The Constitutional Convention as a Four Act Drama:
To assist teachers in teaching the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Professor Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University has created a website in collaboration with the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University on the Constitutional Convention. Professor Lloyd organizes the content of the Constitutional Convention in various ways on the website. Four lesson plans have been created to align with the content the Constitutional Convention as a Four Act Drama. Within each lesson students will use Madison’s daily Notes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as their primary source for acquiring content.
In Act One of the Convention, Governor Randolph introduces the fifteen point Virginia Plan at the end of May to “revise the Articles of Confederation.” The decisive features of this plan are 1) the complete structural exclusion of the states in terms of both election and representation; 2) the complete diminution of the powers of the states and the virtual freedom of Congress to act in those areas for which the states are incompetent; 3) the establishment of an extended national republic with institutional separation of powers and the introduction of the possibility that short terms of office and term limits-standard features of traditional republicanism-will be abandoned. Under the wholly federal Articles of Confederation, only the states are represented and the central government was restrained to the exercise of expressly delegated powers. And under the state republican constitutions, the governor had very little authority, and the elected representatives were kept under close scrutiny. Madison’s Virginia Plan introduces a new understanding of federalism and republicanism. This wholly national republican plan is debated, and amended, over the next two weeks, and the main features are adopted by the delegates in mid June over two alternatives: the wholly federal, or state based, New Jersey Plan, that argues that the Virginia Plan goes too far, and the Hamilton Plan that claims the Virginia Plan does not go far enough. Hamilton, among other things, envisioned a President for life. (Act One description taken from: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/intro.html)
Why was representation a key issue deliberated by the Framers at the Constitutional Convention of 1787?
Why did the Framers hold the deliberations in secret?
After completing this lesson, students should be able to:
- Explain how the secrecy rule at the Constitutional Convention intentionally allowed for deliberation to occur, a premise of representative democracy.
- Analyze Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and defend why some Framers would support one plan (the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Hamilton Plan) over the other plans. (Note: Analysis should explain why the Virginia Plan was introduced and then amended and explain why the New Jersey Plan was introduced and then rejected.)
On May 25, the Constitutional Convention began its work by creating a Committee to propose “rules for conducting business.” On May 28, the Committee reported sixteen rules and on May 29 they reported six further rules. One of these was the rule of secrecy. According to Madison’s Notes, the exact language of the secrecy rule was: “That nothing spoken in the house be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave.”
The delegates adopted these rules without debate. And for the most part they adhered to the rule of secrecy. The issue of what would happen after the Convention adjourned was not addressed. Certainly Madison informed Thomas Jefferson about the main features of the deliberations. There was at least one Founder in each of the state ratifying conventions, and these conventions were open to the public with the deliberations reported widely in the press. Madison seems to have taken the vow of secrecy to the limit; his copious Notes weren’t available until after his death despite numerous requests that he make them available to help in constitutional interpretation.
- “It does not provide against foreign attacks.”
- “It does not secure Harmony to the States.”
- “It is incapable of producing certain blessings to the States.”
- “It cannot defend itself against encroachments.”
- “It is not superior to State constitutions.”
The single most important reason why the delegates were gathered was because of what Madison referred to as the multiplicity, mutability, and injustice of legislation at the state level. To correct these deficiencies, the Virginia Plan removed the state legislatures both structurally, and in terms of powers, from any place in the new continental arrangement. Most importantly,
- The National Legislature should consist of two branches.
- The people of each State should elect the First Branch of the National Legislature. The Second Branch of the National Legislature should be elected by the first.
- The National Legislature shall have power “to legislate in all cases to which the separate States are incompetent,” and “to negative all laws passed by the States, contravening in the opinion of the National Legislature the articles of Union.”
- The National Legislature shall elect a National Executive.
- The Executive and a number of National Judiciary will form a Council of Revision. This Council will review laws passed by the National Legislature and have the power to reject the laws, unless the National Legislature can pass the act again.
- The National Legislature will create the National Judiciary. The structure will consist of one or more supreme tribunals and inferior tribunals. Judges will be appointed for life, during good behavior.
