Articles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

The Constitution establishes the legal and structural framework of the United States government. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution's first ten amendments, sets forth the individual rights guaranteed to all Americans. Activities explore the articles of the Constitution and the text of the Bill of Rights, the roles of W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP in fighting for rights and liberties for African Americans, and what might be the nation's most influential multicultural and social justice documents. A Media Literacy Connection explores how the Bill of Rights might be communicated on social media.

Standard 2.5:  Articles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights

Summarize the Preamble and each Article in the Constitution, and the Rights Enumerated in the Bill of Rights; explain the reasons for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1791. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Science) [8.T2.5]

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Articles of the Constitution and What Rights are in the Bill of Rights?

Painting: Scene at the Signing of the Constitution

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States"
by Howard Chandler Christy | Public Domain

Written in secret, behind closed doors guarded by sentries, during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the United States Constitution is the oldest and shortest of all the world’s national constitutions. It was originally 4,543 words, including signatures; now with its 27 amendments, it is 7,591 words in length (Constitution of the United States: Fascinating Facts about the U.S. Constitution).

The Constitution set forth the following primary ideas about government (Six Big Ideas in the Constitution):

By 1777, ten states had drafted and adopted their own constitutions. These constitutions stressed the rights of individuals including freedom of religion, a lack of property requirements to vote, and power of government derived from the people.

Emphasizing rights and freedoms, noted historian Heather Cox Richardson, "the Framers of our government enshrined the right to freedom of the press in our Constitution along with the right to gather together, to practice any religion we want (including none at all), the right to say what we want, and the right to ask our government to do (or not to do) things" (Letters from an American, April 30, 2023, para. 5).

Concerns over the power of the new government and the desire to ensure and protect the rights of individuals led to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution’s first 10 amendments.

Special Topic Box:  Constitution Day and Citizenship Day: September 17

Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is celebrated every September 17 to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and to “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens” (Library of Congress; 36 USC 106: Constitution Day and Citizenship Day).

The idea for a Constitution Day began in 1939 with the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst whose advocacy for a way to celebrate American citizenship led to the creation in 1940 of “I Am An American Day.” The efforts of two women then enlarged the scope of the idea. Olga T. Weber of Louisville, Ohio petitioned Congress to establish September 17 as the official date and to call the celebration, Citizenship Day. Louise Leigh founded an organization that led to the creation of Constitution Day as an official holiday in 2004.

On Constitution Day, it is expected that every educational institution, including K-12 schools, that receives federal funds will provide resources and conduct programs for students about the Constitution. But what should schools teach students? The Zinn Education Project’s “Whose ‘More Perfect Union’?” and “The Constitutional Convention: Who Really Won?” explores hidden histories and untold stories about the nation’s founding Constitution. One of the Project’s role plays asks students to imagine what might have happened had poor farmers, workers, and enslaved Africans attended the Constitutional Convention along with bankers, lawyers, merchants, and plantation owners (24 of the original 55 delegates owned slaves).

Suggested Learning Activity: Sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

  • 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia signed the Constitution in 1787.
  • You can virtually add your name to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution at Join the Signers from the National Archives.

There are important questions to ask as you learn about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights:

What rights do Americans use the most and what ones do they take for granted?

What rights do you use most and what ones do you take for granted?

How have African Americans and other people of color struggled throughout United States history to acquire the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution?

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. INVESTIGATE: The Articles of the Constitution and the Many Bills of Rights in United States History
    • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: The Bill of Rights on Twitter
    • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: September 17: Constitution Day and Citizenship Day
    • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: Constitution Writing Around the Globe
  2. UNCOVER: W.E.B. Du Bois, the Niagara Movement and the History of the NAACP
    • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: W.E.B. DuBois and Infographics
  3. ENGAGE: What Influential Social Justice and Diverse History Documents Should Every Student Know?

    1.INVESTIGATE: The Articles of the Constitution and the Many Bills of Rights in United States History

    The Constitution of the United States has a Preamble and seven articles:

    The Interactive Constitution website from the National Constitution Center has videos, podcasts, and blog posts for exploring and understanding every major clause and amendment. A section of the site called the Drafting Table shows drafts of documents, how they changed, and offers ideas about why. It is a place where students can see how people on OPPOSITE sides can come together to AGREE about a description of a document, what it means, and AGREEMENT is an amazing place to start!

    Other resources for you: Constitute: The World's Constitutions to Read, Search and Compare that includes 202 national constitutions worldwide and the Daily Bellringer YouTube Channel featuring videos explaining Articles 1-10 of the U.S. Constitution. 

