Lesson 2

Keeping Free: Our Democracy


Lesson Overview:

This lesson focuses on our government. In Part 1, they'll learn some history and basics of American government. In Part 2, they'll learn how we elect those who represent us and will recall the Election of 2000. In Part 3, they'll discover how a law is made and read about some very unusual laws.


Content Standards Addressed:
Common Core State Standards 
Learning Objectives:


The children will:

  • Identify the three types of ​government and tell which type the U.S. has.
  • Compare and contrast the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.
  • Name the three branches of government and tell how they check each other.
  • Explain how the U.S. elects a president.
  • Describe how Congress creates a law.
  • Define amendment and tell how one is added.

Part 1: Power in Our Democracy


When the Declaration of Independence was approved July 4, 1776, the work of the Founding Fathers was only beginning. Ahead lay the great task of setting up a new government, a system of ruling. There are three types of governments, based on the number of people who rule:

  • An autocracy is ruled by one person.
  • An oligarchy is ruled by a small group of people.
  • democracy is ruled by all the people, or those they elect.

Before it declared its independence, America was a crown colony of Britain, which was a monarchy, ruled by a king.

  • From the description above, what kind of government is a monarchy? (An autocracy)

Before the Revolution, many colonists thought their problems with Britain were caused by the lawmakers, Parliament. They thought the king would protect them. When this didn't happen, America took steps to free itself from British rule and establish a democracy. The word democracy comes from two Greek words: demo meaning "the people," and kratos meaning "rule or power." The people would rule the new nation!

The first set of principles that was written to guide American leaders was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. The Articles of Confederation named the country The United States of America and stated the 13 states had entered "into a league of friendship" and would help and defend each other.

The Articles made the state governments stronger than the central government, and as time went on, the powerful states became less united. They didn't work together and found it difficult to make decisions.

Because of the problems with the Articles of Confederation, representatives from 12 of the 13 states wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The Preamble, or introduction, explains why the Constitution was written:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.

  • How can you tell the writers hoped the Constitution would be an improvement over the Articles of the Confederation? (They hoped "to form a more perfect Union.")
  • In your own words, why was the Constitution established? (Answers will vary.)

The Constitution was an improvement over the Articles of Confederation. It made the federal (central) government more powerful and it explains in detail what powers it has. It describes three branches of government: one to make laws, one to carry out laws, and another to explain and judge laws.


MP3: We the People

The lyrics may be copied if desired. The students can sing or follow along. After listening, discuss the song using the following discussion questions:

  • "And signed their names all 39 to our Constitution ..."  Why do you think only 39 (out of 55) delegates signed the Constitution? (After discussing, tell the group some of the delegates simply went home early - the whole process had taken four months. Others refused to sign because they had objections.)
  • Why did the Constitution begin, "We the People"? (One possible answer: To show it belongs to the citizens of the United States. Actually, the delegates established a Committee of Style to rewrite the Constitution once the rough draft was completed. Since Rhode Island was not represented with delegates, and no one knew how many states would approve it, Governeur Morris decided not to list the states but instead began, "We the People ...")


Reproducible: Branches of Government

As the students review the following information, they will fill in the blanks in the boxes with the letters of the answers, found at the bottom of the Branches of Government handout.

Article I of the Constitution established the legislative (law-making) branch of government, or Congress. Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state's citizens elect two senators, who serve six-year terms of office, and at least one representative, who serves a two-year term. A state's total representation in Congress depends on its population.

The two chambers of Congress have different powers:  

Senate ​House
​Approves presidential appointments. ​Raises taxes.
​Convicts and removes officials from office. ​Impeaches (brings charges against officials).
​Elects a vice president if voting is tied. ​Elects a president if voting is tied.
​Approves treaties.


  • Who are their state senators and local representatives?

Article II established the executive branch of government, which carries out the day-to-day functioning of our country. The president is the head of the executive branch and must be a citizen of the United States. He takes an oath to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution. He and the vice president are elected for four-year terms. The president selects a team of advisers, known as the Cabinet, made up of the chiefs of all the government departments, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Energy.

