Government of the United States

Holli Manzo
for Scholars Online
Monday and Wednesday 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM EST

The Constitution of the United States

What does it mean for a government action, policy, or bill to be constitutional?

This course explores what it means for a government action, policy, or bill to follow the guidelines and strictures of the United States' Constitution. Beginning with a study of the philosophies and documents that influenced the creation of the Constitution, we then compare different methods of Constitutional interpretation and how they affect action and policy development. This introductory unit lays a foundation for our explorations of the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments, the interactions between federal and state governments, and the role the public plays in our democratic republic; in each, we return to our inciting question and assess how these features of modern government fit -- or do not fit -- with the vision of the Constitution. As we progress, we highlight the interactions between branches and how the system of checks and balances works in practice. We also apply our growing knowledge to a weekly discussion of current events (focusing on federal activities, foreign affairs, policy in action, and prominent public debates) and how they reflect the purpose and workings of the government. This is not a course designed to instruct students in a particular political mindset; instead, it is intended to provide students with the tools to become informed citizens who can discuss, analyze, and defend their personal political understanding.

Student work for this course falls into three categories: reading and research, reflective journal work, and unit projects. Every week, students must complete certain readings and personal research related to the topics we are covering. This is normally a portion of the Constitution, useful commentary, or articles providing historical context for certain topics. Students will also have to read the news each week (the students choose which news source they use, though at times they will be encouraged to compare stories from multiple sources). Weekly reading and research is always paired with reflective journal work. In addition to the basic weekly assignments, students will complete six unit projects (a presentation, paper, policy brief, etc) in which they will answer the relevant unit question. The size of each project varies, depending on the unit. These projects often require some additional research, but the weekly readings, research, and journal work are designed to give the students the background needed to thoroughly and thoughtfully complete the project. The final unit has no project, and limited readings, as students are busy completing a final paper and Policy Proposal. Class meetings take the form of group discussions where students can share their beliefs and opinions, ask questions, and wrestle with the complexities of constitutionality. Subsequently, these classes are extremely important, and attendance and participation are mandatory.

A Note on the AP Government and Politics Exam: This is not an AP certified course, and we are not specifically preparing for the AP Government and Politics Exam. However, we will cover a great majority of the information on that test, and will practice analysing and synthesizing that information -- two key skills tested on AP exams. Students who plan on taking the AP test should supplement with an AP preparation book, course, or set of videos to make sure they have sufficient exposure to the variety of questions that could be asked. I have found many free online supplements for the AP Government and Politics course that could fit this role, including materials from College Board, the National Constitution Center, Khan Academy, and several YouTube playlists (such as CrashCourse - Government and Politics). I am certain there are many more out there. I am also available for AP Gov-focused tutorials. As this course continues into early June, AP students may wish to look ahead at information covered in the last two units, so that they are fully prepared for the exam.

N.B. I must acknowledge the work previously done by Paul Christiansen. His thoughtful American Government curriculum contributed significantly to the early development of this course.


What does it mean for a government action, policy, or bill to be constitutional?

We'll come back to this question multiple times in this class. The course is structured as the investigation of a single, primary Big Idea with smaller, individually investigated questions that are answered at the end of each unit. These smaller questions contribute to answering our Big Question. As we work our way through the course, we will revisit this Big Question at the end of every unit and reconsider what we have learned. An important part of answering them will be having good reasons for why we think the answer is something. Ultimately, students will present their final answer in the form of their short final paper and apply it in a Policy Proposal that synthesizes the various areas of study and applies them to the development of a policy addressing some concern of the federal government.

You may download the Course Syllabus as a PDF here.

Unit I: Foundations - Influences and Interpretations

How did the Founders intend the Constitution to be understood and used?

This unit will survey the historical, political, and philosophical context of the Constitution in order to help us better understand the mindset and goals of the Founders and the Constitutional Convention. Our Constitutional focus will be on the Preamble, but we will supplement this by analyzing excerpts from The Declaration of Independence, John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, The Articles of Confederation, The Federalist Papers, and America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar. The unit project will comprise of an essay in which each student will answer the Unit Question from their own perspective, but drawing from the thinkers and contexts we've discussed.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit II: The Legislative Branch

Can the Legislative Branch do ________ according to the Constitution?

