Our Voice as Americans: Freedom of Speech, Petition, & Assembly
U.S. Capitol Historical Society

The featured speaker for this conversation was constitutional scholar Linda R. Monk, J.D., a Harvard Law School graduate and former USCHS Board Member. Her book on the U.S Constitution, The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide, was awarded the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for public education about the law. The program took place on June 23, 2022.

“Why James Madison Changed His Mind: The Birth of the Bill of Rights” — Smithsonian

Constitutional scholar Linda Monk talked about James Madison and his role as the author of the Bill of Rights, including his reasons for eventually supporting the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution after initially opposing it.

The program “Why James Madison Changed His Mind: The Birth of the Bill of Rights” was held by the Smithsonian Associates at the National Museum of American History to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. The program took place on April 18, 2016.

“Establishment of the Legislative Branch” – C-SPAN

Linda Monk and the Aspen Institute’s Mickey Edwards talked about the origins of the legislative branch and the roles and responsibilities of Congress. Professor James Thurber moderated. The panelists responded to questions from members of the audience.

The program “Article I: The Establishment of the Legislative Branch” was held in the Howard T. Markey National Courts Building by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society to commemorate Constitution Day. The program took place on September 16, 2010.

“James Madison and the Bill of Rights” – C-SPAN

Constitutional scholar Linda Monk discussed the achievement of the First Congress in passing the Bill of Rights. She examined Representative James Madison’s fight to have the legislation pass to provide a bulwark for American liberties. She responded to questions from members of the audience.

“’Congress Shall Make No Law…’ Rep. James Madison and the Passage of the Bill of Rights” was a program of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. It was held on Wednesday, March 31, 2010, at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

“Book Discussion on The Words We Live By” – C-SPAN

At the Library of Congress, Ms. Monk talked about her book The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, published by Hyperion. According to Ms. Monk, although the Constitution has been a key element in nearly every major legal and political debate, few citizens actually understand the language used by the founding fathers. The purpose of the book is to guide the reader through the Constitution, line by line, to help in understanding the document, and the variety of ways in which it has been interpreted. The book contains little-known facts, historical anecdotes, definitions and legal expertise to assist comprehension. In analyzing the Constitution, Ms. Monk incorporates words of inspiration and alternate interpretations from citizens from all walks of life. During her presentation, Ms. Monk explained the context in which the Constitution was drafted, its evolution since 1787 and how it is being affected by current events. She responded to questions from members of the audience and led them in a recitation of the preamble to the Constitution. The event took place on April 14, 2003.


Birth Rights: Citizenship and the Constitution – National Constitution Center

Do the children of illegal immigrants automatically become U.S. citizens when born on American soil? Under current interpretations of American law, the answer is yes. Since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, all persons who are born in the United States become citizens if they are “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” However, the exact meaning of that phrase has become controversial with the rising tide of illegal immigration during the past 20 years. And in Arizona and other states, legislators are proposing to deny state-issued birth certificates to children of illegal immigrants, which may spark a Supreme Court challenge.

Download the PDF:

“Why We the People? Citizens as Agents of Constitutional Change” – History Now, Gilder Lehrman Institute

A simple declarative sentence is at the heart of the world’s oldest written constitution of a nation that is still in effect: “We the People . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” All other dependent clauses in the Preamble explain why the Constitution was written, but they are not necessary. Subject, verb, object: those three elements determine where the action is in a sentence, and in this case, a government. The verb is present-tense, not past. It is active, not passive. I believe this phrasing implies an ongoing obligation of citizens to be actors in constitutional government. As University of Oregon law professor Garrett Epps has said: “Every morning we wake up and decide that we want to live in a constitutional republic.”

Yet scholars tend to focus on the three branches of government created by the Constitution instead of the foundation upon which they rest: an active citizenry. The history of civic movements is a necessary element of understanding constitutional change and recognizing the limits of any government institution. Three examples from constitutional history help prove this point; the creation of the Bill of Rights; the expansion of suffrage; and the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Resources for Educators

“Key Constitutional Concepts” – Sunnylands Classroom, Annenberg Foundation

Linda’s favorite introduction to constitutional history and principles, narrated by the actor who went on to play Dr. Richard Webber on Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a combination of wry humor, political philosophy, and compelling historical stories that forces us to consider the framers as flawed human beings who worked together to create a lasting legacy, despite the limitations of their times.

“The Making of the Constitution” – Voice of America Learning English

“The Making of the Constitution” is a documentary that is part of the VOA Learning English Series, The Making of a Nation. The series teaches U.S. History by telling the stories of major events and characters from the country’s founding to the present day. This documentary is an introduction to basic principles of constitutional history and content. Constitutional scholar Linda Monk appears in this video.

“The Making of the Constitution” – Voice of America Learning English

This news segment includes both a video feature exploring historical sites in Philadelphia and an expanded website with detailed background and quiz items. It addresses in more detail some of the key controversies at the Constitutional Convention, such as representation and slavery, as well as the fight for ratification and a Bill of Rights.

ConstitutionUSA with Peter Sagal – PBS, “Teaching the Constitution”

This website includes lesson plans and teaching strategies, at both middle school and high school levels, to accompany all four episodes of the ConstitutionUSA series. Also included are short video links from the series to illustrate the lessons.

Episode I: Federalism

Federalism is one of the most important and innovative concepts in the U.S. Constitution, although the word never appears there. Federalism is the sharing of power between national and state governments. In America, the states existed first, and they struggled to create a national government. The U.S. Constitution is hardwired with the tensions of that struggle, and Americans still debate the proper role of the national government versus the states. Chief Justice John Marshall, the longest-serving leader of the Supreme Court, noted that this question “is perpetually arising, and will probably continue to arise, as long as our system shall exist.”

Episode II: Rights

What is a right, and where does it come from? A right is a power or privilege that is recognized by tradition or law. Natural or human rights are inherent to human nature; they are not given by government, but neither does government always protect them. Legal rights are those recognized by government, but they can often be taken away as easily as they are given. Throughout U.S. history, many Americans have sought to protect natural rights with law. Indeed, rights form the core of the American experience. As noted by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution: “America has always been about rights. . . . While many nations are based on a shared language or ethnic heritage, Americans have made rights the foundation of their national identity.”

Episode III: Equality

In the wake of the Civil War, three amendments were added to the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery (1865), the Fourteenth Amendment made freed slaves citizens of the United States and the state wherein they lived (1868), and the Fifteenth Amendment gave the vote to men of any race (1870). During this time, the nation struggled with what role four million newly freed slaves would assume in American life. With the triumph of the Radical Republicans in Congress, the Constitution was amended to grant full citizenship to former slaves and promise them equal treatment under the law, a promise that took more than a century to fulfill.

Episode IV: We the People

The first three words in the Constitution are the most powerful: We the People. They declare that the Constitution derives its power not from a king or a Congress, but from the people themselves. This concept of popular sovereignty—power to the people—is the foundation upon which the entire Consti-tution depends.

The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

This is it—the whole megilla, popularly known as the Constitution Annotated, produced by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. It is the most comprehensive legal analysis of the U.S. Constitution, using Supreme Court rulings as its primary source. In addition, the “Featured Topics and Cases” page focuses on recent decisions with key holdings. Advanced students.