We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, Level 3
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Image: Gilbert Stuart, James Madison, ? Burstein Collection/CORBIS

An Introduction to the Study of the Constitution

This introduction will let you test your current understanding of our country's system of government. Don't worry about what you don't know. Appreciating what you have yet to learn will help you make the most your study of the We the People curriculum.

For the five Critical Thinking Exercises that follow, your class should be divided into groups. Each group should discuss the questions in one of the exercises.

What do you know about the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who later would become America's third president. The Declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress in July 1776 and is our country's founding document. The words and ideas contained in it will be referred to frequently throughout this text.

Critical Thinking Exercise 1 Analyzing the Declaration of Independence

How much do you already know about the meaning of this document? The Declaration of Independence appears in the Reference section at the back of the We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution text. A link to the Declaration can be found in the Primary Sources section of this website. Carefully read the first two paragraphs of the Declaration and then try to answer the following questions:

1. What is the main purpose of this document? For whom was it written, and what is it trying to explain?

2. What sort of action is the Declaration attempting to justify? Why do you think the Declaration regards this action as a serious and unusual one?

3. What does the Declaration suggest is the relationship between a government and the people it governs? On what conditions is all legitimate government based? What justifies the ending of that relationship?

4. According to the Declaration, what is the primary purpose of government?

5. The Declaration speaks of truths that are self-evident. What are these truths? Why are they called truths? What makes them self-evident?

What do you know about the Constitution?

If the Declaration of Independence is America's founding document, the Constitution is its charter of government. Drafted in 1787 and ratified by the states the following year, it established the system of government with which the nation has lived for more than two hundred years.

Critical Thinking Exercise 2 Analyzing the Preamble to the Constitution

The Constitution is also included in the Reference section of the We the People text. A link to the Constitution can be found in the Primary Sources section of this website. Carefully read the Preamble to this document and then try to answer the following questions:

1. According to the Preamble, what is the purpose of the Constitution? Explain the meaning of each stated purpose.

2. By what authority is the Constitution "ordained and established"?

3. What is the connection between the stated goals of the Constitution and the purposes of government as outlined in the Declaration of Independence?

What do you know about the Bill of Rights?

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. This document was drafted and approved by Congress in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1791. The Bill of Rights contains some of the basic rights of individuals that the government is prohibited from violating. When the Framers wrote our Constitution and Bill of Rights, they were careful to include protections of what they believed were many of the basic rights of a free people.

The Bill of Rights is included in the Reference section of the We the People text. A link to the Bill of Rights can be found in the Primary Sources section of this website. Test your current knowledge of this document by working through the two parts of the exercise that follows.

Critical Thinking Exercise 3 Part One: Examining Your Knowledge of the Bill of Rights

Based on what you already know about the Bill of Rights, develop your answers to the following questions. Do not refer to the Bill of Rights or any other reference material. Be prepared to discuss your answers with the class.

1. What is a "right"?

2. What rights are protected by the Bill of Rights?

3. From whom does the Bill of Rights protect you?

4. Does the Bill of Rights provide all the protections you need for your life, liberty, and property? Explain your answer.

Part Two: Revising Your Answers to the Previous Exercise

Now, carefully read the Bill of Rights. This part of the exercise gives you an opportunity to reconsider some of your ideas about the Bill of Rights. Revise your answers to the previous questions in light of what you learn. Follow these two steps:

1. Find at least three rights in the Bill of Rights that you did not list in response to Question Two of Part One. What seem to be the purposes of these rights?

2. Review your answers to the other questions in Part One and make any changes or additions to them that you think should be made.

What do you know about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?

The primary purpose of this text is not to fill your head with facts about American history and government. Knowledge of these facts is important but only inasmuch as it deepens your understanding of the American constitutional system and its development. That deeper understanding is the primary purpose of this text.

Critical Thinking Exercise 4 Analyzing the Pledge of Allegiance

For many Americans the most familiar expression of citizenship is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge is something you probably have recited countless times and know by heart:

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

The original draft of the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, under the supervision of James B. Upham, as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of Columbus's first voyage to the New World. The phrase "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance by act of Congress in 1954. Respond to the following questions:

1. What is involved in pledging allegiance? What does allegiance mean? What does taking the Pledge say about your relationship to our government?

2. Why do we pledge allegiance to the American flag? Why not to the president of the United States, our members of Congress, or the justices of the Supreme Court?

3. Do we have the right to withhold our allegiance? What would be the consequences of doing so?

4. If you were born in the United States, when and how do you decide to be an American citizen? If you were not born an American citizen, how do you become one? How is a citizen different from someone else living in this country?

5. What is a republic? Does the Pledge define what that word means? How does a republic differ from a democracy? Where can the most important protections of rights be found?

The existence of a written constitution or a bill of rights does not mean that citizens actually have the rights those documents contain. Nor does the existence of laws passed by our federal, state, and local governments guarantee that citizens actually will receive the rights that those laws are supposed to protect.

Some people who have observed violations of individual rights in our own society argue that the most important protection of rights lies in the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens. The following exercise allows you to evaluate this argument.

Critical Thinking Exercise 5 Analyzing Judge Hand's Statement

In 1941 a great American jurist, Learned Hand (1872-1961), delivered an address at Yale University. In 1944 he gave a speech in New York City, titled "The Spirit of Liberty," restating his original remarks:

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

Consider Judge Hand's statement by responding to the following questions:

1. What are the major points in Judge Hand's argument?

2. What responsibilities of citizenship are implied by his position?

3. Do you agree with Judge Hand's position? Explain your answer.

4. In view of Judge Hand's statement about where liberty lies, do you think that constitutions and bills of rights are unnecessary? Explain your position. Keep notes of your answers to the questions raised in the five preceding Critical Thinking Exercises. Compare them with what you learn in the rest of the lessons of the We the People text.
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