Signing of Constitution, by Howard C. Cristy
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection.
When the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention convened in May of 1787 to recommend amendments to the Articles of Confederation, one of the first issues they addressed was the plan for representation in Congress. This question was especially contentious, and kept the delegates embroiled in debate and disagreement for over six weeks. One group of delegates believed that they were not authorized to change the "federal" representational scheme under the Articles of Confederation, according to which the states were equally represented in a unicameral Congress by delegates appointed by the state legislatures. Another group of delegates believed that the current scheme of representation under the Articles of Confederation was flawed and had to be replaced with a better one—a "national" one. The question was finally resolved by the Connecticut Compromise, which resulted in a system of representation that would be "partly national, partly federal," involving a combination of the two kinds of representation.
This lesson will focus on the various plans for representation debated during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By examining the views of delegates as recorded in James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, students will understand the arguments of those who supported either the Virginia Plan or New Jersey Plan. Students will also see why the Connecticut Compromise was crucial for the Convention to fulfill its task of remedying the political flaws of the Articles of Confederation.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
In May of 1787, delegates from the states began assembling in Philadelphia for a Convention to recommend amendments to the Articles of Confederation. From the beginning, however, the central point of contention among delegates was the extent to which the scheme of representation under the Articles should be changed. According to the Articles of Confederation, the states were united in a "firm league of friendship" under what was understood to be a federal government. Each state legislature selected delegates to a unicameral Congress (that is, there was only one legislative branch, unlike the bicameral Congress established later by the Constitution). The states were equally represented in Congress because each state delegation could cast only one vote. Some delegates, including James Madison, believed this arrangement led to many of the problems that the United States faced during the 1780s (See Lesson 1 of this unit, "The Road to the Constitutional Convention"). Madison, therefore, devised what came to be known as the Virginia Plan, which was introduced to the Convention by Edmund Randolph of Virginia on May 29. The Virginia Plan would establish two Houses of Congress: in the first or "lower" House, representatives would be elected directly by the people of each state; representatives in the second or "upper" House would be selected by members of the lower House out of a pool of candidates nominated by the state legislatures. In both Houses, the number of representatives from each state (referred to by the delegates as the "rule of suffrage") would be "proportioned," determined by either the population of each state, or by the amount of taxes each state contributed annually to national funds. The Virginia Plan would establish a national government that represented the people of the United States directly: the people themselves would elect their representatives, and the laws of Congress would apply to them directly rather than to the state governments.
On June 15, William Paterson of New Jersey introduced an alternative plan to revise and correct the Articles of Confederation. The New Jersey Plan would enlarge some of the powers of Congress—such as the power to raise money though import taxes—but would otherwise leave the scheme of representation unchanged. On June 16, Paterson argued that his more conservative plan—unlike the Virginia Plan—was within the scope of what the Convention was authorized to do.
A strange interlude occurred on June 18 when Alexander Hamilton of New York introduced his own plan. Hamilton proposed a bicameral Congress in which representatives in the Assembly (or lower House) would be elected directly by the people, and members of the Senate would be appointed by electors chosen by the people. The state governments would have no role in selecting representatives, and the national government would neither represent nor rely on the state governments in any way. Hamilton's plan was so radical that it spawned little debate, but it did set the tone for the heated discussions that would follow in the next few weeks.
Three issues dominated the debates over the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. First was the question of a unicameral versus a bicameral Congress. Delegates such as James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued that splitting the legislature into two Houses would allow each to act as a check on the other. Others, such as Paterson, countered that such a check was unnecessary. The question was finally settled in favor of a bicameral Congress on June 21.
The second issue surrounding the question of representation was the mode of election; that is, whether representatives should be elected by the people directly or by the members of the state legislatures. On one side, delegates such as Roger Sherman and Elbridge Gerry believed that the people were not fit to select their representatives. On the other side, delegates such as George Mason and James Madison argued that direct election to the lower House by the people was necessary to satisfy the "democratic principle." (June 6) This question was finally settled by a compromise on June 25: representatives in the lower House would be elected directly by the people; Senators would be appointed by each state legislature.
The third and most contentious element of the debate was the question of equal versus proportional representation in Congress, otherwise known as the "rule of suffrage" in the legislature. Some delegates feared that proportional representation would allow the larger states to dominate Congress and pass laws adverse to the interests of the smaller states. Other delegates, such as George Mason, feared that equal representation would allow the smaller states to form a majority in Congress that would tax and spend the wealth and resources of the larger states to the advantage of the smaller states.
