Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said

Created July 26, 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 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 America's Founding Documents at the National Archives website).

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.

Guiding Questions

  • 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"?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson plan, students will be able to

  • List some ideas proposed and debated during the Constitutional Convention.
  • Discuss the important issues requiring compromise 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 handouts for this lesson, available here as a PDF. Please note that this is a 31-page document. After you review the lesson plan, print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class. The contents of this document are as follows:

    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

  • The EDSITEment resource Congress for Kids features a very basic description of the governmental system prescribed by the Constitution and its amendments. For review purposes, start with the discussion of the Three Branches of our Government and then click on "More" to proceed through subjects such as:
  • 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 and a biographical index of all those attending the Constitutional Convention are also available via America's Founding Documents.
  • Reader's theater, used to dramatize texts of many kinds, is a staged reading with a minimum of the trappings of theater. Scripts are used during the performance; familiarity with the script rather than memorization is all that is required. Costumes are not used. Movement is minimal or non-existent. Narration, especially useful with texts not written for the theater, bridges gaps in the dialogue. Because students generally enjoy such low-pressure performance, reader's theater stimulates interest in the text under consideration. Here, performance is suggested to enhance understanding and to emphasize the drama of the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention.
  • The following books provide background on the personalities of the Constitution's framers and the Constitutional Convention debates. These or other books, read prior to or in conjunction with your study of the Constitution, may help you communicate to your students the vested interests, friendships, and enmities that motivated and animated the debates of the Constitutional Convention.
    • Shh! We're Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz, Tomie dePaola (Illustrator) At 64 pages and a reading level for ages 9-12, this book offers a quick, easy and entertaining read. As it exhibits Fritz's usual level of accurate research, this book could be the single best way to help students prepare for a deeper understanding of the Constitution. It should be effective read by students or as a read-aloud by the teacher in the days before your study of the Constitution begins.
    • Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christopher Collier, James Lincoln Collier The Colliers have written excellent, well-researched works of historical fiction for young adults, such as My Brother Sam Is Dead. This book, written for general audiences, may be effective excerpted.
  • Classes that have already completed Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met can skip the first activity in this lesson plan.

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. Selecting the Debate Transcripts

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.

Activity 3. Presenting the Reader's Theater

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.)

  • Madison Debates for May 30, 1787
  • Madison Debates for May 31, 1787
  • Madison Debates for June 1, 1787
  • Elliot Debates for June 4, 1787 (Note to the teacher: This is one of the shortest excerpts. It consists largely of a series of very short statements.)
  • Madison Debates for June 13, 1787 (Note to the teacher: This is one of the shortest excerpts.)
  • Rufus King Debates for June 18, 1787 (Note to the teacher: This is one of the shortest excerpts, though a few of the speeches are relatively long.)
  • Madison Debates for July 12, 1787 (Note to the teacher: This is one of the longest excerpts; the discussion centers around the heated issue of slavery.)

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 this page of America's Founding Documents on the National Archives website.

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 from America's Founding Documents.

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.

Activity 4. Discussing the Founding Fathers' debates

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:

  • A free flow of ideas?
  • Respect shown from one delegate to another?
  • Disrespect shown from one delegate to another?
  • A delegate raising a point based on the interests of his region?
  • A delegate raising a point based on his state's size?
  • A delegate foregoing regional or other interests for the sake of compromise?
  • A delegate suggesting something we now might view as rather odd?
  • A delegate suggesting something that became part of the final document?
  • A delegate admitting frustration about something?

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using archival documents
  • Using primary sources
  • MMS (AL)