Where did America’s Bill of Rights come from?: A New Teaching Activity

Bill of Rights Day is coming up on December 15! Do your students know where the ideas in this founding document come from?

Today’s post comes from Leah Bouas, social studies teacher at Hebron High School in Carrollton, TX. She created a new teaching activity called Where did America’s Bill of Rights come from? on DocsTeach, the online tool for teaching with documents, as part of her internship at the National Archives.

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

Did you know that the National Archives has a copy of Magna Carta on permanent exhibit in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery?

Magna Carta is such a foundational document in the Western legal tradition and in curriculum standards across the nation, whether in World History, U.S. History, or Civics courses — and there are few remaining copies in existence, only one of which is located in the United States!

I am a World History teacher entering my tenth year of service, and Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights have always been in my curriculum standards. I’m embarrassed to admit that for so many years I “covered” Magna Carta during lecture, in passing. “It happened in 1215, guys, remember that. Like lunchtime. When you think Magna Carta, think lunchtime.” Or, “The Magna Carta established the beginnings of limited government by forcing King John to get Parliament’s permission before he could raise new taxes.” That was it. A few sentences in passing and then I moved on. It’s no wonder that my students had such difficulty remembering its significance or, worse, becoming confused and thinking that Magna Carta established democracy.

I had fallen into a classic teacher trap. I had convinced myself that Magna Carta was just too difficult for my students to understand. In reality, I had never even asked them to read it. What I’ve learned from a decade’s worth of teaching experience is that students LOVE reading old legal codes. They think they’re weird and hilarious and fascinating. And I love that they love to read those laws, because their fascination with the hilarity or weirdness gives me a great entry point for explaining historical context and engaging students in authentic learning!

Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights

With the Where Did America’s Bill of Rights Come From? activity, students will dive into three primary sources: Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, and the Bill of Rights from the U.S. Constitution. In addition to displaying the documents in their original forms, the activity provides students with manageable excerpts from each document so that they can gain some depth of knowledge about the evolution of English, and later American, law. The excerpts are designed to help students get an idea of the extent of the laws, such as who was protected and who wasn’t, and which rights were extended to which people. Students can see the rumblings of protection of private property and the right to a trial in Magna Carta, but the excerpt is small enough that you as the teacher can help them make sense of it and help them understand its limitations.

Following the excerpt from Magna Carta is an excerpt from the English Bill of Rights in which Parliament is an overarching force. This excerpt highlights the fact that legal protection was still limited and largely reserved for elites, but students will see a continuation of limited government and an increase in the individual rights protected by law. Some of the phrases in the excerpt should be familiar to students, such as “free speech,” “excessive bail,” and “cruel and unusual punishments.” Hopefully students will begin making a connection to the U.S. Bill of Rights before they even get to that excerpt in the activity.

Finally, students will see the ideas from the excerpts of Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights expanded to apply to all citizens with the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights. It also provides an entry point for a discussion about who was a citizen in the early United States and who was entitled to these rights – a question that we history teachers continually address throughout our World and U.S. History courses.

I can’t wait to use this activity with my students! As I use more primary sources with them and as I ask them to do the kind of work that real historians do, I expect their analytical skills to increase as well. I’m hopeful that this activity will turn one of the few “sit and get” experiences in my classroom into a rich experiment of historical interpretation – with my students being the ones to provide their own interpretation.

I hope that you are able to use it, too, and that as it deepens your students’ understanding of English and American legal systems, it also enriches your students understanding of primary source documents.

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