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.
In this unit, students will explore the U.S. Constitution. They will begin by analyzing the issues and debates of the colonial era that brought about the need for a more structures centralized government. They will then study the processes of creation and ratification, and examine how these processes have contributed to the document’s longevity and success.
- What is a constitution and why do we need one?
- How did the issues and debates of the late colonial era shape the constitution? Do they still apply today?
- How is power divided by the Constitution?
- How does the Constitution include the individual in the government?
The Constitutional Convention: A Play in Four Acts (1.4.4-6; 3.1.1-3)
By 1787, the United States was in crisis. The then-current form of government under the Articles of Confederation was mostly ineffective. Interstate commerce was a major problem as states placed tariffs on goods from other states. There was no national executive, no real judicial branch (Congress acted as the judicial branch). The legislative branch consisted of a unicameral or one house congress. Congress was limited in its powers so as not to interfere with the powers belonging to the individual states.
In the spring of 1787, Alexander Hamilton, a prominent New York attorney, organized a convention to take place in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The purpose of the convention was to discuss and remedy the problems associated with the Articles of Confederation. Each state was invited to send delegates to participate in the event. The Philadelphia Convention (later to be known as the Constitutional Convention) began on May 25, 1787. Twelve of the thirteen states sent delegates. The only state to boycott the proceedings was Rhode Island. In total, 55 delegates would play a role at various times in the convention. The delegates who participated in the convention did not reflect the diversity then present in the nation. Many of the delegates were wealthy planters or lawyers. Many owned slaves. Since they were not considered viable participants in the political process, women, blacks, and Native Americans were not represented at the convention.
The leader of the convention was Revolutionary War hero, George Washington of Virginia. Washington assumed command of the debates, yet did not take part in the debates themselves. Benjamin Franklin, representing his adopted state of Pennsylvania, was the oldest delegate present at 81 years of age. James Madison, arguably the most prepared delegate, took 6 copious notes during the confidential debates that followed. His role at the convention would eventually earn him the title, “Father of the Constitution”.
As the delegates discussed ways to repair the Articles of Confederation, it soon became apparent that they were designing a new system of government, one more suitable for the young United States. However, issues soon arose that created contentious debate amongst the delegates. One of these issues dealt with the very nature of the new government. The states with larger populations favored James Madison’s Virginia Plan. This plan consisted of a strong national government with three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) and a bicameral (two house) legislature (Congress) with a Senate and a House of Representatives whose memberships would be based upon a state’s population. Madison’s plan also gave the national government the power to tax, a power that rested solely within the states under the Articles of Confederation.
The less populated states, feeling threatened by Madison’s plan, created another plan of government. The New Jersey Plan, written by William Patterson of New Jersey was also known as the Small State Plan. This plan mirrored one part of the Virginia Plan in that it called for a national government of three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). However, the Legislative Branch would be unicameral (one house) with each state having only one vote. The states would maintain the sole power of taxation. In essence, the New Jersey (or Small State Plan) was very similar to the government under the Articles of Confederation.
As the different plans split the convention into factions, the delegation from Connecticut, led by Roger Sherman, created a compromise plan known as the Connecticut Plan or the Great Compromise. This plan called for a government with three branches (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial). The Legislative Branch would be bicameral with a Senate (with equal representation 7 for all states with two senators per state) and a House of Representatives (whose membership would be based upon a state’s population). The Great Compromise was able to settle the debate in the convention and helped create the federal system of government under the United States Constitution.
Slavery was a topic of debate that threatened the hopes of a new federal constitution and the very union itself. Many southern states wanted their slaves to be counted as part of their population. This would give slaveholding states an advantage in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College. The debate was settled with the Three-Fifths Compromise which allowed slaves to be counted as 3/5 of a free white person when the population of a given state was counted for representation purposes. The Three-Fifths Compromise settled the representation debate, but there were two other areas concerning slavery that were yet unsettled. Slave-holding states were worried that Congress may (in the future) have enough votes to illegalize the international slave trade. The delegates at the convention created the Slave Trade Clause which forbade Congress from voting against the international slave trade until 1808.