- State Legislatures, Executives, and Judges are to be bound by oath to support the Articles.
- The new plan for government should be ratified by the people, through assemblies of representatives chosen by the people.
The “oracle” Montesquieu had argued that for a people to remain free, they must reside in small, homogeneous communities. Public virtue was needed to secure a republic and this sentiment was endangered in large, heterogeneous communities. It is the unique contribution of Madison to challenge this traditional theory of self-government head on. In fact, he stands it on its head! His first verbal articulation of this position occurs on June 6 where he argues that majority faction is the mortal disease of popular government and traditional solutions to factious politics will no longer work. He thus directly challenges the traditional claim that people are happier in small republics. Just the opposite; unless we spread people out over an extended orbit and filter their opinions, passions, and interests through a scheme of representation, then popular government will come to a violent end. This speech is the precursor to the famous Federalist 10 essay and is part of the political theory underlying the Virginia Plan.
There is a division of opinion in the scholarly literature concerning the motivation behind the introduction of the Virginia Plan. Some scholars credit Madison for his strategic brilliance in shifting the attention away from revising the Articles of Confederation to this new and bold plan. Other interpreters point out that it was introduced by Virginia, the largest state, that would benefit in terms of representation at the expense of the smaller states who received equal representation under the Articles of Confederation. A number of political theorists portray the Virginia Plan as making the novel case for “the large republic” theory over against the traditional “small republic” theory articulated by Roger Sherman on June 6. What is clear from both Randolph’s arguments on May 29 and Madison’s position on June 6 is that the Virginians saw state legislatures, in both large and small states, as dangerous to liberty and justice. What is also clear is that Madison sees no principled reason for the equal representation of states qua states.
On June 11, Roger Sherman proposed a compromise: rather than have proportional representation of the people in both the House and the Senate, why not agree to proportional representation in the House and equal representation for each state in the Senate? The rejection of this compromise, led the New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Delaware delegations, and Mr. Martin from Maryland, to propose the New Jersey Plan.
Madison’s Notes for June 15th records the following: “Mr. Dickinson said to Mr. Madison you see the consequence of pushing things too far.” The 11 Resolutions of the New Jersey Plan restored the single chamber structure of the Articles, where each state was represented equally regardless of the size of its population. As far as powers were concerned, the power to tax and the power to regulate interstate commerce were added to the powers that the union had under the Articles.
It is tempting to see the introduction of the New Jersey Plan as an attempt by the small states to fight off the impending victory of the large state supported Virginia Plan. But this is to simplify too much. There were some “large minded” men from small statesDickinson for examplewho were willing to meet the Madisonians half way, but to no avail.
What are the principles, if any, that undergird this Plan? On June 16, for example, Pinckney observed, rather cynically, that no principles were involved: “the whole comes down to this, as he conceived. Give N. Jersey an equal vote, and she will dismiss her scruple, and concur in the Natil. system.” But Pinckney, to the contrary notwithstanding, there are two “scruples” involved.
The first scruple concerns the rule of law. On February 28, 1787, the Confederation Congress endorsed the meeting of a Grand Convention, “for the sole purpose of revising the articles of confederation and reporting to Congress and the several state legislatures such alterations and provisions therein as shall, when agreed to in Congress and confirmed by the States, render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” The defenders of the New Jersey Plan pointed to this mandate and suggested that the Virginia Plan was illegal. The second principled position was the question of prudence, namely, the improbability that the Virginia Plan will be adopted. The defenders of the New Jersey Plan argued that it would be more likely to be adopted by the electorate than the never before imagined Virginia Plan. On June 16, Lansing, in support of Paterson, stated: “The Scheme is itself totally novel. There is no parallel to it to be found.”
The New Jersey Plan supporters had to contend with the question, why are states qua states entitled to equal representation? There are two answers. 1) The colonies became the States and the States have been equally represented in every continental scheme from the start, so why the move to alter tradition? 2) The Declaration of Independence declared the independence, equality, and sovereignty of each state. And the Treaty of Paris recognized the independence of the states as part of the principles of the peace.
