Welcome to the We the People Open Course!
This course will introduce you to the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution and our system of government. It's perfect for teachers and students of civics courses and for anyone who wants to gain an in-depth understanding of American representative democracy.
The We the People Open Course is entirely self-paced, so you can complete it on your own schedule. The course is divided into six units, each of which features a notable scholar explaining topics related to the Constitution. You can take the entire course, or just select the sections that interest you.
Finally, the course follows the Center for Civic Education’s textbook, We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution. You don't have to have the book to participate fully in the online course, but people have found it particularly useful to consult the textbook for more in-depth information.
Now, choose where you'd like to start and jump right in! You can check out our Index, which is organized by topic, and choose something you're interested in.
If you have any questions, visit the Help section of the site, found at the bottom of each page, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.Learn.civiced.org, the We the People Open Course, and the Civics Forum are made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Supporting Effective Educator Development program.
What Are the Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System?
The people who led the American Revolution, which separated the American colonies from Great Britain, and who created the Constitution, which established the government we have today, were making a fresh beginning. However, they also were heirs to philosophical and historical traditions as old as Western civilization.
The Founders were well read. "I cannot live without books," Thomas Jefferson once told John Adams. Jefferson's library of approximately 6,500 volumes formed the core collection of the Library of Congress. Adams reputedly read forty-three books during the year he turned eighty-one years old. These Americans were familiar with the history, philosophy, and literature of the ancient world as well as with the ideas of their own time. They also studied English history and law, from which their constitutional traditions derived. And religion was an important part of the Founders' education. They knew the Bible and its teachings.
Moreover, the knowledge that these people possessed was not limited to what they read in books. In creating the new nation, they drew on their experiences. Many of the Constitution’s Framers had fought in the American Revolution and had served in colonial government before America won its independence. They also had experience governing the newly independent states. They used this knowledge and experience when they wrote the Constitution. An understanding of what they learned will help you understand why they wrote the Constitution as they did and why we have the kind of government we have today.
This unit provides an overview of some important philosophical ideas and historical events that influenced the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is particularly important to understand the concepts this unit because it provides a frame of reference and a basis for understanding the other units in this course. You will appreciate why our history as a people has been a great adventure in ideas and in trying to make these ideas a reality.
What did the Founders think about constitutional government?This lesson introduces the basic ideas and experiences the founding generation drew on to create the kind of government they believed would best protect the natural rights of individuals and promote the common good. Classical Greek and Roman writers, natural rights philosophy, the Bible, Protestant theology, ancient and modern European history, and the Enlightenment in Europe and America were among the sources of the ideas that influenced the Founders. The Founders also participated in self-government in the American colonies before 1776 and in state and local governments after independence from Great Britain. The Founders' ideas about society and government and their experiences were diverse. The colonies differed widely. This diversity fostered a rich dialogue about the purpose of government and how it should be organized.
Section 1What were the similarities and differences among the British colonies?
- Discussion and research questions
Section 2Where did the Founders get their ideas about government?
- Discussion and research questions
Section 3How are political philosophy and practical experiences related to the notion of constitutional government?
- Discussion and research questions
What ideas about civic life informed the founding generation?People frequently make judgments about governments or acts of governments, praising them as "good" or criticizing them as "bad." Those judgments may reflect ideas about human nature, the proper function and scope of government, the rights of individuals, and other values. Political philosophers have discussed these matters for thousands of years. This lesson examines concepts such as the common good, civic virtue, the state of nature, natural rights, consent, and the social contract. These concepts are central to discussions about government.
What historical developments influenced modern ideas of individual rights?The previous two lessons explored ideas that shaped the Founders' thinking about constitutional government and civic life. This lesson examines several important historical developments that also influenced their ideas.
What were the British origins of American constitutionalism?This lesson describes the evolution of British constitutional government. It examines the early stages of English government in the feudal period, concluding with the Magna Carta of 1215. It traces the development of representative institutions in England, English common law, and the relationship between legal and constitutional structures. It also examines some of the differences between British and American constitutionalism.
What basic ideas about rights and constitutional government did colonial Americans have?This lesson describes how basic ideas of constitutional government were developed and used in the American colonies before independence from Britain. It explains how social and economic conditions in America sometimes required old ideas about government to be adapted or discarded. Occasionally the colonists needed to create entirely new institutions.