The delegates reached an impasse over the rule of suffrage in Congress. On June 11, Roger Sherman of Connecticut had proposed a compromise measure: in the lower House, representation should be based on the population of each state; in the Senate, each state should have one vote. Two weeks later, on June 29, Oliver Ellsworth, also of Connecticut, revived Sherman's proposal and urged delegates to compromise. "We were partly national; partly federal," Ellsworth urged. Ellsworth's proposal was sent to a committee, which recommended proportional representation in the lower House based on population, and equal representation in the Senate. The committee also proposed that all bills to tax or spend money must originate in the lower House, and could not be altered or amended by the Senate. This provision won the approval of delegates such as George Mason, who was now satisfied that even with equal representation in the Senate, a coalition of smaller states would be unable to unjustly tax the larger states. Despite continued resistance by James Madison and James Wilson, the compromise finally passed on July 16.
For more background information, the EDSITEment reviewed resource Teaching American History offers an interactive website that includes a summary of the major themes of the Constitutional Convention, a day-by-day account of the debates, and useful biographies of the delegates.
Note to teachers on prioritizing activities: This lesson, because of the importance and complexity of the subject matter, involves three activities that require five class periods if all activities are completed. If your available time is less than that suggested for completing the entire lesson, it is recommended that teachers focus their time on Activity 2, which incorporates the main issues regarding representation that kept the delegates engaged in the most serious debates during the Constitutional Convention. If time allows, Activity 3 will also be useful to show how delegates resolved their disagreements. Activity 1, which lays out the more theoretical groundwork for the debates over representation, might be considered as optional for those teachers who only have 2-3 days available for this lesson. Teachers also have the discretion of modifying the assignments and materials to be covered in class to fit their allotted schedules.
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. 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 Text Document. Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. 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.
Time required for activity: Homework reading assignment with questions and two 45 minute class periods. The Alternate Version (found at the end of Activity 1) will require an additional 1-2 days.
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents and analysis questions assigned for in-class discussion and as homework (listed below, included on pages 1-11 in the Text Document for Activity 1).
The purpose of the activity is to provide students with an understanding of the various plans for representation debated during the first weeks of the Constitutional Convention. Students will also become familiar with the views of some of the more prominent delegates at the Convention. They will also understand why the question of "authorization" arose during the debates over these plans.
Divide your students into three groups. Assign Reading Set A to all of the groups, and allow them to read and discuss the assigned documents. Then each group should write one-paragraph answers to the assigned questions (listed on the Analysis Sheet found on page 3 in the Text Document for Activity 1). After approximately 20-25 minutes, the whole class should compare and discuss their answers to the analysis questions (for the remainder of the class period).
Reading Set A. Plans of Representation (to be assigned to all three groups for in-class discussion)
Have students read the following documents, available in their entirety at the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project at Yale University, National Archives Experience and Teaching American History, and in excerpted form on pages 1-2 of the Text Document for Activity 1:
Analysis questions for Reading Set A (found on page 3 of the Text Document for Activity 1):
For homework, assign one of the three additional sets of readings (Readings Sets B-D, listed below and included on pages 4-5, 7 and 9-10 in the Text Document for Activity 1) to each of the three groups, and have each group write a one-paragraph answer to their assigned questions (the questions are also listed in the Analysis Sheets found on pages 6, 8 and 11 in the Text Document for Activity 1). Assign each group of students only ONE of the following three Reading Sets:
Reading Set B. Debate over the Virginia Plan: Were the delegates authorized to establish proportional representation?
Based on what they have read students should then answer each of the following questions, found on page 6 of the Text Document for Activity 1:
Reading Set C. Debate over the Virginia Plan: Paterson's critique of proportional representation
Based on what they have read they should then write a one-sentence answer to each of the following questions, available on page 8 of the Text Document for Activity 1:
Reading Set D. Debate over the New Jersey Plan: Will it be enough to fix the Articles of Confederation?
Based on what they have read they should then write a one-paragraph answer to each of the following questions, available on page 11 of the Text Document for Activity 1:
Each group should meet briefly (5-10 minutes) and compare their answers. Then the teacher should reassign or reshuffle the groups, so that there is at least one student in each new group who has answered the analysis questions for Reading Sets B, C and D. Then the new groups should compare and discuss their documents and answers (approximately 15 minutes total). For the remainder of the class period, each group should select a member to summarize and present their answers with the rest of the class (approximately 5 minutes for each presentation).
Teachers have the option of extending the activity by assigning the following for homework on the second day of the activity: Write a one to two page essay on how the delegates were divided over the Virginia and New Jersey Plans (Teachers: if you are going to move on to Activity 2 on the following day, be aware that you will need to assign the readings for the next exercise as well).
Assign Reading Set A excerpts (found on pages 1-2 of the Text Document for Activity 1) and the accompanying questions to all students to be completed for homework. Students should also write a brief summary of the main points in each document. Begin class the following day with a discussion of the readings (students are instructed that no writing is allowed during this discussion). Select students to present their written summaries of the assigned documents, and allow for appropriate discussion time after each summary is presented. When all readings have been discussed, allow students to change or make additions to their homework answers.
