Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 14: Which document did not influence the US Constitution?
Q14: Which document did not influence the US Constitution?
A. The Virginia Declaration of Rights
B. The Federalist Papers
C. The Iroquois Great Law of Peace
D. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
The most direct and best-known influences on the U.S. Constitution were the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. In both laying out the political philosophy of the American people as well as describing various violations of rights, the Declaration outlined our collective dedication to liberty, political equality, limited government, and self-government. The Articles of Confederation, which governed the United States following independence, utilized a federalist division of power between states and the central government. While the Constitution differs from the Articles of Confederation in significant ways, the Constitution also established a federal system whereby political power is divided between the state governments and the federal government, with a federal government limited to those powers granted to it by the document itself.
There were other significant and earlier influences on the Constitution that shared these ideas as well.
The brief Mayflower Compact was signed by the Pilgrim voyagers aboard the Mayflower before their arrival at Plymouth, Massachusetts, which began the settlement of New England in 1620. The Mayflower Compact’s signers, “in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick,” — in other words, they created a political covenant in which they consented to self-government. The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut in 1639 modeled a more extensive charter and governing structure, such as a (legislative) general assembly and governor and protocols for the towns to select their representatives. It was especially notable that this document did not cite the British monarch as a participant in their covenant — only the covenant participants themselves.
All of the states had constitutions or charters that explained and structured their governments and modeled features later adopted in forming the American government. Arguably the most important of these was the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason in 1776, and which soon influenced both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights of the Constitution. (Mason, a friend and mentor to many of the Virginians who later led the nation, served as a participant in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, where he unsuccessfully pushed for inclusion of a bill of rights. He was one of only three delegates at the Constitutional Convention who stayed until the end of the Convention but refused to sign the Constitution).
Some historians have argued that another influence was the Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois, which linked the five nations of the Mohawks, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca into a confederacy. The five retained most of their own sovereignty but made common decisions together—in other words, largely modeling the federalism later adopted in first the Articles of Confederation and then the U.S. Constitution itself. Benjamin Franklin cited this model in proposing a predecessor union in 1754, and representatives of the Iroquois later spoke to the Continental Congress in 1776, though whether the Iroquois model served as a direct influence is contested, since other federal models the Founders cited pre-existed their exposure to the Iroquois; either way, the Iroquois had a functioning federal and constitutional structure before the Constitution.
Finally, although occurring after the Constitution was drafted, the debates between the Federalists, who supported the ratification of the Constitution, and critics of the Constitution, the so-called Anti-Federalists, helped clarify the meaning of the Constitution. The Federalist Papers was the most significant commentary on the Constitution to come out of these debates. These debates also helped shaped its subsequent developments and amendments; for example, just like George Mason, the Anti-Federalists argued that the lack of a bill of rights was a flaw in the Constitution, one which was soon fixed through the first ten amendments.
The Founders drew on decades, even centuries, of political thought in creating the Constitution. In this exercise, students will read one or more of several important colonial documents in connecting these ideas. Students will read some or all of the Mayflower Compact (1620), George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
- Divide the class into groups of 3-4 based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Each group should have at least one student from Group A, one from Group B, and one from Group C.
- If students are in pairs rather than groups, then divide them based on ability as well, pairing those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- This exercise is designed to be especially modular. You can provide Group A students with the Mayflower Compact and Virginia Declaration of Rights, along with the Declaration of Independence. Group B students will have the Mayflower Compact and Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Constitution. Group C students or those wanting a stronger challenge will have, at your discretion, either the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or even all of the documents, drawing connections first from the colonial documents to the Declaration and then from the Declaration to the Constitution.
- Explain that they are to read the documents and that each group member should annotate their copy.
- What are the important ideas they see in the first document or documents? (e.g what do they see in the Mayflower and VA Declaration?)
- Where do those ideas appear in the later documents? Are there important ideas that don’t appear?
- Provide the groups/pairs with time to annotate and discuss; 15-25 minutes depending on the class and the amount of content to annotate.
- Circulate and talk briefly with each group. If they are having trouble coming up with questions or observations, then ask questions to stimulate their conversation.
- At the end of the activity, facilitate a class discussion, allowing the students to lead with the questions and comments/observations that they wrote in the margins. You might first have the different groups present their findings: e.g. one group can talk about the connections they see between the Mayflower Compact and VA Declaration and the Declaration of Independence, and another group about their connections between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.
The Constitution had influences not only in Enlightenment and English thought, but in several documents that outlined the core ideas of representative government, constitution-making, and individual liberties.
The Constitution was the product not just of deliberation but of history, as its text built on ideas and borrowed structures from centuries of colonial experience. Can you name two documents that influenced it?
The Constitution built on many earlier documents from the colonial experience. What fundamental ideas about American government emerge from these documents? Do we still follow these ideas? Use current and past events to support your answer. (Note: if you also had the students do the exercise above, have them use those documents as well)