The president:

  • Is the commander in chief of the armed forces.
  • Grants reprieves and pardons.
  • Makes treaties, appoints Supreme Court justices, ambassadors and other officials, all with Senate approval.
  • Represents the United States, receives foreign officials, influences people and situations.
  • Can call Congress into session.
  • Recommends laws to Congress.

The vice president heads the Senate and automatically becomes president if the president dies or resigns.

  • When the students were born, who were the president and vice president?

Article III established the judicial branch of government, which interprets or explains laws. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States and consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate judges, who are appointed by the president for life. The Court reviews federal laws and the actions of the president and Congress to make sure they follow the Constitution. It hears cases involving diplomats, or if a state is one of the parties involved. It also reviews cases from lower federal courts.

  • Who is the current Chief Justice?

The federal judicial system is divided into district courts and circuit courts of appeal. Federal judges are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. The district courts try cases involving federal crimes like bank robbery or mail fraud. If a case is appealed, a circuit court of appeal reviews it and decides if it was judged correctly. If not, it can order a new trial in the lower court. A case can also be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The state court systems are also divided into district courts and courts of appeal. All states have a supreme court which is usually the final authority on all state cases.

The writers of the Constitution carefully set up the government so one person or group couldn't become too powerful. Each branch of government limits the power of the others through a system of checks and balances. The reproducible Check and Balances illustrates what each branch can do.

The answers to the Branches of Government reproducible can be found here.


Reproducible: Checks and Balances

After making and distributing copies, review the chart with the students by asking questions such as:

  • What can Congress do if the president vetoes a law it's passed? (It can override the veto.)
  • How can the president influence the Supreme Court? (He nominates justices.)
  • How does the Supreme Court limit Congress? (It can declare a law unconstitutional.)


Part 2: Elections in Our Democracy


The United States has a representative democracy. All citizens have the right to choose or elect representatives who speak for and act on their behalf. Those who would like the opportunity to represent other citizens are called candidates, and the process of choosing is voting.

A candidate tries to persuade others that he or she is the best person to fill the public office by campaigning. Supporters help them hold rallies and public meetings, make speeches and TV/radio commercials, distribute fliers, and in other ways meet voters and make their opinions known. Sometimes, several candidates get together publicly to debate, or discuss, the issue.

A presidential election is long and complicated. It's also expensive - a candidate can easily spend millions of dollars running a campaign. States hold a "pre-election" called a primary or a caucus.

In a primary, citizens cast their votes for their favorite presidential candidate in a statewide election. The caucus system is much older. Interested citizens gather and listen to speeches given by their fellow citizens and informally vote on candidates at various levels.

  • Does their state hold a primary election or a caucus? Find the answer in the chart.


​Alabama ​P                     ​ ​Louisiana ​P                     ​ ​Ohio ​P
Alaska​ ​C ​Maine ​C ​Oklahoma ​P
​Arizona ​P ​Maryland ​P ​Oregon ​P
​Arkansas ​P ​Massachusetts ​P ​Pennsylvania ​P
​California ​P ​Michigan ​C ​Rhode Island ​P
​Colorado ​C ​Minnesota ​C ​South Carolina ​P
​Connecticut ​P ​Mississippi ​P ​South Dakota ​P
​Delaware ​P ​Missouri ​P ​Tennessee ​P
​Florida ​P ​Montana ​P ​Texas ​P
​Georgia ​P ​Nebraska ​P ​Utah ​P
​Hawaii ​C ​Nevada ​C ​Vermont ​P
​Idaho ​C ​New Hampshire ​P ​Virginia ​P
​Illinois ​P ​New Jersey ​P ​Washington ​P
​Indiana ​P ​New Mexico ​C ​West Virginia ​P
​Iowa ​C ​New York ​P ​Wisconsin ​P
​Kansas ​C ​North Carolina ​C ​Wyoming ​C
​Kentucky ​P ​North Dakota ​C


After the primary or caucus, the winning candidates receive state delegates to each national convention. The delegates then formally cast their votes at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The winner at each convention becomes the party's presidential candidate and chooses a running mate for vice president. Election Day is traditionally held nationally the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

  • If their state holds caucuses, where are meetings held in their area?
  • If their state hold a primary, look at the presidential election results for the past 20 years. Did their primary influence the outcome of the national election?

