Birth of American Democracy

  • Drafted & approved in 1787
  • Ratified in 1788
  • Outlines structure & powers/limitations of American government
    • Articles I-VII
    • Amendments I–XXVII
  • Drafted & approved in 1789
  • Ratified in 1791
  • Includes rights/protections for individuals & limitations of Federal government
    • Amendments I-X

Key Concepts

US Constitution

Beginning with “We the People,” the US Constitution was designed to create a new government of, for, and by the people in the United States, an elected representative democracy that would check and balance its power and serve and protect the people.

  • Article I of the Constitution concerns the Legislative branch (Congress), a bicameral legislature (Senate and House of Representatives), its powers/limitations, and the requirements to become a representative. 
  • Article II concerns the Executive branch (President), an elected representative (not a monarch), their role and limited power held, and the requirements.
  • Article III concerns the Judicial branch (Supreme Court), holding judicial power in the US, its jurisdiction and types of cases and controversies it can decide, the requirements of a judge, and Congress’ power to establish lower US Courts.  
  • Articles IV-VII concern the relationship between the states, the admission of new states, the US guarantee of a “Republican Form of Government” and protection of states from “Invasion” against “domestic Violence,” the process to amend the Constitution, the supremacy of federal law, such as the Constitution, treaties, and statutes, and the ratification of the Constitution.
  • Amendments I-XXVII include the Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, birthright citizenship, due process and equal protection under the law, elimination of restrictions on voting by poll taxes and race/gender discrimination, changes to the election process and requirements and to election/removal of officials.

Bill of Rights

Ratification of the Constitution was contingent upon subsequent ratification of amendments limiting the power of the federal government and protecting the people’s rights/freedoms. The “Bill of Rights,” drafted/introduced by James Madison and influenced by the Magna Carta (1215), English Bill of Rights (1689), and Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), became the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

  • Amendments include protections against government infringing on free speech, press, assembly, exercise of religion, the right to bear arms and petition for redress of grievances, to a speedy and public trial, to a jury trial, and to confront witnesses. Rights not mentioned are retained by the people and powers not delegated or prohibited are reserved to the states or to the people
  • Amendments include protections against cruel and unusual punishment, double jeopardy, self-incrimination, establishment of religion, unreasonable searches and seizures, soldiers quartering in homes, deprivation of life, liberty or property without due process, and the taking of private property for public use without just compensation

New York State Focus

  • NY Constitution of 1777
  • NY Bill of Rights of 1787
  • NY Constitution of 1821
  • NY Constitutions of 1846, 1894, 1938
  • Amendments to NY Constitution
  • Current NY Constitution

Deeper Dive

From the Annenberg Classroom. This video describes the influence of the Magna Carta and English law on the US Constitution through its focus on the principles of the rule of law and due process and uses Supreme Court cases as examples demonstrating the importance of these principles. There is a helpful lesson plan from NEH-EDSITEment that teachers could use separately or in conjunction with students watching this video.

From the Annenberg Classroom. This video discusses the creation of the Constitution and highlights the powers and checks on the branches of government and protections of the individual. Here is a handout for teachers, including a lesson plan, to use with the video.

From the Annenberg Classroom. This video describes the process leading to the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution and why the freedoms and protections included in these first ten amendments are essential to American democracy. There are also short videos focusing on each amendment, and there is a handout for teachers, including a lesson plan, to use with the video.

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