Lesson Plan

Ratifying the Constitution

"The Adoption of the U.S. Constitution in Congress at Independence Hall" by John H. Froehlich (1935).
Photo caption

"The Adoption of the U.S. Constitution in Congress at Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Sept. 17, 1787" by John H. Froehlich (1935).

The United States Constitution occupies the central place in the American political system. The Constitution embodies the basic principles of the federal government and defines both the powers granted to the three branches of government and the checks intended to limit that power. As has been the case throughout American history, today a wide range of political actors invokes constitutional authority on a regular basis, often disagreeing about what the document says and how government should operate. However, many Americans are not aware that constitutional conflict and debate are part of a tradition that goes back to the writing and ratification of the Constitution itself. 

This lesson is designed to introduce students to the vigorous debates surrounding the ratification of the Constitution that took place in the states. In these state ratification conventions, delegates argued the wisdom of adopting the Constitution. Elected specifically to serve in these conventions, they came from a range of backgrounds, from the very elite and highly educated, to those of humbler birth and station. Yet just as in the debates among the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, state delegates grappled with questions about the nature of democracy, the distribution of wealth and power in society, the rights of individuals and minority groups, and the role of dissent in a republic. By analyzing some of these exchanges students will gain a basic understanding of the political controversies surrounding the adoption of the Constitution and a better grasp of the historical period in which it was created.

Guiding Questions

What were the important social, economic, and political issues during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution?

Learning Objectives

Describe some of the debates over the Constitution that occurred in the nation’s press and state ratification conventions.

Explain the extent to which the Constitution and the Framers advanced different ideas about democracy in the United States.