Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
This exhibit outlines key aspects of how our legal and cultural understanding of the "We" in "We the People" has expanded since 1787. The exciting story of the struggle to make the United States "a more perfect union" is one in which the state and people of Nebraska played important roles. It is a story that continues to unfold and affects everyone living in Nebraska today.
Who are "We the People" in Nebraska?
Constitutions are documents made by people to establish principles and processes for their civil governments within specified geographic areas.
Two constitutions affect citizens in Nebraska: the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Nebraska. Both have been amended to reflect changing understanding over time. Both continue to endure as the foundation for our rights and privileges as citizens in a participatory democracy.
The U.S. Constitution (1787)
The Nebraska Constitution (1875)
|Establishes three branches of government and powers and restrictions thereof
||Creates similar branches of government on state level
|Outlines system of representative democracy based on state elections, rights of states and how they will interact with other states; how new states will be established; ensures federal protection of states
||Prohibits slavery and gives right to vote to male citizens
|Details how constitution may be amended
||Details how constitution may be amended
|Sets Constitution and all laws passed as supreme law of United States and requires officers to support the Constitution
||Itemizes how legislative and executive branches will be elected and will function; preserves rights of local governments to pass laws and outlines intergovernmental cooperation
The founders of the American republic had rebelled against the rule of the English king who denied them certain and ancient rights as English subjects. Their alternative to monarchy would be a government drawing its legitimacy and power from the people themselves. Humans are imperfect, so they sought to reserve basic rights for the people and also to restrict the government by carefully enumerating its powers and providing for strict internal checks and balances.
Their 1787 document also provided for a method of amendment to address new issues and new insights by future generations. The first ten of those amendments are known as the Bill of Rights. Written by the Virginian George Mason, they were ratified in 1791. An additional seventeen amendments have been added over time (for a total of twenty-seven). Nebraska's constitution, by contrast, has been amended over 200 times.
The Ideal and the Reality
Just as individuals are imperfect in thought and action, so is the body of the American people. The "We" of the Founders was perfectly sensible to them, but plainly excluded vast numbers of the people who shared with them the air, land, and waters of the United States. The struggle for an expanded and better understanding of "We the People" continues to this day.
Educational handout brochure (1.1M pdf)