This unit, in addition to studying the structure and processes of the Legislative Branch, we will examine the sources of legislative power according to the Constitution and recent bills to access their constitutionality according to different schools of constitutional interpretation. Our Constitutional focus will be on Article I and related Amendments, and we will supplement it with commentary in America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar and by other political scientists, judges, and politicians. Students will become familiar with both sides of currently controversial proposals and bills; this familiarity will allow them to prepare a presentation assessing the constitutionality of a particular legislative approach as their unit project.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit III: The Executive Branch

How does the President use the Executive Branch to develop and implement policy?

This unit will study the formal and informal powers of the President, how that office guides the rest of the Executive Branch, and the ways the Executive Branch interacts with Congress. Our Constitutional focus will be on Article II and related Amendments, and it will be supplemented with commentary in America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, informational videos discussing the complexities of the Executive Branch, and essays by Constitution scholars made available by the National Constitution Center. For their unit project, students will select a policy advocated by the current administration, examine multiple perspectives on the issue, determine the best course of action according the Constitution and their research to date, and prepare a policy brief for the relevant Executive Department head, explaining the issue and proposing a constitutional approach.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit IV: The Judicial Branch

How can the Supreme Court impact the development of legislature and policy? Is SCOTUS always right?

This unit will focus on the impact the Supreme Court and other components of the Judicial Branch can and have had on the development of US policy and legislation. A significant portion of this unit will be spent examining key Supreme Court Cases and their outcomes, both as a class and as individual student work. In addition to our Constitutional Focus, Article II and related Amendments, various other sources (informational videos, essays, articles, or Supreme Court case decisions) will be assigned and made available to the students; the exact source will depend on the case. The unit project will take the form of an in-depth study of two related Supreme Court cases; students will submit a Legal Brief explaining the cases and comparing their impact on US history and government.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit V: The Bill of Rights and Subsequent Amendments

Are the Bill of Rights and other Amendments still necessary?

This unit will study the purpose, intent, and impact of the Bill of Rights and other crucially important amendments; in particular, we will discuss (and likely debate) how these rights should be observed and respected in modern times. Amendments I-X, XIII-XV, and XIX will serve as our Constitutional Focus, and will be supplemented by commentary from America's Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar, The Federalist Papers, and other discussions and commentaries made available by the National Constitution Center website. Students will select a particular Amendment or focus (in the case where the Amendment covers several rights) and assess how well a related Supreme Court case, bill, or an executive action abides by or respects that Amendment as their unit project.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit VI: State Governments

How are states a valuable component of the US political system?

This unit will explore the development of today's modern American states, how they function, and how they interact with and under the federal system according to the Constitution. Our Constitutional Focus will be on Articles IV and VI, along with various sections of Articles II and III, and will be supplemented by informational videos, The Federalist Papers, judicial statements, and commentary provided by the National Constitution Center. As their unit project, students will prepare an informational presentation explaining the history and development of the government of their home state, taking special note of moments of tension between the state and the federal government, and discussing the impact of that state on the nation at large.

Key Discussion Questions

Unit VII: The Role of the Public

Can individual citizens play a role in our democratic republic?

This unit will study the role and impact of the average citizen in our political system, starting with the role of the People as described in the Constitution and culminating with the modern impact of social media. There will be no project for this unit, as students will be working on their final essays and Policy Proposals.

Key Discussion Questions

Final Paper and Policy Proposal

Rather than complete a unit project during Unit VII, students will work on their final projects. The first is a short paper (3-4 pages, double spaced) answering the course's Big Question: What does it mean for a government action, policy, or bill to be constitutional? Their answers should briefly assess each branch and aspect of the government, analyzing the text of the Constitution and applying it to the body of knowledge they've gained over the course. For the second projects, students will prepare a Policy Proposal. In this proposal, students will suggest a Constitutional solution to an issue of particular importance to the modern United States. Students may work together, but each student will need to focus on a specific aspect of the issue and submit a clear plan explaining who will complete each section; they should also brainstorm, critique, and revise as a team. Their proposal must be addressed to two different federal branches (such as the Legislative and Executive) and anticipate the potential response of the third and any related agencies. The goal of this proposal is for the students to demonstrate their knowledge of the functions of the United States government, their ability to apply knowledge to current affairs, their skills of persuasion and argumentation, and their understanding of what it means for something to be constitutional.

Last Updated on 02/03/2019 by Holli Manzo