Student Activity

The Creation of the Bill of Rights: "Retouching the Canvas"

Screenshot of Retouching The Canvas interactive
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Screenshot of Retouching The Canvas interactive.

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This interactive on the Bill of Rights highlights the differing perspectives that emerged in each state during the ratification process for amending the U.S. Constitution. "Retouching the Canvas" uses primary sources to illustrate the differing opinions and ratification process that resulted in the adoption of the Bill of Rights in 1791. Why were amendments to the U.S. Constitution deemed necessary? How did we end up with ten amendments when seventeen were originally proposed? What did representatives from the respective states disagree over? Use our Bill of Rights interactive to inspire student inquiry and a seminar activity that asks students to make arguments in relation to the compelling question: What should the first set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution include?

Activity 1. Individual States and a National Debate

The chief author of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, was also the person who initiated the process of amending the document that was ratified in 1787. Why did James Madison call for amendments to the U.S. Constitution? Would changing a still young document undermine its authority? Would the ratification process once again pit the states against one another? 

Begin your inquiry with the question: Why was amending the U.S. Constitution deemed necessary?

Activity 2. Investigating Differences of Opinion

Select a state from those listed at the top of "Retouching the Canvas"  and working individually or in pairs, use the interactive to launch your investigation into the debate that took place within your state about amending the Constitution. Conduct research to determine the following:

  • What did the delegates who represented your state at the Constitutional Convention argue in favor of and against?
  • Who represented your state in the U.S. House of Representatives during the debate about amending the Constitution? Note: Senate deliberations were conducted privately until 1795. 
  • Using this collection of papers from the debates surrounding the Bill of Rights and your own research, investigate what the representatives from your state argued in favor of and against. Keep in mind that during the next stage of this activity you will be representing those views as part of a large or small group discussion on whether or not amendments should be added and what the content of those amendments should be.   
  • Compare your position(s) with those expressed by other members of Congress so you know who you will be in agreement with and who will oppose your proposals during the seminar discussion. 
Activity 3. Ratifying the Bill of Rights

Based on your research and the perspectives of the Representatives from the state you focused on, participate in a seminar discussion that mirrors the ratification process in order to answer the compelling question: What should the first set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution include?

Discussion topics:

  • Should the U.S. Constitution be amended?
  • What should be done to protect an individual's rights regarding press, speech, religion, and assembly?
  • What is the proper role of government when protecting a person's property?
  •  How will the rights of the accused be protected?
  • Are there exceptions or reasons that the protection of these rights for an individual would ever be suspended?
  • In those cases when powers are not specifically delegated by the Constitution, should the power then rest in the State or Federal government to make a decision regarding rights?
  • Should individuals be allowed to own firearms?
  • Are there limits to the severity of the punishment that can be inflicted on those found guilty of a crime?
  • What are the rights of the accused when brought before a court?
Activity 4. The Bill of Rights

"The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution."

Preamble to the Bill of Rights, 1791

Following the discussion, a shared document should be created so that all members of the class have a record of what was agreed upon by the "representatives" regarding the creation of a Bill of Rights. If small groups were used for discussions, form new groups and ask students to focus on what they decided regarding freedom of speech, property rights, and the right to bear arms. 

Only after the conclusion of the discussion and creation of the class version of the Bill of Rights should the actual Bill of Rights be read to compare what the class created with what was adopted in December of 1791. This video from TED-ED provides a short overview of the first ten amendments, in order, for students to compare to the list they constructed. 


Activity Reflection Questions
  • What did you learn about the inquiry process during this activity?
  • In what ways were the debates regarding ratification of the U.S. Constitution similar and different to the ratification of the Bill of Rights?
  • Whose perspectives were missing from the debate over the Bill of Rights?
  • What does the phrase "extending the ground of public confidence in the Government" included in the Preamble to the Bill of Rights mean?
  • Why are the Bill of Rights still relevant today?
  • What issues or rights not addressed in the Bill of Rights should be added?