June 18 is Hamilton day at the convention. He argued that the New Jersey Plan simply duplicated the defects of the Articles and thus failed to address the source of the problem, namely, state sovereignty. And, he argued further, that the Virginia Plan didn’t go far enough. It didn’t adequately subdue the state governmentsHamilton wanted the governors of the states to be selected by the national government along the lines of the previous colonial administrationand it was insufficiently high-toned.
Hamilton stated that there are five “great & essential principles necessary for the support of government.” 1. ” An active & constant interest in supporting it,” 2. “The love of power. Men love power,” 3. ” An habitual attachment of the people,” 4. “Force by which may be understood a coercion of laws or coercion of arms,” and 5. “Influence.” According to Hamilton neither plan meets these five objectives.
To Hamilton, the task was “to go as far as in order to attain stability and permanency as republican principles will admit. Let one branch of the Legislature hold their places for life or at least during good behavior. Let the Executive also be for life.” Put differently, only the British Government came close to securing good government. The feature he admired in the British system was the duration in office for the office holders. He suggested that the duration in office proposed by the delegates supporting both plans were inadequate; as long as the chief executive and Senators were elected, for example, and subject to impeachment, then we could trust them to have life terms! This was a major departure from what was accepted as a republican form of government.
It is tempting to speculate why Hamilton spent so much time on his eleven point plan and what impact he had. One bit of American mythology has Hamilton deliberately introducing such an outrageous Plan in order to make the Virginia rather than the New Jersey plan look moderate. This lovely story concludes by demonstrating that the very next day the amended Virginia Plan is adopted and subsequently Hamilton leaves the convention for New York. But there is no evidence that Hamilton’s speech swayed anyone to change their vote from the New Jersey plan to the Virginia Plan.
The importance of Hamilton’s speech is that it pushed the delegates, but much later on, to consider the true from the false definition of monarchy and aristocracy. The false definition, says Hamilton, is longevity in office; the true characteristic is how you get into office. And by the latter stages of the convention, the delegates were willing to entertain a much more “elevated” form of government that Hamilton so brashly presented a couple of months earlier. Hamilton’s point is that the key to monarchy and aristocracy is that the office holders: inherit their position and are not elected by the people. This distinction is critical because it challenges the traditional republican doctrine that “where annual elections end, tyranny begins,” and that intrinsic to republicanism are short terms in office with provisions for recall and rotation.
Prior to teaching this lesson the teacher should cover content related to the Articles of Confederation and its weaknesses. The teacher should familiarize her/him self with Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 on the following days outlined below. Gordon Lloyd has presented the content of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a Four Act Drama. This lesson focuses on Act One which contains nine scenes. Some scenes have been omitted from Act One in order to focus on the most critical content that aligns with lesson one on the rule of secrecy and plans on state representation and representation of the people.
Scene 1: Laying Down the Rules
May 25: Constitutional Convention meets quorum requirement
May 28: Committee on Rules Reports rules for Convention
Scene 4: Madison-Sherman Exchange
June 6: Are people “more happy in small than large States?” Should Resolution 4a be adopted
June 11: Popular representation in both branches?
Four activities are outlined below and should be implemented in order.
Activity 1: The Rule of Secrecy serves as an instructional set for the lesson.
Activity 2: Three Plans on Representation Presented at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 provides background information to students on the three plans of representation presented by Randolph (Virginia Plan), Paterson (New Jersey Plan) and Hamilton (Hamilton Plan).
Activity 3: Discussing the Three Plans on Representation provides students the opportunity to analyze the three plans on representation in a Socratic seminar.
Activity 4: Simulated Congressional Hearing on Representation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 serves as an end of lesson group and individual assessment of student analysis on the three plans of representation including the introduction, amending, and rejection of plans presented at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
For all activities, readings from Madison’s Notes are required. To assist students in reading Madison’s Notes to complete all tasks, highlighted sections from the text has been provided.
If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on “Making Sense of Maps” and “Making Sense of Oral History” which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.
Activity 1: The Rule of Secrecy
Time required for activity: In class activity 20 minutes.
The teacher will open day one of the lesson by sharing that two statesmen, George Washington and James Madison were opposed the Articles of Confederation because the Articles allowed for robust and healthy state and local politics and a weak and divisive continental arrangement and called for a Grand Convention.
