Representation of the Common Citizen From Declaration of Independence to Present
Jill A. Polhemus

RationaleNevada State StandardsObjectives Chronological Content OutlineTeaching StrategiesContent Essay Annotated Bibliography

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            In order for students to be informed participants in the governmental processes of the legislative (Congress) and executive (Presidential) branches of government, they must understand that the representation of “common citizens” in the United States is an evolutionary process.  They must first become familiar with the historical context that shaped this representation.  For the purpose of this unit, the historical basis will begin with the Declaration of Independence and continue on into the Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, and state constitutions.  In addition to the primary source documents, students also must become familiar with the key participants in the process and their political and social objectives.

            After the historical basis of representation of “common citizens” is established students then need to understand the changes that occurred to bring representation to its current state.  Students need to become familiar with the Bill of Rights and other Amendments in order to see the events that changed representation. This knowledge will create a more enlightened modern “common citizen” that is prepared to participate in the process of government.

Nevada State Standards
Students, upon completion of this unit of study will meet the following learning objectives.  These learning objectives are aligned with appropriate Washoe County School District standards.  The learning objectives will be assessed by teacher observation of skill mastery, participation in structured cooperative learning groups, and an exam consisting of essay questions.

Content Standard 2.5.1
Content Standard 6.5.5

Geography Content Standard 4.5.9

Geography Content Standard 2.5.5

Content Standard 1.5.2
Content Standard 1.5.4
Content Standard 5.5.4

Students will recognize the changes, and basis for these changes, in representation of “common citizens” from the Declaration of Independence to present day.
Students will recognize and have experience with primary source documents, including the Declaration of Independence, state constitutions, U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. 
Students will be able to describe the operation of representative government, including the rights of political minorities.
Students will be able to identify and describe the locations of selected historical events, including the Constitutional Convention.
Students will be able to ask a historical question and identify resources to be used in research.
Students will be able to identify and briefly describe the contributions of key participants in the “Founders Era”, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James, Madison, and George Washington.

Chronological Content Outline
Define “common citizen” and representation.

2.      Declaration of Independence

3.      Articles of Confederation

4.      State Constitutions

5.      Constitution of the United States

6.      Bill of Rights and the other Amendments

Teaching & Learning Strategies
The pedagogy used to deliver this unit will be a mix of direct instruction, discussion (cooperative/whole), inquiry model, and possibly others depending on the final development of the lesson plans.  Direct Instruction will be used to present and explain such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.  Lecture, a form of direct instruction, will provide the historical, political, and social basis of each document, in order for students to begin to understand how these documents fit into the representation of the “common citizen.”

Cooperative groups will be used to facilitate discussion as students develop a working definition of “common citizen” at the opening of the unit.  This definition will be referenced throughout the unit as students investigate the pertinent sections of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, state constitutions, Bill of Rights, and the other Amendments.  At the conclusion of the unit students in their cooperative groups will rework their definitions to reflect the “common citizen” represented today.

The inquiry model and cooperative group pedagogy will be used together to help students to answer the question, “Who was able to vote after the ratification of the Constitution of the United States?”  Students will first review the Articles of the Constitution that pertain to the subject of representation.  Next students will explore this question using the appropriate sections of the original state constitutions.  (See Attachment 2)  The data gathered relating to representation will be organized based on citizenship, gender, age, race, land ownership, money, etc.  A matrix sorted by state will be used capture and display the data.  The data then can be the foundation of further discussion related to the consistency of representation.  For example, a question that would be answered using the matrix might be as follows, "If you can vote in New York, does that mean that you can vote in all other states?”

The variety of pedagogy used in this unit will enable the instructor to reach many styles of learner.  All students will have an increased opportunity to build their knowledge and understanding of representation in the United States from the Declaration of Independence to present.  This new knowledge will create more enlightened citizens, as well as meet the standards and learning objectives outlined in this unit.

            This unit looks at the evolution of representation of the “common citizen,” from the Founders’ Era through present day.  This unit requires the extensive use of primary source documents, including the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, state constitutions, Bill of Rights, and other Amendments, in order to observe changes in representation throughout history.

