Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life

Political and civic life in the United States rests on a set of fundamental principles and values including equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government. Activities explore the meaning of these principles and values, the importance of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and the boundaries of student rights at school as well as the history of the Boston Massacre and the right to an attorney at trial. A Media Literacy Connection examines online messaging by special interest groups.

Standard 4.4: Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life

Define and provide examples of fundamental principles and values of American political and civic life. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T4.4]

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Fundamental Principles and Values of American Political and Civic Life?

Statue of liberty visual embedded into U.S. Constitution
"Liberty Enlightening the World" by Kalki is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

Modules for this Standard Include:

  1. INVESTIGATE: Fundamental Principles and Values of American Life
    • Equality
    • Rule of Law
    • Limited Government
    • Representative Democracy
      • MEDIA LITERACY CONNECTIONS: Online Messaging by Special Interest Groups
      • SPECIAL TOPIC BOX: John Adams, The Boston Massacre, and the Right to an Attorney at Trial
  2. UNCOVER: The Importance of the 14th Amendment
  3. ENGAGE: What Are and Should Be Students’ Rights at School?

1. INVESTIGATE: Fundamental Principles and Values of American Life

Equality, Rule of Law, Limited Government, and Representative Government are examples of fundamental principles and values in American political and civic life.

Image on Pixabay


The word "equality" did not appear in the Constitution of 1787 or the Bill of Rights of 1789. While the Constitution guaranteed rule of law to all citizens and provided security of liberty under the law, the existence of slavery and inequalities in the status of women contradicted the idea of equal rights.

It was not until after the Civil War that equality was deliberately addressed in the Constitution through a series of amendments:

Learn more about the efforts toward equality for marginalized groups:

Rule of Law

The concept of the rule of law is taken from Alexander Hamilton's Federalist 33 where he wrote: "If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct." 

According to the United States Courts, "the Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are:

Special Topic Box: John Adams, the Boston Massacre, and the Right to an Attorney at Trial

The right to a trial when accused of a crime is one of the foundations of the rule of law in United States society. Guaranteed to all by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, it means that defendants have:

  • the right to speedy trial,
  • the right to a lawyer to defend them,
  • the right to an impartial jury, and
  • the right to confront one’s accusers and to know the charges being brought against them (National Constitution Center).

Before the Constitution and its Sixth Amendment was passed, the right to trial and the right to have a lawyer for those charged with a crime faced a stern test in the aftermath of the events of March 5, 1770 on King Street in Boston, Massachusetts when British soldiers fired their guns into a crowd of protesters, killing 5 people in what has become known as the Boston Massacre.

Painting of Boston Massacre
USCapitol - Boston Massacre by USCapitol | Public Domain

One of those who lost his life was a Black man, Crispus Attucks, who is regarded as the first person killed in the American Revolution. What actually happened that night and why is still debated by historians and the event has parallels to modern-day responses by police officers to Black and Brown Lives Matter protesters.

Watch the Boston Massacre Scene from the TV mini-series John Adams

Watch on YouTube

In colonial Boston, immediately afterwards, popular emotions were high and people wanted instant punishment for the soldiers and the commander. John Adams, a 34 year-old Boston attorney and later the second President of the United States, agreed to defend the soldiers despite possible threats to himself and his family. Adams believed every person deserved a trial in court and a lawyer to defend them, no matter how clear and obvious someone’s guilt may seem.

Going against the immense pressure of popular opinion, John Adams took a courageous action, one that helped establish the concepts of what would be the Sixth Amendment in American law.

Adams’s efforts resulted in acquittal of the British commander, Captain Thomas Preston and six of the soldiers; two others were convicted of manslaughter. Of his legal work, Adams later said, “It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country.” 

Still, it took till the 1963 landmark Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright to ensure that the state must provide an attorney to any defendant who cannot afford to hire their own lawyer, thereby guaranteeing the right to counsel to anyone accused of a crime.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Write and Draw a History of the Event and Its Aftermath
    • Write or draw a picture book (for children) or graphic novel (for teens) which explains the history of the right to a trial and a lawyer to defend you.

