Signing of Constitution, by Howard C. Cristy
Credit: Courtesy of American Memory Collection.
In February of 1787, Congress authorized a convention, to be held in Philadelphia in May of that year, for the purpose of recommending changes to the Articles of Confederation. In what has come to be known as the Constitutional Convention of 1787, all of the states—with the exception of Rhode Island—sent delegates to debate how to amend the Articles of Confederation in order to alleviate several problems experienced by the United States after the War for Independence. Although the Convention eventually decided to scrap the Articles altogether, and recommend instead the adoption of an entirely new plan of government, all of the delegates were initially united by one belief—that something must be done in order to correct the "errors" of the American political system in the 1780s.
This lesson will focus on the various problems under the Articles of Confederation between 1783 and 1786 that led to the call for the 1787 Convention. By examining documents of Congress, the state governments, and prominent American founders—both public and private—students will better understand why many Americans agreed that the Articles should be revised and amended. Students will also see why some prominent American founders, more than others, believed that the United States faced a serious crisis, and that drastic changes, rather than minor amendments, to the Articles were necessary.
The 1780s promised to be a time of peace and prosperity for the United States. Having declared and won their independence from Great Britain, Americans enjoyed the freedom to establish for themselves state governments based on the principles of liberty, consent of the governed, and protection of natural rights. Most state constitutions included declarations of these principles, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 and the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. The thirteen states had also entered "into a firm league of friendship with each other" under the Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781, in order to promote "their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare." The Articles of Confederation established a Congress charged with the "management of the general interests of the United States." Americans, therefore, had established for themselves state governments to provide for the safety and happiness of their own citizens, and a national government to take care of the general interests of all the states. Such were the promising circumstances in which American citizens found themselves during the early 1780s.
By 1786 it had become apparent to many Americans that all was not well. There were three general problems that contributed to the "melancholy situation" (as Alexander Hamilton called it in The Federalist No. 15) of the 1780s: first, problems within the states themselves; second, violations of the Articles of Confederation and of national treaties by the states; and third, the lack of powers on the part of Congress to get states to comply with the Articles and acts of national legislation. Within the states, the governments often acted in ways contrary to the ideal of good government as held forth in the state declarations of rights. The state governments also seemed incapable of dealing with the problem of majority factions. State governments flagrantly violated national treaties, ignored requisitions for funds passed by Congress, and continued to exercise powers prohibited by the Articles of Confederation. But arguably the most pressing problem was that the states frequently disregarded Congressional requisitions for funds to pay for national defense.
Many Americans came to believe that the problems of the 1780s arose largely from defects in the Articles of Confederation, which had given Congress too little power and therefore made it incapable of dealing effectively with national problems, and of keeping the state governments in compliance. In August of 1786, some members of Congress made an attempt to remedy these problems by proposing amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but the attempt failed because of division among Congressional delegates.
A discussion of these defects of the Articles took place among delegates from five states - Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York - at Annapolis, Maryland in September of 1786. The delegates to the Annapolis Convention issued a report to their respective states, noting that "there are important defects in the system of the Federal Government," and recommending that Congress authorize a convention in the following May for the purpose of addressing these defects. On February 21, 1787, Congress passed a resolution authorizing "a Convention of delegates who shall have been appointed by the several states be held at Philadelphia for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall…render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government & the preservation of the Union." Even as the states began to commission delegates to the Philadelphia Convention, however, different opinions formed about what the delegates should try to accomplish there. All of the delegates agreed that the Articles of Confederation should be amended, but many disagreed over how drastic the changes should be. The differences between the two groups over the purpose of the Convention would eventually lead to deadlock during the first two months of the Convention.
For more background information on the road to the 1787 Convention, see "Introduction to the Constitutional Convention" at TeachingAmericanHistory.com. This website also provides a very good overview of how the states selected their delegates, and detailed accounts of the views and personal background of each of the delegates. The National Archives' "Charters of Freedom" website also offers an account of the events leading to the 1787 Convention, and includes a page of questions and answers pertaining to the Constitutional Convention. Digital History also provides a series of background pages on what is known as "The Critical Period" from 1783-1787, including Shays' Rebellion, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the difficulties with getting the states to comply with Congressional requisitions for funds.
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 PDF Document for each activity. Download the Documents for this lesson, available here as three PDFs:
These files 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 the activity: In class reading and writing assignment and one 45 minute class period for presentations.
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the documents assigned as homework (listed below, included in the Text Document for Activity One).
Optional: Print the Graphic Organizer (included in Page 9 of the Text Document for Activity One) and give a copy to each student (only if you will not go on to activity 2 of this lesson).
The purpose of this activity is to introduce students to the problems that resulted from the defects of the Articles of Confederation. Because the states had jealously surrendered very limited powers to the national government under the Articles, Congress had no means of compelling states to comply with requests for funds or preventing them from violating the Articles of Confederation. As a result, Congress was incapable of fulfilling its responsibilities. Those responsibilities included:
Congress' inability to fulfill these responsibilities placed the United States in a precarious situation that threatened the security and stability of the Union. The need to remedy these dangers led many Americans to call for a Convention to amend the Articles of Confederation.
