SUBTOPIC: Bill of Rights Day (December 15th)

GRADE LEVEL: 5th grade

AUTHOR: Loreen Muhlestein Bliss


On December 15, 1791, the ratification of the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the UnitedStates of American by three-quarters of the states took place. These were subsequently incorporated into the Constitution and became known as the Bill of Rights. December 15th has been known as Bill of Rights Day since 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it as such, noting the 150th anniversary of this ratification. President Roosevelt urged all Americans to display the flag on this date, and to plan appropriate ceremonies honoring the occasion.

The Bill of Rights are a guarantee of the "rights of free men against tyrants." The first ten amendments to our Constitution are concerned with the following topics:

  1. Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition.
  2. Right to keep and bear arms
  3. Rights regarding the quartering of soldiers
  4. Regulation of search and seizure
  5. Protection of persons and their property
  6. Rights of persons accused of crime
  7. Right of trial by jury
  8. Protection against excessive fines, bail, punishment
  9. Guarantee of unspecified rights
  10. Powers reserved to states and the people

Before a good understanding of the Bill of Rights can take place, the events leading up to December 15, 1791 should be addressed. I will start back in 1774 when the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to protest and petition King George III of England. The year 1775 marked the real beginningof the Revolutionary War with the battles of Lexington and Concord. In that same year the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and named George Washington commander in chief of the American forces. 1775 was also the year Britain declared war on America and the battle of Breed's and Bunker hills in Boston took place. In 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed. In a letter thatJohn Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, "...A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States....'" I mention John Adams because it was he, perhaps more than anyone else, who convinced the delegates to sign the Declaration. After the signing of the Declaration of Independence it was another five years before the war between America and Great Britain actually ended.

In 1781 Congress adopted its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. After winningindependence from Great Britain, which was finally recognized in 1783, Americans needed to set up their own government. The people in the 13 states remembered all too well the power that Great Britain had heldover them, and wanted their new government to protect their rights. The Articles of Confederation was this plan of government that was approved by Congress in 1781. Under this plan, the new country was run by a Congress but most power still remained with the states. By 1787 the national government, which had little power, was in trouble and many people agreed that something needed to be done before the "not-so- United States fell apart."

The convention to change the nation's government began on May 25, 1787. The delegates' first act was to elect George Washington president of the convention. Their meetings were kept very secret so they could speak freely without fear of what other people might think. James Madison, a delegate from Virginia, came to the first meeting prepared with a written plan of government which convinced the other delegates against revising the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they decided on writing a new constitution based on Madison's ideas. From that point on the meetings in Philadelphia were a Constitutional Convention. And James Madison become known as the "Father of the Constitution." This Constitution of the United States of America is a plan of government. I would like to point out that a good constitution is actually just a basic plan that helps people live together in peace and happiness. It provides a way for people to make everyday laws and enforce them. Laws, remember, change with the times, but a good constitution shouldn't need much changing. In fact, it is the simplicity of our Constitution that makes it so lasting.

The delegates agreed to a three-part government with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. That was part of James Madison's plan. The legislative branch, or lawmaking branch, called the Congress, would make laws and raise money for the government. Congress is divided into two groups called houses; the Senate and the House of Representatives. The executive branch would carry out the laws and run the government. The executive branch would be headed by a President. The third part to this government was the judicial branch. The judicial branch would decide the meaning of laws, and would be headed by a Supreme Court. These three branches were planned to check and balance each other. Thus the phrase: checks and balances. An interesting fact to note is that the Constitution was very different from the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration stated goals, but the Constitution was concerned with what would actually be done by the government.

On September 17, 1787, the Constitution was finished and ready to be signed. There were only three out of the fifty-five delegates who did not sign it, however, because they didn't think it was good enough. It wasn't perfect, said Ben Franklin, but it was better than he had expected. "It astonishes me," he said, "to find this system approaching so near perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies." Tears are said to have streamed down Franklin's cheeks as he signed his name. He pointed to the chair where George Washington had sat all summer as president of the Convention. Carved on the chair's back was a half-sun with sunbeams. Franklin said he had often wondered if it were a rising or setting sun. Now he knew: the sun was rising - a symbol of a rising young nation.

The delegates had agreed that this new government would be a republic. A republic is a type of government in which the people elect representatives to run the country. The words of the Preamble, or introduction, of the Constitution told the American people that the Constitution would create a republic. The Preamble of the Constitution states:

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

In 1788 the Constitution was ratified by three-quarters of the states and became law. George Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States in 1789. Because some states approved the Constitution only on the condition that a bill of rights would be added, the first task of the new Congress was to end the fears that a strong government might take away people's rights and freedoms. People wanted to have a bill of rights to have protection from a strong government.

