LESSON

American Value: Equality

Across the political spectrum, most commentators identify "equality" as an American value.  After all, the Constitution begins "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union" — a pronouncement that implies a group of individuals coming together to speak with equal voice and authority.
Grade Level

In 1787, "People" really only meant "Free Persons," and "Free Persons" meant white men. African Americans who were enslaved were deemed "other Persons," which, after much debate, the authors of the Constitution ultimately deemed "three-fifths" of a Free Person as a means to bolster Southern representation in Congress. And, at the time, white women were considered the property of their husbands and certainly unfit for public duty.

Fortunately, our Constitution created a system of government that was bigger than the privileged white men who wrote it, allowing our nation to correct its limited view of humanity through Constitutional amendments and other means.

Help students examine this transformation by reading an original version of the Constitution; we suggest the National Archives' version, which highlights in red where changes ultimately were made. As students read the document, ask them to identify the following:

  • In Article I, Section 2, what pronoun is used to refer to a "Representative"? To whom does "all other Persons" refer?
  • In Article I, Section 3, what pronoun is used to refer to a "Senator"?
  • In Article I, Section 7, and in Article II, Sections 1, 2 and 3, what pronouns are used to refer to the "President"?
  • In Article IV, Section 2, what pronoun is used to refer to a person? To whom does "Person held to service or labor" refer?

Next, introduce students to key Amendments that have expanded the meaning of "We": Amendments XIII, XIV and XV (abolishing slavery and guaranteeing African Americans equal protections under the law, ratified after the Civil War; the Amendments' promise wasn't enforced, however, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), Amendment XIX (granting women the right to vote, ratified as a result of the suffrage movement) and Amendment XXIV (abolishing poll taxes that had been used to keep African Americans from voting, ratified as a result of the Civil Rights Movement).

To close the activity, ask students to reflect verbally or in writing on how these Amendments have helped the U.S. become a "more perfect Union, establish Justice, [and] insure domestic Tranquility."

Build on this lesson with the following activities:

  • This summer, in a decision related to school integration, some members of the Supreme Court argued that our Constitution is "color-blind." Ask students to write an argumentative essay agreeing or disagreeing with this viewpoint.
  • The field of contenders for the 2008 Presidential elections has been widely lauded for its diversity. Comedian Jon Stewart went so far as to ask Democratic contender John Edwards if he felt disadvantaged as a white man. Using the Washington Post's listing of candidates, identify the sex, race and ethnicity of each candidate and then contrast "candidate demographics" against demographics of the U.S. population generally, using this chart. Which racial, ethnic and gender groups are over- or under-represented? How might these discrepancies relate to patterns of inclusion and exclusion in "We" over time? What do they tell us about equality of access to our nation's political system?

  • Echoing the language of the Fifteenth Amendment, the not-yet-ratified Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) declares, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." Students can explore the debate about the ERA, as well as the process by which our Constitution is amended, at CNN's Student News division.

  • The Constitution mentions "Indians" twice — treating them as members of "non-taxed" (and thus non-represented) tribes with whom the federal government holds negotiation rights. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 — legislative action, not an amendment — extended citizenship to Native Americans. Full enforcement of the Act was long and arduous, however; as late as 1989, for example, the state of Montana was prohibiting tribal members from voting. How can American Indians be members of sovereign tribes and citizens of the U.S., with which tribes maintain treaties? Engage in a classroom research project to discover the necessity — and development — of both treaties between these nation-states and the enfranchisement of Native Americans. A good place to begin is Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote by Daniel McCool, Susan M. Olson and Jennifer L. Robinson ($24.99, ISBN-10: 0521548713; ISBN-13: 978-0521548717).