Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life

Standard 4.4: Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life

Define and provide examples of fundamental principles and values of American political and civic life. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.4]

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life?

Statue of liberty visual embedded into U.S. Constitution
"Liberty Enlightening the World" by Kalki is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

Political and civic life in the United States rests on a set of fundamental principles and values including equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government.

What do those principles and values actually mean? The modules for this standard explore that question by examining each in more detail, reviewing the importance of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and outlining the boundaries of student rights at school.

1. INVESTIGATE: Fundamental Principles and Values of American Life

Equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government are examples of fundamental principles and values in American political and civic life.

Image on Pixabay


The word "equality" did not appear in the Constitution of 1787 or the Bill of Rights of 1789. While the Constitution guaranteed rule of law to all citizens and provided security of liberty under the law, the existence of slavery and inequalities in the status of women contradicted the idea of equal rights.

It was not until after the Civil War that equality was deliberately addressed in the Constitution through a series of amendments:

Learn more about the efforts toward equality for marginalized groups:

The Rule of Law

The concept of the rule of law is taken from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist 33 where he wrote: "If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct." 

According to the United States Courts, "the Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are:

Limited government

In the United States political system, the national government is given limited but not supreme or total powers. After the struggle of the American Revolution to be free from rule by a king, people in the colonies were very wary of a tyrannical ruler or an overbearing government. In the Constitution, limited government relates to free markets and classical liberalism, drawing on Adam Smith's philosophy of the "invisible hand" and self-regulating economies.

The 9th and 10th amendments of the Bill of Rights further express the concept of limited government. Those amendments 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 intervention in other key areas of political life, including thought, expression, and association.

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is the principle that people elect individuals to represent them in the government. This is a fundamental element of the governmental system of the United States. Voters elect representatives to a ruling body (the Congress) who acts on behalf of the people's best interests. Learn more from this video: Representative Democracy.

Suggested Learning Activity

  • Create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) Video
    • Does American political and civic life exemplify the fundamental principles and values of equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government?
    • Conduct research and then create a video that educates others. 

  • Create a Social Media Post About Representative Democracy
    • Using Tik Tok, Instagram, Snapchat, or some other digital tool, create a social media post that answers the following questions:
      • What personal qualities, education, and background should an elected representative have?
      • How would that representative best stay in touch with you and other constituents?
      • What problems do you want that representative to focus on solving?
      • What type of person do you want representing you in government at the local, state, and national level?

Online Resources for Fundamental Principles of American Political Life

2. UNCOVER: The Importance of the 14th Amendment

John Bingham, a now mostly forgotten Congressman from Ohio, wrote these famous words of the 14th Amendment:  

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

14th Amendment Sign
14th Amendment Sign at the Brown v. Board of Education Historical Site by Shutterbugsage is licensed under CC BY 3.0

The 14th Amendment was one of three post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution:

Historian Eric Foner (2019) characterized the three post-Civil War amendments as “sleeping giants . . . that continued to inspire those who looked to the Constitution to support their efforts to create a more just social order” (p. xxviii).

Since its passage, the 14th Amendment has continued to transform law and society in the United States. As New York Times opinion writer Magliocca (2013) noted:

This sentence would be the legal basis for the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions desegregating the public schools, securing equality for women, and creating the right to sexual privacy. Bingham also said that his text would also extend all of the protections of the Bill of Rights to the actions of state governments, which is largely, though not completely, the law today (para. 15).

Passed on July 9, 1868 and based on the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, the 14th Amendment had five sections:

Suggested Learning Activities

The National Constitution Center has overviews of more Supreme Court cases involving the 14th Amendment.

Online Resources for the 14th Amendment

3. ENGAGE: What Are Students' Rights at School?

Students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" declared the Supreme Court in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case (the details of the case are in Topic 5/Standard 6 of this book).

At the same time, the law permits schools to set their own rules and policies about what students can and cannot do in school buildings (First Amendment Rights for Student Protestors). As a result, in many instances, students do not have the same rights in school buildings that they have outside them (Student Rights at School:  Six Things You Need to Know).

Students do not have a right to wear racially or religiously threatening images (such as swastikas or confederate battle flags) in school nor can they post racist or degrading comments about classmates on their outside-of-school social media accounts (National Education Association, 2018). Student actions can be restricted by school officials when those officials believe there is a significant threat to orderly educational practices or other peoples' legal rights.

Minnesota High School Students Walked Out

Minnesota High School Students Walked Out of School to Demand Changes to Gun Laws, March 7, 2018 by A1Cafel is licensed by CC BY 2.0

The rights of students are subject to shifting legal interpretations and intensified political debates over the ongoing issues of speech, privacy, social media, dress codes, discipline procedures, disability rights, gender expression, bathroom access, health, pregnancy, and more. Legal scholar Catherine J. Ross (2015) contends that courts have retreated from the broad protections that granted student speech in the 1940s through the 1960s.

Students attending private schools (that is, schools not funded by local, state, or federal government) do not automatically have the same rights as their peers in public schools. Constitutional protections do not necessarily apply. Instead, student rights are determined by the legal contract that families sign to send children to those schools (Student Rights in Private Schools). Private schools therefore have broad discretion about the rules and behaviors they want to enforce and students must follow them or they can be punished or expelled for violating the contract signed by their families to attend.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Analyze Data & Conduct Research
    • Conduct a class poll: What do students in your class or school believe are their rights in school?
    • Conduct research on what legal rights students have in school (see Student Rights at School: Six Things You Need To Know).
    • Compare and contrast the findings from the poll with the findings from your research.

    Online Resources for Student Rights at School

    Standard 4.4 Conclusion

    American political and civic life rests on a series of fundamental principles and broadly shared values. INVESTIGATE explored the meanings of four of those principles and values: equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government. UNCOVER discussed how the 14th Amendment to the Constitution has over time extended America’s fundamental principles and values to African Americans and other marginalized individuals and groups. ENGAGE asked what are the protections and limits of students’ rights at school. 

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