The Constitution in American Life and Society

Send by email

This course is an investigation of the U.S. Constitution as a document active in American lives past and present. By examining constitutional debates, judicial decisions, and through a close reading of the Constitution itself, students will consider issues from the balance of power between the branches of government, to the right to declare wars, and civil rights. We will study historical issues in depth, such as the background to and creation of the Constitution, its early history, and key changes including the ratification of the Bill of Rights and the controversy over states’ rights. Students will also research, debate, and write essays on a number of current constitutional debates, including cases now and soon to be before the Supreme Court such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and government surveillance programs.


Unit Essential Questions Content Assessment Resources
The Creation of the Constitution

Why did elites in the early Republic decide a new document had to replace the Articles of Confederation?

What were the debates that arose around this decision?

What were the chief debates at the conference and how were they settled?


Historical background to the Constitutional Convention; the Articles of Confederation; Shay's Rebellion.

The ideologies of federalism and republicanism.

Issues at the Convention: slavery and representation; federal power; the question of an executive and how to elect them; judicial review and the shape of federal courts.


Short Response Essays

Berkin, Carol. A Brilliant Solution, Inventing the Constitution. New York: Mariner Books, 2003.

Close Reading of the Constitution

What are the specific powers granted to each branch of the government?

How are the debates at the Convention spelled out and resolved in the Consitution?

What was the inspiration for the Bill of Rights and what does it seek to guarantee?

What are the major schools of constitutional interpretation and how do they conflict with one another?

What is the best way to read the Constitution?

The three branches of federal government and their powers; the limits of federal and governmental powers.

The Bill of Rights and historical debates over its meaning.

The powers of the states.

The various methods of constitutional interpretation, including originalism, textualism, and the notion of a "living Constitution."

Essay evaluating judicial philosophies on the Court.

 Breyer, Stephen. Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution. New York: Vintage, 2006.

The Constitution of the United States of America.

Supreme Court of the United States Blog.

Important Cases in Constitutional History

How did the Court define its power as a place of final review?

What have been the historical trends in the Court's decision making?

When and why has the Court reversed itself on major decisions?

How has the Court expended and solidified civil rights?

Cases include Marbury v. Madison (1803); McCulloch v. Maryland (1819);

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857); Plessy v. Ferguson (1896);

Korematsu v. United States (1944); Brown v. Board of Education (1954);

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963); Griswold v. Connecticut (1965); Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

Roe v. Wade (1973); Regents of the U. of California v. Bakke (1978); Bush v. Gore (2001)

Lawrence v. Texas (2005).



Student presentation on a historic case.

Evaluative essay.

Hall, Kermit, and Huebner, Timothy, eds. Major Problems in American Constitutional History. FLorence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing, 2009.

Linder, Doug. Exploring Consitutional Law. University of Missouri at Kansas.

Current Issues and Controversies

What are the most important cases before the Court in the current session?

How are the judges likely to decide on important current and upcoming cases?

What are some of the most controversial and important constitutional cases in recent years?

Controversial cases taken from current or recent sessions of the Court.

In recent years, such cases have concerned corporate personhood, same-sex marriage, habeas corpus rights, gun control, and health care.

Student Debate

Student presentations on a contemporary controversy chosen by the student.

Supreme Court of the United States Blog.

Toobin, Jeffrey. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. New York: Anchor, 2008.