On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin observed that he had often wondered whether the design on the president's chair depicted a rising or a setting sun. "Now at length," he remarked, "I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun."
Franklin's optimism came only after many months of debate and argumentation over the form of government that would best secure the future safety and happiness of the young American republic. At times it seemed that the Convention would fail as a result of seemingly irreconcilable views between the delegates, especially on the questions of selecting representatives to Congress, the relationship of the national and state governments, and the powers of the president. After a month of deadlock over the issue of representation, Franklin himself had called for a prayer because "mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human wisdom."
The delegates at the 1787 Convention faced a challenge as arduous as those who worked throughout the 1780s to initiate reforms to the American political system. Even before the Convention was authorized to convene, the road to reform was paved with resistance, especially from those who believed that the Articles of Confederation were in little or no need of amendment. In the end, the Convention met, and by the almost miraculous "Connecticut Compromise" was able to fulfill its task of recommending improvements to the American form of government, with only three delegates refusing to sign the final document. Although many challenges to ratification lay ahead, the work of the Convention placed the Union on a more stable basis, and the Constitution continues to be the foundation of American government and political thought to this day.
In this unit, students will examine the roles that key American founders played in creating the Constitution, and the challenges they faced in the process. They will learn why many Americans in the 1780s believed that reforms to the Articles of Confederation were necessary, and the steps taken to authorize the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia. They will become familiar with the main issues that divided delegates at the Convention, particularly the questions of representation in Congress and the office of the presidency. Finally, they will see how a spirit of compromise, in the end, was necessary for the Convention to fulfill its task of improving the American political system.
Review each lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF, such as this one for Lesson Plan One (see sidebar under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources" for full list of files).
Download the PDFs for each lesson, such as this one for Lesson Plan One. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.