United States Constitution and Bill of Rights
The Constitution for the United States is the foundational document of the United States of America, and a key part of any class in the Nevada System of Higher Education that fulfills the constitution requirement, including Core Humanities 203. Along with the Declaration of Independence and certain other historical sources, it furnishes the ideological, historical, and legal basis for the existence of our nation. Several of these documents are on display in the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, under highly controlled conditions. They are worth a visit, but for those who can’t go in person, there are websites that offer the next best thing, including high resolution images and photos and information about the impressive display cases designed to protect these priceless treasures:
The National Archives Museum
The National Archives Museum Founding Documents Page:
The Constitution. The document itself in a pure and authoritative form is vital. Beyond that, other reputable, peer-reviewed sources take us through al phases of the constitution’s history, and in combination can provide the material for a complete unit on the constitution, it’s history, meaning, and impact.
A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the Constitution:
Constitution Questions and Answers is a brief but very valuable look at the students many questions have as they grapple with this crucial but lengthy document:
Errors in the Constitution provides a valuable lesson in accuracy, source evaluation, and changes that can creep into any document unintentionally. It is a great looking glass into the larger issue of constitutional analysis:
The Bill of Rights. While the Constitution is important, arguably the Bill of Rights is even more so. An authoritative text as well as a variety of links and supporting materials make this page a must-have for studying the nation’s founding:
The Bill of Rights: How Did it Happen? This gives background into the why and how of the Bill of Rights in a way that complements any standard text.
The Declaration of Independence.
With these documents, it is possible to do an entire unit on the Declaration of Independence, it’s history, context, and later influence. This is a powerful set of tools that any instructor or student can access:
Interactive Feature: Sign the Declaration of Independence:
History and Travels of the Declaration. This is a masterful brief history that every instructor should read, and it also makes an outstanding source for students. The details and events it provides tie into almost every era of American history, and connect to many major events, people, and trends over time:
The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence by Stephen E. Lucas. This is a powerful rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, showing not just its ideas, but the rhetorical techniques used to persuade people of their truth. This should be required reading for any class on the founding of the United States.
The Virginias Declaration of Rights. This slightly earlier state-level declaration can provide valuable context for the Declaration of Independence. Comparing and contrasting the two documents can be a very effective critical thinking exercise for students as they grapple with the ideas of what it means to be American.
The Articles of Confederation.
While these often get short shrift, they are important to understanding the United States and its Constitution.
Joint US Agency Site on the Articles of Confederation. This includes high resolution PDFs and a transcript of the document, as well as links to other contextual documents:
This is part of a larger web resource:
This is a joint US Government Site on founding documents:
This site is amazing. It has texts and ancillary materials on many key documents in American history, including this list of 100 milestone documents for American History that starts with the Lee Declaration and goes through every imaginable topic until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This page alone would easily provide the basic reading material for a year-long class on the Constitution, and instructors can pick and choose specific key items for classes like CH 203:
100 Milestone Documents:
Videos on the US Constitution
An excellent resource is the US National Archives channel on Youtube. It is a remarkable collection of public domain, authoritative primary and secondary source videos:
There is also a featured video on a current topic or anniversary, as well as a selection of videos on almost any source imaginable, including these on the Constitution and other founding documents:
The Constitution: An Introduction (1:05:29)
The Heart of the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Became the Bill of Rights (1:00:49)
Teaching the Constitution with Political Cartoons (39:50)
We Have Not a Government: The Articles of Confederation and the Road to the Constitution (1:11:26)
Declaration of Independence (Archival Protection) (2:12)
National Archives Dramatic Reading (25:16)
The Bill of Rights and the First Federal Congress Project (2:39)
These are only a sample of the many videos on the US National Archives Channel. A keyword search from the channel home page can find you almost any topic, and browsing can also be incredibly useful. Be careful though: once you leave the channel hope page, and searches you make will be Youtube-wide, so it’s best to return to the US National Archives Channel and use the internal search box to ensure you get legitimate, quality content.
Recommended reading: Books on the United States Constitution
Instructors will have their favorites to be sure, and any textbook will have its suggestions. However, these are recent books I feel should be on the list of prospective readings:
Pauline Meier, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2011)
David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (2007).
Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007).
Max Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government (2003)
Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic (1998).
Forest McDonald, Novus Ordum Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985)
Additional Material: In Defense of the Articles of Confederation
TMCC Core Humanities instructor Joe Domitrovich wrote this for his students and shared it as part of the collaborative discussions for this project. It stands on its own, but it would also be worth having students read it alongside some questions asking them to debate the piece’s premise. This will be an online document as part of the Library Guide for this project.
Articles of Confederation
The Articles of Confederation have received a raw deal. We are told that they were a failure. They established a central government that was too weak. It did not have the power to tax. It did not have the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. It was almost impossible to amend it. When I was in college in the late 1960s, no History or Political Science professor had anything good to say about it. All the readings they assigned condemned it.
Maybe historians have looked at the Articles from the wrong angle. In 1778 when the Articles were written, and even in 1787, had the Articles not been written, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to get the Constitution as it was written.
The Continental Congress wrote the Articles the way they did because of their experience with the British. It wanted to keep the power to tax in the hands of the state legislatures…the body closest to the people. Because of the experience with the British Trade and Navigation Laws, Congress did not want to give a central government the power to regulate trade.
There was no Chief Executive in the Articles because of the Americans’ experience with George III. There was a fear that a Chief Executive could become a king or tyrant. There was no national court system in the Articles because of the colonists’ experience with colonial judges appointed by the king. Keep the courts local.
The Articles of Confederation were necessary to be able to have something like the Constitution. It was necessary to show the need for a stronger central government. Something like the Articles needed to “fail”.
Children do not go from lying flat on their backs to walking. They have to go through a crawling phase first. When they start to walk, they fall many times. The Articles of Confederation were the crawling and falling stages for the young country.
The Articles showed that a change was necessary. They came at a time when the people would not have approved a strong central government. They were a necessity and their failure was necessary to get the Constitution.