Next, hand out copies of Reading Sets B, C and D to every student (available on pages 4-5, 7 and 9-10 in the Text Document for Activity 1). Divide the class into three groups—intentionally including some high, middle, and lower ability students in each one—and assign each group the worksheet questions for Reading B, C, or D (found on pages 6, 8, or 11 of the Text Document for Activity 1). Assign only one set of worksheet questions to each group. Groups should discuss possible answers to each question in their assigned set, and each student would individually complete his/her worksheet. Then each group should give a short presentation to the entire class on their document and answers. The teacher should summarize the following on the board/or overhead: the different plans, view on authorization, and the difference between national and federal. These changes would add an extra day or two to the lesson, but even lower ability students should grasp an understanding of the major differences of opinion.
Time required for activity: In class reading assignment with questions and two 45 minute class periods. The Alternate Version (found at the end of Activity 2) will require an additional 1-2 days.
Print copies of the assigned documents (or provide links) and analysis questions for students (listed below, included on pages 1-10 in the Text Document for Activity 2).
Print the Biography Sheets included on pages 11-15 of the Text Document for Activity 2 (longer versions of these biographies are available at Teaching American History). You might need to make multiple copies of some Biography Sheets.
The purpose of the activity is to provide students with an understanding of the three main aspects of representation that divided the delegates to the Convention: unicameralism versus bicameralism, mode of election, and the "rule of suffrage" in Congress. Students will also become familiar with the views of some of the more prominent delegates at the Convention. They will also understand why the question of proportional versus equal representation led to a disagreement between delegates from larger and smaller states.
Distribute to all students the Analysis Questions for Reading sets A, B and C (available on pages 3, 6-7, and 10 of the Text Document for Activity 2).
Divide your students into three groups, and assign one of the three Readings Sets (available on pages 1-2, 4-5, and 8-9 of the Text Document for Activity 2) to each group. Have each group answer the questions that follow their assigned Reading Set (the questions are also listed on the Analysis Sheets available on pages 3, 6-7, and 10 in the Text Document for Activity 2).
Reading Set A. One House or two?
Using the worksheet on page 3 of the Text Document for Activity 2, students should then write a summary of the reasons each of the following delegates was either for or against a bicameral Congress:
Reading Set B. Election by the people or state legislatures?
Using the worksheet on pages 6-7 of the Text Document for Activity 2, students should then write a summary of the reasons each of the following delegates supported or opposed either election by the people or election by state legislatures:
Reading Set C. Proportional or equal representation?
Using the worksheet on page 10 of the Text Document for Activity 2, students should then write a summary of the reasons each of the following delegates supported or opposed either proportional or equal representation in Congress:
Allow each group to work together for approximately 20 minutes. Teachers then have the option of (1) having each group make a brief presentation to the class summarizing their answers (2-3 minutes each), or (2) reshuffle students into new groups—so that at least one student in each new group has answered the questions for all three Reading Sets—and allow each student to complete the answers for the remaining sets of Analysis Questions (approximately 10-15 minutes).
Teachers should distribute to each student a Biography Card (found on pages 11-15 of the Text Document for Activity 2) for a delegate that was included in the questions for their reading assignment (For example, distribute the Biography Cards for David Brearly, William Paterson, James Wilson and James Madison to those students who had Reading Set C for their homework). Some students within a group will share a Biography Card, or teacher can print multiple copies of a Biography Card if so desired.
Explain the role playing activity that will take place on the following day, as well as the rules for debate that will be applied (such as how much time will be spent on each issue, how many times a delegate is allowed to address the Convention, etc., to be determined at the teacher's discretion). For homework, students should familiarize themselves with the information on their Biography Card. Teacher should also inform the students of the questions that will be debated on the following day (listed below). This will allow groups of students to meet after class to discuss and prepare for how they will defend or critique certain issues on the following day.
Have all of the students who represent a delegate meet in a group (for example, all students with a George Mason card should meet in a group, all those with a Roger Sherman card in another group, and so on). Allow students approximately 5-10 minutes to discuss the views they will either defend or critique during the debate.
During the remainder of the class period, students should engage in debate, moderated by the teacher, over the three main questions concerning representation: 1. Should there be one House of Congress or two? 2. Should representatives be elected by the people, or by state legislatures? For one or both Houses of Congress? 3. Should there be proportional or equal representation? In one or both Houses of Congress? Students should debate according to the views of their particular delegate, and should see the difficulty of getting delegates to agree on the question of representation. To further emphasize this difficulty, the teacher may choose to select a number of students (on the day of the debate) who will observe but not participate in the debates. This “panel” of delegates will either be persuaded or not by the arguments of the other students. After approximately 20 minutes of open debate, the “panel” of students will discuss and evaluate their views on the open debates, and declare how they would decide on each question. Then the teacher should point out how difficult it is for even the panel to agree on all of the questions.
