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Rights and the New Deal

60 min

Guiding Questions

  • What is the difference between negative and positive rights? Which are protected under the Bill of Rights?
  • How does the response to national emergencies alter the scope of government and its protection of individual rights?
  • To what extend does the Constitution permit the federal government to protect/provide positive rights to its citizens?


  • Students will identify and differentiate negative and positive rights.
  • Students will evaluate the potential federal government role in guaranteeing both negative and positive rights and how this role expands in times of national emergency.
  • Students will recognize the tension that may occur between negative and positive rights.

  • Constitution
  • justice
  • Bill of Rights
  • liberty
  • inalienable rights
  • property
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Great Depression
  • Second Amendment

Read the Rights and the New Deal Essay to provide context prior to the lesson. While reading, annotate the essay according to Thinking Notes directions.

Thinking Notes Abbreviations:

? This would make for good discussion questions
MI Main idea
SD Supporting detail
A The author is making a claim or argument here
R The reasoning the author uses to support his or her claim
X The author is contradicting him or herself.

Write this question on the board and briefly discuss students’ initial thoughts based on their having read the introductory essay: Did FDR align or diverge with the Founders’ ideas on individual rights and the size and scope of government?

Read Handouts A & B. Continue “Thinking Notes” and draw connections to the essay they read for homework.

Complete Handout C in small groups.

Hold a large group discussion about the differences between positive rights, which require others to perform a duty or act in a certain way, and negative rights, which protect people from harm.

Ask students to what extent they agree with Roosevelt’s assertion that political (or negative) rights were no longer adequate to protect Americans.

Discuss: What happens when one person’s claim of a positive right to be given something conflicts with another person’s negative rights not to have things taken against his or her will? To what extent does the Constitution permit the federal government to protect/provide positive rights to its citizens?

Research additional debates, presidential actions, or political positions that are similar to what FDR described. Identify at least one historical and one contemporary debate or example of positive rights. What effect does adopting positive rights have on the size and scope of the national government? Write a brief essay comparing the additional examples to what FDR asserted, and explain whether these examples are a continuation or a change from the Founders’ conception of natural rights.

Student Handouts

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