The Constitution

Lesson 4: Prepare for the Debate
Time Estimated: 4 days

Students will:

  1. Assume the role of a Federalist or Anti-Federalist; prepare arguments using primary sources such as The Federalist Papers, Anti-Federalist Papers, letters and other documents.
  2. Debate the issues surrounding the ratification of the Constitution.

Note: To be historically accurate this debate should be centered in a state ratifying convention. The teacher could stage the debate in Virginia since many of the primary sources are documents from Virginians and records from the Virginia ratification convention.

  1. Preparation for Debate: Explain to students that there was serious opposition to the Constitution and a struggle for ratification was strenuously debated. The most famous defense of the Constitution is a series of essays by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay known as The Federalist. This primary source is considered the best discussion of the political theory underlying the Constitution and its provisions. The Federalists conducted a brilliant campaign to garner support for the Constitution. They were especially clever in their seizure of the word Federalist to describe their position. They were undoubtedly nationalists but called themselves Federalists, a term heretofore used to describe those who favored strong state power. They labeled their opponents the negative term, Anti-Federalis...what spin even back then!

    Though the Anti-Federalists were not as well organized as the Federalists, they wrote some prescient articles that clearly stated the objections of some prominent Americans from that time such as George Mason, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee, Robert Yates and George Clinton. Tell students that they are going to assume the roles of Federalists and Anti-Federalists and debate the merits of the Constitution. To get approval of the Constitution the Framers wisely bypassed the state legislatures, characterized by Anti-Federalists' sentiment, and designated the approval process to be conducted by special ratifying conventions elected by the people (remind them of the restricted electorate at the time).

  2. Procedures:
    • Distribute charts that compare the economic and social status of Federalists and Anti-Federalists ( Working in pairs, have students respond to the questions and draw conclusions that can be inferred from the charts. Conduct a brief discussion summarizing their findings.
    • Optional (if time) show the PBS video/DVD on "Are We To Be a Nation?" Discuss worksheet.
    • To determine roles for the debate, teachers can decide among several options. Based on the information in the charts students could create their roles, or they can choose to be a Federalist or Anti-Federalists or the roles can be assigned, but the numbers should be balanced as evenly as possible. You could pair students to research roles and prepare arguments. Also, students can assume the roles of the prominent Federalists and Anti-Federalist of the period or simply make the arguments. The web site is an excellent source for organizing the debate over ratification with short profiles of the major players in the Constitutional debate.
    • Select two good students to lead and organize each of the parties and pair members up to prepare arguments. Provide the sources with a list of issues to debate [national government v. states (congressional representation), presidency, standing army, slavery]. Sources include letters, notes from the convention, and the Anti-Federalists and Federalists essays. If students have access to computers, create stations with bookmarked sites. Ask students to read the articles and prepare two pages of arguments. Circulate the room and assist students in their preparation of arguments, you might begin the assessment process, using the rubric. Prepare a list of speakers.
    • Distribute a chart on Parliamentary procedure and briefly review.
    • Conduct the debate with the teacher as chairperson.
    • Debrief. Pose the following questions to the class:
      • Which arguments were most persuasive? Why? (Students should note the concerns that the new government would be far too powerful using examples such as the lack of a Bill of Rights, the federal structure, the necessary and proper clause, Article six, fear of a tyrannical President, fear of a standing army, the taxing power.)
      • Discuss the compromises on representation, the presidency and slavery that made the Constitution possible.
      • What concerns of the Anti-Federalists have been continuing concerns throughout our history up to today? (Students should note the expansion of federal power and the continuing debates over the extension of national power vs. state power.)
  3. Assessment: Debate (rubric)

Group the class heterogeneously and assign shorter primary readings to less able students. Some students could be reporters for a colonial newspaper and take notes. They could then write headlines and/or articles or draw broadsides, cartoons, charts, profiles for the newspaper.