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Activity 1

Essential Question

What fundamental ideas about government evolved over time and now form the basis for our system of government?


Most of the colonists who lived on the Atlantic Coast of North America came from Europe. They were part of the British Empire and were ruled by England. As a result, they brought many ideas about government with them from England. However, things were different in the new world. For example, those who came for freedom of religion could find it here. Those who came to own their own land and property were better able to fulfill that dream. Those who came for freedom came to cherish that freedom.

America became a land of opportunity for many people who were denied the most basic rights in Europe. As a result, their ideas about the purposes of government were different from the current thinking in Europe. The founders of our country understood this and were able to use this knowledge to create a government different from any then in existence in the world.


Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Using Cooperative Learning Groups to do Research

Display a map of the thirteen colonies and talk about their location along the Atlantic coast from New England to Georgia.

Printable Student View

-Edited from map of the thirteen colonies

Use the map to talk about the physical features of the colonies and the climate.
Divide the class into three sections:

  1. The New England Colonies
  2. The Middle Colonies
  3. The Southern Colonies

Allow time for each section to do research on their assigned colonies. Use a cooperative learning strategy in which the work is divided up and then shared with the entire group. Be sure student research includes the following topics:

  • Primary occupations in the assigned colonies
  • Primary religious groups in the assigned colonies
  • Primary ethnic immigrant groups
  • Goods manufactured in the assigned colonies
  • Farm good produced in the assigned colonies
  • Political structure of the assigned colonies

Suggest the following resources for student research:

  • Specific pages and paragraphs from a textbook
  • A description of the area taken from a website such as (Possible web sites for additional information are too numerous to mention. This site is a good one for the New England colonies.)
  • Assign one student from each group to do additional research on the “classroom” computer.

After the groups have finished their work, focus the discussion on the “Check for Understanding.”

Check for Understanding

  • What conditions in the new world led to a difference in how people felt about how they should be governed? Support your answer with evidence from your research.

Strategy 2

Concept Development

Use your imagination: Tell the class that they have just been freed to make up their own rules concerning class procedures, playground rules, and relations with other students in class. Ask them how they feel. Compare this feeling to how the colonists might have felt after the Revolutionary War.

Divide the class into groups. Ask half of the groups to design a new form of government for your school and class by addressing the following questions:

  1. Who will be in control?
  2. How much power will they have?
  3. Who will see to it that this person or group does not become too powerful?

Ask the rest of the groups to list the rights they would want to protect.

Show with them a list of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights on a transparency and ask them to prioritize the rights that are appropriate to their classroom situation.

Have the groups record their information on chart paper and then have them report out to the rest of the class.

Start a Word Wall of vocabulary words important to this unit. Tell the students that we will be adding to the word wall as we move through the module. Some examples are:

  • liberty
  • natural rights
  • protection of property
  • social contract
  • state of nature
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom of the press
  • consent of the governed

Have students include these terms and other others that come out of the discussion in their notebooks.

Be sure that students use these terms as they continue their discussions.


Check for Understanding

  • Which right discussed in class do you cherish most highly? Tell why you feel this right is so important?

Strategy 3

Students should now have a basic command of the “vocabulary of government.” It is now possible to use a source such as the one found at


Model how to use a more complex source of information by following these steps:

  • Relate it to prior knowledge.
  • Break it into smaller parts.
  • Develop a working knowledge of the vocabulary.

Use the Social Contract Theory example that follows to walk students through this process:

  • Talk about what students already know about the purpose of government.
  • Use the information in the boxes to help students break the reading into parts.
  • Discuss the passage using the vocabulary of the passage and of government.

Printable Student View

The Social Contract Theory

For Locke, legitimate civil government is instituted by the explicit consent of those governed. Those who make this agreement transfer to the civil government their right of executing the law of nature and judging their own case. These are the powers which they give to the central government, and this is what makes the justice system of civil governments a legitimate function of such governments.

Ruth Grant has persuasively argued that the establishment of civil government is in effect a two step process. Universal consent is necessary to form a political community. Consent to join a community once given is binding and cannot be withdrawn. This makes political communities stable. Grant writes: “Having established that the membership in a community entails the obligation to abide by the will of the community, the question remains: Who rules?” (Grant, 1987 p. 115) The answer to this question is determined by majority rule. The point is that universal consent is necessary to establish a political community, majority consent to answer the question who is to rule such a community. Universal consent and majority consent are thus different in kind, not just in degree. Grant writes:

Locke’s argument for the right of the majority is the theoretical ground for the distinction between duty to society and duty to government, the distinction that permits an argument for resistance without anarchy. When the designated government dissolves, men remain obligated to society acting through majority rule.


Review the following steps with students to summarize how to use primary sources or more complex secondary sources:

  1. Defining Vocabulary:
    • Review vocabulary from previous activities.
    • Define “social” and “contract” in addition to new vocabulary found in the selection.
    • Use the vocabulary in context.
  2. Breaking the Passage into Smaller Parts:
    • Read the selection in segments checking for understanding as you go along.
    • Select phrases from the reading that relate to your purpose questions. For example, select phrases such as “universal consent is necessary to form a political community” that related to the fundamental purposes of government and discuss them in depth.
  3. Relating the Passage to Prior Knowledge:
    • Read the passage again as a class using the “new” vocabulary and a sounder understanding of the phrases to improve comprehension of the total passage. Relate the passage to what you have learned in previous activities.

Note: Depending on the ability level of your students, you may want to do a web search for a simpler or more complicated explanation of the “social contract theory” or you may want to use the original as a primary source.

Check for Understanding

  • Select one phrase from this explanation of the social contract theory and explain how it has become a fundamental idea of how our government operates.
Updated January 31, 2023 4:20pm