            The first challenge of this unit was to define “common citizen.”  For the purpose of this unit “common citizen” will be defined as free men and women over the age of 21.  Enslaved blacks are excluded from this definition since they did not gain citizenship until 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment.  The 14th Amendment both granted citizenship to Black Americans and changed the apportionment of representatives to whole number of persons in each state.  Although women are included in the definition of “common citizen” most did not gain representation until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. 

            Representation will be defined as having the ability to vote for representatives in Congress and in presidential elections based on qualifications set forth by the federal and state constitutions.  For this unit, representation of the “common citizen” will be analyzed in terms of voting rights in the legislative (Congress) and executive (Presidential) branches of government.

            The Declaration of Independence was the first document, designed to define the nation, to be written by men of what would soon be the United States of America.  The men who wrote this document used very broad language to describe who was to be represented by the document.  The Declaration of Independence states,

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

The authors did not literally intend that “All Men are created equal,” but were referring to the natural rights concept of human equality in the possession of certain inalienable rights, despite earthly inequalities.  The declaration never went on to identify specifically whom it represented.  Today the beginning of the Declaration of Independence is viewed by some to be the “continuing inspiration for those in the world who wish to eliminate oppression and provide all groups self-government and representation and make liberty, justice, and freedom available to all” (Pencak, 1990).  This may be the case, but the “Founding Fathers” did not have all men, including non-property owning and enslaved, and women in mind when they drafted the declaration.

The men appointed in June of 1776 to draft a declaration of independence were educated and property-owning freemen.  These men included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston.  (For biographies on these men and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence go to  or

Jefferson, at the request of the committee, drafted a declaration.  (For a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Final Draft go to  Upon the review of the committee, only a fragment of Jefferson’s declaration, known as the “original rough draught” exists in the final document.  The declaration was debated and revised by Congress.  On July 4, 1776 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence.

            As the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Congress declared independence from Britain.  The Revolutionary War began bringing further need for a national government (and constitution) and the unification of the 13 separate colonies (states). 

          The Articles of Confederation became the first national constitution of the United States of America in March of 1781. (For biographies on the signers of the Articles of Confederation go to  The Articles of Confederation established a loose national government organized around a Congress.  The Congress had the power to declare war, make peace and treaties, borrow money, and admit new states.  The Congress, however, could not enforce taxes on states to raise money or interfere with trade between states.  States continued to use their own money and to raise military persons to defend them against other countries.  Each of the thirteen states had only one vote in Congress regardless of size or population.  The representation of the “common citizen” was not defined or enforced in the Articles of Confederation.  The legislature of each state chose the delegates to the Confederation, which meant these men probably were a reflection of the current ruling class, educated, property owning freemen.

            By around 1786 many Americans felt the Articles of Confederation were due for revision.  The powers not granted to the Congress, including the ability to tax and raise a national army and navy, were inhibiting the growth of the United States.  More rules were necessary to make the states work together as one country.  In September 1786 the Annapolis Convention convened in Annapolis, Maryland, only five of the thirteen states were represented.  The lack of representation meant that no big decisions could be made.  Alexander Hamilton and James Madison led the delegates to call for another convention in May 1787, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The sole purpose of the Philadelphia Convention, later known as the Constitution Convention, was to revise the Articles of Confederation.

            The Constitutional Convention began in May 1787 and concluded in September.  The convention had 65 official delegates, but only 55 made it to Philadelphia.  Twelve of the thirteen states sent delegates to this meeting.  Rhode Island chose to not be represented.  Many of the most important people in the United States at the time were delegates, including George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin.  (For biographies on the authors and signers of the Constitution of the United States go to  These men are known as the Framers, for framing the rules of our government (Sobel, 2001).  Washington was selected to be the president of the convention.  Although the original task was to revise the Articles of Confederation, the delegates decided to replace the Articles with a new plan for government.  As a result of this convention, the Constitution of the United States was created.

            Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention felt a strong national government was necessary to further the political and economic interests of the United States.  Some of those interests included the ability to counter potential insurrection, such as the Shays’s Rebellion and to achieve international acceptance and standing.  Despite this desire, there was also legitimate fear of creating a monarchy like England.  Through debate and compromise the delegates created a plan for the national government that included a system of checks and balances that would protect the new country from the powerful few.  The government planned by the Framers is known as a democratic republic.  That means the people create the government, and the people elect representatives to the government for limited terms (Sobel, 2001).

The first three words of the Preamble of the Constitution define who this new government plan represents, “We the people….”  The Preamble goes on to list the major goals to be accomplished by the government under the constitution. A constitution is generally defined as a plan of government.  Our constitution has four specific purposes: (1) Explains in detail the kind of government a nation will have, (2) Tells what the government can and cannot do, (3) Tells how the leaders of the government shall be selected, and (4) Lists the rights of the people who grant the government its authority.  The task of creating a constitution that fulfilled these goals was not as simple as it may sound, since each delegate brought to the convention personal interests and the interests of their respective states.

            The most important compromise of the Constitutional Convention, known as the Great Compromise, dealt with how government would be set up.  The Great Compromise brought together the best plans of the large and small population states.  James Madison’s Virginia Plan, which was proposed by the large states, suggested that the lawmaking body be called Congress.  The Congress was to have two houses, or be bicameral.  Under this plan, the people would elect the first house, and the first house would elect the second house.  The population of the state would determine the number of representative Congressmen (Jillson, 1981).  The smaller states supported the New Jersey Plan.  This plan proposed a Congress having one house, or unicameral, with each state having the same number of votes.

            The Great Compromise combined these two plans in order to represent both the large and small states.  Article I, Sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Constitution of the United States reflect this compromise.  Section 1 deals with the two houses of Congress and states,

All legislative powers shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.

Section 2 addresses the House of Representatives and the selection, qualifications, and apportionment of members.  Article I, Section 2 states,

The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States, and the electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature. (Selection of Representatives)

No person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the age of twenty-five years, and been seven years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen. (Qualifications of Representatives)

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other persons.  The actual enumeration shall be made within three years after the first meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.  The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative.

            Section 2 of Article I brought about further debate between the states.  The first area of debate was related to the qualifications of electors.  Each state had different requirements for electors.  For example, in New Hampshire suffrage was limited to male inhabitants, of at least twenty-one years of age, residing in the town or parish, and having ability to pay a poll tax.  In Massachusetts, suffrage was limited to male persons being twenty-one years of age and resident of any particular town in the commonwealth, for the length of one year preceding.  The qualifications in Massachusetts also included having the annual income of three pounds or an estate with the value of sixty pounds.

After some debate, the differences in qualifications led the authors of the Constitution of the United States to leave the qualifications of electors up to the individual states.  By doing this, representation of the “common citizen” varied greatly in each state.  A person who was represented (or had voting rights) in Georgia might not have those same rights in New Jersey.  Upon review of the state constitutions the suffrage is neither included nor defined.  The appropriate portions of the state constitutions 1776-1787 are included as Attachment 1 at the conclusion of this unit.  Many groups and some states felt that their definitions of electors should be even more constrained.  In an article, Jean Yarbrough (1979) states that the authors of the Federalist had a preference for representation by the more enlightened and educated classes, particularly lawyers who – unaffected by any particular economic interests – are more likely to transcend interest group politics.

            The second area of extensive debate involved apportionment.  Small states did not want to have representation figured on freemen owning property.  Especially the southern small population states that had low numbers of whites and large numbers of enslaved blacks.  It did not serve the interests of the small states to base apportionment on freemen owning property.  To successfully have nine of the thirteen states ratify the federal Constitution another compromise was made, and the institution of slavery was protected in order to ensure ratification (Finkelman, 1986).  This compromise of apportionment is know as the 3/5 clause, where enslaved blacks were enumerated as 3/5 of a persons for purpose of representation.  Although the enslaved blacks were counted in the numbers they did not gain the right to cast a vote until the mid-1800s.  Rakove (1997) comments on this issue, the franchise excluded not only the dependent classes of the unpropertied but a whole species of population whose bondage gave vivid meaning to the familiar definition of slavery as a condition in which laws were imposed on the governed without their consent.

