On the federal level, the Constitution establishes three branches of government: executive, legislative and judiciary. Each of the 50 states has its own state constitution, governmental structure, courts, and state-specific laws. The Constitution gives certain enumerated powers to the federal government, and those powers not vested with the federal government remain with the states.
In a real sense, the United States has 51 different legal systems - the federal system and one for each of the 50 states. For the most part, these systems fall within the common law tradition. The common law system based on English common law permeates the federal legal system and all state-level systems except Louisiana, which is based on Napoleonic civil code.
The federal and state legislatures are the law-making bodies of the government. On the federal level, the national legislature is called the Congress, which consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Members of either chamber can introduce legislation, but both houses of Congress must pass the legislation before it becomes law.
Within the executive branch, the highest office holder on the federal level is the President. The executive powers of the President include the power to approve legislation, negotiate and sign treaties, appoint federal judges, appoint cabinet and senior officers of the government, and act as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. On the state level, governors are the chief executives. Federal and state courts comprise the judicial branch of government.
The highest court of the land is the United States Supreme Court. Each state will have an equivalent state supreme court, which will represent the ultimate authority on the law for that state. Federal courts have jurisdiction over federal laws and disputes that arise among states or between citizens of different states. State courts have jurisdiction over matters pertaining to its own state laws. If there is a conflict between federal and state laws, the federal law will prevail. When federal courts adjudicate cases arising under state law, the state's substantive law will apply.
Just how do we convey to students the immense power and scope of the Constitution? How do we help them appreciate just how grand an experiment the government established by our Constitution is? This guide is designed to offer some suggestions for the classroom teacher charged with planning activities for the September Constitution Day or for any occasion when the Constitution has particular relevance in the classroom.
It includes several strategies for use in brief lessons and also moves beyond this to more extended activities. Essay prompts as well as a list of on-line sources are also provided. Students often do not appreciate the simple beauty of this document and the huge impact it has on each of us. It is hoped that teachers will not stop there but will use the Constitution as a central component of their teaching of history and government. What questions compel us to examine the Constitution for insights into the past and for guidance today?
Here are just a few. Over time, the Articles proved inadequate to meet the needs of the new nation. American suspicion of strong central government was ingrained into the Articles; the new national government was fettered in its ability to raise funds, to conduct trade, to arbitrate disputes between states, and even to amend the Articles themselves. September Delegates from five states met in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss trade issues and called for a later meeting in Philadelphia.
May The Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, and the daunting task of creating a new government began. There was considerable disagreement over the structure of the new government. The delegates struck several compromises, without which they might never have voted to approve the document they had written. These compromises included agreements over the representation of both houses of Congress, the decision to give districts allowing slavery credit for three voters for every five slaves, and agreement not to allow Congress to interfere with the slave trade until September The Constitution Convention was signed and began its arduous journey through the ratification process.
By , all states had ratified the Constitution except North Carolina and Rhode Island both of which would ratify by May Let your students hear the words of the authors of the Constitution.
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No one can speak more powerfully about the Constitution than those who created it. The words ring much truer when we hear them. Have students read selected excerpts from the Constitution. This activity gives the teacher the option of having the class pause at appropriate places and listen more closely to the text.
The Preamble is a perfect choice for this exercise:. 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. We can envision the authors debating just the right language to clearly convey their intent. Read this aloud—the teacher can read or select a student reader. Why did these men feel it necessary to come together in Philadelphia in after all, the new nation was established several years earlier, with the end of the Revolution and the Peace of Paris?
What might differ in the new government under this Constitution? Divide students into five groups. Assign each group one of the five actions the Constitution Founders specified as necessary to form a new more perfect government. Then tell students to take a close look at their history text. They should find a specific example in American history where the government took action to achieve the goal of a more perfect union. Finally, distribute a recent newspaper or newsmagazine. Ask each group to find two examples of their topic in this paper or magazine. Groups should share their findings.
Examine the lives, actions, and words of several men who came together in Philadelphia in Include at least one person, like George Mason or Edmund Randolph, who participated in the Convention but refused to sign the final draft. Assign one of these Founders to each student. Ask students to generalize about the backgrounds and views of the men at the Constitutional Convention.
How did they come to participate? What was their economic and social status?
Did these men represent their fellow citizens? Just for fun, cut white t-shirts out of butcher paper.
Have each student or group create a t-shirt which represents, in words and pictures, one member of the Constitutional Convention—without using his name. Hang these around your classroom and have students try to identify the person represented on each t-shirt. Organize a Ben Franklin Day in your class or at your school. Older students might be assigned sections of one of the recent biographies of Franklin.
