Government by the People

6, 7, 8

In this lesson, learners read primary documents that illustrate the motivations of the founding fathers of the United States. These documents show the dedication to principles (government by the people, freedom, civil rights, shared power, etc.) that are upheld by groups and people who (in US history) have worked to gain civil rights for a population that was discriminated against or underserved.

PrintOne Class Period with optional extender

The learner will

  • scan and read parts of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence online.
  • summarize the purpose of the documents.
  • write about the roles and responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.
  • identify changes to government as a result of citizen action and the work of nonprofit organizations.

Focus Question: How do government and nonprofit organizations collaborate for the common good?


Internet access to view primary documents online--either projected on the wall screen or in a computer lab setting (See Bibliographical References)



  1. Democracy is what we need:
  2. Democracy is power at your fingertips:


  1. Day One:

    Anticipatory Set

    Tell the students that the Preamble describes the purpose of the Constitution, which was an innovative document meant to set up an ideal government for specific purposes.

    Remind the students that the new government in the United States was attempting to avoid the mistakes of the government from which they broke off--in England. Reread the book with the Constitution in mind, discussing the meaning of the words. At the end, ask the students to identify the goals of the Constitution.

  2. As a whole group or in a lab setting, read parts of the Constitution, using the following site for reading and interpreting this primary document: Go to the Table of Contents to get an overview. Then start with the Preamble.

    Show the students the hyperlinks that go into a little background and help interpret the Constitution and the meaning of selected words. Suggested sections to read or skim: Article 1, Sections 1, 7, and 9; and the Bill of Rights (first ten Amendments).

  3. Summarize that the purpose of the Constitution is to establish a government of and by the people--We the people. The balance of powers ensures that no one group or person becomes too powerful. Above all else, the framers of the Constitution wanted to make sure people had the right to change laws when they weren't fair. They wanted people to participate in politics, make fair laws, demand free speech, and protect civil liberties.

  4. Ask the students what responsibilities go along with a government of and by the people.

    • Voting and staying informed is fundamental to our Constitution. The power is in the hands of the people, therefore, it is important to have an educated citizenry who are informed and can make decisions that are best for the common good.
    • It becomes our democratic responsibility to stay informed, speak up if something isn't right or fair, and protect the rights of people whose voices are not validated.
  5. Tell the students that before the Constitution was written, the Colonists in America were growing increasingly angry at England for treating them unfairly and refusing to let them govern themselves. Feeling powerless, the Americans decided to declare themselves independent from Britain. They wanted to form a new government that could make its own decisions. On July 4, 1776, 56 people signed the Declaration of Independence.

    Summarize the document: The Declaration of Independence is in three parts. It starts with a preamble that declares all people are free and should question a government that doesn't respect their rights. The second part is a list of things the king did wrong. The third part declares the colonies free of England and willing to fight for their rights.

    Read the first section of the Declaration of Independence with the class in a whole group or lab setting.

  6. Have your students compare/contrast the parts of the Constitution and Declaration that you read. 

    As a summary and reflection, discuss how they can use journalism, social media, community organizing, and blogging to speak up about issues of concern.

    Define advocacy and discuss different ways to use our voice and writing in our role as responsible members of a government by the people.  How were the signers of the Declaration and Bill of Rights advocates?  

    Optional Homework: Have students write a one-page paper about the role of citizens as advocates for what they care about, including what that student is willing to advocate about.


  7. Day Two Optional

  8. From the homework: students what issues they are willing to advocate about.  Discuss the following question: Can you think of groups who are sacrificing right now to protect the rights we all enjoy under the Constitution?


  9. Discuss the social movements over time that worked through volunteers and nonprofits to protest unfair laws or practices (Civil Rights Movement, Women's suffrage, United Farm Workers, American Indian Movement).  Show this 4-minute video overview of these movements.

    It is often the work of volunteers and nonprofits to protect rights and keep democracy and the constitution fresh and relevant. A group of committed and passionate people have the power and the right to make changes to our Constitution (Amendments).

  10. Discuss the meaning of patriotism (love of and loyalty to country). Discuss how it relates to We the People. What is our responsibility as patriotic people? Is it our responsibility to support the government even if we disagree? What would the founding fathers say about that?


Observe learner participation in discussions and small groups to evaluate personal effort and comprehension of the concept of participatory democracy and effort.

Philanthropy Framework

  1. Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
    1. Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.3 Identify the philanthropic ideas embedded in a nation's founding documents.
    2. Standard DP 02. Roles of Government, Business, and Philanthropy
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Describe how different needs are met in different ways by government, business, civil society, and family.
  2. Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
    1. Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
      1. Benchmark MS.2 Define civic virtue.
      2. Benchmark MS.3 Identify the relationship between individual rights and community responsibilities.
      3. Benchmark MS.6 Describe how the founding documents and fundamental democratic principles encourage citizens to act philanthropically.
      4. Benchmark MS.8 Define civil society.
    2. Standard PCS 06. Philanthropy in History
      1. Benchmark MS.1 Explain the role of philanthropy in major themes and social issues in the nation's history.
      2. Benchmark MS.2 Give an example of individual philanthropic action that influenced the nation's history.