            The requirement of enumeration for apportionment created the census.  The first census took place in 1790, and each ten years after that.  The census counts the number of persons residing in a particular place on a certain day.  The original purpose of the census was that of reconfiguring political representation as the population grew and new territories were settled.  The census has also been the focus of great controversy throughout the years regarding how census coverage differs across demographic groups and geographic areas (Prewitt, 2000).  For example, in 1790 the U.S. Census Race Categories included free white males and free white females, all other free persons, and slaves.  In 1840 it enumerated, free white persons, free colored persons, and slaves.  In 1880, the categories were white, black, Mulatto, Chinese, and Indian.  In 1990, they were white, black or Negro, Indian (Amer.), Eskimo, Aleut, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Asian, Indian, Samoan, Guamanian, other API (Asian or Pacific Islander), and other race (Nobles, 2000).  These changes in categories closely reflect the political culture of the time, and who the current Congress saw as needing counted and how people were labeled.

          Section 3 of Article I addresses the Senate and the selection and qualifications of members.  The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state serving a six-year term, and each Senator shall have one vote.  The Constitution also stated that Senators were to be chosen by the legislature of their representative state.  The Framers gave this power to the legislature because they were concerned about giving people too much power to elect leaders directly.  The manner of selecting Senators was changed with the ratification of the 17th Amendment on April 8, 1913, which provides that United States Senators be elected directly by the people.

            The Constitution of the United States also outlined representation in the executive branch in Article II.  In Section 1 of Article II, representation for the election of president is addressed in the formation of the Electoral College.  Section 1 states that,

Each state shall appoint, in such a manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress; but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

This section also went on to describe the manner in which these electors would meet and do business.  The part of this section that is still relevant today is that Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors and the day on which they shall give their votes.  The manner in which electors meet was changed from its original version with the ratification of the 12th Amendment on June 15, 1804, which requires electors in the electoral college vote separately for President and Vice-President.

            The Electoral College was formed because the framers were concerned that the “common citizen” would make a mistake and elect disastrous leaders.  The framers felt poorly educated and informed citizens would be the downfall of the new nation (Stange, 1994).  A proposed alternative to an Electoral College was having the Congress elect the president.  The framers perceived that the Electoral College was more democratic than that, while protecting the young nation from ignorant citizens.  This system of election provides that electorates, equal in number to the number of Senators and Representatives granted to that state, vote for the office of President and Vice-President based on the results of the popular vote.  For example, California has 52 Representatives and 2 Senators, therefore granted 54 electors (based on the 1990 census).  The Electoral College system is still in place today, but is a subject of great controversy.

            Although originally the Constitution of the United States left representation up to the states, this changed through subsequent Amendments.  The original ten amendments were contained in a document called the Bill of Rights.  The Bill of Rights was created because many felt the Constitution did not say enough about the rights of individuals and the states.  To date the Constitution of the United States has been amended only twenty-seven times; many of these later changes have to do with representation. (See Attachment 2 for Amendments that relate to representation.)

            The 12th – 15th, 17th, 19th, 22nd, and 24th – 26th Amendments all contributed to the movement from state control of qualifications for representation, to federal control of these qualifications.  The 19th Amendment finally added the voices of women in representation, even though they had already obtained citizenship status in 1787.  The 24th Amendment brought the right to vote to all Americans twenty-one years and older regardless of their financial abilities.  Seven years later, with the 26th and final Amendment, the voting age was reduced to eighteen years of age.  Proponents of this Amendment believed that those who were of age to serve in the military also should have their voice heard in Congress and the presidential election.  These and other Amendments have shaped the evolution of representation of the “common citizen” in the United States.

            As a result of two hundred years of change the definition of “common citizen” has also changed.  The new definition of “common citizen” would include all men and women, of all races, eighteen years or older, regardless of their financial means.  Maybe the Founding Fathers knew what they were talking about when they wrote the Declaration of Independence.  Today the phrase, “All men (and women) are created equal” is close to reflecting the state of representation in the United States.

