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The Constitutional Convention — Lesson Plan for Christy’s “Signing of the Constitution of the United States”

 

by Natalie Bolton and Gordon Lloyd

Introduction:

To assist teachers in teaching the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Professor Gordon Lloyd has created a website in collaboration with the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University on the Constitutional Convention. Professor Lloyd organizes the content of the Constitutional Convention in various ways on the website. One lesson plan has been created to align with the content of Howard Chandler Christy’s Signing of the Constitution. Within the lesson students will use Christy and Faulkner’s artistic perspective of the signing as well as biographical notes embedded within the website and links to the National Archives.

Not much is known about the story behind the Christy painting of the Signing of the Constitution (on September 17, 1787) despite the fact that it is conventionally acclaimed as the best single picture ever created of the American Founding. To be sure, Christy’s rendition is not the only one that portrays the American Founding. Barry Faulkner’s more accessible and competing version of the Signing in the National Archives comes to mind. Faulkner’s 1936 tableau rendition – coinciding with opening of the National Archives – of the signing of the Constitution portrays 25 delegates – three of whom declined to sign, three more who left early-standing in an ancient Roman setting. By contrast, Christy’s painting makes a great effort at historical authenticity, engages in political interpretation, captures the Convention at work, and brings the American Founders to life. (Christy painting and Signing of the Constitution description taken from: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/christy/)

Guiding Question:

How accurate were the artists Christy and Faulkner in portraying the signing of the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787?

Learning Objectives:

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  1. Explain the historical significance of the prominent placement of identified delegates in Christy’s Signing of the Constitution.
  2. 2. Compare, evaluate and defend the placement of identified delegates in the artistic interpretations of the signing of the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 by Christy and Faulkner.

Background Information for the Teacher:

About Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

Not much is known about the story behind the Christy painting of the Signing of the Constitution (on 17 September 1787) despite the fact that it is conventionally acclaimed as the best single picture ever created of the American Founding. To be sure, Christy’s rendition is not the only one that portrays the American Founding. Barry Faulkner’s more accessible and competing version of the Signing in the National Archives comes to mind. Faulkner’s 1936 tableau rendition – coinciding with opening of the National Archives – of the signing of the Constitution portrays 25 delegates – three of whom declined to sign, three more who left early-standing in an ancient Roman setting. Faulkner was chosen by John Russell Pope, who was known as the “last of the Romans.” Pope designed both the National Archives and the Jefferson Memorial. The mural depicts Madison delivering the final draft of the Constitution to Washington. By contrast, Christy’s painting makes a great effort at historical authenticity, engages in political interpretation, captures the Convention at work, and brings the American Founders to life.

Thoughts on Christy’s “Signing of the Constitution”

Interpreting an interpretation is a perilous exercise. Nevertheless, Christy’s painting is so vital to the celebration of the American Founding that I owe the contemporary viewer a few thoughts on what Christy is attempting to portray in this commemorative painting.

First, Christy has depicted a certain light in the room. Heavy curtains are open and the outside is visible. During the proceedings of the Convention the curtains were drawn in order to enhance the agreement on secrecy. Now that the solution has been found, we can move from darkness to light.

Second, Christy numbered each of the delegates and this enumeration is available to the public when they view the painting. The first seven mentioned are, with the exception of Franklin, all pro strong central government Federalists: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, Robert Morris, and James Wilson are the first seven listed by Christy. They are separated out from their state delegations and are displayed as independent heroes at the Convention. Put differently, Christy places the supporters of a strong general government in perhaps larger-than-life positions. Madison is seated alone at a table near the podium surrounded by crumpled and uncrumpled notes. Perhaps this symbolizes Madison as the “Notetaker” of the Convention. Washington, surrounded by light, and Franklin, surrounded by books and cane in hand, are there not for what they did at the Convention, but for their heroic position in American life, something that was very much portrayed in the literature at the time of The American Founding.

