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Enlightenment Influence on the U.S. Constitution: Cesare Beccaria’s Contributions to the U.S. Bill of Rights: Are the Rights of the Accused Respected?

Produced by Miguel Morales, Orthopaedic Medical Magnet High School, 2005

1. Introduction

  • Students will analyze Cesare Beccaria's philosophies dealing with rights of the accused that limit government abuses in a democratic society.
  • Students will examine cruel and unusual forms of punishment enforced between 15th-18th century
  • Students will then identify aspects of the U.S. Bill of Rights that are rooted in Beccaria's eighteenth century philosophies.
  • As an extension activity to the lesson, students can select a contemporary example of controversial punishments imposed upon criminals in the present day United States.
  • They must evaluate whether or not the punishment they selected adheres to the stipulations in the Bill of Rights, whether the punishment is cruel and unusual, and whether or not the punishment fits the crime.

2. Related History-Social Science Standards

10.2 Students compare and contrast the Glorious Revolution of England, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution and their enduring effects worldwide on the political expectations for self-government and individual liberty.

  • Compare the major ideas of philosophers and their effects on the democratic revolutions in England, the United States, France, and Latin America (e.g., John Locke, Charles-Louis Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison).

11.1 Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of Independence.

  • Describe the Enlightenment and the rise of democratic ideas as the context in which the nation was founded.

3. Materials

  • Examples of cruel and unusual punishments used in 16th, 17th, and 28th century Europe
  • Selected reading on theories by Cesare Beccaria
  • U.S. Bill of Rights Say, Mean, Matter Chart
  • Selected newspaper/ journal articles related to current controversial punishments used in the U.S.

4. Preparation

  • This lesson is designed as part of a larger study on the influence of Enlightenment thinkers on the development of democracy and the belief in human rights and individual liberties.Thus, students should have a basic understanding about the Enlightenment in 17th an 18th century Europe.
  • Students should have been assigned to read the U.S. Bill of Rights for homework with specific attention to Amendments 5, 6, 7, 8.
  • Photocopies of "Say, Mean, Matter" charts for all students
  • Predetermine how students will be divided into groups of four (Preferably mixed-ability grouping)
  • Sufficient copies of newspaper/ magazine articles to be used for activity on day two. Each student will only need a copy of the article assigned to their group.

5. Activities

Day 1

1) Warm up Prompt (Ten minute timed writing)

"Write about a time when you or someone you know received an unfair punishment for something you/they were accused of doing. What was the accusation, what was the punishment, and why was it unfair?"

2) Class discussion on warm up activity. To facilitate this discussion, ask for volunteers. Consider the following questions:

a. Why was the punishment unfair?

b. Did the punishment fit the crime?

c. How can you determine if a punishment is fair?

d. Were you falsely or rightly accused?

e. Were you given the opportunity to defend yourself or contest the punishment?

3) Transition into Cesare Beccaria. Identify types of cruel and unusual punishments utilized in 16th, 17th and 18th century Europe that influenced Beccaria's writings (if possible, include vivid descriptions along with visual images)

4) Students will read article on theories by Cesare Beccaria (The reading you select should vary depending upon age group, literacy level, etc.) As they read, instruct students to underline any sentences that describe Beccaria's views on punishment and rights of the accused.

5) After reading the article, students are to fill out a "Say, Mean, Matter" chart to compare Beccaria's philosophies to Amendments 5-8 in the U.S. Constitution. Students must analyze both documents to note their similarities. In the "Say" column, students will select key phrases or quotes from the Bill of Rights. In the "Mean" column, students are to demonstrate comprehension by interpreting the meaning of the selected passage. In the "Matter" column, students are to write an evaluative response explaining the importance of the passage to them personally or to the society at large.

6) Give one-Get One Activity: In this activity, students can get out of their seats and speak with any random classmate. The objective is to discuss the topic at hand. Students are to share one of their responses with their peers and receive another response in return that is different from their own.

Upon completing their "Say, Mean, Matter" charts, students will be given ten minutes to get out of their seat and speak to at least two other classmates. By the time the activity is completed, students will have 2 additional entries on their charts; a total of five entries, three of their own and two from their peers.

Day 2 (Optional Extension Activity)

1) Class brainstorm: "What are some current punishments in the United States that may be considered cruel and unusual?"

2) Develop a class definition of "cruel and unusual punishment"

3) Interpret literal definition of "cruel" and "unusual".

4) Students will participate in groups of four. Each group will analyze a different scenario in which a debatable form of punishment was used in the United States. Some suggested newspaper/ journal articles and topics include:

a. Capital Punishment

b. Juveniles and Capital Punishment

c. California Three Strikes Law

d. L.A. Times article: Eleven year old girl nearly given four years in jail and a felony offense for throwing a rock at someone.

5) Students must be assigned the following roles within their group:

a. Discussion Facilitator: Asks probing questions of group members related to the article topic. Seeks group members' opinions on the article as it relates to rights if the accused in the Bill of Rights.

b. Summarizer: Effectively summarizes group responses and opinions on the article.

c. Recorder: Records group responses on group poster or paper

d. Reporter: Reports group discussion and conclusions to the class.

6) Group Activity:

a. Students are to read their assigned scenarios in their groups

b. Students must summarize their scenarios

c. Students must develop a response to the following question: Is the punishment described in your scenario Constitutional? Identify specific ideas from the U.S. Bill of Rights to support your answer.

7) Student groups are to report out to the class as other class members take notes

8) As a conclusion to this lesson, students are to write a short persuasive essay to answer the following question:

"What were Beccaria's contributions to the U.S. Bill of Rights? Does the Bill of Rights effectively prohibit the use of cruel and unusual punishment in the U.S. today? Why or why not?"

6. Assessment

  • Warm up Activity: Intro activity; Link to prior knowledge; creates relevance or personal interest in the topic.
  • Cesare Beccaria handout: Key passages describing Beccaria's views on punishment and the accused should be highlighted or underlined:
  • Demonstration of reading comprehension
  • Say, Mean, Matter Chart: Entries will demonstrate reading comprehension, analytical skills, and evaluation of content.
  • Give One/ Get One additional entries: Peer checks for understanding, cooperative learning, and good for bodily/ kinesthetic learners

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