Government, Democracy and Laws
Why aren't all rules good rules?
From its creation, the United States was different from its European predecessors. Its people were not united by a common heritage, ethnicity or even language. It was then, as it is now, a diverse nation of immigrants. What united it was a radical belief of the time, that "all men are created equal," and that a free people could govern themselves and not descend into anarchy and chaos. For centuries, European nations had monarchs and aristocracies to maintain order and stability from generation to generation. The United States declared that its people would be governed only by their elected representatives. This belief in democracy, as one British commentator observed, created in the United States "a nation with the soul of a church," united by a common belief.
Framework of U.S. Democracy
Three documents have been central to the essence of this perception. The Declaration of Independence was drafted by the Second Continental Congress in 1776 in Philadelphia to explain and justify why the colonies were separating themselves from the domination of Great Britain. Delegates from 13 colonies along the Atlantic Coast sent delegates to the convention in Philadelphia. They approved a resolution to separate themselves from Britain and appointed a committee of five men to draft an explanation to the world why the colonies were taking this step. The committee chose Thomas Jefferson of Virginia to write the original draft. He began with an explanation of why governments are established and then moved on to the injustices the colonies had endured by Parliament and the king. The document ends with the declaration that the colonies were from now on free from British rule. It was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, America's Independence Day. It declares that "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." The nation has never fully lived up to that bold statement in practice, but it is the measure against which perceived injustices are measured.
The former colonies that defeated the British Empire needed to establish some legal framework that would bind them together for certain purposes but not become as oppressive as the monarch they had just defeated. At first, the Articles of Confederation provided a weak central government but pressure for a stronger authority developed quickly. In 1787, delegates to a Constitutional Convention began meeting to strike a balance between responsibilities left to the states and those delegated to the federal government.
Like the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution begins with a preamble that sets forth its purpose — "to form a more perfect union." Federal authority is divided into three branches: the legislative branch that makes the laws; the executive that administers the laws; and the judicial that interprets the laws in cases of conflict. Central to the Constitution is the concept of checks and balances. Each branch has some authority to curb undue power exercised by the other two branches. Some duties were specifically delegated to the federal government and some specifically reserved to the states. The Convention specified that the plan would go into effect when nine states approved it. New Hampshire was the ninth in 1788, and Rhode Island was the last in 1790. George Washington was elected as the first president in 1788.
Ever concerned that the central government could abuse the rights of the people as the colonists felt Great Britain had done, Congress proposed a series of amendments to the Constitution that specifically spelled out restrictions on the federal government. The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are called the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, which states that individuals shall have the right to freedom of speech, religion, the press and assembly and the right to petition the government.
These three documents are central to how the United States presents itself to its own people and to the world. They have been copied by many emerging democracies around the world and show remarkable resilience over the 250 years since their adoption.
What key documents establish the foundation of America's participatory democracy?
- "The Great Law of Peace" Video about Injunuinty, November 12, 2013 (Video)
- Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (Document)
- Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, September 1787 (Document)
- U.S. Constitution, September 1787 (Document)
- Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, September 25, 1789 (Document)
- Iowa Constitution, 1857 (Document)
- Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900 (Image)
How are laws created?
- "How Does a Bill Becomes a Law" Infographic (Document)
- "The Three Branches of Government and How They Work in Iowa" (Document)
- Comparing Three Branches of Government in Iowa Versus the U.S. (Document)
- Marbury v. Madison, 1803 (Document)
- Architect's Drawing of the Iowa State Capitol, ca. 1880 (Image)
- Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., ca. 1980 (Image)
- The White House in Washington, D.C., ca. 1980 (Image)
- Aerial View of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2007 (Image)
How can laws be changed to guarantee human rights?
- Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839 (Document)
- "Declaration of Sentiments" Address by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York, July 1848 (Document)
- Illustrated Portraits of Dred Scott and His Family, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie, 1857 (Image)
- Arabella (Belle) Babb Mansfield, First Certified Female Attorney in the United States (Document, Image)
- Iowa Supreme Court Rules on Equal Access: Portrait of Alexander Clark, 1868 (Document, Image)
- Ola Babcock Miller, Iowa's First Secretary of State (Image)
- "Mennonite School Teacher with Class of Amish, Mennonite and Pennsylvania Dutch Children," March 1942 (Image)
- "Republican Senators During a Meeting on Amendments to the Civil Rights Act," May 20, 1964 (Image)
- Participants at a Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965 (Image)
- "D.M. Schools Ban Wearing of Viet Truce Armbands" Newspaper Article, December 15, 1965 (Document)
- President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs 1968 Civil Rights Act, April 11, 1968 (Image)
- March in Support of Migrant Workers in Des Moines, Iowa, February 1969 (Image)
- News Release from Muscatine Community Effort Organization about H. J. Heinz Company Boycott, 1969 (Document)
- "Iowa Constitution and Race" from Iowa PBS, 1978 (Video)
- "Religious Rights" Essay from The Goldfinch, February 1987 (Document)
- "The Black Armband Case" Essay from The Goldfinch, February 1987 (Document)
- Iowa Supreme Court Case Varnum v. Brien, April 3, 2009 (Document)
- "Celebrating Ten Years of Marriage Equality in Iowa—Yes, Iowa," April 3, 2019 (Document)
|Government, Democracy and Laws Teaching Guide|
|Printable Image and Document Guide|
"The Great Law of Peace" Video about Injunuinty, November 12, 2013
- Video resource
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, September 1787
U.S. Constitution, 1787
Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution, September 25, 1789
Iowa Constitution, 1857
Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900
"How Does a Bill Become a Law?" Infographic
"The Three Branches of Government and How They Work in Iowa"
Comparing Three Branches of Government in Iowa Versus the U.S.
Marbury v. Madison, 1803
Architect's Drawing of the Iowa State Capitol, ca. 1880
Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., ca. 1980
The White House in Washington, D.C., ca. 1980
Aerial View of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2007
Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839
"Declaration of Sentiments" Address by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, New York, July 1848
Illustrated Portraits of Dred Scott and His Family, Harriet, Eliza and Lizzie, 1857
Arabella (Belle) Babb Mansfield, First Certified Female Attorney in the United States
Iowa Supreme Court Rules on Equal Access: Portrait of Alexander Clark, 1868
Ola Babcock Miller, Iowa's First Secretary of State
"Mennonite School Teacher with Class of Amish, Mennonite and Pennsylvania Dutch Children," March 1942
"Republican Senators During a Meeting on Amendments to the Civil Rights Act," May 20, 1964
Participants at a Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, 1965
"D.M. Schools Ban Wearing of Viet Truce Armbands" Newspaper Article, December 15, 1965
President Lyndon B. Johnson Signs 1968 Civil Rights Act, April 11, 1968
March in Support of Migrant Workers in Des Moines, Iowa, February 1969
News Release from Muscatine Community Effort Organization about H. J. Heinz Company Boycott, 1969
"Iowa Constitution and Race" from Iowa PBS, 1978
- Video resource
"Religious Rights" Essay from The Goldfinch, February 1987
"The Black Armband Case" Essay from The Goldfinch, February 1987
Iowa Supreme Court Case Varnum v. Brien, April 3, 2009
"Celebrating Ten Years of Marriage Equality in Iowa—Yes, Iowa," April 3, 2019
What key founding documents allow Americans participation in our democracy?
- Khan Academy: Democratic Ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution
This webpage offers perspective about the democratic ideals that led to the development of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution.
- National Constitution Center: Educational Videos
This organization offers free educational video lessons that feature the museum's education staff, distinguished scholars and even some famous faces who bring America's democracy and the stories of "We the People" to life.
- Prequel to Independence
This is a National Archives digital activity to sort documents and images related to the founding of the United States.
- The Iowa Constitution from Iowa PBS
This webpage from Iowa PBS and Iowa Pathways focuses on the creation and implementation of the Iowa Constitution.
- The Mini Page: Bill of Rights
This archived issue of The Mini Page - an educational children's newspaper - focuses on the Bill of Rights.
- The Mini Page: Amendments 11-26
This archived article from The Mini Page - an educational children's newspaper - focuses on the Amendments 11 through 26 of the U.S. Constitution.
- The Bill of Rights in Translation: What It Really Means by Amie Jane Leavitt
This book explains the meaning of the Bill of Rights for students.