Why did American colonists want to free themselves from Great Britain?The growth of the American colonies raised issues with the parent country, Great Britain, that were difficult to resolve peacefully. This lesson describes the circumstances that produced the Declaration of Independence and the major ideas about government and natural rights included in that document.
What basic ideas about rights and governments did the state constitutions include?After declaring independence the Founders designed new state governments to protect individual rights and to promote the common good. This lesson shows how the constitution of Massachusetts in particular was designed to achieve these ends. State constitutions also contained bills or declarations of rights. These guarantees of rights, for which Virginia's Declaration of Rights served as a model, had a great influence on the development of the U.S. Bill of Rights.
How Did the Framers Create the Constitution?
After declaring their independence from Great Britain, Americans had to decide how they would govern themselves. The Articles of Confederation, which were the first attempt to establish a national government, proved inadequate in the eyes of many leading citizens. Fifty-five men met in Philadelphia in 1787 and drafted the U.S. Constitution. These men became known as the Framers. The Constitution was not universally acclaimed, and its adoption and ratification provoked discussions of the most basic questions about political life and government institutions.
In this unit you will learn why the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution. You will learn why the Framers created the United States government as they did. And you will learn how the debates over the adoption of the Constitution raised issues that are debated to this day.
How Has the Constitution Been Changed to Further the Ideals Contained in the Declaration of Independence?
The Constitution of 1787 has been changed in several important ways. The Framers provided mechanisms for some of those changes, including a process for amending the Constitution. Other changes are not explicitly provided for in the text of the Constitution but have played a significant role in the constitutional system. The Civil War produced three amendments that transformed American federalism and moved the Constitution toward the ideals of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence.
In this unit you will learn how judicial review and political parties, neither described in the Constitution, affect American constitutionalism. You also will learn about the constitutional issues that helped cause the Civil War and how that war created what is often called a second American constitution. That transformation emphasized due process of law, equal protection of the laws, and expansion of the right to vote.
How Have the Values and Principles Embodied in the Constitution Shaped American Institutions and Practices?
The Constitution was a plan for the new national government. It described the organization of the national government in terms of its powers and limits. The Framers purposely wrote the Constitution as a general framework. They left out many details that they knew would need to be added in the future. They also knew that they needed to reconcile the tension between the national government and the state governments. Therefore they devised a new system called federalism.
In this unit you will learn how the three branches of the national government embody constitutional principles and how they operate. You also will learn how federalism remains a dynamic characteristic of American government.
What Rights Does the Bill of Rights Protect?
The Bill of Rights commonly refers to the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights contains twenty-seven provisions that protect a variety of rights and freedoms. Originally the Bill of Rights protected individuals only from the misuse or abuse of power by the national government. Through the process of selective incorporation (see Lesson 18) the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that most of the rights in the Bill of Rights also protect individuals from the misuse or abuse of power by state governments.
A few provisions of the Bill of Rights no longer seem very important. The Third Amendment protection against the involuntary quartering of soldiers in civilian homes in time of peace is one example. Other provisions, such as First Amendment protection of freedom of expression and procedural protections of individuals in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, have become more important since 1791, when they took effect.
A number of important rights also are included in the body of the Constitution and in constitutional amendments added after the Bill of Rights, as discussed in Lessons 15 and 17. Together, these rights sometimes have been called the "extended Bill of Rights."
After watching the videos in this unit, you should have a better understanding of why the rights contained in the body of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and subsequent amendments are so important to Americans, and why the interpretation and application of these rights often is controversial.
What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the Twenty-first Century?
The U.S. Constitution has proven to be remarkably resilient. It has survived more than two centuries because it has been able to accommodate massive transformations in American life, including the increasing diversity and size of the nation and a traumatic civil war. The constitutional system provides Americans many opportunities to participate in local, state, and national affairs. At home and abroad its principles and ideals have inspired people. In this, the twenty-first century, its resilience will continue to be tested.
In this unit you will learn about American citizenship and opportunities for participation in local, state, and national government. You also will learn how the American constitutional model has influenced other countries and international organizations. Finally, you will consider some challenges facing American constitutionalism in the future.