Divide the class into 7 groups, and assign each group one of the following documents, available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project at Yale Law School, The Papers of George Washington, and Teaching American History. Excerpts are included on pages 1-7 of the Text Document for Activity One
Each group should analyze their document (approximately 10 minutes) and answer the assigned discussion questions for their reading (Discussion Questions can be found on page 8 of the text Document for Activity One). They should especially be able to identify the specific problem(s) under the Articles of Confederation discussed by the author. Each group should then provide a short presentation (about 2-3 minutes each) to the class on their assigned document.
Teachers: If you do not intend to continue with activity 2 of this lesson, you can extend this activity by having students record information from the in-class presentations by filling out the Graphic Organizer (included on page 9 of the Text Document for Activity One). Have them write an essay for homework on "The problem of Congress' lack of authority," using their notes from their Graphic Organizer and the in-class presentations.
Time required for activity: In class reading assignment with questions and two 45 minute class periods. Preparing for the activity: Print copies (or provide links) for students of the assigned documents and questions (listed below, included on pages 1-4 of the Text Document for Activity Two).
Print a copy of the List of Possible Resolutions for debate, located on pages 5-7 of the Text Document for Activity Two. These will be for the teacher's use only.
Print the State ID name placards provided on pages 8-14 of the Text Document for Activity Two.
Print the "State Delegate" cards provided on pages 14-16 of the Text Document for Activity Two (be sure to print enough for all the students in your class).
The purpose of this activity is to show students how the structure of Congress under the Articles of Confederation prevented it from fulfilling its responsibilities. Congress was comprised of one house, and each state had one vote on all matters. The legislatures of each state selected their delegates to Congress, and had the power to recall them at any time. Furthermore, nine of thirteen states had to agree to any Congressional request for funds from the states. In this activity students will see that because the state delegations were inclined to represent the interests of their own state, rather than what was necessary for the good of the whole Union, congressional debates frequently became deadlocked. Even if Congress was actually able to muster nine votes in favor of a requisition, it still had to rely on the good will of the states for compliance. This system of government, Madison lamented in his Vices of the Political System of the United States, was wholly unworkable, and had to be revised for the future safety and happiness of American citizens.
Divide the students into 7 groups and have them read the Articles of Confederation, available at the EDSITEment reviewed Avalon Project at Yale University. Excerpts are available on pages 10-11 of the Text Document. Assign one discussion question (included on pages 3-4 of the Text Document for Activity Two) to each group. After approximately 15 minutes of reading and group discussion, have each group present its answer to the entire class.
During the remaining class time, distribute the State ID name placards and "State Delegate" cards, and explain the role playing activity that will take place on the following day. In this role playing activity, students will be delegates from the states to Congress. Divide students into at least 7 groups. It is not necessary to have the same number of students in each group - there should be at least 2 and no more than 7 in each group, however. Each group will represent a delegation from a particular state, as indicated on their "State Delegate" card. Each student should be given a "State Delegate" card, which indicates which state he or she represents, something about the state, and the particular interests the delegate represents. Also, give each state delegation their state ID name placard so that the other students know who they are representing.
Students should group together with other delegates from their respective states. A presiding officer for the Congress should be selected through nomination and vote—each state group having only one vote. Then the presiding officer should announce the resolution for debate (as selected by the teacher from the list provided on pages 5-7 of the Text Document for Activity Two). Each state should meet for 5 minutes to discuss and prepare a short speech (1 minute) in support of or against the resolution. This speech should include reasons why other states ought to support or oppose the resolution. The presiding officer should oversee these deliberations. After this debate has concluded, the presiding officer will call for a vote. These basic concepts should be kept in mind:
Further resolutions can be introduced and debated at the teacher's discretion, depending on time.
After the final vote on each resolution, the teacher should read the consequences of the vote (included in the List of Possible Resolutions for Debate on pages 5-7 of the Text Document for Activity Two). For example, if the resolution was to raise money to pay the army, and the resolution passed, Rhode Island might refuse to pay; if it doesn't pass, there might be a mutiny among the army.
This activity can be extended with a written assignment in which students should analyze why the voting outcomes occurred as they did. What arguments were effective? Which states joined to support or to oppose? What could have been done or said to alter the outcome? Students might also write about how difficult it was to get a resolution passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
Time required for the activity: If research is done for homework, one 50 minute class period for presentations.
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the assigned documents (listed below, included on pages 1–14 of the Text Document for Activity Three).
The teacher should create a basic timeline on a classroom wall spanning 1780 to 1789 (approximately 90" x 16"). Distribute one 5" x 7" piece of cardstock to each group of students (9 groups total).
The purpose of this activity is to allow students to develop an understanding of the events that led to the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia. Students should gain an appreciation for the "melancholy situation," as Alexander Hamilton would later call it in The Federalist No. 15, in which Americans found themselves under the Articles of Confederation. Students should also see how long it took — and why it took several years — to actually organize a convention to remedy the defects of the Articles of Confederation.
Assign one of the following topics/documents to groups of 2–3 students (Teachers: these documents can be used to supplement information found in the textbook you are using for class). Each document represents a significant step leading up to the 1787 Convention. The documents are available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project at Yale University, Teaching American History, and American Memory websites.