Limited government

In the United States political system, the national government is given limited but not supreme or total powers. After the struggle of the American Revolution to be free from rule by a king, people in the colonies were very wary of a tyrannical ruler or an overbearing government. In the Constitution, limited government relates to free markets and classical liberalism, drawing on Adam Smith's philosophy of the "invisible hand" and self-regulating economies.

The 9th and 10th amendments of the Bill of Rights further express the concept of limited government. Those amendments state that the rights of people do not have to be expressly written in the Constitution and that delegated powers of the Federal government are only to be performed if expressly mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution also limits government intervention in other key areas of political life, including thought, expression, and association.

Representative democracy

Representative democracy is the principle that people elect individuals to represent them in the government. This is a fundamental element of the governmental system of the United States. Voters elect representatives to a ruling body (the Congress) who acts on behalf of the people's best interests. Learn more from this video: Representative Democracy.

Media Literacy Connections: Online Messaging by Special Interest Groups

Advocacy organizations (also known as special interest groups) are groups that support a political issue or cause (What is an Advocacy Group?). These organizations engage in fundraising, conducting public awareness and information campaigns, lobbying legislators, and contributing to political campaigns. They make extensive use of social media. 

In these activities, you will explore how civil rights and social justice advocacy organizations use social media and online messaging to promote equality in society and then you will design your own!

    Suggested Learning Activity

    • Create a Public Service Announcement (PSA) Video
      • Does American political and civic life exemplify the fundamental principles and values of equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government?
      • Conduct research and then create a video that educates others. 

    • Create a Social Media Post About Representative Democracy
      • Using TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, or some other digital tool, create a social media post that answers the following questions:
        • What personal qualities, education, and background should an elected representative have?
        • How would that representative best stay in touch with you and other constituents?
        • What problems do you want that representative to focus on solving?
        • What type of person do you want representing you in government at the local, state, and national level?

    Online Resources for Fundamental Principles of American Political Life

    2. UNCOVER: The Importance of the 14th Amendment

    John Bingham, a now mostly forgotten Congressman from Ohio, wrote these famous words of the 14th Amendment:  

    No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

    14th Amendment Sign
    14th Amendment Sign at the Brown v. Board of Education Historical Site by Shutterbugsage is licensed under CC BY 3.0

    The 14th Amendment is a landmark in United States law. The Bill of Rights protected citizens from infringements on their rights by the federal government. This amendment extended people's constitutional protections to actions by state governments that would deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process under the law.

    Passed on July 9, 1868 and based on the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, the amendment had five sections:

    Historian Eric Foner (2019) characterized the three post-Civil War amendments as “sleeping giants . . . that continued to inspire those who looked to the Constitution to support their efforts to create a more just social order” (p. xxviii).

    The 14th Amendment transformed law and society in the United States. As New York Times opinion writer Magliocca (2013) noted:

    This sentence would be the legal basis for the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions desegregating the public schools, securing equality for women, and creating the right to sexual privacy. Bingham also said that his text would also extend all of the protections of the Bill of Rights to the actions of state governments, which is largely, though not completely, the law today (para. 15).

    Brown v. Board of Education (1954), school desegregation; Mapp v. Ohio (1961), prevention of illegal search and seizure; Gideon v. Wainwright (1965), the right to a lawyer; Loving v. Virginia (1967), the right to interracial marriage; and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the right to gay marriage were among the landmark Supreme Court decisions based on the 14th Amendment.

    The 14th Amendment was one of three post-Civil War or Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, the others being the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and the 15th Amendment gave all citizens the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous position of servitude. Voting rights for women, however, were not guaranteed.

    The 14th Amendment was a direct response to the "Black Codes," laws passed by White southern state legislators after the Civil War to maintain the unequal position of African Americans in the former Confederate states. The 14th Amendment, observed historian Heather Cox Richardson, declared that "state governments could not pass laws that threatened some people worse than others" (Letters to an American, July 8, 2022).