Students should debate according to the views of their particular delegate, and should see the difficulty of getting delegates to agree on the question of representation. To further emphasize this difficulty, the teacher may choose to select a number of students (on the day of the debate) who will observe but not participate in the debates. This "panel" of delegates will either be persuaded or not by the arguments of the other students. After approximately 20 minutes of open debate, the "panel" of students will discuss and evaluate their views on the open debates, and declare how they would decide on each question. Then the teacher should point out how difficult it is for even the panel to agree on all of the questions.
Teachers have the option of carrying the activity over to another class period.
Teachers may also extend the activity by assigning the following for homework on the day of the activity: Write a one to two-page essay evaluating the division between delegates over the questions of bicameralism, mode of election, and the rule of suffrage in Congress (Teachers: if you are going to move on to Activity 3 on the following day, be aware that you will need to assign the readings for the next exercise as well).
Make copies for each student of the worksheets found on pages 3, 6-7, and 10 of the Text Document for Activity 2 (Teachers may opt to use an overhead or data projector for reading and discussion of the excerpts and only make copies of the analysis worksheets for students). Aloud in class, read and discuss each excerpt in Reading Sets A, B, and C (available on pages 1-2, 4-5, and 8-9 in the Text Document for Activity 2). After each excerpt, instruct students to summarize the opinions given by each delegate. When completed, divide the class into 9 groups. Each group would receive one of the biography cards (found on pages 11-15 of the Text Document for Activity 2) and collectively represent that individual. Each group would have time to prepare an answer/presentation that addresses each of the questions as described in the above debate. A culminating activity could be to answer each of the questions individually—as themselves—and give a reason why they believe the way they do.
Time required for activity: Homework reading and writing assignment and one 45 minute class period.
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents and Graphic Organizer assigned as homework (listed below, included on pages 1-7 in the Text Document for Activity 3).
Create a basic timeline to hang on a classroom wall, at least 70" x 12". Cut out eleven 5" x 7" pieces of blank cardstock (teachers may also use 5" x 8" index cards if available).
The purpose of the activity is to provide students with a broader understanding of key events during the Constitutional Convention that led to the Connecticut Compromise. Students will comprehend why the compromise became the only alternative to failure at the Convention, but also how difficult it was for delegates from large and small states to reach the compromise. They should also see that the proposal to prohibit the Senate from introducing or altering money bills persuaded some key delegates, including George Mason, to accept the compromise proposal. Because of this concession, Mason no longer feared that equal representation in the Senate would allow the small states to disproportionately tax the large states.
For homework on the night before the activity, assign the following readings to students. They are available in their entirety at Teaching American History, but excerpts may be found on pages 1-4 of the Text Document for Activity 3):
Students should also write short summaries of the significant event that took place during each of the readings, utilizing the Graphic Organizer (available on pages 5-7 in the Text Document for Activity 3). An example for teachers on how students should complete the Graphic Organizer:
Students will create a timeline that includes the key dates and events that led to the Connecticut Compromise. Divide the students into 11 groups and assign each group one of the dates/events addressed in the homework readings. Each group should list the significance of the date they have been given on a 5" x 7" piece of blank cardstock (approximately 10 minutes). Then, as each group places its card on the timeline, they should make a short presentation (2-4 minutes each) on the main points of their assigned date. As students complete the classroom presentation, one member places his or her card on the timeline at the appropriate place.
Make copies (or use notecards to include the same information) of the Graphic Organizer found on pages 5-7 of the Text Document for Activity 3 to aid students in their analysis. The teacher will decide whether to assign the excerpts and analysis to be completed individually or as a whole class. Students will then complete the Timeline Activity as described above, using their analysis notes to aid in the construction of their cards and presentations. Teachers also have the option of having students write an essay, using their analysis notes, answering the following questions: What led the Convention to eventually accept the Connecticut Compromise, and why did some of the delegates continue to oppose it?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) responses to the following questions:
Students should also be able to articulate the themes addressed in this lesson, and write a longer (1-2 pages) essay answering the following question: Was it necessary to fundamentally change the scheme of representation as it existed under the Articles of Confederation? Students should use specific examples from the arguments of at least two of the following delegates: James Madison, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, and James Wilson.
An alternative method of assessment might be to divide the class into small groups, and have each one develop a thesis statement that encompasses all the various elements of this lesson. They should be given roughly 15 minutes to do this. Once they have done so, each group should write its thesis statement on the board, and as a class discuss which is the best, and why. The entire class could then be given a homework assignment to write an essay that defends the statement.
Students should be able to identify and summarize the views of the following delegates:
Students should also be able to identify and explain the significance of the following concepts:
Teachers can extend this lesson by engaging in the following supplemental activities:
5 class periods