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The Constitution and Culture

Following a speech given at the Democratic National Convention, a $1 pocket copy of the United States Constitution became an Amazon best-seller. However, this large-sale interest in the U.S. Constitution is not unique to this specific occurrence. In 2009, an authorization of Congress called for the printing of more than 500,000 pocket Constitutions each year (at least 1,000 for each member of Congress). These pocket Constitutions are often given to constituents and state-based groups that ask for the documents. Yet, receiving a pocket Constitution from a lawmaker is not the only way to obtain one. Multiple organizations such as the National Center for Constitution Studies, the Heritage Foundation, and the Cato Institute all provide pocket Constitutions at little or no cost. Why does the Constitution hold such political relevance in modern day elections? Furthermore, is this phenomenon a uniquely American one? Or is it something that is seen in other countries that possess a specific written constitution? If this is a unique phenomenon, what does this say about civic culture in America? In this activity, students will examine the impact that the United States Constitution has on the civic culture in America. Students will look at the constitutions and founding documents of other nations and examine whether or not other countries interact with their founding documents the way that many Americans do.

Resources After Khan speech, pocket Constitution becomes best-seller: Constitution is this year’s big best-seller: Britain’s unwritten constitution:

Activity/How to Use

  1. Briefly discuss the history of the United States Constitution, highlighting its importance for both citizens and government.
    • Why did the Founders and individuals in the Founding Era believe a Constitution was important?
    • Why do individuals today believe that a Constitution is important?
  2. Discuss other ways in which your students see the special influences of the Constitution on the culture of the United States.
    • Constitution Day is an example of a way in which culture generally recognizes the importance of the Constitution in modern times.
    • Additionally, trips to the National Archives show the importance of the Constitution in culture; visitors have an opportunity to freely view the founding documents of our nation.
  3. Commonwealth nations, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa, have strong constitutional traditions, similar to that of the United States. Task your students with finding out whether or not their politicians make the same appeals to their founding documents. Other nations like Iran and the former Soviet Union, also had written Constitutions, yet their governments are vastly different than that of the United States. Divide your class in half and have them do some brief research into the different constitutional cultures of these nations. Have them use the questions below as a guide. They should then share their results with the class.
    • Do other countries have days dedicated to their founding documents or constitution such as Constitution Day in the U.S.? If not, do these nations celebrate a day such as Independence Day in the United States, which celebrates the birth of our nation and the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Or a celebration like Bastille Day in France which celebrates a defining moment in the history of the French people.
    • Do other countries commonly have printed copies of their founding documents or constitution available?
    • Do other countries have locations where visitors can view their founding documents or constitution?
    • Do other nations appeal to their founding documents when campaigning?
    • Why do you believe Americans place such a large amount of value on our written Constitution?