    Watch on YouTube

    The U.S. Constitution is not the country’s only constitution - each state has its own constitution. There have been nearly 150 state constitutions which have been amended 12,000 times (NBER/Maryland State Constitutions Project). Native American tribes have their own constitutions as well (Native American Tribal Constitutions).

    Comparing and contrasting state constitutions at the time of the American Revolution can be a powerful learning experience for students, an idea suggested by teacher Isabelle Morley.

    Here are links to the Pennsylvania State Constitution of 1776 (widely regarded as the most democratic of state constitutions) and the South Carolina State Constitution of 1776 (regarded as perhaps the least democratic of state constitutions). What differences do you see in the ideas and structures of democracy set forth in these documents?

    Special Topic Box:  Constitution Writing Around the Globe

    "Laws govern people; constitutions govern governments," noted historian Jill Lepore (2021, p. 75).  Prior constitutions (i.e., Hammurabi's Code, the Magna Carta), Lepore continued, were hardly read by anyone, in part because so few people could read. The printing press, newspapers, and growing literacy among people meant that the United States constitution became part of how Americans understood their system of government.

    The writing of a constitution, as historian Linda Colley shows in her book The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen (2021), was a momentously revolutionary development in global history. For most of human history, rulers (kings, emperors, warlords) ruled without any written limits on their powers. The American Revolution, the ideals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, and framework of government established at the Constitutional Convention set forth a era of constitution-writing across the globe.

    Three forces, in Colley's view, propelled the constitution writing process across the globe: 1) the Gun, where it led to the breakdown of existing regimes; 2) the Ship, which made possible the sharing of democratic ideas across the world; and 3) the Pen, which along with a rise in literacy, enabled writers to share new ways of thinking with increasingly larger numbers of people. Yet, constitutions do not always support democracy or expand rights and liberties for all people. The U.S. Constitution and those of many 19th century state constitutions, for example, denied rights to enslaved people and members of indigenous tribes as well as women (Lepore, 2021). Indeed, the struggle to realize the ideals of democracy set forth in the U.S. Constitution continues today.

    Primary Source Analysis: Compare and Contrast

    Between 1791 and 1804, Haiti became the "first independent nation in the Caribbean, the second democracy in the western hemisphere, and the first black republic in the world" (History of Haiti, Brown University Library).

    Haitian Constitution of 1801 and the Haitian Constitution of 1805 offer a fascinating instance of a country adopting a constitution and then replacing it with a considerably more radical one within the span of four years.

    • Give students the two constitutions, but do not tell them which came first. Have students read the two documents and offer explanations for the differences.
    • This lesson idea submitted by University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate student Asa Mervis (September 2021).

    The first ten amendments to the U. S. Constitution—the Bill of Rights—set forth the rights and freedoms of citizens living in the United States.  

    Bill of Rights Car
    "Bill of Rights Car" by fusion-of-horizons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

    The first 10 Amendments of the Bill of Rights are:

    1. Freedom of speech, press, petition, religion, and peaceful protest
    2. The right to bear arms
    3. No quartering of troops
    4. No unreasonable search and seizure
    5. Due process, no self incrimination, no double jeopardy
    6. Right to a speedy trial
    7. Trial by Jury
    8. No cruel or unusual punishment
    9. Rights of individuals not outlined in the Bill of Rights
    10. Any powers not vested in the federal government are granted to the states and the people

    The national Bill of Rights has inspired numerous other bills of rights related to economic life, education, health care, shopping and buying, voting and more; for example, the 1868 Louisana Constitution,the first in Louisiana to contain a bill of rights. It enfranchised freed men. It disenfranchised ex-rebels. It established integrated public schools, guaranteed property rights of married women, and gave a pension to veterans of the War of 1812.

    Here are other important Bills of Rights in U.S. history:

    Bills of Rights set forth the protections that every member of a free and democratic society should expect to have in their life and community.

    Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party political banner
    Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party political banner | Public Domain

    Rights are subject to interpretation and political debates.

    Individual rights (life, liberty, property) and social and economic rights (health care, education, housing) have different meanings for different people and political parties.

    Conservative political groups and Republicans tend to define rights as individual rights while progressive and liberal groups and Democrats tend to expand individual rights to include social and economic rights (for example, Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights).

    In this video, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Calls for a 21st Century Bill of Rights:

    The Bill of Rights connects directly to students' legal rights at school. Go here for a Student Legal Rights at School Digital Choice Board.

    Media Literacy Connections: The Bill of Rights on Twitter

    The first 10 amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights consists of 472 words. It was signed on September 28, 1789. Here is the full text read aloud.