Robert Morris is not there for his contribution at the Convention – he never spoke – but because he was the financier of the American Revolution. Christy links his actions of 1776 as critical to the deliberations of 1787. Madison, Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, and Wilson are clearly the architects of the Constitution as far as Christy is concerned, and this portrait certainly captures a central sense of American self-understanding. But what Hamilton could possibly be whispering to Franklin, both center stage in the painting, challenges the imagination. They rarely spoke – in fact Hamilton was gone half the time from the Convention and Franklin had Wilson speak on his behalf – so one wonders what Christy had in mind. I doubt it had anything to do with the politics of the Convention.

Third, the remaining delegates are seated or standing inconspicuously, for the most part, with their state delegations. But there is a peculiarity that needs explanation. Why are the three delegates from South Carolina raising their arms in apparent salute to Washington, who stands taller than anyone in the room? The most obvious answer is an expression of thanks and respect. But there is a very practical answer. Christy was painting the Founders from the official paintings hanging in Independence Hall. There was no verified official portrait in the 1930s of Pierce Butler of South Carolina and Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania, so Christy has their faces hidden by the raised arms of the South Carolina delegation. There is also a blur of faces in the corner to the right of Washington. Christy has been very creative: he has placed John Dickinson, whom Christy has listed as the thirty-eighth signer – who actually wasn’t there at the signing because of health reasons, but who had George Read sign on his behalf disguising the face of Jacob Broom, whom Christy lists as the thirty-ninth and last of the signers. There was no official portrait of Broom available in the 1930s.

Fourth, at the very center of the painting is William Jackson. He obviously is critical in Christy’s rendition, yet he lists Jackson as the fortieth and last of the “signers.” Jackson is not a signer; he is the person who recorded the resolutions and votes. So Christy portrays him as important because he recorded the deliberations.

Fifth, there is only one delegation seated at a table – even though all delegations in fact had their own table at the Convention – and that is the Connecticut delegation. There are pieces of crumpled paper on the floor next to Sherman and Johnson. This is in contrast to the other table where Madison looks rather pleased with himself. Now Sherman and Johnson were the authors of the Connecticut Compromise that settled the issue of representation and they worked long and hard for this compromise; the people are represented in the House and the States are represented in the Senate. It is unclear whether or not Christy is praising or criticizing the Connecticut delegation.

Sixth, I’m not sure why Christy gives the honor of signing to the North Carolina delegation, especially since he has given prominence to seven individual members. My best hunch is this: if it weren’t for the Connecticut delegation, the North Carolina delegation wouldn’t have come around to the Connecticut Compromise, and without their support, we wouldn’t have a Constitution whatever the seven movers and shakers wanted.

Behind Washington, Christy has a painting of four flags and a drum. What these symbols represent is, of course, also open to interpretation. One of the three flags is clearly the one supposedly sewn by Betsy Ross in 1776 at the request of Washington and this is the flag that has inspired all the other flags that have been adopted by the country. The other three flags and drum are more difficult to identify, but they probably represent the transition from the battle with the British to the discussions taking place in the room, a movement from revolution to constitution.

Notes: Only 39 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention are pictured in the Christy painting.

Not included are the 3 delegates who did not sign the Constitution: Edmund J. Randolph (Virginia), George Mason (Virginia), and Elbridge Gerry (Massachusetts). Also not included are the 13 delegates who left the convention: Oliver Ellsworth (Connecticut), William Houston (Georgia), William L. Pierce (Georgia), Luther Martin (Maryland), John F. Mercer (Maryland), Caleb Strong (Massachusetts), William C. Houston (New Jersey), John Lansing, Jr. (New York), Robert Yates (New York), William R. Davie (North Carolina), Alexander Martin (North Carolina), James McClurg (Virginia), and George Wythe (Virginia).

