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The Great Society and Beyond

90 min

Guiding Questions:

  • What did the Founding Fathers think about civil and economic liberties?
  • What is the current state of civic and economic liberties today?
  • How did Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan’s views of civic and economic liberties differ?


  • Students shall be able to understand the Founding Fathers’ ideas of civic and economic liberty and have trace through historical documents how they have been applied.
  • Evaluate the balance between civic and economic liberties and the interests of the government in the case of Citizens United v. FEC (2010)
  • Compare and construct the ideologies of Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson on the role of civic and economic liberties.

  • Liberalism
  • permissiveness
  • relativism
  • civil liberties
  • economic liberties
  • Citizens United v. FEC (2010)
  • republican government
  • federalism
  • Enlightenment

Depending on the grade level, students might need a pre-teaching session on the differences between economic and civic liberties. Since the discussion ends with federalism it might be worth having a discussion on the competing views of federalism and what constitutional belongs to the federal government and what constitutional belongs to the state government. It might also help to have a discussion on the various political parties’ view of the rights and or role of the federal government and the state governments.

Assign students Handout A: Exploring Civil and Economic Liberty Essay and have them answer the questions. In a short paragraph have them discuss why both civil and economic liberties are important and how they are protected in our Founding Documents. This preparation will be used in the class discussion

Brainstorm examples of civic and economic liberties – have each student contribute one of each. List them on the board. Discuss the essay piece from homework.

Activity 1 [40 minutes]

Have students read Handout B: Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010) Background and answer the questions. Discuss the answers to the questions as a class.

Divide the class into five groups and assign each group to analyze their assigned documents from Handout C: Documents: Group 1: Documents A, B, and C; Group 2: Documents D, E, and L; Group 3: Documents F, G, and H; Group 4: Document I (Majority Opinion), and Group 5: Documents J and K (additional opinions). Each group should designate a spokesperson.

Have Groups 1, 2, and 3 report, summarizing their discussion. At this point, have students identify which aspects of the documents presented so far would be most helpful to each of the two attorneys arguing the case. For now, Groups 4 and 5 are merely observers, not participants.

Have students in Groups 1, 2, and 3 tell whether they think the BCRA was constitutional, and to provide their reasoning based on constitutional principles. Take a vote and write the results on the board. Who would have won this case if these students were the Supreme Court?

Next, have Groups 4 and 5 report the actual Supreme Court opinions. Which constitutional principles seem to have been most persuasive to the Supreme Court Justices?

Have students use the key question, “Assess whether the Supreme Court ruled correctly in Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010), in light of constitutional principles including republican government, property rights, and freedom of speech”, to complete a document based question essay using the documents provided.

Activity 2 [30 minutes]

Divide the class into pairs. Give each pair one copy each of Handout D: “The Great Society,” Lyndon Johnson, 1964 and Handout E: First Inaugural Address, Ronald Reagan, 1981. Allow students time to read the speeches. Give each pair two highlighters of different colors. They should highlight sentences where the speaker suggests increasing federal power in one color, and sentences where the speaker suggests scaling back federal power in the other color. Have students look at the speeches side by side when they have finished. What do they notice?

Using Handout D, have students skim the Johnson speech and underline words or phrases they think are important. In the margins, write down words that come to mind to describe the speech. For example, hopeful, inspiring, etc. Have students repeat this process for the Reagan speech on Handout E. Divide the chalkboard (or presentation technology) in half, and assign one half to each speech. Beginning with the Johnson speech, invite a student to write one word or short phrase on the board that in some way represents the speech—an oft-repeated word, the mood of the speech, etc. The word should be written in a size proportional to the intensity of the connection to the speech. For example, if an idea appears ten times in the speech, it should be written larger on the board than a word which only appeared once. Invite four or five more students to add words/phrases. Repeat this process for the Reagan speech.

Distribute copies of Handout F: Articles I and II of the United States Constitution. Ask students to look at Articles I and II, describing the powers of the legislative and executive branches. Ask students to assess the constitutionality of each President’s actions. Where did the constitutional authority for their actions come from (if anywhere)?

Have students use the key question, “assess whether the Supreme Court ruled correctly in Citizens United v. FEC (2010)”.

As a current event have students pick a modern example of federalism and select the perspective of Reagan or Johnson and predict how they would felt about this particular issue.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

International Relations and the Constitutional Separation of Powers