The Many Colors of the Bill of Rights: Paying Homage to De Tocqueville

By Dr. Tara M. Lavallee


As an American as well as a global participant in the world, I strive to prepare York Country Day students in US History on how to think analytically in order to become proficient in applying theoretical schools of thought to real world situations, events, and policies. History and political facts are not meant to be memorized, but rather explored, understood, utilized, assessed, and applied. I am passionate about training our students on how to become independent, informed thinkers. As French sociologist and political theorist De Tocqueville stated early in the development of the United States, the American experiment will succeed as long as the citizenry maintains a vibrant civil society (the art of association), for “the health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens not by government.”  

Recently, after delving into the often dense intricacies and Supreme Court decisions dealing with the enumerated first ten amendments of the Bill of Rights, my students were asked to complete what seemed at first glance to be a basic, easy assignment.  Using watercolors, calligraphy pens, markers, colored pencils, oil pastels, stamps, glitter, and other artistic media, the students were to illustrate an Amendment or part of an Amendment, and explain how their illustrations reflected the Constitutional framers’ intentions of protecting individual civil liberties.


For two class periods, while listening to all my favorite “School House Rocks” songs, the students revelled in the freedom to use their artistic and written creativity to “play” with illustrating an Amendment. After each group presented their work to their fellow students, a magical, illuminating “a-ha” moment filled the room. Once distant, irrelevant ideas created by old men in wigs with often suspect hygiene had become, as one of my students put it, REAL. One student said, “At first the Amendments seemed so inconsequential, but now I realize how crucial they are to the liberties I often take for granted in my everyday life.” Sometimes all it takes are plenty of art supplies, youthful exuberance, singing along to “I’m just a bill, only a bill, and I am living here on Capitol Hill,” and an out-of-the-box idea. As a teacher whose students have often been heard to say, “Yes, we know, Dr. Lavallee, the Constitution is your great love,” this is the perfect reward. Now, sitting at my desk, I glance over at the sketch of De Tocqueville hanging up in my office and swear he is proudly winking at me.