<Standard 5.23................................................................................................................................................Standard 5.25>

Describe the basic political principles of American democracy and explain how the Constitution and the Bill of Rights reflect and preserve these principles.

Focus Question: How does the Constitution and the Bill of Rights express and sustain American democracy?

Postage Stamp, 1977
Postage Stamp, 1977

Topics on the Page

A. individual rights and responsibilities

B. equality

C. the rule of law

D. limited government

E. representative democracy

rotating gif.gifGo to USI.3, USI.9 and USG.2.1 for material on the creation of the Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights. Also see Grade 5.23.

game_icon.svg.pngConstitute: The World's Constitutions to Read, Search and Compare Read the constitutions of 193 constitutions covering nearly every independent nation in the world as of September 2013.

A. Individual rights and responsibilities

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The Bill of Rights (1789) guaranteed the essential rights and liberties of every citizen. It was not part of the original Constitution of 1787.

From the National Archives:
"During the debates on the adoption of the Constitution, its opponents repeatedly charged that the Constitution as drafted would open the way to tyranny by the central government. Fresh in their minds was the memory of the British violation of civil rights before and during the Revolution. They demanded a "bill of rights" that would spell out the immunities of individual citizens. Several state conventions in their formal ratification of the Constitution asked for such amendments; others ratified the Constitution with the understanding that the amendments would be offered."
Power is reserved to the people. The Bill of Rights stands as a platform for American democracy and freedom.

Here is a simplified list of the Bill of Rights, with a mini review quiz at the end!

The Constitution does not impose many responsibilities of the individual but does assume some civil duties. These include:

  • It is the responsibility of the people to obey the laws as written in the Constitution.
  • It is also the responsibility of the people to remain loyal to the United States. Those who do not adhere to this responsibility could be tried for treason.
  • Citizens are responsible to serve as impartial jurors if called upon.
  • The Constitution establishes an army and navy and provides the Congress with the power to raise armies. It is the responsibility of the people to serve if called upon.
  • It is a responsibility of people over 18 who are eligible to vote to do so.

Here is a lesson plan idea for middle & high schoolers on Exploring the Duties & Responsibilities of A Citizen that can be simplified for younger learners.

B. Equality

Map shows states have ratified Equal Rights Amendments in their State Constitutions
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  • The word "equality" did not appear in the Constitution of 1787 or the Bill of Rights in 1789.
  • The Constitution guaranteed rule of law to all citizens and provided security of liberty under the law.
  • The existence of slavery and gender inequalities contradicted the idea of equal rights.
  • The 13th Amendment (1865) banned slavery.
  • The 14th Amendment (1868) guaranteed equal rights of citizenship to all Americans, with the special intention of protecting the rights of former slaves.
  • The 15th Amendment (1870) provided voting rights of all citizens.
  • Thereby, it was not until after the Civil War that equality was deliberately addressed in the Constitution.

Read more The African American Struggle For Equality before and beyond the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

Check out this website on the proposed Equal Rights Amendment!

C. The rule of law

primary_sources.PNGTaken from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist 33- "If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct" - and 78, the rule of law is the principle that everyone is accountable to laws that are:
-publicly known
-equally enforced
-independently adjudicated
-consistent with international human rights principles
read more from the United States Courts here.

D. Limited government

  • The national government is only allowed some powers, but not supremacy - after working so hard to be free from a king, the people of the US were very wary of a tyrannical ruler or an overbearing government.
  • In the United States Constitution, limited government relates to free markets and classical liberalism- drawing on Adam Smith's philosophy of the "invisible hand" and self-regulating economies.
  • Addressed in the 9th and 10th amendments of the Bill of Rights, which state that the rights of people do not have to be expressly written in the constitution and that delegated powers of the Federal government are only to be performed if expressly mentioned in the Constitution.
  • The Constitution also limits government in other key areas, such as: conscience, expression, and association.

E. Representative democracy

Multimedia.pngAn illustrated approach to Representative Democracy
  • A principle of elected people representing a group of people.
  • Key element of the presidential system of the United States.
  • The representative is an independent ruling body who acts on behalf of the people's best interests.
  • This is a bottom-up approach to society.
  • While a representative can be great because those who are elected generally are good at what they do, they don't always recognize or act in a way that represents every one of their constituents ideas or needs

Students can look at this kid friendly page on types of democracy and what the US uses, and then take the quiz at the end!

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Here is an extensive lesson plan exploring the Fundamentals of Representative Democracy.
Here are some more ideas for having students learn about democracy - click around!


Bill of Rights origin

Democratic Values — Liberty, Equality, Justice