- The Declaration of Independence in Translation: What It Really Means by Amie Jane Leavitt
This book explains the meaning of the Declaration of Independence for students.
- We the Kids: The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States by David Catrow
This book is helpful to inspire discussion in classrooms with an illustrated look at the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution and provides an accessible introduction to America's founding ideals for citizens of all ages.
How are laws created?
- Branches of the U.S. Government
This webpage includes infographics, texts and more to explain what the purpose and function of the branches of government are in the United States.
- Engaging Congress
This online resource from Indiana University provides a teacher's toolbox, primary sources and more to teach students about Congress.
- iCivics: Foundations of Government
Use this online resource to help students examine the purpose, forms and limitations on government.
- "I’m Just a Bill" Video from Schoolhouse Rock
Watch this educational video from Schoolhouse Rock about how a bill is created and can become a law.
- Iowa Judicial Branch: Justices
Learn about the history of the current Iowa Supreme Court justices.
- Kid Citizen: Welcome to Congress
This resource from the Library of Congress looks at who represents the people in the U.S. Congress and where do they work.
- "The History of the Iowa Capitol Building in Des Moines" Video from Iowa PBS
In this segment is from Iowa PBS' "This Old Statehouse" documentary, learn about the building of Iowa's historic capitol building.
How can laws be changed to guarantee human rights?
- Constitution Center: Tinker v. Des Moines
Use this video to learn about the landmark free speech case.
- Dred Scott Case
This webpage from History.com focuses on the Dred Scott case, also known as Dred Scott v. Sandford, which was a decade-long fight for freedom by an enslaved man named Dred Scott.
- iCivics: County Solutions Civic Action Plan
County Solutions is a lesson-based civic action project educators can do with their students right in the classroom.
- Iowa Civil Rights Toolkit
Download this toolkit from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to learn more about the state's civil rights history.
- Khan Academy: Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)
This webpage from the Khan Academy provides an overview of the monumental U.S. Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines.
- Marbury vs. Madison: What Was the Case About?
This video focuses on the 1803 U.S. Supreme Court case between William Marbury and James Madison.
- Mary Beth Tinker Describes Her Experiences Participating in a Student Protest in 1965
Mary Beth Tinker describes the inspiration that led to her decision to participate in a student protest of the Vietnam War in 1965, along with recounting the events and experiences of the time.
- Mary Beth Tinker Describes Her Work Raising Awareness of First Amendment Rights
Mary Beth Tinker describes how she came to the decision to begin public speaking to help raise awareness of First Amendment rights for young people.
- Mary Beth Tinker Describes the Need to Understand First Amendment Rights
Mary Beth Tinker describes how she continues to see the need for young people to understand and practice their First Amendment rights.
- My Civic Responsibility
In this lesson, learners identify different levels of participation in a democracy.
- National Archives: Records of Rights
Explore records of the National Archives documenting the ongoing struggle of Americans to define, attain and protect their rights.
- Ralph Montgomery from Iowa PBS
This webpage from Iowa PBS focuses on the Iowa Supreme Court case called "In the Matter of Ralph (a colored man)," which made history as the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court in regard to a "fugitive slave." On Independence Day 1839, Ralph was declared a free man.
- Selma to Montgomery March
This webpage from History.com focuses on the Selma to Montgomery march was part of a series of civil rights protests that occurred in 1965 in Alabama, a southern state with deeply entrenched racist policies.
- Seneca Falls Convention
This webpage from History.com provides an informational overview of the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848, which launched the women's suffrage movement in the United States.
- The Women Who Shaped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Seventy years ago, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But she was not alone. Discover who are the women who shaped the major instrument for the defense of human rights through this video from the United Nations.
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is a milestone document in the history of human rights.
- Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders
In this empowering true story, young readers will trace the life of the Gay Pride Flag, from its beginnings in 1978 with social activist Harvey Milk and designer Gilbert Baker to its spanning of the globe and its role in today's world
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (5th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for fifth-grade students.
No. Standard Description SS.5.14. Explain how various levels of government use taxes to pay for the goods and services they provide. SS.5.24. Explain probable causes and effects of historical developments. SS.5.25. Develop a claim about the past and cite evidence to support it.