Time Magazine, September 29, 1941

One of the eternal problems of art rose last week in the U.S. Capitol: the problem of hanging a historical picture. Since historical pictures cover a lot of space, Capitol Architect David Lynn and a special crew of workmen equipped with pulleys, rollers and winches clambered up and down the Capitol’s stairways and through its second-story windows like a swarm of hungry ants tugging at a dead grasshopper. First they removed Francis Bicknell Carpenter’s modest mural, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, size 9 by 14, from its 63-year-old place above the east Grand Stairway just off the Capitol’s lower chamber. Then to the wall they hoisted a new historical whopper: Howard Chandler Christy’s Signing of the United States Constitution, size 20 by 30.

The idea of this monumental swap had been germinating in congressional brains ever since 1935 when New York’s ubiquitous Congressman Sol Bloom, deep in plans for his 1937 Constitution sesquicentennial celebration, discovered that Washington’s Government buildings contained not a single painting commemorating the Constitution’s signing.* Dismayed, Congressman Bloom got his friend, famed Painter and magazine-cover Artist Howard Chandler Christy, a $30,000 commission to paint the subject.

For two years Artist Christy and Congressman Bloom scoured libraries and picture collections looking for likenesses and descriptions of the Constitution’s 39 signers. To make the picture as accurate as possible they gathered mountains of data on costumes and furniture. When Artist Christy actually got around to painting the picture, he knew from warts to shoe buckles how every one of his historical sitters looked, except two. He made up a face for Jacob Broom; he painted Thomas FitzSimons with his face obscured by the upraised arm of a colleague.

When Artist Christy had finished his mighty acreage of oil painting it was propped up in the Capitol’s rotunda for 16 months while a legislative commission cast about for a likely place to hang it. Likeliest places in the Capitol were already occupied by such rival historical scenes as The Battle of Chapultepec and Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way. One Capitol picture, however, Carpenter’s dignified First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, failed to fill its wall space. So the commission decided to cart it off to the old Supreme Court chamber and replace it with the space-filling Christy.

Thoughts on Christy’s “We the People”

An “allegorical” painting of the Signing—a five feet by seven feet portrayal of the spirit of Liberty, Peace, and Justice—was completed by Christy after two years work in 1937 in conjunction with the celebration of the Sesquicentennial of the Signing of the Constitution. Christy painted this “We the People” rendition in Independence Hall, where at the time the portraits of the Founders hung from the walls, and this undoubtedly inspired his attention to detail; he offered it to the Sesquicentennial Commission as his gift to America. Sources also suggest that he did a lot of his preliminary sketches in Independence Hall during the month of September in order to replicate the lighting of the room.

In the 1930s, Independence Hall served as a collection of Founding material rather than as a replication of original conditions. The bicentennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1976 changed all that. The photographs on the wall have been removed and placed in the Second Bank in Philadelphia or the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D. C. Independence Hall has been restored to its original shape and design. But at the time of the Sesquicentennial of the Constitution, Christy’s painting was part of the display at Independence Hall and his “We the People” draft of the Signing is clearly inspired by the presence of the Framers looking down on him from on high.

Christy also received assistance from Roy Bird Cook (1886-1961) whose efforts to preserve the history of the Civil War are recorded atwww.libraries.wvu.edu/Roy_Cook_JPG/ in West Virginia. Christy wrote a letter to Cook thanking him for his assiatance. With the letter, he included a “historic statement” that helps us understand Christy’s intention in creating the work and his attention to detail.

Christy’s Independence Hall “We the People” painting went over so well, that Congress and President Roosevelt in Spring 1939, invited him to produce a twenty-foot by thirty-foot version that would be hung in the Capitol. The completed painting was unveiled in the Rotunda of the Capitol in May 1940.

Who is Howard Chandler Christy?

