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National Government, Crisis, and Civil Liberties

135 min

Guiding Questions

  • How do we balance the security of the nation with protections of individual liberties?
  • How much power should the federal government have over an individual’s civil liberties?


  • Students will define civil liberties.
  • Students will explain the limits of individual freedoms.
  • Students will explain the original intention of the Bill of Rights.
  • Students will analyze the balance that is needed in a federal republic between individual freedoms and the security of the country.

  • Liberty
  • Constitution
  • federalism
  • property
  • habeas corpus
  • military tribunal
  • civil liberties
  • Bill of Rights
  • Civil War
  • civilian court
  • Amendment VI
  • speedy and public trial
  • Article I Sections 8 & 9
  • Article II Sections 2 & 3

Following this activity it would be helpful for students to learn of other more recent examples of the President’s need to balance national security with individual freedoms. One example is Security, Liberty, and the USA PATRIOT Act.

Write this well-known quote on the board, but do not provide the source or date.

“[T]hose who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” (Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Assembly: Reply to the Governor, November 11, 1755).

Ask for student responses to the statement: agree/disagree/why. Share source of the quote, and tell students that tension between liberty and security is a recurring feature of U.S. history.

Have students read Handout A: Abraham Lincoln and Habeas Corpus. Display Handout B: A Proclamation. Point out the questions, and have students listen for the answers as you read the Proclamation aloud. Then go over the answers as a large group. Point out to students that in 1861, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in some areas. The 1862 suspension of habeas corpus expanded to cover the entire nation.

Preparation for trial role-play: Tell students they will now simulate a trial of Mr. Milligan. Distribute Handout C: Milligan and the Constitution. Read aloud the scenario of Mr. Milligan, who has been sentenced to death for disloyalty by a military court. Divide the class into groups of appropriate size for: attorneys for Mr. Milligan, attorneys for the US, and the Justices of Supreme Court. Give each group a copy of Handout D: Case Briefing Sheet. Have groups complete Handout D using Handouts A, B, and C.

The trial: With about twenty minutes remaining, allow attorneys for the government to make their case, followed by attorneys from Mr. Milligan. The Supreme Court members should then deliberate and announce their verdict. Tell students that they were debating an actual Supreme Court case from 1866. Using Handout E: The Ruling, explain the information and ask students if they agree with the Court. Was Lincoln’s action constitutional? Ask students how they would assess Lincoln’s attempt to balance the strength of the government with the liberties of its people?

Break students into four groups and have each group read one of the policies on Handout F: Civil Liberty Laws. After they finish reading, they should do some background research to complete the graphic organizer on Handout G: The History of Civil Liberty Laws.

After each group has completed their section of Handout G, hold a class discussion about the historical implications of each of the policies and discuss how they affected civil liberties.

Students discuss and write a reflection on the balance between civil liberties and security as portrayed in this example. How do we know when we’ve gotten this issue right?

Students conduct research into another example of the tensions between security and individual freedom during a time of crisis in this nation. Depending upon the age and class, instructor could provide a list of examples and have students each pick one to research for homework. Students would write up their findings and share them with the class the next day.

Students research political cartoons exhibiting this tension between rights and liberties. Further investigation into the Bill of Rights and selective incorporation. Students explore how the federal government has intervened in state laws to prevent infringement of individual liberties.

Student Handouts

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State and Local Government

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