Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

The Federalist Debates: Balancing Power Between State and Federal Governments


The Lesson


Alexander Hamilton (l.) and Thomas Jefferson (r.)

Alexander Hamilton (l.) from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, and Thomas Jefferson (r.)

Credit: From the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.

This series of activities introduces students to one of the most hotly debated issues during the formation of the American government -- how much power the federal government should have  or alternatively, how much liberty states and citizens should have. The lesson begins by tracing the U.S. federal system of government to its roots, established by America's Founding Fathers in the late 18th century, highlighting the controversial issue of state sovereignty versus federal power. Students compare the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, analyzing why weaknesses in the former led to the creation of the latter. Then they examine the resulting system of government formed by the Constitution, investigating the relationship between federal and state governments as they exist today. Finally, students reflect back on history and argue whether they believe Hamilton or Jefferson had the more enduring vision for America.

For related lessons about the development of the Founding Documents, see the following EDSITEment lesson plans:

Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men
Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers
The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met
The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said

Guiding Questions

  • How should power be distributed between states and the federal government for a successful democracy?
  • What are the pros and cons of state sovereignty vs. federalism, as argued by the Founding Fathers?

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the differences and similarities between state and federal governments and their functions, structures, and powers
  • Explain the basic positions of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, as represented to varying degrees by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson
  • Make arguments on behalf of those Founding Fathers who favored strong federal government and those who favored strong states' rights
  • Write a persuasive essay in response to an open-ended question


At the same time the thirteen original colonies drafted the Declaration of Independence to announce their intended separation from England, they also wrote the Articles of Confederation to define their relationship with each other as a joint entity. The Articles served to unify the colonies through the Revolution, but as the new states tried to recover from the war and move ahead as a nation, the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to be effective. As the Library of Congress article "To Form a More Perfect Union" explains, "With the passage of time, weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation became apparent; Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states. Recognizing the need to improve the government, Congress tried to strengthen the Articles, but problems persisted."

Essentially, the Congress could not raise money from the states, and thus there was no budget for the collective governing body. Thus, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was convened. "To Form a More Perfect Union" summarizes the cause and result of this convention: "The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was called to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. However, the Convention soon abandoned the Articles, drafting a new Constitution with a much stronger national government. Nine states had to approve the Constitution before it could go into effect. After a long and often bitter debate, eleven states ratified the Constitution, which instituted a new form of government for the United States."

The debate was lively and heated and largely centered around how much power the federal government should have. Two Founding Fathers who represented opposing sides were Alexander Hamilton, who argued for a strong national government with James Madison and John Jay in the seminal Federalist Papers, and Thomas Jefferson, who favored a weaker central government and more power resting with individual states. Behind their philosophies were their different perspectives on human nature: Jefferson was an idealist who believed in the inherent good of humanity, and Hamilton was a pragmatist who was more cynical about trusting people to do the right thing. These men and others spent months deliberating about how much centralized government was the right amount for a functioning democracy. The issue was particularly salient because the states had just won independence from a government they considered too controlling, in which decisions were made about the colonists' lives and finances without involving those affected. Thus, there was a strong reaction against a government far removed from those being governed and their concerns, which differed significantly among the colonies. Nonetheless, a government that could not even raise enough money to support its own work could do little good for its people.

Eventually, the Constitution was developed through much deliberation, compromise, and commitment to democratic ideals. The Congress approved the Constitution in 1787, and it was ratified in 1788 by the ninth state (New Hampshire), the final approval needed to put it into effect. This document established the structure of our democratic government as it still stands today. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were proposed in 1789 and ratified in 1791.

Preparation Instructions

Begin by reading the lesson in its entirety. Teaching this lesson requires a basic understanding of the period of history during which the U.S. government was established (roughly between 1776 and 1791).

For further background on the Founding Fathers, Founding Documents, and establishment of a new democratic nation, you may consult the following resources:

You will need to choose which resources to use and how to teach the activities based on the particulars of your situation, including access to computers/Internet as well as the reading/writing levels and background knowledge that your students bring to the lesson. Some activities are better suited for younger students and others are more appropriate for older students. Before teaching, make copies of any handouts you will distribute to students and make sure necessary equipment is working.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Perfecting the Union: From the Articles of Confederation to the U.S. Constitution

Ask students to read a brief overview of the period of American history between the Articles of Confederation (drafted in 1776 and approved in 1781) and the Constitution (drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1788), which replaced the original Articles with a stronger federal government after much debate. Depending on students' reading levels, the following documents might serve as a good overview:

Next, students should read and compare the Articles of Confederation (the first plan for American government) with the U.S. Constitution (the final plan for American government). Print the Articles of Confederation and the original U.S. Constitution (see print-friendly version). Divide the class into an even number of small groups of 3-4 students. Half the groups should get a copy of the Articles of Confederation, and half should get a copy of the Constitution. They should divide the pages among themselves so that each student reads different articles. Each article should be summarized in one sentence and compiled into a group summary. Then, each "Articles of Confederation" group should join with a "Constitution" group. Each combined group should now discuss the questions on the worksheet Why the Constitution?, provided in pdf format, using their article summaries and the original documents for reference. While groups should discuss the answers together, each student should complete a worksheet individually.

For more background on the ideas and documents that paved the way for the Constitution, see EDSITEment lessons, Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men and Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers.

Activity 2. Liberty and Human Nature

After they have some background on this period of vigorous debate, engage students in a class discussion about the issues at hand, asking them to imagine that they were charged with the task of setting up a brand new government for a new country. Pose the question, "How much liberty is enough?" and see where individual students stand. Encourage students to use logical reasoning and examples from history to support their views. Make sure that each student responds to the question in some way. If helpful, you can ask students to focus on a representative microcosm such as the school or the classroom.