Howard Chandler Christy was born in Morgan County, Ohio on 10 January 1873 into a family that traced its lineage back to the Mayflower Compact. He attended art school in New York, during the 1890s, and by age 25 was painting live military illustrations of the Spanish-American War for several well-known magazines. He became especially famous for his “The Soldier’s Dream” renditions of women. “The Dream” woman became his prototype for “The Christy Girl,” portrayed in his 1900-1921 paintings of a charming, beautiful, educated and emancipated woman. His second wife, Nancy Palmer, was his model for many of the “Christy Girl” paintings.

World War I also elicited patriotic sympathy from Christy: He painted over 40 posters for recruitment, bond sales, victory liberty loans, and other efforts on behalf of the war. His 1919 Victory Liberty Loan poster, for example, portrays a “Christy Girl” proclaiming support for “Americans All,” next to an “Honor Roll” listing fourteen names: “Du Bois, Smith, O’Brien, Cejka, Haucke, Pappandrikopolous, Andrassi, Villotto, Levy, Turovich, Kowalski, Chriczanevicz, Knutson, and Gonzales.” “Americans All,” indeed, both then and now!

During the 1920s, Christy turned from magazine illustrations and patriotic themes to personal portraiture. He became associated with the celebrity circle and painted a wide range of people from Herbert Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt to Benito Mussolini. In the mid 1930s, he received several invitations to interpret critical historical events and these, in turn, led in 1940 to the unveiling of his most famous painting, “The Signing of the Constitution.” He also painted a number of religiously oriented posters on behalf of the World War II effort. Christy died in New York in 1952 at the age of 80.

Preparing to Teach this Lesson:

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 the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Gordon Lloyd has presented the content of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as a Four Act Drama, which can be used as a resource for the teacher. Lesson plans on each Act can be found at: www.teachingamericanhistory.org/lessonplans/ and can be used with students prior to implementing this lesson. This lesson focuses on artistic impressions of the Constitutional Convention. Emphasis in the lesson is placed on Christy’s Signing of the Constitution of the United States and Barry Faulkner’s The Constitution.

Three activities are outlined below and should be implemented in order.

Activity 1: Signers of the Constitution and their Convention Contributions introduces students to Christy’s Signing of the Constitution of the United States and consider the contributions made by identified delegates prominently listed by Christy.

Activity 2: TComparing Christy and Faulkner provides students the opportunity to research and cooperatively develop a two-minute speech discussing the accuracy of Christy and Faulkner and their placement of identified delegates during the signing of the Constitution at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Activity 3: Discussing through a Socratic seminar and drawing the signing of the Constitution during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 provides students the opportunity to analyze the placement of delegates.

Analyzing Primary Sources:

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.

Suggested Activities:

Activity 1: Signers of the Constitution and their Convention Contributions

Time required for activity: In class activity 30 minutes.

Christy numbered each of the delegates in his painting for the public to view. Christy lists the following individuals first, all of whom are pro strong central government Federalists, except for Franklin: Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, G. Morris, R. Morris and James Wilson. These delegates are separated out from their state delegations and are displayed as independent heroes at the Convention.

Instructions: Read the Convention Contributions section from the Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention website for the following delegates: Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, G. Morris, R. Morris and James Wilson. Use Activity 1: Signers of the Constitution Handout and their Convention Contributions and identify and summarize the significant Convention contribution of each delegate. Note: This handout has been differentiated by including the summaries and highlighting key sections of the text to assist students based on readiness. See Activity 1: Signers of the Constitution Adapted Handout to access.

Activity 2: Comparing Christy and Faulkner and the Constitution

Time required for activity: In class activity, two- three 50 minute class periods.

Instructions: Working in small groups (3-4 students), use the Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention to compare the placement of the delegates highlighted below in Christy’s Signing of the Constitution painting with Faulkner’s mural of the Constitution. Use Activity 2 Handout. Evaluate and defend which artist was more accurate in the placement of the delegate in his artwork. Create a two minute speech, divided and presented by all group members, to defend your opinion. As students are giving speeches, all other students should take notes and write questions that they would like to ask the class in Activity 3: Socratic Seminar. Assess students using the Activity 2 Speech Rubric.

