Rather than taking the usual approach of learning history from only the perspective of the elite political leaders, students consider the opportunities, hardships, aspirations, and questions facing people across society in the United States in its earliest years—from 1783-1830.
- Read excerpts from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
- Identify ideals and rights stated in U.S. founding documents.
- Consider the importance of founding documents to a nation’s history.
Students will get the most out of this lesson if they have read Part I of A New Nation, although the lesson can be adapted for students who do not have this background knowledge.
Note to Teachers: Links to the full texts of each document are included below in the Extra Challenge.
In the Classroom
1. Introduce the Lesson
Write on the board, “What is a founding document?” and invite students to respond. Ask students why they think founding documents are important to a nation and its history. Emphasize that, in addition to establishing how a nation will be governed, founding documents often include key principles, or ideals, that are called upon by people and governments throughout a nation’s history. Ask students to name founding documents of the United States, and list them on the board.
Show the Choices video with Professor Michael Vorenberg, “Why is it important for high school students to learn about the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution?” After viewing, tell students that they will read excerpts from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution). They will identify key ideals and rights laid out in the documents.
2. Review Historical Context
Ask students to recall from their readings and prior knowledge when and why each of these founding documents was written. What events led to the creation of this document? Can students recall the year(s)? Who was involved in writing and approving the document? What purpose did the document serve?
3. Examine Documents
Distribute “Excerpts from U.S. Founding Documents” and “Charting the Founding Documents.” Divide students into pairs and assign either the Constitution excerpts or the Bill of Rights to each pair. Review the completed example in the chart, based on the Declaration of Independence. (You may choose to read the Declaration as a class or have students read it in pairs before following the instructions for the document they are assigned.) Have students read and follow the Part I instructions for their assigned document.
4. Jigsaw Groups
Form groups of four by combining pairs who examined the Constitution with those who examined the Bill of Rights. Instruct students to share their findings based on the document they examined and follow the Part II instructions on “Charting the Founding Documents.”
5. Closing Discussion
Invite students to share the ideals and rights they identified in the documents. List these on the board, including those from the Declaration of Independence. Ask students to share patterns they notice in this list. Are there key words or ideas that come up across the documents? Can students think of examples of how these words and ideas have held important meaning at later points in U.S. history? Are there particular phrases that have been interpreted in conflicting ways by different groups or at different times?
Ask students if there are any other sources that they would consider “founding documents” of the United States. In what ways have these sources been important to U.S. history? Do others in the class agree? Who determines what texts are considered the founding documents of a nation?
- Invite students to read any of the excerpted documents in full.
- Invite students to examine the Articles of Confederation (which can be found through Yale University’s Avalon Project). Have students draw connections between this document and the U.S. Constitution, which replaced it. What similarities and differences do students notice between the language and content in the two documents? How do these similarities and differences reflect what students learned about in their readings on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and the events that led up to it?