Congress and the Bill of Rights in History and Today
Students will explore the protections and limitations on authority contained in the Bill of Rights and the process by which the First Congress created it. They will do this by compiling a list of their rights as students, analyzing the Bill of Rights, and studying primary source documents to trace the origin and development of the first ten amendments. Students will then consider how the Bill of Rights might be updated to reflect 21st century circumstances.
By taking stock of their rights as students and studying the development of the Bill of Rights through antecedent documents, students will be better able to understand the protections it provides and how James Madison and the First Congress crafted amendments to win support for the Constitution. This will help students understand the importance of the Bill of Rights today.
- What rights do students have in class?
- What rights are protected by the Bill of Rights, and what powers are limited?
- How and why did the First Congress create the Bill of Rights?
- How might the Bill of Rights be updated for today?
Recommended Grade Levels:
Grades 7 – 12
American History; U.S. Government; Civics
Topics included in this lesson:
The Bill of Rights, James Madison, constitutional amendments, Federalists, Anti-Federalists
The time needed to complete each learning activity is presented in parentheses at each step. The activities can be done in sequence or each can be done separately.
- Due process of law
The struggle over the states' ratification of the Constitution in 1787 and 1788 made a deep impression on James Madison, who witnessed firsthand the contentious battles in Virginia and New York. Madison understood that in order for the new government to be successful it needed the overwhelming allegiance of the people rather than the narrow majority support won in many of the state ratification conventions. Madison began to see how the addition of a bill of rights might calm some of the fears about the powers invested in the new national government.
James Madison worked to gain support for the Constitution by creating a list of proposed amendments drawn from various Anti-Federalist and Federalists sources. Elected as a representative to the First Congress in 1789, he took the lead in writing and speaking on behalf of legislation to amend the Constitution. By August of 1789, the House of Representatives passed a list of proposed amendments derived from Madison's list. Due in large measure to his leadership, Congress passed the Bill of Rights in 1789, and the states ratified it by 1791.
1. Rights in the classroom: (45 Minutes)
Begin a class discussion about rights in which students consider two dimensions of rights: specific protections for individuals and general limits on authority.
Discussion questions should include:
- What specific protections for individuals apply to students?
- What specific protections for individuals apply to teachers?
- Are these sets of protections distinct from one another or shared to some degree?
- What limits are placed on the authority of teachers?
- What limits are placed on the authority of students?
- What limits on authority do they share? (For instance, school rules and class policies limit student's authority to decide certain issues, while contracts and school policies limit certain actions by teachers.)
Ask students to summarize the discussion by completing Worksheet 1.
Direct the class to draw from information they listed on Worksheet 1 to create a bill of rights for the classroom.
Important topics to consider include:
- What specific protections for individuals should be guaranteed?
- What limitations on authority should be included?
- How will the class determine what to include in this Bill of Rights? Simple majority? Super-majority? Unanimous vote? What vote does the teacher or administration have?
2. Analyzing the Bill of Rights (30 minutes)
Ask students to draw upon their work in Activity 1 as they analyze the list of amendments ratified by the states in 1791. Divide the students into small groups and assign each group to carefully read the text of the Handout 3. Have each group complete Worksheet 2 to delineate the individual protections and limits on authority contained in the Bill of Rights. Begin a discussion in which the class compares or contrasts their class Bill of Rights with the amendments ratified by the states.
3. Exploring the History of the Bill of Rights from Conventions to Ratification: (90 minutes)
Divide the class into small groups and distribute copies of the Senate Revisions to the House-Passed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (Senate Mark-up). This facsimile shows the Bill of Rights in the middle of its creation during the legislative process. The printed text shows the amendments as they were passed by the House and the handwritten markings show changes made by the Senate.
Drawing from the Senate Mark-up, assign each small group to study one or two of the 17 amendments passed by the House and marked up by the Senate. Provide one copy of Worksheet 3 to each group for each amendment the group is assigned. Using the Worksheet, the students will analyze their assigned amendment(s) and translate each into an 8-12 word "tweet." Amendments should be studied as they were passed by the House.
Direct each small group to study the historical context of their proposed amendment. The students will analyze several other versions of the Bill of Rights which came before and after the Senate Mark-up to determine when the main idea of their assigned amendment was introduced. For this step, distribute Handout 1, Handout 2, Handout 3, and the Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as passed by the Senate.
Each group will scan these four documents to determine if the main idea identified in their tweet was also present in the other versions of the Bill of Rights. Students mark their finding on Worksheet 3 by putting an X in the appropriate box in the chart. Students will also mark the final box in the chart with an R or L to indicate whether that amendment deals mostly with rights or limitations of government. The groups should answer the questions on Worksheet 3 to prepare for class discussion. Worksheet 4 should be posted or projected on an overhead so that all groups can report their findings and share with the class.
The groups will present to the class their answers to questions on Worksheet 3 and their findings marked on Worksheet 4. When all groups have presented, hold a class discussion using the following questions:
- Which proposed amendments were present from the Anti-Federalist report to the Bill of Rights as ratified by the states?
- Which Anti-Federalist ideas were also proposed by Madison but not present in the final Bill of Rights?
- Which proposed amendments originated with James Madison? Which of those were not present in the final Bill of Rights?
- Which proposed amendments were merged at various points in the process?
4. Applying the Bill of Rights to today's world (45 minutes)
The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, including the Bill of Rights. The ability to amend the Constitution is critical to adapt to a changing society. However, the Founders understood that revisions to the founding charter should not be undertaken lightly, and they designed the amendment process to require a very high level of agreement for amendments to be ratified (2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of state legislatures).
Divide students into groups to propose new amendments to the Constitution to better serve the nation in the 21st Century and "form a more perfect union." In groups, students will identify rights deserving protection but not currently contained in the Bill of Rights and additional powers of government that should be limited.
Each group may compose one amendment (or several amendments) to the Constitution and share with the class why they think each amendment is needed.
Post all amendments on the wall and allow students to speak for or against the amendments as if they were members of Congress. Hold a vote on each amendment to see which ones, if any, can get 2/3 of the votes of all class members.
5. Lesson Extension (45 minutes for preparation and 45 minutes to implement)
Debating changes to the Bill of Rights:
The Bill of Rights was created by process of debate in the First Congress and ratified by debate in the legislatures of the states. This history reminds us of the importance of civic discourse in the life of the nation. Learning to advocate for ideas persuasively and respectfully was as vital a lesson for America's first legislators as it is for students today. This debate challenges students to assess the call to update the Bill of Rights by speaking for and against the idea. Organize the class into two teams and have each team spend 45 minutes organizing their arguments and evidence prior to debating.
Debate Topic: The Bill of Rights should be updated to match 21st Century American life.
Pro position: The Bill of Rights should be updated.
Con position: The Bill of Rights should be preserved as it is.
The debate format:
- Each debate features five participants on each side of the issue.
- Each speaks for no more than two minutes.
- Teams alternate speakers.
- One speaker on each team delivers the opening giving an overview of the team's position.
- Three speakers on each team gives supporting arguments—one argument per speaker.
- One speaker on each team delivers the closing argument.
Congress Creates the Bill of Rights is an eBook, a mobile app for tablets, and online resources for teachers and students to exploring how the First Congress proposed amendments to the Constitution in 1789.
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