The Bill of Rights, which are the first ten amendments to the Constitution, lists our country's most important rights and freedoms. For example, the First Amendment protects our right to religious freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The entire Bill of Rights is found in the appendix section of this unit.


Banks, James A. (1993). United States and its Neighbors - Social Studies for a Changing World. Teacher's Edition. Grade 5. New York: Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

Croddy, Marshall. (1991, November/December). Bringing the Bill of Rights to the Classroom: AnAnecdotal History of the Constitutional Rights Foundation. The Social Studies, Vol. 82, pp. 218-222.

Hakim, Joy. (1993). A History of US: From Colonies to Country; Book Three. New York: Oxford University Press.

Justice, William Wayne. (1986, October). Teaching the Bill of Rights. Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 68, pp. 154-157.

Krythe, Marymi R. (1962). All About American Holidays. N.Y: Harper & Brothers Publishers.

Pahl, Ronald H. (1991, November/December). Suggested Sources for Teaching about the Bill of Rights. The Social Studies, Vol. 82, pp. 232-233.

Pahl, Ronald H. (1991, November/December). The Past, Present, and Future of the Bill of Rights. The Social Studies, Vol. 82, pp. 212-213.

Petitt, Elizabeth, and Ochoa, Anna S. (1991, November/December). The 4th R: The Bill of Rights for Young Children. The Social Studies, Vol. 82, pp. 223-226.

Reissman, Rose. (1992, May). Constitutional Comprehension Strategies: Using the Bill of Rights. The Reading Teacher, Vol. 45, pp. 739-740.

Utah State Office of Education, Educational Equity Unit. (1992). Multicultural Infusion Project, Cultural Packet.

Goldman, Mike. (1995) Bill of Rights. [On-line]. Available: http://www.lm.com/~cjp/whig/BillOfRights.html.

Murphy, Gerald. (1993) More about the Bill of Rights and Constitution. [On-line]. Available: http://www.supranet.com/idealogo/bor-const.html.



Approximately one week (Celebrated during the week of December 15th)




1. KWL: On a large piece of paper make a chart with K,W, and L as the headings. As a class, you are to fill in the three columns of the chart. The K stands for: "What do the students know about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights?" The W stands for: "What do they want to find out (know) about them (especially the Bill of Rights)?" The L stands for: "What they have learned!" This last part is to filled in at the end of the unit.


2. Mini-Lecture: Teach about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Use the information provided in the background section of this unit to talk about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The information discovered during the KWL activity will be a foundation on which to build this mini-lecture.

Key terms to focus on:


3. Vocabulary Building and Class Discussion: After talking about how amendments were added to the Constitution, the first ten being called the Bill of Rights, have the class come up with a definition of the word "amendment." Discuss with the class the reasons they think there would be a need to amend or change something (in this case, the Constitution). Discuss how the Constitution can be changed by amendments. Explain that these amendments must be approved by Congress and by the people in their state legislatures. Two-thirds of the members of Congress need to vote for an amendment for it to be approved, and three quarters of the states legislatures must ratify it. So far, about 10,000 amendments have been suggested for our Constitution - only 26 have been approved. Wow! Now that's information that would be of interest to these kids!


4. Jigsaw: This is a wonderful way for the class to learn about all ten amendments without being so overwhelmed.


5. Writing and Art Activity: Students can write and illustrate books about the first ten amendments that reflect their feelings and interpretations of the Bill of Rights. These books, either done individually, in groups, or as a class, could be donated to the school library.


6. Corners: In Corners students express opinions, think critically, and defend choices. This strategy encourages risk-taking, debate and examination of personal convictions. Two or three statements could be read.

7. Mock Trial and Guided Discussion: Explain to students that the courts have often had to decide just how far our freedoms go. Ask students if they think it is right to impose some limits on our freedoms.


8. Writing Activities:


10. Cumulative Activity: A Bill of Rights Bingo game could be used to reinforce the understanding of the amendment of the Bill of Rights.


Don't forget to display the flag during this week. (There should be one in the classroom already, but you could encourage the kids to display a flag at their home.)

Don't forget to complete the KWL chart that was made at the beginning of the unit. What have the students learned?!! Discuss this as a class!


Optional Additional Activities:



The Bill of Rights


Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep andbear Arms, shall not be infringed.


Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.


Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.


Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment os a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.


Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.


Amendment VII

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by a jury shall be reserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.


Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.


Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by people.


Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.











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