    Watch on YouTube

    When the Bill of Rights were drafted there were no systems of mass communication - no social media, no television, no streaming services. But what if Twitter had been around at that time? Today, about one in five adults use Twitter, sending some 500 million tweets each day (Twitter by the NumbersOmnicore, January 6, 2021). How would you have helped James Madison and the other members of Congress spread the word about the Bill of Rights on Twitter?

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Learn Online
      • Which Founder are You? an online quiz from the National Constitution Center where you can compare your personality traits with those of 12 delegates to the Constitutional Convention (flash required).  
        • How does your personality most resemble one of the founders? 
    • Analyze the Demographics of the Signers of the Founding Documents  
      • View the names and pictures of the 56 individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence, the 40 people who signed the Constitution, and the 15 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who did not sign the Constitution from Wikimedia Commons. Here is a list of the Signers of the Constitution by state.
        • What do you conclude from your analysis about who the signers were?
    • Write a Classroom Constitution or a Student Bill of Rights
      • Ask each student to create a list of rights, responsibilities, and rules that should be in a classroom constitution or a student Bill of Rights - the rights that anyone attending a public elementary, middle, or high school should have.
      • As a class, identify the rights and responsibilities that appear most often in everyone’s list.  
      • Students work in small groups to design a graphic representing the class Constitution or student Bill of Rights.
    • Design Pandemic Bill of Rights for Students, Teachers, Families, and School Staff
      • Ask students to compose a list of rights, responsibilities, and rules for individuals and groups in schools impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
      • Students design a graphic representing a Pandemic Bill of Rights

    Online Resources for the Constitution

    Online Resources for Bills of Rights in United States History

    2.UNCOVER: W.E.B. Du Bois, the Niagara Movement, and the History of the NAACP

    Born in 1868 and raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, W.E.B. Du Bois was an immensely influential African American educator, writer, activist, and scholar. He was born just before the passage of the 14th Amendment and he lived nearly a century until just one day before the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

    Du Bois was one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909. His 1935 historical study, Black Reconstruction in America, placed “the struggles and triumphs of African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction story” (Gates, 2019, p. 255). His book, The Souls of Black Folks, sold nearly 20,000 copies between 1903 and 1940. The book contains the famous phrase, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”

    Du Bois was also the founding editor of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. The first issue appeared in November, 1910.

    W.E.B. DuBois’ life and writings, said Henry Louis Gates (2019), “often set the terms of the civil rights debate” and “his critique of white supremacy was insistent" (p. 254).

    Read a short biography at NAACP Histoy: W.E.B. Du Bois.

    The Niagara Movement (founded by W.E.B. Du Bois and William Trotter in 1905) and the NAACP were political organizations formed to oppose racial segregation and political disenfranchisement of African Americans and to realize the goals of equality for African Americans. In The Niagara Movement's Declaration of Principles (1905), Du Bois declared: "We want full manhood suffrage and we want it now... We are men! We want to be treated as men. And we shall win."

    Niagara Movement Meeting in Fort Erie Canada 1905

    W.E.B. DuBois is in the second row at this Niagara movement meeting in Fort Erie, Canada, 1905
    "Niagara movement meeting in Fort Erie" | Public Domain

    The NAACP set forth a belief in using nonviolent protests and legal actions as the most effective way to achieve full and equal rights for African Americans. In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lead the practice of nonviolent resistance against segregation and discrimination faced by African Americans in the United States.

    W.E.B. Du Bois and Infographics

    The African American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois was a pioneer in the field of data visualization.

    The Georgia Negro - Occupations of Negroes and whites in Georgia
    The Georgia Negro - Occupations of Negroes and whites in Georgia by Du Bois, W. E. B. | Public Domain

    Beginning in 1897, while at Atlanta University, Du Bois, together with students in his sociology lab, began producing full-color maps, charts, graphs, and tables about African American life in the post-Civil War United States. He drew his graphics by free hand printing and coloring. His work dramatically demonstrated both Black progress since slavery and the persistence of institutionalized White racism.

    You can view many of these at How a Collection of 1900s W.E.B. Du Bois Infographics Set Out to Refute Racism.

    An infographic is a visual display of information, which generally includes a chart, graph, map, diagram, or illustration. An infographic can be static or interactive. Interactive infographics allow viewers to interact with the content of the infographic and learn through inquiry (see Lunar cycle and sleep interactive infographic).

    Today, digital tools, such as Piktochart, Easel.ly, and Canva make the design of infographics possible without any graphic design or drawing skills needed. As such, infographics are a popular tool for individuals and organizations who need to convey information in a way that is easy to understand. There are many ways infographics are used, such as hurricane/tsunami trackers, earthquake monitors, fire and smoke maps from wildfires, and COVID-19 pandemic infection and hospitalization rates. 

