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"The Blessings of Liberty" for All?


American history is, to a great extent, the story of the struggle of diverse groups to achieve the "blessings of liberty" that are promised in the preamble to the Constitution. These "blessings" were not always extended to all Americans.

Constitutional amendments and federal legislation ensured that African Americans were able to attain the rights of citizenship, including the vote, access to public education, and employment based on merit and nothing else. However, due to state circumvention of federal legislation, such as by enacting laws that flouted such legislation in spirit if not in word, African Americans did not always have access to freedom, equality, and opportunity. The Tenth Amendment supported this practice because it delegated powers to the states, including the power to establish voting eligibility requirements.

In this lesson, students analyze Jim Crow laws, a state constitution, literacy tests, poll taxes and voting eligibility affidavits to evaluate how these tools enabled states, especially in the south, to avoid recognizing the rights of African Americans.


In this lesson, students will:

  • Identify the various ways states avoided recognizing the rights of African Americans
  • Analyze the methods states used to avoid recognizing the rights of African Americans, and why the methods were effective
  • Evaluate how states violated the rights of African Americans that are guaranteed by the Constitution and its amendments



  1. Project the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Ask students to describe the rights and opportunities that it promises. Ensure students understand that it reinforces the concept of natural rights and the role of government in protecting those rights.
  2. Ask students to identify for whom the Preamble was intended and to consider whether the Constitution was meant to all Americans equally. Make sure they understand that throughout its history, the Constitution has been interpreted in ways that fail to guarantee the rights and opportunities of women, Native Americans, and African Americans.
  3. Inform students that in this lesson they will be analyzing federal legislation intended to extend these rights and opportunities to African Americans and state legislation intended to prevent this extension.
  4. Present the guiding question: Explain how the actions of states denied African Americans the "blessings of liberty" promised by the Preamble to the Constitution. Explain that at the end of the lesson, students will write a response to the question citing evidence from the information gathered during the lesson.
  5. Divide the class into five groups. Give each student the Primary Sources Worksheet, the Amendments to the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Give each group one of the primary source documents.
  6. The members of each group should first write a description of their primary source on their worksheet. (Optional: have each group complete the National Archives’ document analysis worksheet to help them analyze their primary source document.)
  7. Next, each group should determine which of the amendments their primary source document is designed to negate, or avoid. They should explain their reasoning in the second column of the graphic organizer.
  8. As each group reports their findings, fill in the worksheet together in a class discussion. Conduct a class discussion to answer any questions or comments students may have. (More advanced classes can "jigsaw" the groups—form new groups so that each group contains one person who studied each document, and have group members explain the documents to each other.)
  9. Pose the guiding question again: Explain how the actions of states denied African Americans the "blessings of liberty" promised by the Preamble to the Constitution. As an "exit slip" or evaluation, have students answer this question using evidence from their worksheets.

Lesson Extensions

Students create an illustrated/annotated time line illustrating the efforts of states to deny African Americans their rights and research when and how these rights were eventually secured.

This lesson was written by Colonial Williamsburg Master Teacher Marie Feeney-DiRito of Coral Springs, Florida.