graphic organizers, students will identify key points from the essays of constitutional scholars Nelson Lund and Adam Winkler. Students will be able to trace the historic development of the 2nd Amendment with help from the Common Interpretation and matters of debate essays, and use evidence from the readings to explore modern interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. For students studying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, this lesson helps clarify the role of the Supreme Court and constitutional scholars in interpreting and applying the Constitution today
This lesson introduces students to different viewpoints and debates surrounding the 2nd Amendment by using the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution. Students will build understanding of the resources and methods used by justices on the Supreme Court and Constitutional scholars when analyzing and forming opinions about articles, sections, and clauses of the Constitution. Using graphic organizers, students will identify key points from the essays of constitutional scholars Nelson Lund and Adam Winkler. Students will be able to trace the historic development of the 2nd Amendment with help from the Common Interpretation and matters of debate essays, and use evidence from the readings to explore modern interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. For students studying the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, this lesson helps clarify the role of the Supreme Court and constitutional scholars in interpreting and applying the Constitution today.
This lesson, which includes a pre-lesson and post-lesson, provides students with first-hand experience about how the three branches of the United States government work together through separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.
Using C-SPAN’s Landmark Cases website and programs, students will simulate the Supreme Court hearing of Dred
Scott v. Sandford (1857), otherwise known as the Dred Scott Case. Students will read the case scenario and take
on roles of either an attorney or Supreme Court Justice as if they lived in the 19th century. After studying the case,
both teams of attorneys will present their cases in written and oral form and receive questions from the justices.
Afterwards, the justices will facilitate oral argument and offer written opinions. Finally, the class will debrief the
experience and read and discuss the actual decision.
On Constitution Day, students will examine the role of the people in shaping the United States Constitution. First, students will respond to a provocative statement posted in the room. They will then watch a video that gives a brief explanation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, or listen as the video transcript is read aloud. A Constitution poster is provided so students can examine Article VII and discuss it as a class.
The elementary and middle school educator will then
guide students through a read-aloud play depicting two Constitutional Convention delegates who disagreed about ratifying the Constitution.
The Interactive Constitution
Learn about the text, history, and meaning of the U.S. Constitution from leading scholars of diverse legal and philosophical perspectives.
The right of a citizen to vote is not directly protected in the Constitution, and throughout our history that right has often been granted to some, but denied to others. However, through various amendments to the Constitution, the right to vote has become more and more inclusive. Uncover the battle for voting rights in the National Constitution Center’s learning module.
The original Constitution did not specifically protect the right to vote—leaving the issue largely to the states. For much of American history, this right has often been granted to some, but denied to others; however, through a series of amendments to the Constitution, the right to vote has expanded over time. These amendments have protected the voting rights of new groups, including by banning discrimination at the ballot box based on race (15th Amendment) and sex (19th Amendment). They also granted Congress new power to enforce these constitutional guarantees, which Congress has used to pass landmark statutes like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While state governments continue to play a central role in elections today, these new amendments carved out a new—and important—role for the national government in this important area.