Annotated Bibliography
Content & Teaching References

Paul Finkelman, “A Covenant with Death: Slavery and the U.S. Constitution,” American Visions, 1986, 1(3): 21-27. 
      This article analyzes the U.S. Constitution’s intention to protect the institution of slavery, and discusses the debate at the Constitutional Convention over the issue of slavery and the population representation of slaves in determining congressional representation.

Calvin Jillson, “The Representation Question in the Federal Convention of 1787: Madison’s Virginia Plan and its Opponents,” Congressional Studies, 1981, 8(1): 21-41. 
       Article, which discusses the elements of James Madison’s Virginia Plan, presented at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, focusing on the controversy over representation.

Melissa Nobles, Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census of Modern Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). 
       This book provides tables that outline the U.S. Census Race Categories from 1790 to 1990.

William Pencak, “The Declaration of Independence: Changing Interpretations and a New Hypothesis,” Pennsylvania History, 1990, 57(3): 225-235. 
       An article which looks at the Declaration of Independence and the interpretation of its meaning.

Ben Perley Poore, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws of the United States, Volume 1 and 2 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1878). 
        This book contains copies of all the state constitutions beginning with their first constitution ratified shortly after the Declaration of Independence.

Prewitt, Kenneth, “The US Decennial Census: Political Questions, Scientific Answers,” Population and Development Review, 2000, 26(1): 1-16. 
       This article discusses the purpose of the first U.S. census and controversy over it today.

Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (Vintage Books, NY, 1997). 
     This book provides insight as to the political tensions going on at and during the Constitutional Convention between the Founding Fathers.

Mark Stange, Understanding the U.S. Constitution (Mark Twain Media, Inc., 1994). 
      This is a Social Studies activity book that provides student level readings and activities that explain the constitution.

Mary Ellen Sterling, Thematic Unit: U.S. Constitution (Teacher Created Materials, Inc., CA, 2001). 
       This book provides activity ideas related to teaching social studies through selected literature.

Sheila W. Valencia and Marjorie Y Lipson, Literature Based Instruction: Reshaping the Curriculum, Chapter 5 (T.E. Raphael & KH Au, 1998). 
       The selected chapter from this work is entitled “Thematic Instruction: A Quest for Challenging Ideas and Meaningful Learning”.

Jean Yarbrough, “Thoughts on the Federalist’s View of Representation,” Polity, 1979, 12(1): 65-82. 
       This article examines the Founding Fathers’ understanding of Representation as expressed in the Federalist.

This Website provides biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States.

This Website by the Library of Congress provides information on the federal Constitution and a reprint of the historical document.

This Website by the Library of Congress provides information on the Declaration of Independence and a reprint of the historical document.

This Website provides a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Final Draft of the Declaration of Independence.

This Website provides biographies of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

This Website provides copies of primary source documents, including the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, federal Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

Student References
Warren Coleman, The Constitution (Childrens Press, Chicago, IL, 1987).       This book looks at the creation of the federal Constitution.

Henry Steele Commager, The Great Constitution Book for Young Americans (Eastern Acorn Press, 1982). 
       This book contains primary source materials that present the personalities and conflicts that shaped the founding document.

Jean Fritz, Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution (The Putnam Publishing Group, NY, 1987). 
       In this book, Fritz juxtaposes the historical background with the varying personalities of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Elizabeth Levy, If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution (Scholastic, 1987). 
        An introduction to the Constitution is provided in this book.  Included are the document’s background, profiles of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, compromises made at the convention, and the explanation of the mechanism provided to change the Constitution.

Betsy Maestro, A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution (Lothrop, 1987).
         Appealing accounts of the long, hot Philadelphia summer of 1787.

Syl Sobel, The U.S. Constitution and You (Baron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 2001).        
        This book presents the creation process of the Constitution and subsequent Amendments in a format that easily assessable by 5th grade students.

Peter Spier, We the People: The Constitution of the United States of America (Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY, 1987). 
      This book outlines the creation of the federal Constitution.