Most voters don't realize a presidential election isn't decided by the popular vote (citizen votes), but by electoral votes. Each state is given a certain number of votes in the Electoral College, determined by how many total representatives (Senate + House) they have in Congress. Since the number of House representatives depends on population, the most important states to win are those with the highest population. The electors meet in the state capitals in December to vote separately for the president and vice president. The candidate who receives at least 270 electoral votes wins.

The Founding Fathers created the Electoral College so even the smallest states have representation. Supporters of the college say if elections were decided only by popular vote, candidates would only care about states with the biggest populations and would ignore very small states.

However, a 2000 Gallup poll showed 60 percent of voters are in favor of getting rid of the Electoral College. Opponents of the college say there is no guarantee the states' electors will vote for the proper candidate.


Reproducible: The Historic Election of 2000

Once in awhile, a candidate wins the popular vote and loses the election. Or a candidate is elected president without receiving the most citizens' votes. That happened in 2000. Make copies of The Historic Election of 2000. After reading, discuss the following questions:

  • Imagine you're a Florida voter. How do you feel?
  • Do you agree with the way the election was handled?
  • What changes would you have made before the presidential election of 2004?
  • Do you think the president should be elected by popular vote or electoral vote? Why?


Part 3: Laws in our Democracy

Reproducible: How a Law is Made


Imagine living without laws. What would a school day be like? What would travel be like? What would shopping at the mall be like? Laws protect people and maintain order in our society. Congress makes laws, but both the Supreme Court and the president have the ability to "check" that power. The flowchart on the handout explains how our government makes laws. Have the students fill in the chart boxes. Suggestions are in boldface below.

1. The sponsor(s) - senators or representatives - introduce almost any law-to-be, known as a bill. Bills can be written by a special group, by a presidential team, or by the sponsors themselves. Sponsor introduces a bill.

2. The bill is given a number and is copied for other members. Bill is numbered and copied. 

3. The bill is given to one or more congressional committees to study and research. Bill is studied and researched.

4. The committee may decide to table, or not consider, the bill. Bill may be tabled or released.

5. If it's considered, the bill is released or reported out. It may be voted on right away, or it may go to a smaller group, called a subcommittee, to be studied. Bill may be voted on or studied.

6. The subcommittee listens to various groups - experts, supporters, opponents, etc. - to learn more information. Subcommittee studies the bill.

7. The subcommittee edits the bill and votes on it. Bill is edited and voted on. 

8. If approved, the bill goes back to the whole committee, which discusses it and revises it more. Bill goes back to the whole committee.

9. The entire bill is read aloud in the sponsors' chamber, either the Senate or the House, and then may be debated. At this stage, the bill can be delayed or defeated altogether. Bill is read aloud and debated. It can be defeated. 

10. The chamber votes on the bill. If over half support it, the bill passes and it is sent to the other chamber. Bill is voted on. If passed it goes to other chamber.

11. If approved by both the House and the Senate, the bill is sent to the president to sign into law. President signs or vetoes bill.

12. The president has 10 days to sign or veto the bill. If he signs it, or if he does nothing, the bill automatically becomes law. If he vetoes the bill, Congress can override the veto if two-thirds of both chambers approve, and the bill will become law anyway. Bill becomes law.

  • Interesting note: Only 5 out of 100 bills actually are signed into law. Can the children guess why? (One possible answer: there are many steps in the process, so there are many opportunities to "kill" a bill.)
  • Why is this a good thing? (It shows a lot of time and thought go into lawmaking. It also shows many people - over 250 members of Congress representing all 50 states, plus the president - have to approve a bill before it becomes law. To override a presidential veto, about 350 members have to agree.)  


Reproducible: Weird Laws

The children will enjoy reading about strange laws that were or are on the books. Make copies of Weird Laws. Some students may be interested in finding out more about these laws and why they were made.