This portion that comes before the Constitution establishes the source of its power (the People) and the reason for its existence (to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our Posterity).
These portions of the Preamble are of special note, for they beg to be viewed with the differences in meaning between then and modern times. For example, in 1789, “the People” happened to be those of political rights, who happened to be white, male property owners. What was meant by ensuring domestic tranquility? Did it mean to put down civil disturbances?
Dissection of these and other parts of the Preamble should make for some interesting discussions which compare political thought and language of today with those of this period.
The legislature under the Articles of Confederation was unicameral, having very narrow powers. Under the Constitution the Congress was structured in a bi-cameral fashion, much like the Parliament of England, it had broader powers, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both act favorably upon a piece of legislation, affording neither body a higher status.
Each house of Congress has other powers which are specifically relegated to each. The House of Representatives has the right to impeach the President, Vice-President and other members of the executive branch for high crimes and misdemeanors, and it has the right to impeach errant members of the judiciary branch. It also has the power to initiate all money bills. Due to the size of the body of Representatives (capped at 435), the House conducts much of its business by way of committees (foreign affairs, budget, labor, trade, etc.).
The Senate, comprised of 100 members, has the powers of approving or disapproving Presidential appointment, the ratification of treaties with foreign governments (2/3 majority), and it acts as a court in impeachment proceedings.
Obviously, the memories of the King of England, George III, and the Royal Governors of colonial days caused much apprehension among the framers. They granted broad powers to the executive, but developed a system of checks and balances which would lay their fears to rest. A transparency which depicts these checks and balances is included in the kit of materials.
The powers of the President of the United States have been greatly expanded since the framing of the Constitution. Today, the President is not only the leader of the United States, he is the leader of the entire free world.
No system of federal courts existed under the Articles. The Constitution took one small step in establishing a federal judiciary, stating “. . . the judicial powers of the U.S. shall be vested in one Supreme Court and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges hold their offices during good Behaviour.”
Congress enacted the Judiciary Act of 1789 which structured the federal courts. The lowest courts, district courts, were set up to hear cases involving federal law and treaties. The circuit courts were established to hear appeals from the district courts.
The federal judiciary is responsible for deciding the
of federal or state law. The Supreme Court and the rest of the federal courts exercise a kind of veto power. Article VI, clause 2 provided the basis for Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in a famous case, Marbury vs. Madison, which gave the court the broad power of judicial review of Acts of Congress. This power is not stated in the Constitution in a manner which makes it absolutely clear.
The lesson outline which follows is intended as a guide for the teacher. It is my concept of what I should want to teach my eighth grade students. Certainly, the lessons are subject to whatever changes you, a fellow teacher, may wish to make.
There are numerous opportunities for the teacher to draw up individual student contracts for areas that need to be researched. Some suggested topics and books are included for that purpose. This unit should be quite easily tailored to fit your needs.
A packet of materials which may be used with your class will be made available. This packet contains maps, student copies of the U.S. Constitution, newspaper clippings and articles which should be quite helpful. Transparencies are also available which depict the powers of Congress, checks and balances of the federal system and the principle of judicial review of the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, it is the teacher who will make this unit successful to teach. There are a number of perspectives from which a problem may be viewed. Two sides of a disagreement may be argued quite eloquently and logically, leaving the listener to find points on both sides with which to agree. Every law appears to be clear and concise; yet when applied to life, the grey areas emerge. The teacher, mindful of this, should constantly make students aware of this.