Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met

Created July 25, 2010


The Lesson


The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers

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…"
"Constitution of the United States—A History," National Archives

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 men we have come to know as the Founding Fathers: Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among the best known. There were others, however, less well known now but who also played major roles in founding the new nation.

Four such "others" are the subject of this lesson. Here, you'll introduce your students to four key, but relatively unknown, contributors to the U.S. Constitution-Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, William Paterson, and Edmund Randolph. 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 America's Founding Documents at the National Archives website).

Note: Use this lesson as a prequel to, or in conjunction with, the complementary lesson, Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said. 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.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the connection between regional politics and the positions of Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph during the drafting of the U.S. Constitution?
  • What other factors motivated these four Founding Fathers as they developed their positions in the debate?

Learning Objectives

  • Summarize the plans put forward by Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph
  • Provide some biographical details for Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph
  • Make connections between the biographies of Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph and their positions during the Constitutional Convention

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the document Three Handouts, available here as a PDF. The download contains three handouts used in this lesson: "Chart of Various Plans (Blank)" and "Chart of Various State Plans."  Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.
  • Some of the texts used in this lesson may be challenging for students at less advanced reading levels; such students may benefit from Congress for Kids, an EDSITEment resource that features a very basic description of the steps in the process of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, starting with a page on the Articles of Confederation (which served as our country's ruling document before adoption of the Constitution). From that page, you can click on "Learn More" to read further about the events of the Constitutional Convention, such as the Great Compromise, and about the government it created, including a page on our System of Checks and Balances.
  • A history of the Constitutional Convention and the document it produced is available through America's Founding Documents at the National Archives website, in the essay "Constitution of the United StatesA History." For convenience, you may also wish to download the following PDF, Four State Plans, which contains excerpts from the article summarizing the four plans discussed in this lesson as well as some other issues that threatened to divide the delegates.
  • The text of the Constitution is available via America's Founding Documents at the National Archives website.
  • A biographical index of all those attending the Constitutional Convention is also available from America's Founding Documents. Though your students will probably be familiar with the names of more famous figures who attended the Constitutional Convention (such as Washington, Franklin, and Madison), this lesson, by concentrating on lesser known individuals (Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph), emphasizes that the Constitution was the product of many minds. Unlike the Declaration of Independence, it is difficult to identify an "author" of the Constitution. You can find very brief biographies of the four subjects of this lesson, with direct links to more comprehensive biographies, by downloading Four Biographies, available here as a PDF.
  • Be prepared to help students work through alternative spellings for the names of individuals in this lesson, such as "Patterson" and "Ellesworth," as well as the general lack of standardization of spelling in the debate proceedings.
  • It should be noted that other delegates, including Roger Sherman for the Connecticut Plan and Madison for the Virginia Plan, had a hand (or more) in developing the plans. For balance, this lesson concentrates on one individual for each.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing the Constitutional Convention

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:

Activity 2. Group Assignment: Getting to Know a Founding Father

Divide the class into four groups and assign one of the selected Founding Fathers-Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, and Randolph-to each group. Download, copy and distribute to the respective groups some or all of the following brief biographies, available on EDSITEment resources. (NOTE TO THE TEACHER: You can encourage students to use other resources in the classroom and library as well. If a typical group consists of five students, one or two students could read one biography while other students look for additional resources using the computer or library. When the group reconvenes, students can combine what they have learned into one account.)

As students read biographies of their assigned Founding Father, they should attempt to answer the following questions:

  1. In what ways did he serve his colony/state before the Constitutional Convention?
  2. What were his qualifications to represent his state?
  3. Was his state large or small?
  4. Was his state in the North or South?
  5. In what ways was he involved with Patriot causes before the Constitutional Convention?
  6. What was his profession?
  7. What was his socioeconomic background? How might that background have affected his decisions?
  8. In what ways did his proposal to the Constitutional Convention represent the interests of his state?
  9. In what ways did he serve the United States after the Constitutional Convention?
Activity 3. Oral Presentations and Class Discussion

Based on their reading of the biographies and/or other sources available in the classroom, each group should distribute a brief (one page typed) composite biography to the entire class and present an oral argument that their assignee deserves to be better known. Students can consider achievements before, during, and after the Convention.

After all the groups have presented their arguments, allow time for students to review the biographies offered by the different groups. Discuss the plans with reference to the biographies. How did each plan differ? What regional factors led to the inclusion of specific elements in each plan that deal with issues such as how states would be represented in the national legislature or how the population would be counted for the purpose of taxation and representation? What parts of any plan connect to the biography of its author? What parts of which plans eventually became part of the Constitution?

Activity 4. Matching Quotes

Challenge students to match quotes from the debates with either Ellsworth, Hamilton, Paterson, or Randolph. Using the "Four Fathers' Quotes" handout on pages 3–6 of the Three Handouts PDF (see Preparation Instructions, above, for download instructions), adapt this activity to a game show format or a more simple pencil-and-paper activity. If time permits, students could even create their own game.

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)