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A foundational principle of the American democratic experiment is that authority and power are vested in The People.  The Declaration of Independence proclaims that individual rights are best secured by governments “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Twelve years later, writing to persuade voters to ratify the new Constitution of the United States, James Madison echoed this idea when he wrote in Federalist 49 that “the people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.” America’s founding documents brilliantly bind decision-makers to the will of The People and guarantee that laws will not inhibit citizens’ ability to meaningfully influence leaders and each other.

Although progressive for the time and having carefully threaded 18th century political realities, we also know the framers had a limited view of who The People were. It would take almost 100 years to amend the Constitution to include a provision guaranteeing voting rights to people regardless of their racial identity and 100 more years for major legislation to combat state and local efforts to disenfranchise large segments of the population. It would take over 125 years to grant voting rights to women and almost 200 years to do the same for 18-year-olds. America is a work in progress, as evidenced by ongoing struggles to ensure equal opportunities for access, voice and participation in governance.

Although the Constitution codifies The People as the legitimate source of governing authority, participation in civic and political life is voluntary, and therefore requires knowledge of political and public issues and processes, and skills to be effective agents of influence. It also functions best when those participating value pluralism, empathy, open-mindedness and diverse perspectives. Learning from America’s founding is necessary to continuing the great democratic experiment of perfecting “a more perfect union” set out in the Constitution.

-Abe Goldberg, Executive Director, JMU Civic

Constitution Day commemorates the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution. On September 17, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created. Read the Constitution here.


Timeline of Women's Rights in the United States

2019-2020 marks the 100th anniversary since the passage and ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution which articulated that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The 19th amendment was the result of centuries of activism and contributions from many social movements to ensure through the highest law of the land a “right through which all other rights could be secured.” But as suffragist leader Frances Harper observed in 1893, "I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need to-day is not simply more voters, but better voters." Indeed, despite the passage of the 19th amendment, women of color did not gain their right to vote until 1964, and some suffragist participation also went hand-in-hand with problematic racism.

Although there have been many advancements since the passage of the 19th amendment, there is much to be done to improve the status of women, including among other things: ending sex-based discrimination, improving maternal mortality rates for black women, ensuring equal pay for equal work, increasing protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and addressing challenges faced by veterans and those who live in poverty.

Throughout the 2019-2020 academic years, students, faculty and staff held events to celebrate Women Breaking Barriers.

Kearstin Kimm (Computer Science, JMU '20) spent her time as a Democracy Fellow at the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement researching the history of women’s rights in what we now know as the United States and the 19th amendment. Using her knowledge and technical expertise, she created the comprehensive timeline below beginning in 1619 up to present day. The timeline includes entries related to progress and challenges to the status of women, with photos and links to primary source documents. Have suggestions for additional entries?, contact Dr. Carah Ong Whaley at

‘Slaves of the State’: 13th Amendment, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex

By Angelina Clapp (JMU ’20, Political Science), Kyel Towler (JMU ’21, Communication Studies) and Ryan Ritter (JMU ’22, History and International Affairs)

Modern day prison labor in the United States is rooted in the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and has created a system of slavery that we are more comfortable with. Because of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, Black Americans have historically and presently been subjected to structural disadvantages that reinforce cheap labor from the vestiges of slavery. Incarcerated Americans have been deemed “slaves of the state” which led to the current situation for incarcerated Americans, including the loss of constitutional and voting rights, egregious underpayment for labor, prevention from unionizing, and the list goes on. The development of the prison industrial complex between government and industry, forces many state organizations and public institutions, and universities in Virginia, including JMU, utilize the “services” of prison-made goods.

Read the full paper with footnotes here.

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