The teacher should post and ask students to respond to the following statement using a think-pair-share strategy.
Why would the Framers of the Constitution approve the following rule at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 if a goal of the Convention was to produce a Constitution for the United States that would reflect a representative democratic republic?
Rule of secrecy: “That nothing spoken in the house be printed, or otherwise published or communicated without leave.” (See May 29)
- Think. The teacher provokes students’ thinking using the rule of secrecy above and the question. The students should take a few moments (probably not minutes) just to THINK about the question and write a response on a sheet of paper.
- Pair. Using designated partners, students PAIR up to talk about the answer each came up with. They compare their written notes and identify the answers they think are best, most convincing, or most unique by summarizing their paired response.
- Share. After students talk in pairs for a few moments (again, usually not minutes), the teacher calls for pairs to SHARE their thinking with the rest of the class. The teacher can do this by going around in round-robin fashion, calling on each pair; or the teacher can take answers as they are called out (or as hands are raised). Often, the teacher or a designated helper will record these responses on the board or on the overhead.
Once students complete the Share portion of the activity the teacher can use lesson extension one and have students discuss how Christy portrayed secrecy in his painting of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 portrayed secrecy. Lesson extension two could also be used at this time for students to explore who was on the Rules Committee and what additional rules were made during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Activity 2: Three Plans on Representation Presented at the Constitutional Convention of 1787
Time required for activity: In class reading assignment and completing graphic organizer, two 45 minute class periods. Students may complete individually or in small groups.
The teacher should provide background information that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, one of the main tasks of the Framers was to decide on representation and powers of Congress. The teacher should tell students that because of the secrecy rule, there was very little information about what was happening at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. One of the main sources of information that we have today are Madison’s Notes of the convention. In this lesson, the class is going to focus on how the Framers of the Constitution debated three plans that dealt with how the representatives of Congress would be determined and the powers of Congress. Students will be asked to read Madison’s Notes of the Convention on the original and amended Virginia Plan (See May 29, June 6, and June 11), the original and rejected New Jersey Plan (See June 15, June 16, and June 19), and the rejected Hamilton Plan (See June 18).
Students will be asked to complete a chart (chart key) comparing the original and amended Virginia Plan (See May 29, June 6, and June 11) , the original and rejected New Jersey Plan (See June 15, June 16, and June 19), and the rejected Hamilton Plan (See June 18). Minimally, students should record three ways each plan was similar and different using the comparison chart template. The teacher should review the scoring criteria for the comparison chart prior to students completing. The key criteria that should be recorded on the comparison chart for each plan includes:
Depending on student content vocabulary readiness the teacher may need to review vocabulary used in Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Words the teacher should consider covering include: proportion, tribunal, provision, unicameral, bicameral and republican. One way to review is to use a word wall. The teacher will tell students that the class will be adding several words to the word wall today. Word walls are a literacy strategy that may be used before reading (explicit teaching and modeling, during reading (guided practice) and after reading (guided practice). For proper use of “word walls” please see: http://www.ccsso.org/projects/secondary_school_redesign/adolescent_literacy_toolkit/resources_for_teachers/10620.cfm
Activity 3: Discussing the Three Plans on Representation
Time required for activity: One 45 minute class period.
After completing the Venn diagram on the three plans for representation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, students will be asked to consider why some Framers would support one plan over the other two plans presented in relation to how representatives of Congress would be selected and the powers granted to Congress. Students will eventually give a four minute oral presentation in a small group, see activity four. To assist students in preparing for the oral testimony, students will participate in a Socratic seminar. Students will use their Venn Diagrams completed in Activity 2 to prepare for the Socratic seminar. See the handout to learn more about Socratic Circles.
In preparation for the Seminar on why some Framers would support one plan over the other two plan, students should use their Venn diagrams and Madison’s Notes of the Convention on the original and amended Virginia Plan (See May 29, June 6, and June 11), the original and rejected New Jersey Plan (See June 15, June 16, and June 19), and the rejected Hamilton Plan (See June 18).