Next, share with students the quotes below from Jefferson and Hamilton expressing opposing views about human nature. You can give them one quote at a time and ask each student to agree or disagree, giving reasons to support their answers. Alternatively, you can divide the class into three groups: Jeffersonians (Anti-Federalists), Hamiltonians (Federalists), and judges. You could then ask the Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians to debate each other about the question "How much liberty is enough?" with the judges ultimately deciding whose arguments were more persuasive.


"It has been so often said, as to be generally believed, that Congress have no power by the Confederation to enforce anything, for example, contributions of money. It was not necessary to give them that power expressly, for they have it by the law of nature. When two parties make a compact, there results to each a power of compelling the other to execute it."

—Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Edward Carrington, 1787

"Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interest, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility or justice?"

—Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist Papers, Section 6, 1788

After the debates, facilitate a class discussion framed by any or all of these questions:

  • On what issue are these two philosophical positions opposed?
  • How is the American government structured to offer a compromise between these two positions?
  • What was the historical context in which the U.S. Constitution was developed? What factors had the most influence on how these issues of sovereignty and liberty played out?
  • Do you think the same debate today would have similar or different results? Why?

Emphasize the importance of past experience (a.k.a. history) in influencing people's decisions about the future.

For a more detailed analysis of some of the models of representative government proposed and issues deliberated during the debates of the Constitutional Convention, see companion EDSITEment lesson plans, The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers You May Never Have Met and The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said.

Activity 3. State vs. Federal Government: Division of Power

Tell students that now it is time to examine the balance of governmental power as set up by the Constitution. Make a three-column chart with one column labeled "State," one labeled "Federal," and one labeled "Both." Ask students to brainstorm a list of powers held by the state government and the federal government and document these on the chart. Place powers shared by both state and federal government in the column labeled "Both."

Next, show students the explanation of "Federal Versus State Government" from Ben's Guide to Government for Kids. You can show this page using a projector or print it out for distribution if access to the required technology is not available. Ask selected students to read sections of the text aloud. Then consider the chart of governmental powers featured on the page. Ask students if they can think of any other powers that are not on the list. For instance, providing education (which is part of providing general welfare) is shared, though mostly delegated to state and local governments. Discuss why particular powers might be placed where they are.

Next, view "National Government" and "State Government" and proceed with an overview of the structure of the U.S. government system. Continue asking students to take turns reading aloud. Follow the hyperlinked text as appropriate for your students. Ask questions about vocabulary and concepts that might be unfamiliar to your students. Use the links at the bottom of the page to review each branch of government in more detail. Check your students' understanding by asking open-ended questions such as these:

  • What is the relationship between state and federal governments in the U.S.? How are they similar? How are they different? Who has more power?
  • What are the advantages of a federal government in which power is divided between national and state governments? What are the advantages of a centralized government (as in France or Great Britain) where all the power rests with the national government?
  • Why did the "Founding Fathers" ultimately decide on a federal government?
  • What kinds of laws do states make? What kinds of laws does the federal government make? Why?
  • What might happen if a state could override a federal law, as Thomas Jefferson once suggested?
  • What issues or conflicts might arise from divisions of power between state and federal governments? Use examples.

To make sure students understand the structure of the federal government, you can distribute copies of the diagram of the U.S. Government found on the "Branches of Government" page linked to the text "U.S. Government Manual." You may also want to review "State Government" page of the Ben's Guide for grades 3-5 for a brief mention of the structure of state and local government systems. The glossary can help students understand unfamiliar terms.

Extending The Lesson

  • Explain that improvements did not stop with the original articles of the Constitution. Distribute to all students copies of the Bill of Rights (available through America's Founding Documents at the National Archives website). Ask students to choose the article that they believe to be most important and write a paragraph explaining why.
  • Divide students into two groups — Federalists and Anti-Federalists — and ask them to debate each other about whether or not federal government should reign supreme over state government. Make sure they understand the issues of the times, particularly the strong reaction against British control over the colonies and the differing economies of the northern and southern states.
  • Test students on selected vocabulary from the glossary of Ben's Guide to Government for Kids or another appropriate source.
  • Ask students to fill out a diagram of the U.S. government with selected blank spaces.

The Basics

Time Required

4-5 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 > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Logical reasoning
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Persuasive writing and speaking
  • Summarizing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Marielle Palombo (AL)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

Related Lessons

  • Jefferson vs. Franklin: Renaissance Men

    Founding Fathers

    Students examine primary sources in order to compare the intellectual achievements of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The lesson serves as an introduction to the complementary EDSITEment lesson, Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers.

  • Jefferson vs. Franklin: Revolutionary Philosophers

    Founding Fathers

    Explore the philosophical contributions that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson made to the movement for American independence. The lesson introduces students to some of the important precursor documents, such as Franklin's Albany Plan of 1754 and Jefferson's Draft of the Virginia Constitution, that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

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

    Created July 25, 2010
    The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers

    Witness the unfolding drama of the Constitutional Convention and the contributions of those whom we have come to know as the Founding Fathers.  In this lesson, students will become familiar with four important, but relatively unknown, contributors to the U.S. Constitution Convention: Oliver Ellsworth, Alexander Hamilton, William Paterson, and Edmund Randolph.

  • The Constitutional Convention: What the Founding Fathers Said

    Created July 26, 2010
    The Constitutional Convention: Four Founding Fathers

    To what shared principles did the Founding Fathers appeal as they struggled to reach a compromise in the Constitutional Convention? In this lesson, students will learn how the Founding Fathers debated then resolved their differences in the Constitution. Learn through their own words how the Founding Fathers created “a model of cooperative statesmanship and the art of compromise."