The final slave debate focused on runaway slaves. Slave states wanted a guarantee that if caught, runaway slaves would be returned to their owner. The convention agreed to include the Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution which forced all states to return fugitive slaves to their owner. Given the debates on the nature of our government and slavery, it is clear that compromise was the key to success at the Constitutional Convention.
Once the document was signed on September 17, 1787, it was presented to the states for ratification. Delaware was the 8 first state to ratify the document. Once it was ratified by the required ninth state (New Hampshire), the Constitution took effect on March 4, 1789. The document created by 55 delegates during the warm summer of 1787 was destined to see our nation through times of peace and times of war. As a testament to the genius of those men, the government they created has lasted over 220 years.
Textbook Reading: Chapter 13-14: We the People/Compare/Contrast Organizer Chart on Virginia and New Jersey plans.
How does the Constitution ensure a government for and by the people by providing for a separation of powers and checks and balances between branches? (3.1.1; 3.2.1-2)
Textbook Reading: We the People, Chapters 15, 16 with oral presentations on the three branches of government and the dilemma of slavery.
The Bill of Rights (3.2.1f; 3.3.5)
One of the biggest objections to ratifying the Constitution from some delegates was that it did not include a Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights was passed as the first ten Amendments to the Constitution in 1791. In addition to studying the historical context and significance of the famous cases below, students will research another Supreme Court case that challenges one of the first ten Amendments using resources provided by the Bill of Rights Foundation.
The Bill of Rights: Video by the National Constitution Center
The Amendment Process (3.2.1; 3.3.5)
The Constitution provides that an amendment may be proposed either by the Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures.
The Ratification Debate (3.1.3)
The debate over ratification was waged in the newspapers, through pamphlets, and on the floor of the state conventions, where the vote was often close. Those who favored the strong national government provided for in the Constitution called themselves the Federalists; their opponents became the Antifederalists.
Federalists vs. Anti-Federalist debate before ratification
George Washington’s letter introducing the Constitution . Ben Franklin’s speech to Congress
What democratic principles (e.g. separation of powers, compromise, and government responsibilities) do each illustrate?
The Executive Branch
How does the president get elected and how did the framers see th compromise of an electoral college as essential? (3.2.3)
Explain how a candidate can be elected president without receiving a majority of popular vote. Adams-Jackson, Hayes-Tilden, Bush-Gore (3.2.4)
What is an executive order and how does it work? What are some of the most famous executive orders made by presidents in the past?
Describe the line of succession to the presidency as stated in the 25th Amendment (3.3.5)
The Power of Judicial Review (3.3.5 and 7)
The power of Judicial Review was established by the landmark decision in Marbury v. Madison, 1803. No law or action can contradict the U.S. Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land. The court can only review a law that is brought before it through a law suit.
“It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is…If two laws conflict with each other, the Courts must decide on the operation of each. So, if a law be in opposition to the Constitution… the Court must determine which of these conflicting rules governs the case. This is of the very essence of judicial duty.” Chief Justice Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, 1803
Text Reading: Chapter 21-22 We The People
Landmark Supreme Court Cases
Landmark Cases are the human stories and constitutional dramas behind some of the most significant and frequently cited decisions in the Supreme Court’s history. These cases delve into events that represent some of the tipping points in our nation’s story and in our evolving understanding of rights in America
Resources: Landmark Cases text version
Examining the Patriot Act
The Legislative Process
Explain how a bill becomes a law. (3.3.2)
If a bill has passed in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and has been approved by the President, or if a presidential veto has been overridden, the bill becomes a law and is enforced by the government.
Literature Connection: One of the best scenes in the classic film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is when Mr. Smith (a newly elected junior senator) is tutored by his highly experienced assistant on how a bill become a law. Identify Clarissa’s tone and explain what she thinks about the process.
Explain the impeachment process and identify the three presidents who faced impeachment and describe what happened.
The Washington and Adams Administrations (1.4.6b)
“The Early Republic”, by Joe Ellis provides a summary of the Washington and Adams administrations.