Investigative Question

How much power should the government have over its citizens?

The semester begins with an examination of the ideas that have shaped the American democratic system… To organize their study of this topic, teachers may have students consider questions to determine the role of government: Why do we need a government? How much power should government have over its citizens? What do the terms liberty and equality mean, and how do they relate to each other? What are the dangers of a democratic system? Through close reading and analysis of the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers and the anti-Federalist response, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, students analyze the tension and balance between promotion of the public good and the protection of individual liberties.

This inquiry set introduces essential documents and organizing principles of the US government. This set brings the student to the center of these abstract texts and principles by posing the question, How much power should the government have over citizens? This question has been the subject of much rhetoric, debate, and protest over the country’s history. Students will read and evaluate how important founding documents sought to address this question. They will read densely worded essential documents, including the Declaration of Independence (Source 1), the Constitution (Source 2), Federalist Paper No. 51 (Source 3), the Bill of Rights (Source 4), a Chinese American citizenship document from 1894 (Source 5), and a document written by an American Communist who was tried for violating the Smith Act (Source 6). While there is certainly no single right answer, students may be surprised to learn that important founding documents differed on this question. And the differences reflect the tensions and factions of the revolutionary and early republic eras. Students may also be eager to make connections between struggles of their own time — presumably to balance individual rights with the promotion of the common good.

In this inquiry set, students will engage in close reads of excerpts from the documents. They will select pieces of evidence from each piece that illustrate the power of the government, the power of the citizens, and the government power over the citizens. They will compare the documents along these lines by completing a graphic organizer. Finally, students can make connections between these documents and their own lives. Ultimately, the diversity of perspectives will introduce the nuances and relevance of these important documents in students’ lives.

Teacher Background: The Bill of Rights can be difficult for students to interpret due to its use of negatives, many modifiers listing conditions and exceptions, passive constructions, and indirect use of reference. This literacy strategy, then, helps students to analyze the literal meaning of each of the first ten amendments, and it also helps draw students’ attention to verb patterns that reinforce the Bill of Rights’ role as a protective document, specifically outlining what the government cannot do to its people.


  1. Provide context.

    a. Provide brief context about the Bill of Rights itself, how it came about (fear of a strong centralized government that might impinge on individual or community liberty).

    b. If this is the first time you are engaging in sentence deconstruction activities in your class, provide context for students about the value of sentence deconstruction as a close-reading strategy for difficult texts. Explain that the purpose of sentence deconstruction is to slow down and understand how the pieces of the text fit together. Note that professional historians also read documents many times over, closely and carefully, so this is a form of learning to read as a historian does. Also explain that interesting and insightful patterns often emerge when breaking up the pieces of a sentence in this way — patterns that are not always immediately obvious when reading straight through a text.

  2. Interpret and discuss text.

    a. Provide students a copy of the Bill of Rights. Give them a chance to look it over quickly, and then discuss why parts of it can be difficult to read (passive construction, lots of negatives, sometimes important words are omitted or implied, etc.).

    b. Pass out Student Handout 1. Using the explanations at the top of the handout, explain how it was constructed. As a class, discuss how the first two amendments were structured and fill in any needed blanks. Go through the directions for the handout and model for students the completion of the last three columns.

    c. If students seem ready, they can complete the rest of the activity in pairs or in small groups. It is also okay to work together as a whole class until students get more comfortable with sentence deconstruction. Either way, make sure to provide time for the whole class to debrief responses, especially responses to the three synthesis questions after the chart.

    d. Students can also complete Student Handout 2 in order to discern meaning, analyze, and compare to address the broader investigation question.

  3. Extend the learning. To provide some extra literacy support that also reinforces student understanding of the Bill of Rights, consider having students collaboratively draft and present some items for a student Bill of Rights using some of the vocabulary (particularly verbs) discussed in the study of the Bill of Rights.


12AD.1 Government Power Student Handout 1

12AD.1 Government Power Student Handout 2

12AD.1 Government Power Teacher Key

  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.

  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.

Class discussions could lead to discussions of racism, sexism, LGBTQ discrimination, trans rights, disability rights, and more.