Civic Literacy Curriculum
Section 1 | Principles of the American Republic
The two most important documents in the United States of America are the Declaration of Independence (from 1776) and the United States Constitution (from 1787). The Declaration of Independence lays out the core ideals behind and the political philosophy of the United States. The U.S. Constitution creates practical structures and rules both for the federal government and state governments.
Both the Declaration and U.S. Constitution can be read in less than an hour, and are essential reading for all citizens. Pocket versions of these texts are widely distributed by civic groups and are an especially convenient way to read them.
Section 1.1 The U.S. Constitution
Q1+2: Constitutional Government
The Constitution creates the form of government we have in the United States, which is a constitutional and federal republic.
Q3: What does the Constitution do?
Writing the Constitution was not an easy task. The Founding Fathers knew that the document they would create would shape the future of the nation. They needed to find the right balance between a federal government strong enough for the needs of a growing nation but that also protected decentralized local governance and individual rights. In setting up and defining the powers of the federal government, they created a balance of power by outlining three branches rather than just one. This prevented any one branch from taking control of the other two.
Q4: The U.S. Constitution starts with the words “We the People.” What does “We the People” refer to?
It is always a good idea to start at the beginning. In this case, we begin with three simple words: We the People, the first three words in the U. S. Constitution. They are a reminder to all that this is a government built by the people, for the people. They are a guide, reminding every generation of Americans that it is the people who govern, not a king, queen or aristocracy.
Q5: How are changes made to the Constitution?
The Founders wrote the Constitution to ensure that the government remained bound to its principles and promises, but they recognized that to be a lasting document, it would need to be able to change. Thus, they included Article V, which describes the process of making an “amendment”—a change or addition to the Constitution—in which Congress proposes an amendment and the states ratify it.
Q7: How many amendments does the Constitution have?
The Founders recognized that their Constitution, while carefully crafted, may need to be modified at times, and thus made it possible to change it through the Article V amendment process, which has been used 27 times.
Section 1.2 The Bill of Rights
Q6: What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution that protect the basic rights of people living in the United States?
The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights and were ratified in 1791. These amendments limited federal power, both by protecting the rights of individuals and the states.
Section 1.3 The Declaration of Independence
Q8+Q9: Declaring Independence
In 1776 the Declaration of Independence announced the independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain. This was because, according to the Declaration, humans are “endowed by their Creator” with “certain unalienable rights,” especially “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and Great Britain was not respecting the natural rights of the colonists. The Declaration explains that the very purpose of government is to protect these rights. Furthermore, it says that the people have the right to “alter or abolish” governments to protect these rights, and even to rebel against a government that systematically and consistently violates the people’s rights.
Q10+11: The Declaration and Founding Ideals
While the Constitution explains how the government works, the Declaration’s political philosophy explains what makes a just government. This philosophy has inspired generations of Americans, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, the authors of the Seneca Falls Declaration, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Section 1.4 The American Political Order
Q12: What is the economic system in the United States?
A capitalist economy focuses on the ideas of private property and voluntary exchange. Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher, was one of the first to put forth the idea that the market not only will regulate itself, but, if left alone, will also benefit society far more than any engineered attempt. In short, it’s a far, far better thing to let the buyers and the sellers act in their own best interests than it is to let the government control the economy (a.k.a. mercantilism).
Q13: What is the “rule of law”?
The “rule of law” is the idea that a consistent, and evenly applied set of rules, rather than the arbitrary will of those in power, binds all the members of society. These laws must be made by proper procedures and published in advance.
Q14: Which document did not influence the US Constitution?
The most direct and best-known influences on the U.S. Constitution were the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, but they also built on many previous colonial documents such as the Mayflower Compact and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
Q15: There are three branches of government: why?
The Constitution uses multiple techniques to guarantee liberty. In addition to federalism, constitutional rights, and elections, it also divides power and creates checks among the three branches of the federal government.