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American Founding Toolkit

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The era of the American Founding lasted from the 1770s through either the late 1780s or early 1790s, depending on one’s perspective or school of thought. For the sake of this resource, the Founding is defined as being the period from 1776 through 1789 – that is, from the writing of the Declaration of Independence through George Washington’s inauguration as the country’s first president.

During this period, the “American Mind,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, was expressed through a revolution, initial attempts at government, and finally the creation of the Constitution, the instrument intended to bring to fruition the lofty goals of the American Revolution.

Guiding Questions

  1. How did American thinking about the nature of leaders and the people–the rulers and the ruled–evolve from the colonial days of allegiance to the King to the presidency of George Washington? What qualities did they believe that leaders should exhibit, how much power should they have, and why was it important that such power be checked and monitored?
  2. Can we say that Americans of the founding era valued some ideals and principles more than others–security or freedom? Liberty or union? A confederated republic or a rising national empire? Or did they try to reconcile all these goals and ideals as they built a new nation?
  3. How did Americans in the Founding era think about the relationship between the Constitution and the American Revolution? What had the Revolution achieved and what did it mean, and would the Constitution uphold those achievements or roll them back? Why did Federalists tend to see the Constitution as the fulfillment of the Revolution while Anti-Federalists criticized it as a betrayal? Why did the Constitution generate such diverse opinions on such a key issue? How did the ratification debate and the creation of the new government address these hopes and fears?
  4. Could the broad, universal principles declared in the Declaration of Independence be limited or deferred once they were articulated? In what ways were the debates of the founding era really about extending the principles of the Revolutionary movement to more than just a few Americans—and for whom, and how fully, and how soon those rights and benefits should be conferred?

Suggested answers

Essential Documents

  1. Declaration of Independence, 1776, Thomas Jefferson
  2. Vices of the Political System of the United States, 1787, James Madison
  3. Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, James Madison (excerpts)
  4. Constitution of the United States, 1787
  5. Brutus I, 1787
  6. Federalist I, 1787
  7. Brutus II, 1787
  8. James Wilson’s State House Speech, 1787
  9. Federalist 10, 1787
  10. First Inaugural Address, 1789, George Washington



  1. Documents in Detail: Federalist 51
  2. Documents in Detail: Declaration of Independence
  3. Moments of Crisis: Intolerable Acts
  4. Documents in Detail: Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
  5. Documents in Detail: Federalist 1
  6. Documents in Detail: James Madison’s Federalist 10
  7. Documents in Detail: George Washington’s Farewell Address
  8. American Presidents: George Washington
  9. American Controversies: Is the Constitution Pro- or Anti-Slavery?
  10. American Controversies: Did the Founders Misunderstand Democracy?
  11. American Controversies: Did the Founders Misunderstand Equality?
  12. Making a Constitutional Republic
  13. Reflection and Choice versus Accident and Force: Making the Constitution
  14. Religious Liberty and the American Founding
  15. American Minds: Benjamin Franklin
  16. American Minds: Alexander Hamilton

Online Exhibits

  1. The Constitutional Convention – an immersive, multi-genre study of the Convention of 1787, examining the people, ideas, and event from documentary, visual, and contextual angles, all supported by a rich selection of original documents.
  2. Federalist-Antifederalist Debates – the in-doors and out-of-doors debates, from late 1787 through late 1788, about the Constitution, and whether the people and the states should ratify it, with a focus on the issues debated and personalities involved.
  3. Ratification of the Constitution – how was the Constitution actually ratified? How did conventions in the states debate and vote on the document, and through it the future of the country?
  4. The Bill of Rights – examine the English, colonial, and revolutionary roots of the Bill of Rights by individual right and amendment, and see where Americans’ most fundamental rights came to be codified.

Presidential Academy
These archived courses will help teachers expand their documents-based knowledge of a time period and the topics found within it.

  1. Part 1: Declaration of Independence through the Federalist Papers – includes links to 11 hour-long sessions with documents

Lesson Plans

  1. A Walking Tour of the Constitution – help your students learn and retain the fundamentals of the Constitution, and create a useful reference for themselves in the process
  2. Founding Principles – a writing lesson that will help students identify and explain a few of the core principles expressed in the Constitution
  3. The Origins of the Bill of Rights – a study of the historical and ideological origins of the first ten amendments
  4. American Revolution Socratic Seminar – a model for purposeful discussion of a topic, with a focus on the ideas that animated those who waged the War for Independence
  5. The American War for Independence – three related lessons about the war
  6. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 – three related lessons exploring different phases of the Convention
  7. The Federalist-Antifederalist Debates: Diversity and the Extended Republic – two related lessons exploring key issues debated over ratification of the Constitution
  8. Other Lesson Plans on the Founding – a selection