Have a party! Bake and decorate a cake! Place three baskets at the front of your classroom. Place a label on each: executive branch, legislative branch, judicial branch. Type a list of the powers given to different branches of our government and characteristics of each branch as stated in the Constitution.
Cut these into strips. Hand strips out to your students. Each student must locate this power in the text of the Constitution, labeling the strip with the article and section in which he or she found it.
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Then students will place the strips in the correct basket. Go through each basket with your students, confirming that each strip is in the proper basket. In this early 19th century essay collection, de Tocqueville observes dozens of American characteristics, institutions and quirks. There are many chapters that deal with precisely those values that the Founders wrote into the Constitution.
Read aloud with your students. Assign students to find another relevant excerpt from Democracy in America that they can share with the class and analyze in a thoughtful essay. To what degree is the Constitution a conservative document which attempts to limit the power of the people? This question is often asked and it is an important one. Have students closely examine the Constitution.
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Nearly every day, one can find a number of articles in the daily newspaper that either specifically refer to the Constitution or deal with constitutional issues. Bring in a number of daily newspapers and distribute to students. Ask the students to find at least three articles that relate to the Constitution. Develop a chart for students to complete for each of the articles they find. Using the chart, ask students to: write a one paragraph summary of the article; identify the one or two key issues in the article; write three questions this article is asking and trying to answer; identify the key individuals in the article and their role; assess the relevance of the issue; and write a statement presenting their position on the issue.
Groups should then share what they have discovered. Encourage questions and debate. Turn with your students to Article I Section 8. Generate a list of the powers delegated to Congress. Give students a number of recent newsmagazines. For United States History students, assign students to find one or two historical examples of how Congress carried out each of these functions. Have students make a list of the ways in which the powers given to Congress have affected their lives in the past week.
Consider organizing a poster competition in your school on the ways Congress affects the lives of all of us. Consider asking an attorney to participate in this discussion with you and your students. Bring in newspaper articles about the current concerns some Americans have about the detainment of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners.
Examine editorials on this issue. Have students write letters to the editor expressing their views. Expand to the larger question of the limitation of any constitutional right in times of national crisis. Examine, for instance, the Schenk case during World War I. The Constitution provides a mechanism for its own alteration: the amendment process.
Divide the Constitution into several sections. Require your students to read through the Constitution and locate several places where the original wording of the Constitution has been changed.
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After students have found these references, ask them to provide the new wording and determine just why the Constitution was altered. What historical and historic events provided the catalysts for change? Type a list of the twenty-seven amendments to the Constitution. Cut this list into twenty-seven strips, each with one amendment on it.
Put the strips in an envelope. Do this six times. Divide the class into six groups; give each group an envelope with the strips of amendments on it. Ask the class to divide the amendments into categories. Have each group share with the class the categories they have determined. Of course, there are a number of ways the amendments could be divided.
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There is another way to conduct the same activity. Cut a piece of lightweight synthetic fabric the kind of material a flag might be made of approximately four feet high and eight feet wide. This spray makes the fabric sticky. Instead of small strips like the ones in the envelopes above, make these strips about a foot long and an inch or two wide. Write the number and content of the twenty-seven amendments on the strips and put in random order on the sticky wall. Ask a one of the student groups to come to the wall and organize the amendments into the categories they have determined.
The rest of the class is responsible for determining just what the title of each category is. Then ask another group to rearrange the strips in the way it has determined is best. This wall can also be used for matching numbers of amendments to their content, for putting amendments in the order of importance to the students, etc. Direct them to Engel v. Vitale, Abington v. Schempp, and Everson v. Assign each one of these cases to two groups. Each group is to research: a. Invite the superintendent and school board members to share their views about school policies on religion. Distribute statements made by the president and his administration about the need for warrants in times of national crisis.
Give students copies of arguments to the contrary. Have each student make two lists: arguments for why warrants are necessary and arguments for why they might not be. Examine what restrictions are placed on student use of these technologies. Have students address this prompt: The Fourth Amendment should apply to student use of computer technologies and to student property. Make a Fourth Amendment school bulletin board addressing whether the Fourth Amendment applies to students at school and in their homes.
Many people believe that one of the most important, if not the most important amendment, is the Fourteenth. Knopf, Make a list of these issues. Examine testimony offered regarding this right to privacy. Why was this brought up so frequently by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee? What responses did the nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito give?