Students should meet in groups (10–15 minutes) to discuss their assigned document, and prepare their timeline card. Then each group should make a short presentation (2–4 minutes each) on the main points of their research and assigned document. Prior to the presentations, the teacher will create a basic timeline on a classroom wall spanning 1780 to 1789. Each student group should list the important points of their presentation on a 5" x 7" piece of cardstock. These cards should also contain the topics and dates. As students complete the classroom presentation, one member places their card on the timeline at the appropriate place.
Alternate Activity: Teachers may give each student an individual timeline which spans 1780 to 1789. There should be enough space between the years for students to add topics and short descriptions as groups give the presentations.
After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1-2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:
Students should also be able to debate the need for a new form of government to replace the Articles of Confederation, and write a longer (1-2 pages) essay answering the following question: Do you think there was any point between 1780 and 1789 that the outcome (that is, doing away with the Articles) could have been avoided? At what point might this have occurred, and what changes would have been needed to alter the outcome?
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 explain the significance of the following:
Teachers can also extend this lesson by engaging in the following supplemental activity:
Time required for activity: Homework reading assignment with questions and two 45 minute class periods.
Print copies (or provide links) for students of the assigned documents and questions (listed below, included on pages 1-5 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity).
Print and read the list of possible bills (for teacher use only), available on page 6 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity.
Print the interest/role cards, located on pages 7-14 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity. Make sure that you have one card for every student in your class.
The purpose of the activity is to show how many state legislatures, after 1776, began to violate their own constitutions, which declared the rights of their citizens and established governments meant to secure those rights. As James Madison documented in his Vices of the Political System of the United States, written in April of 1787, several state legislatures passed unjust laws, and were often incapable of protecting their citizens against internal violence or rebellions. The unforeseen problem within the states was that in societies based on consent and majority rule, it is possible for the majority to pass laws that are harmful to the natural rights of the minority. In this activity, students should recognize how easy it is for dangerous factions to form in a state legislature and for laws to be passed that violate the rights of the minority. This activity will illustrate one major problem that led Americans in the 1780s to call for revisions to the Articles of Confederation by increasing the authority of Congress and limiting the powers of the individual states.
Divide the class into smaller groups, and have students read the following documents, available at the EDSITEment reviewed National Archives Experience, Avalon Project at Yale University and Teaching American History. Excerpts are available on pages 1-3 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity.
Have each group work together to write a one-paragraph answer to each of the following questions (these are also listed on the Analysis Sheet found on pages 4-5 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity)
Have each group present their answers to the class.
For homework that night, have each student write a one-paragraph answer to each of the following questions (these are also listed on the Analysis Sheet on pages 4-5 of the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity):
Randomly distribute one interest/role card to each student, and have them study the information on their card that night (the cards can be printed from the Text Document for the Supplemental Activity). These cards provide the student with background information on the interests he or she will represent in the role playing activity on the following day. The teacher should also tell the students about the proposed bill they will debate on the following day, and have them draft some comments on why they might support or oppose the bill. Teachers may also take the opportunity, if time permits, to explain the rules of the role play activity in advance.
Before engaging in the role play activity, the teacher should review the homework assignment questions from the previous night with the class.
The activity involves role playing, in which students portray delegates to a state legislature (either Virginia or Massachusetts, at the teacher's discretion), in which they will represent different interests within their state. The immediate purpose of the activity is to have students try to pass a bill that agrees with their group's interests; but the larger purpose is to show them how easy it is for factions to form in legislatures, and also how easy it is to pass a law that violates the rights of the minority.
As presiding officer in the state legislature, the teacher introduces one of the bills included in the Teacher Resources file. The teacher should then open the floor for discussion of the proposed bill for up to 10 minutes. Students should have no more than 30 seconds at a time to make comments on the proposed bill. When recognized to speak, each student should state his or her interest as it is listed on the role card. The goal is to get students to think about whether the bill seems to coincide with the interest they have been given on their role playing card.
After 10 minutes of open discussion, the legislature should adjourn for 10 minutes. During this period, students should form into groups to discuss the pros and cons of the proposed bill. Based on comments during the open floor discussion, students will form into two groups: those in favor of the bill will form into a group, those against in another group. Each group should work together to compile a list of arguments as to why they are for or against the bill. They will select one of their members to present their arguments to the class.
Upon resuming the legislative session, the presiding officer (teacher) should call for the representative of each group to make a short (2 minute max each) presentation of their arguments for or against the bill. After the presentations, the teacher might remind students that they can change their minds about whether they are for or against the resolution at any time. A vote should be taken, and the result announced by the teacher. Students should then be separated into groups representing each interest, at which time they should declare whether they will abide by the law or not, and what course of action they will take (perhaps some will comply, others will protest, and others might take more drastic measures). The teacher should then explain how either a majority or minority (or both) faction has formed.
Teachers have the option of extending the activity by introducing further resolutions and continuing the role play activity on additional days. Teachers may also assign for homework a one to two page essay on the following questions: How do factions develop legislatures and why they are dangerous in a representative democracy (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).
4 class periods