The basic procedure for a Socratic circle follows:
During the Socratic Seminar students should make sure they do the following:
Suggested questions the teacher may ask students during the Socratic seminar:
See the Socratic circle rubric handout to assess students during the Socratic Seminar.
Depending on student content vocabulary readiness the teacher may need to review vocabulary used in Madison’s Notes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. One way to review is to use a word wall. The teacher will tell students that the class will be adding several words to the word wall today. Word walls are a literacy strategy that may be used before reading (explicit teaching and modeling, during reading (guided practice) and after reading (guided practice). For proper use of “word walls” please see: http://www.ccsso.org/projects/secondary_school_redesign/adolescent_literacy_toolkit/resources_for_teachers/10620.cfm
Activity 4: Simulated Congressional Hearing on Representation at the Constitutional Convention of 1787
Time required for activity: Two 45 minute class periods, one class period for preparation, one class period for presentations.
After students complete the Socratic seminar, the teacher should assign students to small groups (3-5 students). To begin wrapping up the lesson and to assess both small group and individual mastery of the content within the plans of the convention, the teacher will have students participate in a simulated congressional hearing.
In small groups (3-5 students), students will be asked to give an oral testimony in which they will apply the information learned in this lesson. This testimony will allow students to display a greater depth of understanding of the three plans presented at the Constitutional Convention by analyzing Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and defending why some Framers would support one plan (the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Hamilton Plan) over the other plans. Analysis should explain why the Virginia Plan was introduced and then amended and explain why the New Jersey Plan was introduced and then rejected.
As a small group, students will prepare a four minute oral presentation which answers the following question:
Testimony question: Analyze Madison’s Notes on the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and defend why some Framers would support one plan (the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Hamilton Plan) over the other plans. Analysis should explain why the Virginia Plan was introduced and then amended and explain why the New Jersey Plan was introduced and then rejected.
Students should record their oral presentation on note cards. The oral presentation should include:
The teacher should encourage students to use quotes from Madison’s Notes on the Convention and present day connections, if applicable, in their oral testimony response. Madison’s Notes on the original and amended Virginia Plan (See May 29, June 6, and June 11) , the original and rejected New Jersey Plan (See June 15, June 16, and June 19), and the rejected Hamilton Plan (See June 18) should be utilized to form the testimony for the oral presentation.
Each small group of students will give their oral testimony. The teacher should invite members of the school community or community to serve as mock members of Congress. The members of Congress will listen and evaluate the prepared oral testimony given by each small group of students. The members of Congress will also have the opportunity to ask the small student groups up to six minutes of follow up questions. Suggested follow up questions may include: Which of the three plans do you prefer and why?; How might our country be different today under the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, Hamilton Plan? The Simulated Congressional Hearing Scoring Criteria should be used to assess student oral testimonies. The teacher should review the Simulated Congressional Hearing Scoring Criteria with students and mock members of Congress before oral testimonies are developed.
After completing this lesson, students should individually be able to write brief (1-2 paragraphs) responses to the following questions:
- Why was the rule of secrecy important to the Framers during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 if a goal of the Convention was to produce a Constitution for the United States that would reflect a representative democratic republic?
- How did the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and Hamilton Plan address the structure and powers of Congress?
- How did the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and Hamilton Plan address if states should send an equal or proportional number of representatives to Congress?
- How did the Virginia Plan, New Jersey Plan, and Hamilton Plan address if the people or the state legislatures should elect representatives?
- Why the Virginia Plan was introduced and then amended and explain why the New Jersey Plan was introduced and then rejected.
Extending the Lesson:
Extension 1: Students may use Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy and the Thoughts on Christy’s “Signing of the Constitution” to further explore the rule of secrecy and how it was portrayed through art.
Extension 2: Students may use Committee Assignments Chart to explore who was on the Rules Committee and what additional rules were made during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Extension 3: Students may use the committee’s notes on secrecy to prepare a debate on the use of secrecy at the Constitutional Convention.
Extension 4; Students may write a feature article about how a government under the New Jersey, Virginia or Hamilton Plan would respond to a present day current event.
Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans:
Selected EDSITEment Websites: