Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
Across the Centuries

Understanding Primary Sources:
The Bill of Rights

Objective: Students analyze the American Bill of Rights, compare it to the English Bill of Rights and note the differences in an essay.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2 hours over 2 days

Building Background:
Review the details of the American Revolution, the founding of the United States, and our present form of government based on the United States Constitution. Discuss how the English colonies in America were founded and governed by English legal traditions. Explain how by the late 18th century, the 13 American colonies grew restive under British rule. Led by a small group, the colonies sought their freedom and openly declared their independence on July 4, 1776. After almost ten years of conflict with Britain, the colonies won their freedom and formed the United States. Not long after the establishment of the United States, the United States Constitution became the framework for our government. The Constitution set up a strong, three-part government with legislative, judicial, and executive branches. The Constitution continues to govern the United States, but not in its original form. Additions to the document, called amendments, have been written. The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Inform students they will examine the Bill of Rights, compare it to the English Bill of Rights, and write an essay explaining the similarities and differences between the two documents.

What To Do:

1. Ask volunteers to discuss what they know about the Bill of Rights. Offer examples of ideas in the amendments, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to help the discussion along. Then print and distribute copies of the The Bill of Rights worksheet and the Analyzing the Bill of Rights worksheet. Suggest that students work together to read the text of the Bill of Rights and complete the questions.

2. Explain to the class that many of the ideas found in the American Bill of Rights originated in the English Bill of Rights, written in 1689. To find a full copy of these documents, students can visit the school or local library. If you have Internet access, students can search the following sites:

The Bill of Rights
This site offers a discussion of the background issues and concerns that prompted creation of the American Bill of Rights, as well as the text of the original document.

National Archives and Records Administration: The Bill of Rights
This National Archives site has background information on the American Bill of Rights, as well as on George Mason, a leading advocate of the idea of a bill of rights. The site also covers the importance of the amendments to the Constitution and has links to a Bill of Rights text and a high resolution image of the original document.

The American Presidency: The Bill of Rights
This article from Grolier On-line provides a clear description of the American Bill of Rights and its origins in the English Bill of Rights.

3. Ask volunteers to share their research with the class. Have students discuss the rights assured by each document. Tell students to mention the similarities and the differences between the two bills of rights.

4. Have students write short essays explaining the rights ensured by each bill of rights. Students should each choose one similarity or differnece between the documents and write about it in their essays. Encourage students to reinforce their essays by quoting text from the documents themselves.

5. Ask volunteers to share their essays with the class. The class should pay close attention to the observations of each student. Tell the students to note and discuss any observations that were presented and they may not have noticed before.

Ask students to discuss the importance of these rights. Ask students to envision what the United States might be like without them. Have students offer a few thoughts about what these rights really mean to American citizens.


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