Civics 101

Civics 101

In every secondary and college social studies classroom across the nation, students are responding to the following assignment:

Analyze the United States Constitution.

When was the last time you even read the United States Constitution, let alone did an analysis? Listening to Fox News does not count as your source of constitutional thought.

The Constitution, unlike the other famous American document, the Declaration of Independence, went through many drafts before the Founding Fathers reached compromises. The D of I was written by the Founding Fathers’ Salutatorian, Thomas Jefferson. Tom only had to do a couple of do overs. It was that tricky equality phrase, but they were all pretty certain about the declaring war on Mother England.

But the Founding Fathers’ Valedictorian, James Madison, had to use lots quills and ink.  That is why the Constitution is called a constitution of compromise.

Let’s take a look. The United States Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787. It is the shortest and oldest written constitution of any sovereign state. The Constitution consists of a preamble, seven original articles, twenty-seven amendments, and a paragraph certifying its enactment by the constitutional convention. The first ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.

The document defines the three branches of our government. The Legislative Branch of the government with a bicameral Congress; an Executive Branch led by the President and a Judicial Branch headed by the Supreme Court. It provides the organizational structure and outlines the powers of each branch. It also reserves numerous rights for the individual states, thereby establishing the United States’ federal system of government.

The Constitution for the United States is the supreme law of the land.

But how did this document come to be what it is? Everybody who anybody was gathered in Philadelphia. The Virginia Plan was introduced by governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph.  He and his supporters wanted a strong national government that was highly centralized. This government would have veto power over the states’ laws.

Of course this plan angered those who cringed at the vision of a central government swallowing state sovereignty.  Remember this is 1787, not today. I told you not to use Fox News as your Constitutional source.

Delegates from smaller states rallied around proposals offered by New Jersey delegate William Paterson. The “New Jersey resolutions” called only for a revision of the articles (that would be the Articles of Confederation) to enable the Congress more easily to raise revenues and regulate commerce. It also provided that acts of Congress and ratified treaties be “the supreme law of the States.”

Well that was quite a reduction of powers for the national government. It could coin money, take control of trade, ratified treaties and Congressional acts would be the supreme law.

Of course neither the big states nor the little states were happy. Of course they did agree on Alexander Hamilton’ plan.  They threw it out. He envisioned a king or monarch.  In fact he actually called the British government “the best in the world.” Hamilton’s plan was thrown out probably because it had something to do with a government who historically chopped off the heads of its rulers when the people are not happy. But that is just a guess.

Stalemate, Deadlock, Impasse, Gridlock, Standstill, Log jam. Oh wait I got the tea party goals mixed up.  Eventually, they compromised and give us a bicameral legislative branch with one level of Congress with two senators elected per state and one level of Congress whose members are elected according to population.

But that was nothing compared The Great Compromise. How were slaves to be counted?  This was that tricky little section side stepped in the Declaration of Independence. After much debate and hair pulling or wig pulling, the framers of the constitution finally compromised, agreeing that direct taxation be according to representation and that the representation of the lower house be based on the white inhabitants and three-fifths of the “other people.”

With that little detail worked out things seemed to be moving pleasantly along. That is until it was time for the states to ratify or agree with what was written. As written, the document divided the thirteen former colonies into The Federalists – those who favor a strong central federal government with many powers – and The AntiFederalists – those who favor a smaller federal government and more rights for the individual states. These two highly polarized schools of thought divided the nation. And so it is today.

This polarization looked like the entire newly proposed government would be a failure even before it got started. But remember this is a document of compromise. To satisfy the states, ten amendments were added. They are called the Bill of Rights.

Today, since everybody seems to be screaming about their violation of the BoR, that is where we will begin next time with the First Amendment.

2 responses to “Civics 101

  1. Will our test over this be multiple choice or essay? If it’s essay, I need to know whether we’ll use pen or pencil (need to go shopping for those) and whether we can write in cursive or manuscript. Will spelling count? Will there be a curve? Does this count as a benchmark? Will a TPM be used? Is re-testing allowed? If so, will there be tutorials prior to the re-test? Oh, dear…now I’ve forgotten what the test is about! Well…I do remember that I’ll get to go shopping. Need anything?


  2. Once, I listened to a candidate state his first action in Congress would be to repeal all the “unconstitutional laws.” Later, his wife asked if they had my support. To her shock, I replied that no, they did not have my support because I couldn’t support a candidate with a fundamental misunderstanding of the way in which our government works. Clearly, his “analysis” of the Constitution was sole-sourced from Glenn Beck.


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