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Inquiry

We the People: Expanding the Teaching of the US Founding

This 5-7 day C3-aligned inquiry explores the compelling question "How do we reckon with a history full of complexities and contradictions?"

Published:

At a Glance

Inquiry

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History

Grade

9–12

Duration

Multiple weeks
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • Racism

Overview

About This Inquiry

This C3-style inquiry helps students engage with the complexities and contradictions of the US founding by exploring an array of primary sources, short documentary videos, and contemporary perspectives.

The inquiry centers the voices of those in early US history who were excluded from formal political participation, but nonetheless appealed to the nation’s founding democratic ideals to assert their own rights and freedoms. Their contributions help students recognize the power of their own civic choices and see that the project of founding the nation is ongoing and open to all. 

How do we reckon with a history full of complexities and contradictions?

  1. What does the Declaration of Independence state about the nation’s founding ideals?

  2. What contradictions existed between the ideals and the reality of the founding of the United States?

  3. How did groups excluded from power at the time of the founding use the language of the founding ideals to assert their own rights? 

  4. How should we remember the nation’s founding?

Students will be able to:

  1. Identify the gaps between the founding ideals and the lived realities of injustice in the United States.
  2. Understand the power of the founding ideals by exploring how marginalized groups have used these ideals to advocate for their own rights and expand American democracy. 
  3. Use examples from history to shape their own civic choices and understand that the act of founding the nation is ongoing and open to all.

Expanding “We the People” 
This inquiry provides students with a vital reframing of the history of the founding of the United States. It centers the voices and experiences of people excluded from the definition of “We the People” enshrined in our founding documents. By exploring an array of primary sources from these perspectives—including the Pequot minister and activist William Apess, a group of Black abolitionists from Massachusetts, and Judith Sargent Murray, an advocate for white women’s rights—students will see how groups excluded from political participation and denied rights during the early years of the nation nonetheless played an essential role in articulating the promise of its democracy. 

This inquiry explores their contributions in order to broaden students’ understanding of the pioneering individuals and identities that worked to build a more just and inclusive nation. The goal is to foster in students an awareness that the act of founding the nation is ongoing and open to participation by all. This awareness can both inform and inspire students as they prepare to exercise their civic agency today.

While this resource prompts students to expand their ideas about who should be considered a “founder” of the nation, it is important to note the complexities of the term “founder.” Many Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans, for example, were not invested in the project of “founding” the nation or obtaining citizenship within it. They were not offered the option to participate or given the choice to opt out. Nevertheless, for those people denied rights at the time of founding, expanding the nation’s ideals became a necessary part of their struggles for freedom and self-determination. 

Exploring the Complexities of the Founding
In both American popular culture and high school survey courses, our nation’s beginnings are too often celebrated uncritically, while the oppression endured by those left out of the nation’s political and social community at its founding is either minimized or erased. By presenting an uncritical view of the Founding Fathers and founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the dominant narrative also ignores the accomplishments of those same communities. Such narratives can foster in students a distorted understanding of history, as well as an incomplete sense of how individual and collective choices have shaped our history.

This resource, by contrast, invites students to probe the gaps between the ideals in those founding documents and the lived realities of injustice in the United States. At the center of this inquiry is an examination of the nation’s founding paradox: declaring that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” while refusing freedom and equality to so many of the nation’s inhabitants, both in 1776 and in the centuries since.

This inquiry takes inspiration from the author James Baldwin, who wrote that US history is “more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” 1 Baldwin compels us to understand the history of the United States through the lens of its founding paradox rather than quickly resolving it. By examining both the revolutionary potential of ideas like “all men are created equal” and the nation’s failure from the start to live up to those ideals, students will be prepared at the end of the inquiry to explore US history in all its complexity.

  • 1James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” in Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (Penguin Random House: Library of America Series, 1998), 685–686.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this inquiry, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

This inquiry includes primary sources and formative performance tasks that build toward each supporting question. The materials allow students to construct an evidence-based argument that addresses the compelling question: “How do we reckon with a history full of complexities and contradictions?” 


Download the Inquiry Blueprint for an at-a-glance view of all inquiry materials.

This inquiry is expected to take five to seven 50-minute class periods. The inquiry time frame could expand if teachers think their students need additional instructional experiences or historical background information. 

Teachers are encouraged to adapt the inquiry to meet the needs and interests of their particular students, including those with individualized education plans (IEPs) or Section 504 Plans for students with disabilities.

 

This inquiry is intended to supplement a US history course and is not an exhaustive study of the founding of the nation. It is also not intended as an in-depth exploration of the various groups (including non-property-holding men, enslaved people, Native Americans, and women of all backgrounds) who were excluded from political participation and denied rights during the period of the early republic. 

To engage fully with the content and activities of the inquiry, students need to have some foundational knowledge about the centrality of slavery and settler colonialism 1 to the development of the colonies and the early republic. Students should also have a basic understanding of the American Revolution and the government established by the Constitution. 

Finally, before starting this inquiry, students must be familiar with the concept of race as a social construct that nonetheless carries very real and powerful social consequences. We recommend teaching the lesson The Concept of Race before teaching this inquiry if students have not yet been introduced to the socially constructed meaning of race and how that concept has been used to justify exclusion, inequality, and violence throughout history.

  • 1 settler colonialism (noun): a type of colonialism in which the Indigenous peoples of a colonized region are displaced by settlers who permanently form a society there (definition from Oxford Languages).

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