“Father” of Our Country v. “Father” of the Bill of Rights

by Tammy Spratt

Essential Questions

  • To what extent does the Bill of Rights provide a “blanket of protection” for American citizens?
  • Why do many Americans believe that the Bill of Rights is especially relevant today?

Objectives

Students will be able to:

  • Identify the parts of the Constitution and their purposes
  • Explain the first ten amendments and how they affect people today
  • Describe the rights and responsibilities of American citizens

Historical Background

At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates analyzed, argued, and debated the new Constitution. George Mason, a Virginian, pleaded with the fifty-five delegates for the inclusion of a list of guaranteed rights. Mason (sometimes referred to as the “father of the Bill of Rights”) wanted the new Constitution to guarantee freedom of speech, press, and religion, and the right to a fair jury trial. He also wanted to include the freedom to vote.

Earlier in his career, Mason had worked hard at the Virginia Assembly to help write a state constitution that incorporated sixteen human rights. Other colonies liked this idea and added such rights to their own state constitutions. By 1783, all thirteen colonies had some version of a bill of rights.

On September 17, 1787, Mason proposed that a bill of rights be add to the Constitution, but the idea was voted down. George Mason, along with Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and other Anti-Federalists, opposed ratifying the Constitution. However, upon the promise from George Washington and other Federalists to add a bill of rights, the Constitution was ratified by nine of the thirteen states.

The states sent 189 suggested changes for the Constitution. James Madison narrowed them down to seventeen amendments. Congress approved twelve, and the states rejected two. Finally, the ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights were adopted.

Materials

Motivation

These lessons are taught after the students have an understanding of the basic principles and functions of the US Constitution. Students should be able to recognize the three major parts of the Constitution (the Preamble, the Articles, and the Amendments).

Students should also have a basic understanding of the road to independence. They should be able to make connections and draw from prior knowledge to help understand the reasons for the Bill of Rights (i.e., Amendment III: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house.” Students may recall the Quartering Act imposed by the British).

The Bill of Rights has some difficult terms for students; therefore, taking the time to review some key terms may be beneficial before the students become engaged in the activities. Some terms include: amendment, bail, capital crime, common law, due process, enumeration, grievance, indictment, infamous crime, infringed, jeopardy, oath, petition, ratify, redress, seizure, warrant, and writ. A dictionary skill practice would be appropriate here. Writing the words and definitions on a chart would be helpful as students read the Bill of Rights. There are also many additional resources that simplify the Bill of Rights for elementary students.

Some students may have difficulty understanding some of the amendments. The First Amendment is probably the most relevant to students. Intermediate students will be able to understand most amendments with a little guidance.

Procedure

Day One

  1. Write GEORGE V. GEORGE on the board or overhead. Ask students if they recall any important people we studied about that have this name. Pause. Then below each name write the last names: WASHINGTON V. MASON. Place a picture of George Washington under his name and a picture of George Mason under his name.
  2. Ask the students to tell you what they know about George Washington and write their responses under his picture. Students should be able to share many facts about George Washington. You may even want to use a short biography or picture book for reading aloud.
  3. Ask the students to share what they know about George Mason. Most students will not know much about him. Record responses.
  4. You may either read a short biography about George Mason aloud or provide a handout for students to read with partners.
  5. Ask students to share their findings and write their responses about George Mason under his name and picture. (Note: You may want students to write a T-chart in their own notebook and take notes OR make a copy of the pictures of Washington and Mason. Glue or tape pictures in the notebooks and have the students write a paragraph about each one of these framers and their importance at the Constitutional Convention for a homework assignment.)
  6. Use a T-chart to compare and contrast the two Georges. Explain how these two framers of the Constitution influenced our country then and now. Explain how the passion and leadership of George Mason led to the protection of the rights we have today in the Bill of Rights.
  7. Define the following terms to be kept in students’ social studies notebooks: Federalists, Antifederalists.
  8. Ask the students which George is a Federalist and which is an Antifederalist. Add to the chart under the correct George’s name.
  9. Have the students think about how difficult it would have been to stand up for what you believe against the most loved and respected man of the times.
  10. Help students make real life connections in standing up for their own beliefs today. Discuss the difficulties and the importance of taking a stand against something even “when everyone else is doing it.” Review how Mason stood up for the rights of the people and opposed the beloved George Washington.

Day Two

  1. Using a textbook or pdf of the Bill of Rights attached, provide all students with the first ten amendments. Divide the class into small groups of three or four. Have the small groups read the Bill of Rights. Remind them to look at the chart for definitions of difficult words if they need help and make dictionaries available.
  2. Assign each group ONE of the amendments. Students will work together to identify key words and phrases to share with the rest of the class. Students will present to the class the amendments using pictures, definitions, skits, examples, charts, or other media to explain the assigned amendment.
  3. Students will rewrite the amendment in “kid-friendly” terms along with a picture icon onto construction paper. Each group will make a set of two that will be used later.
  4. The teacher will have ten volunteers hold each amendment up in the order the framers placed the amendments. Discuss why the framers may have written the amendments in a particular order. Ask if they agree or disagree with the order of importance in which the framers placed the amendments. Encourage students to support their answers. You may need to remind students of the historical events that occurred on the road to independence that influenced their choices.
  5. Divide the class in half. Pass out both sets of the student-created amendments and picture icons, one set for each group. Have the two groups of students rank the amendments in order of importance in today’s world and share their reasons for that order. Have students stand in order of how they placed the amendments, most important first. Did the order change? Why or why not?

Day Three

  1. Post the student-created “Bill of Rights” and picture icons from day two along with a copy of the Bill of Rights to help review the amendments.
  2. Divide the students into small groups of three to four. Provide each group with the scenario(s) related to today’s lesson. (NOTE: You may cut apart the scenarios and have each group present and pose “What if?” questions for only one.) Have students read each scenario, decide whether or not it is constitutional, and match the amendment(s) to support their answer. Students may ask and present “What if?” questions that will continue to evoke great discussions about the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
  3. Have small groups also discuss the circumstances of the scenarios and how citizens have a responsibility to uphold their rights. Discuss the possible abuses of the privileges of these freedoms (e.g., Though the Bill of Rights provides for freedom of speech, citizens do not have the right to yell “Fire!” in a large crowd.)
  4. Review the Bill of Rights and individual amendments that followed. (i.e., the Twelfth, Fourteenth, and Twentieth Amendments are usually relevant to elementary school students.)
  5. Pose the question, “What other rights do you think should be added today?”

Assessment

  • Why do Americans consider themselves fortunate, privileged, and protected to live in a nation with the Bill of Rights?
  • Alternative assessment for higher-level students: Identify a nation in the news today where one of the rights granted in our Bill of Rights are denied. Explain how the citizens of that nation are affected.

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