a stretch of granite bedrock on the Aland Islands

Our Nation’s Foundations – Lesson One: Bedrock of the Constitution

by Oletta Branstiter

The representatives of United States citizens take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”. We can’t hold them accountable to this oath unless we know Constitutional principles.

Abolitionist Wendell Phillips is correctly attributed with the quote:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few.”

After teaching my Intermediate public school students that they are born with unlimited Liberty, I ask them, “How much liberty would you like to keep?” They all answer enthusiastically, “All of it!”. Then, I teach them how to be vigilant. It starts with a large blank wall. Play along at home with your own family. Let’s learn how to be Patriots, together. This is the first of an eleven-part series.

Provide a wall to build a giant graphic that will grow to illustrate the way our nation was founded. For the first layer, tear the top edges of landscape-oriented brown construction paper, staple these, side by side, to the bottom portion of the wall to represent the layer of bedrock. Add the words: Natural Law, Unalienable Rights – Life, Liberty and Property. Older students can design a similar graphic using a drawing or graphics app on a tablet. Have students add 3×5 cards, or text-boxes with facts from the lesson beside the bedrock layer.

Lesson One – Bedrock

Our Revolutionary nation was founded on July 4, 1776. The United States of America began as an experiment to form a new type of government. The Founders were like innovative architects designing a building they hoped would last forever.

Let’s imagine what they were thinking when they created our great country.

The first step of erecting a building that will last for centuries is finding stable ground. Our nation’s founders and framers of the Constitution gave us a solid one – we’ll call it bedrock.

Our Founders and Framers wanted our new government to withstand every possible challenge, so they made it simple, but strong. They called it the Natural Law of Unalienable Rights. Today, we might call them Human Rights.

They knew that a government must be ordained for the purpose of protecting the rights guaranteed to every person just by being born – that’s what “unalienable” means. These rights defined by our Founders and Framers of the Constitution are Life, Liberty, and Property.

You’ve probably always heard the list of Unalienable Rights as Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That’s an interesting and shameful story. Before the United States of America became a nation, it consisted of 13 colonies that participated in the slave trade. The first slaves in the colonies were whites, from Ireland and England.

White Slavery

Young Irish and English citizens were kidnapped or purchased during the early 1600s to sell to owners in the North American colonies. Often, these slaves were promised that they were merely “indentured servants”, meaning that, after serving their masters for seven years, they would be freed. Too often, however, this promise was not kept. Black slaves from Africa soon began to be bought and sold in the colonies.

Our Founders, even those who owned slaves, wanted their new government to eventually make slavery illegal, in keeping with the commitment to protecting the Unalienable Rights of all people. But there was a problem to overcome. Three of the colonies – North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia did not want to give up slavery.

In order to fight a war for independence from Britain, the colonies had to be united to show strength against King George of England. So a compromise was made: participation in the slave trade would legally end after 1800, but because the new government would guarantee States’ rights to govern themselves, owning slaves would not yet be banned under the new Constitution.

The northern states began phasing out slavery soon after we became independent from Britain, but southern states kept the practice. This disagreement led to a Civil War from 1861-1865, to abolish slavery. Did you know that we are the only nation in history to fight a war to do this?

Because there were three southern states that considered slaves to be “property”, the Founders and Framers didn’t want to approve of this by establishing our fundamental rights to include the South’s idea of Property. That’s why they changed it to “Pursuit of Happiness”, which actually means the right to obtain and protect private property – NOT people!

3/5 Compromise

It wasn’t long before another compromise had to be made with the slave-holding states. They wanted it both ways – to define their slaves as property and to claim them as persons for the use of increasing representation in Congress.

Well, the Founders and Framers knew that this would guarantee the survival of slavery because the southern states would gain more representatives who would vote to continue this shameful practice! So they made what the Constitution defines as the 3/5 Compromise. Slave owners could count each slave as 3/5 of a whole for the purposes of counting residents to determine district representation.

Now, don’t let anyone fool you – the Founders and Framers were NOT saying that slaves were only worth 3/5 of a person! They did this to ensure that sooner, rather than later, the northern states would have more representatives opposing slavery than southern representatives voting to continue it, and as a way to force the southerners to admit that slaves were people, not property. Pretty smart, huh?

Our Forefathers knew that compromise should move you toward the best solution, not away from it. Unfortunately, the minds of the southerners were not changed quickly enough, and our nation went to war with itself to stop it.

Slavery is incompatible with Liberty outlined in our Constitution.

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