    A less well-known part of the 14th Amendment is Section 3, its disqualification clause that prevents anyone who had engaged in an insurrection against the government from ever running or holding political office again.

    In  December 2023, the Colorado Supreme Court cited that section of the amendment to prevent former president Donald Trump from appearing on the state's 2024 Presidential primary ballot. In a 4 to 3 decision, the Court held that Trump had engaged in an insurrection through his actions leading up to and on January 6, 2021. Read the Court's decision here.

    The issues raised center around two key constitutional questions, noted University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Paul Collins: "did Trump engage in an insurrection" and "does the 14th Amendment apply to the president" (quoted in MacDougall, Greenfield Recorder, December 21, 2023, p. A10). The Supreme Court will be asked to resolve those questions.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    The National Constitution Center has overviews of more Supreme Court cases involving the 14th Amendment.

    Online Resources for the 14th Amendment

    3. ENGAGE: What Are and Should Be Students' Rights at School?

    Students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate" declared the Supreme Court in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case (the details of the case are in Topic 5/Standard 6 of this book).

    At the same time, the law permits schools to set their own rules and policies about what students can and cannot do in school buildings (First Amendment Rights for Student Protesters). As a result, in many instances, students do not have the same rights in school buildings that they have outside them (Student Rights at School:  Six Things You Need to Know). Under current law:

    Minnesota High School Students Walked Out

    Minnesota High School Students Walked Out of School to Demand Changes to Gun Laws, March 7, 2018 by A1Cafel is licensed by CC BY 2.0

    The rights of students are subject to shifting legal interpretations and intensified political debates over the ongoing issues of speech, privacy, social media, dress codes, discipline procedures, disability rights, gender expression, bathroom access, health, pregnancy, and more. Viewing recent history, legal scholar Catherine J. Ross (2015) contended that courts have retreated from the broad protections that were granted to student speech in the 1940s through the 1960s.

    Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. (2021)

    You can learn more about student legal rights involving speech and social media, including the landmark 2021 Mahanoy Area School District vs. B.L. Supreme Court decision (the so-called school cheerleader free speech case) in Topic 5.6 of this book.

    Students' Rights in Public vs. Private Schools

    Students attending private schools (that is, schools not funded by local, state, or federal government) do not automatically have the same rights as their peers in public schools. Constitutional protections do not necessarily apply. Instead, student rights are determined by the legal contract that families sign to send children to those schools (Student Rights in Private Schools). Private schools therefore have broad discretion about the rules and behaviors they want to enforce and students must follow them or they can be punished or expelled for violating the contract signed by their families to attend.

    Ban on Hairstyle Discrimination in Schools

    A recent focus on students' rights in schools revolves around efforts to ban hairstyle discrimination. In July 2022, Massachusetts passed the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair) - the 18th state to adopt similar protections. The law defines natural and protective hairstyles as "braids, locks, twists, bantu knots, and other formations." The law in Massachusetts stems from the case of two twin Black 15-year-olds who were punished for wearing extensions at their charter school, although no White students had received penalties for violating hairstyle rules. A bill to ban hairstyle discrimination nationally has been introduced in the House of Representatives (2022).

    Explore the following series of Do You Know Your Rights as a Student scenarios from the ACLU.

    What additional rights should students have at your school?

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Online Resources for Student Rights at School

    Standard 4.4 Conclusion

    American political and civic life rests on a series of fundamental principles and broadly shared values. INVESTIGATE explored the meanings of four of those principles and values: equality, rule of law, limited government, and representative government. UNCOVER discussed how the 14th Amendment to the Constitution has over time extended America’s fundamental principles and values to African Americans and other marginalized individuals and groups. ENGAGE asked what are the protections and limits of students’ rights at school. 

    This content is provided to you freely by Equity Press.

    Access it online or download it at https://equitypress.org/democracy/principles.