|How does government help people get along?|
Can you imagine a world without rules, regulations, and laws? Without them, even in a classroom, much less a country, chaos would almost inevitably ensue. Yet, finding guiding principles on which an entire group, city, state, or nation can agree is no easy task either. In this unit, the children examine how members of groups, including members of governments, work together to establish rules and regulations for people to follow.
What Primary Sources Can Tell Us about How Government Works
Wherever they go and whatever they do, a nation’s leaders and citizens leave a trail of writings, images, and artifacts, which give us insight into the workings of government.
Preamble to the Constitution
Constitution of the United States of America
The Constitution of the United States is the oldest written national constitution in the world. As our statement of fundamental laws, the Constitution is also the “supreme law of the land” in this country. No other laws—state, federal, or local—can be made that contradict or go against the precepts it contains. And yet, that does not mean that it easy to understand, nor not subject to interpretation. In this activity, children will focus on understanding the Constitution’s Preamble—the portion of the document that explains the purpose of what follows.
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
Writing the Preamble
After agreement among the delegates had been reached by July 1787, a “Committee of Detail” drafted the Preamble and 23 articles into 57 sections. Members of that committee were Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Rutledge of South Carolina, and Edmund Randolph of Virginia. They completed their work on August 6. Then, the “Committee of Stile and Arrangement” had the task of revising the document. Historians believe those committee members –William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, Rufus King of Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris of New York, and James Madison of Virginia – are most responsible for the “final” draft of the Constitution. The committee presented that draft to the Convention on September 12, 1787. James Madison, in his writings about the Constitutional Convention, credits the drafting of the Preamble to Gouverneur Morris. Morris himself also made that claim.
How Might The Preamble To The Constitution Read if it Was Written Today?
1. Distribute a facsimile copy of the Constitution of the United States to the children. (This can also be found on page 22 of your Primary Sources Handbook.) Ask the children if they recognize this document. Elicit from the children what they already know about it. Be sure to reinforce accuracies in the children’s prior knowledge, and clear up any misinformation they may have.
2. Focus the children’s attention on the first section of the document—the portion above the words “Article 1.” Ask the children if they know what this section of the document is called, and what its purpose is. Be sure the children understand that this—the Preamble to the Constitution—offers an overview and brief explanation of the reasons for the Articles (the legal paragraphs) that follow. Tell the children that, as a class, they will now look at the Preamble more closely to figure out what it really means. If you like, play the “Schoolhouse Rock” version of the Preamble for the children.
3. Distribute to each child a sheet containing the words of the Constitution’s Preamble. After reading it aloud once to the children, challenge the children to read it aloud along with you a second time. Next, as you single out particular words and phrases (such as “We, the people,” “a more perfect union,” and “domestic tranquility”), ask the children what they think each of these mean. Be sure to have a dictionary handy, and encourage the children to use it to look up any unfamiliar words.
4. After singling out some of the Preamble’s most difficult words and phrases, read through the passage with the children again. Invite volunteers to try to put in their own words what individual portions of the Preamble means. If particular words or phrases are still difficult for the children to grasp, focus on these again—putting in your own words what is meant.
5. Finally, once you feel the children have a better understanding of the Preamble, distribute art supplies (crayons, markers, and light-colored drawing paper) to the children. Tell them that they are now going to rewrite the Preamble, putting it in their own words. If they like, the children may begin by trying to replicate the “fancy lettering” of the words “We the People.” After that, though, the children should try, as much as possible, to use their own phrasing.
6. Offer the children an opportunity to read their own versions of the Preamble aloud. Then open up a discussion about it by using these questions:
Additional Primary Sources
Image credits: a. National Archives and Records Administration; b. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: LC-H8-CT-C01-063 DLC