    At the same time, visual displays of data can be confusing and sometimes intentionally biased and false. More than two decades ago, information theorist Edward Tufte (2001) referred to messy, distorted presentations of visual presentations as “chartjunk” (p. 106). Later he called information displays that appear more like sales pitches than thoughtful analyses “phluff” (2006, p. 26). Chartjunk and phluff “often weaken verbal and spatial reasoning” and also serve to “corrupt statistical reasoning,” said Tufte (2006, p. 3).

    Activity 1: Create an Infographic about Civil Rights 

    Activity 2: Create an Infographic about a Social Issue

    • Choose a local, state, or national issue you care about. It might be the environment, the pandemic, politics, education policies, or another topic that is impacting your life, your family, and those around you in your community.
    • Write down a series of “I Wonder Questions” about the topic. An "I Wonder Question" is a question you have about the topic - something you want to know more about.
    • Conduct Internet research based on your I Wonder Question. Collect information from reliable sources such as government and college/university websites, major newspapers, and foundations. You can consult our Where to Find Reliable Resources Infographic (2020) for more possible sources of information.
    • Develop an infographic display of your findings. For online infographic building tools, consult 16 Best Infographic Makers on the Web.
    • Explain how your infographic offers a clear and unbiased presentation of information.

      Online Resources for W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP

      3.ENGAGE: What Influential Social Justice and Diverse History Documents Should Every Student Know?

      In 2003, the National Archives, in conjunction with National History Day and U.S. News & World Report magazine, conducted a People’s Vote to determine the most influential documents in United States history. Some 39,000 people voted, online and by paper ballot. Based on the results, the documents were ranked from 1 to 100. The ten most influential documents in American history, as chosen by The People's Vote along with the percentage of voters that chose each document.

      1. Declaration of Independence—75.9%
      2. Constitution of the United States—69.3%
      3. Bill of Rights—67.9%
      4. Louisiana Purchase Treaty—34.3%
      5. Emancipation Proclamation—33.5%
      6. Nineteenth Amendment (women's right to vote)—31.4%
      7. Thirteenth Amendment (abolition of slavery)—30.1%
      8. Gettysburg Address—25.4%
      9. Civil Rights Act of 1964—25.2%
      10. Social Security Act of 1935—20.9%  Archivist Announces Results of the People's Vote (2004).

      Here is the entire list: Milestone Documents in American History.

      What might the list and the vote have been if people had been asked to choose the most influential social justice and diverse history documents in U.S. history?

      There were social justice/diverse history documents in the top ten on the People's Vote list: the 19th Amendment establishing women's right to vote was number 6; the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was number 7; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination and segregation in public places like businesses, theatres, restaurants, libraries and schools was number 9; the Social Security Act was number 10.

      What about these influential documents?

      Perhaps the influential documents list should include The Great Treaty of 1722 (also known as the Treaty of Albany), the oldest treaty still in effect in Colonial American and United States history law. That treaty, negotiated between representatives of three British colonies and the Native American leaders of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy set forth ways to resolve conflicts between communities and peoples through peaceful means, what we today would call restorative justice. To learn more, read "A 300-Year-Old Treaty and a Lesson on Justice," Nicole Eustace (The New York Times, December 4, 2022).

      Social justice and diverse history documents provide a wide-ranging view of what it means for there to be freedom, justice, and democracy for all. They probe deeply into topics and present the backgrounds of people that are often neglected or omitted from textbooks or broad survey courses.  They focus our attention as students and teachers, in Howard Zinn’s memorable phrase, “not the doers, but the done to” in history.

      What social justice and diverse history speeches, laws, books, declarations, and other texts might be among the most influential in how they positively impacted the lives and freedoms of African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, women, Latinos, LBGTQ+ individuals, people with disabilities, and other historically marginalized groups do you think every student needs to know?

      The Suggested Learning Activities box below is a starting point for developing your own collection of materials.

      Suggested Learning Activities

      • Give Your Analysis
        • Review List of U.S. History Primary Sources from the resourcesforhistoryteachers wiki.
        • After evaluating the documents on our history wiki, the 100 most influential documents from the National Archives, and adding others you consider significant, what would be your list of top ten social justice documents? Why?

      Standard 2.5 Conclusion

      The Constitution established the structure of United States Government; the Bill of Rights set forth the freedoms the Constitution guaranteed to the American people. INVESTIGATE identified the Articles of the Constitution and the many other Bills of Rights that have evolved from the original ten amendments. UNCOVER discussed the African American civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, the Niagara Movement, and the history of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). ENGAGE asked what are the most influential social justice documents in U.S. History that students should learn about in school.

      This content is provided to you freely by EdTech Books.

      Access it online or download it at https://edtechbooks.org/democracy/billofrights.