Understanding How Government Works: Popular Sovereignty

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

This fall, “we the people” will have the opportunity to “form a more perfect union” through participation in the 2020 election. Popular Sovereignty, or “people power” has deep roots in our constitutional republic. This week’s #CivicsInTheMiddle webinar explored the concept of popular sovereignty throughout our history and calls to make our republic more democratic through changes in public policy.

The Illinois Social Science standards and civics course requirements suggest that teachers use essential questions to engage students in current and societal issue discussions around enduring constitutional concepts. Inquiry to informed action per the standards examining popular sovereignty can be supported through essential questions such as:
  • Has suffrage expanded far enough?
  • How can we make our republic more democratic?
  • How can I exercise my power to make the government more representative of “we the people”?
  • How do competing interests influence how power is distributed and exercised in our constitutional republic?
  • What does the government owe “we the people” and vice versa?
  • What is my role and responsibility to create a “more perfect union?”
  • When are “we the people” justified in making “good trouble” in order to form “a more perfect union”?
  • To what extent does the United States live up to the ideal of one person, one vote?
Dr. Shawn Healy, the Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation began this week’s webinar tracing the roots of popular sovereignty to 17th century England, through issues of governance in colonial America and ratification of the U.S. Constitution where James Madison in Federalist 39 explained:

The act of the people, as forming so many independent States, not as forming one aggregate nation, is obvious from this single consideration, that it is to result neither from the decision of a MAJORITY of the people of the Union, nor from that of a MAJORITY of the States. It must result from the UNANIMOUS assent of the several States that are parties to it…, not by the legislative authority, but by that of the people themselves. 

Publius (James Madison), Federalist 39

The passing of Congressman John Lewis this past weekend reminds all of us that the story of who is included in “we the people” has grown throughout history. Rep. Lewis demonstrated that at times, we the people have to make “good trouble” to push for a more perfect union. The actions of such patriots resulted in legislation at the state and federal levels, amendments to the U.S. Constitution supporting voting rights, as well as influencing court decisions to expand popular sovereignty and who has a voice in our constitutional republic. At the end of the webinar, Dr. Healy outlined calls for reform in redistricting, ballot access, and electoral reform to continue progress towards equity and justice.

If you missed the webinar, you can access the recording to deepen your content knowledge and access related resources and strategies for teaching about popular sovereignty in your classroom.

Both the high school and middle school civics requirements facilitate mastery of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions related to the concept of popular sovereignty by having students explore and exercise their power through the proven practices of civic education. Our IllinoisCivics.org website supports this work with:
  • An Election 2020 Toolkit with materials to engage students in the proven civic learning practices this election year.
  • A Curriculum Design Toolkit with resources to help you identify assets in your curriculum and resources to meet any needs for civics course implementation.
  • Lesson plans aligned with the Illinois Social Science standards and proven civic learning practices.
At the end of each webinar, Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches share their top strategies and resources for implementation. This week, Matthew Wood from Leman Middle School shared some resources he encourages teachers to start with to explore the concepts of popular sovereignty.
  • “Let’s Party” resource from our IllinoisCivics.org website which explores the essential question “What purpose do political parties have in our political system?” Middle schoolers are often just getting curious about, “what makes a person choose to be a Democrat or a Republican?” and this lesson teaches them how the parties reflect what people value, which is a key component to how people choose to vote. As described in Dr. Healy’s presentation, as the rules of who can vote have changed, so have the parties.
  • Civics101 is not just a great podcast, they also have resources on their webpage to really help students break down all that they have to say about many various topics. They have a particularly good episode (2 parts actually) on the 19th amendment and how popular sovereignty was expanded to include women.
This fall, IllinoisCivics.org is launching a series of afterschool webinars to help teachers #Teach2020 and use the November elections as a teachable moment to explore concepts like popular sovereignty in current events. Details and registration links are available on our IllinoisCivics.org Professional Development calendar and August newsletter.

What are you doing to teach your students about popular sovereignty? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

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