Signing of Constitution, by Howard C. Cristy.
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection
Alexander Hamilton of New York—a brilliant, ambitious, former aide-de-camp and secretary to Washington during the Revolution, had … become a powerful political figure … There were others who played major roles—Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut; Edmund Randolph of Virginia; William Paterson of New Jersey …"
— The Creation of the U.S. Constitution
In the course of over two centuries since the nation's founding, the Constitution of the United States has become an iconic document for many Americans, who may with difficulty imagine real people piecing it together detail by painstaking detail through meetings, discussions, committee work, and compromise. Yet we have good records of those proceedings. By means of such records, among them James Madison's extensive notes, we can witness the unfolding drama of the Constitutional Convention and the contributions of those whom we have come to know as the Founding Fathers: Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and others who played major roles in founding a new nation.
What were some of the conflicts debated in the meetings and discussions that led to the creation of the Constitution of the United States? What interests and passions drove those conflicts—and to what shared principles did the Founders appeal as they struggled to reach a compromise? In this lesson, students will learn how the Founding Fathers debated, then resolved, their differences in the Constitution Learn through their words and the words of others how the Founding Fathers created "a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise" (From The Charters of Freedom on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom).
Note: Use this lesson as a sequel to, or in conjunction with, the complementary lesson, Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met. By completing the activities in both lesson, students will become familiar with the Constitutional Convention and the men and ideas that shaped the U.S. Constitution.
What was the nature of the debates held during the Constitutional Convention? In what ways do the debates represent "a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise"?
After completing this lesson plan, students will be able to
Pages 1–3 Example of a Transcript Revised for a Reader's Theater Reading Pages 4–29 Transcripts of Debates:
Madison Debates for May 30, 1787
Madison Debates for May 31, 1787
Madison Debates for June 1, 1787
Elliot Debates for June 4, 1787
Madison Debates for June 13, 1787
Rufus King Debates for June 18, 1787
Madison Debates for July 12, 1787
Page 30 Chart for Statements in Documents Page 31 Chart for Odd Statements
As necessary, begin by reviewing with students the Virginia, New Jersey, and Hamilton Plans, as well as the Great Compromise (Connecticut Plan). If desired, use the summaries found in the Preparation Instructions section, above. Adapt the "Chart of Various Plans (Blank)" on page 1 of the PDF as an organizer to help students see the differences and similarities between the various plans. The "Chart of Various Plans" — the same chart, complete with information-is available on page 2 of the PDF. Here are some additional sources of information to use in your review:
Divide the class into small groups. Using the "Example of a Transcript Revised for a Reader's Theater Reading" on pages 1-3 of the PDF file, Handouts, review with students the kinds of changes they can expect to see in the debate transcripts provided in this lesson. If students are comfortable with the revised version featured in this example, they are ready to proceed with Activity 3. Presenting the Reader's Theater, below.
If your students have difficulty with the minimally revised "translation" of the original text, you may wish to break down the language further. There are a few options for accomplishing this, depending on your students' abilities. You can use the sample transcript to demonstrate what students are to do on their own and then assign the transcripts (listed in Activity 3, below) to student groups. The students would then work together to prepare a newly revised script on their own. If desired, check over the scripts before proceeding.
Another option is to work together as a class to further revise the transcripts. Feel free to use different strategies with different groups. For example, after the class works together creating a script, one group could prepare that script for reading aloud while the other groups create their own scripts. In any case, emphasize that students should make as few changes as possible—just enough to illuminate the meaning of the original text—and focus on creating a script that will seem real when read aloud.
Divide the class into small groups. Download, copy, and distribute to each group one of the following transcripts, found on pages 4-28 of the Handouts. Or, for any students who are able to do so, allow them to locate online a section of the debates to use on their own. (NOTE: The excerpts vary in length, so assign them to groups accordingly.)
Each group is to prepare a "reader's theater"-style presentation of their selection by assigning roles, including a narrator to read the portions of the script that do not indicate actual speech. Though not essential, students may benefit from first reading the biographies of the figures they will portray. A good place to start is with the biographies available at the Founding Fathers' Page on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom.
Each group could also be required to locate the section in the Constitution that deals with the subject under discussion in their transcript (e.g., veto power, how states should be represented in the legislature, etc.) to remind the class of the final decision on the issue. The Text of the Constitution is available on the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom.
After students have had a chance to complete their research, each group should present their reading and any other details they have gathered about it to the class.
Once all groups have presented, engage students in a discussion of the nature of the debates they dramatized in their readings. For example, can they point to points in the debates (in the excerpts used or anywhere else) where there was:
3 class periods