* Note: Randolph, Mason and Gerry are not included in the Christy painting.

Depending on student content vocabulary readiness the teacher may need to review vocabulary used in the Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 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: Drawing the Constitutional Convention of 1787

Time required for activity: In class activity, one 50 minute class period.

Using the same groups from Activity Two: Comparing Christy and Faulkner and the Constitution, have students share their questions generated from student speeches regarding their placement in Christy and Faulkner’s artistic portrayals of the signing of the Constitution. Students should refine questions and individually record questions each student would like to ask the class.

  • George Washington
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • James Madison
  • Edmund Randolph *
  • Gouverneur Morris
  • Roger Sherman
  • Elbridge Gerry *
  • George Mason *
  • James Wilson

Students will participate in a Socratic Seminar and discuss the following overarching question: Based on your research and student speeches given in Activity Two: Comparing Christy and Faulkner and the Constitution, where would you place the ten identified delegates if you were creating a painting of the signing of the Constitution using Christy’s portrayal of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as your setting?

The basic procedure for a Socratic circle follows:

  1. Students should receive text that they will use for the Socratic seminar and should read, analyze, and take notes on the text.
  2. During class, students are randomly divided into two concentric circles: an inner circle and an outer circle.
  3. The students in the inner circle are posed with a question and then engage in a discussion of the text in the context of the question for approximately ten minutes, while students in the outer circle silently observe the behavior and performance of the inner circle.
  4. After the discussion of the text, the outer circle assesses the inner circle’s performance and gives ten minutes of feedback for the inner circle.
  5. Students in the inner and outer circles now exchange roles and positions.
  6. The new inner circle holds a ten-minute discussion using the same questions and then receives ten minutes of feedback from the new outer circle.

During the Socratic Seminar students should make sure they do the following:

  1. Speak loudly and clearly
  2. Cite reasons and evidence for their statements
  3. Use the text to find support
  4. Listen to others respectfully
  5. Stick with the subject
  6. Talk to each other, not just to the leader
  7. Paraphrase accurately
  8. Ask for help to clear up confusion
  9. Support each other
  10. Avoid hostile exchanges
  11. Question others in a civil manner
  12. Be prepared

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 the Individual Biographies of the Delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 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

Assessment:

After completing this lesson, students should individually be able to write brief (1-2 paragraphs) responses to the following questions:

  1. Who was more accurate in portraying the signing of the United States Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Christy or Faulkner? Explain.
  2. Explain why Christy and Faulkner portrayed Alexander Hamilton so differently in their artistic interpretations of the signing of the United States Constitution at the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
  3. Identify and explain contributions delegates made during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
  4. If you were creating a painting of the signing of the United States Constitution during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 using the setting used by Christy, which delegates would be prominently placed? Explain.

Extending the Lesson:

Extension 1: Use the Sterns (1856) and Glanzman (1987) paintings from Visual Interpretations of the Constitutional Convention and analyze and compare the placement of the same delegates used in the lesson. Note: There is over 100 years difference between the two paintings and consider the historical knowledge gained over that time period to more accurately portray history.

Extension 2: Select a delegate from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and analyze and compare his placement using the nine paintings from the website Visual Interpretations of the Constitutional Convention.

Extension 3: Analyze and compare how The Rule of Secrecy was portrayed by each of the nine artists using the nine paintings from the website Visual Interpretations of the Constitutional Convention.

Extension 4: Justify why Faulkner would include Davie and Martin in his portrayal of the signing of the Constitution.

Related EDSITEment Lesson Plans:

Selected EDSITEment Websites:

 

Standards Alignment:

  • NCSS-10
    Civic ideals and practices.
  • NCSS-5
    Individuals, groups, and institutions.
  • NCSS-6
    Power, authority, and governance.

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