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Signing the Constitution

Created by:
Susan Foreman
Oakcrest High School

Susan Kane
Oakcrest High School

Jim Dunn
Oakcrest High School

Constitutional Conversations

Grade Level:
9 to 12


Students use primary source documents as well as biographical background to identify the political concerns of Patrick Henry, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, James Madison and William Patterson. They then form a panel and present these ideas to the class.

Additional students, who portray audience members, research general ideas, thoughts and beliefs of the men who attended the Constitutional Convention on five given topics.

The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to read primary source documents and analyze why founders chose to sign or not to sign the Constitution, as well as find evidence of those principles, philosophies and ideas that led to the Bill of Rights and the Anti-Federalist movement.

Historical Context

During the American Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation served as a loose alliance between the states. The flaws of this document were highlighted, however, as the war continued. The Articles had no provision for an executive or judicial branch of government, for example, and only provided a one-house legislature. They also did not give a central government the right to tax. With some of these shortcomings in mind, state representatives called a convention to rewrite the Articles of Confederation. This meeting was only underway 5 days before members determined that an entirely new Constitution was needed.

In the early weeks of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates debated two possible plans for the structure of a new government; the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan. The Virginia Plan favored the larger, wealthy and more populous states whereas the New Jersey Plan favored the smaller, less wealthy and less populous states. Fierce debate took place regarding many of the enduring principles underlying the Constitution such as federalism, checks and balances, separation of power, and individual rights. Ultimately, the members of the Constitutional Convention came to an agreement on many of these issues in the form of the Connecticut Compromise (also known as the Great Compromise). The final draft of the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787, though many delegates remained unsatisfied with the document. Some felt that slavery had been inadequately addressed, and other worried that it included no Bill of Rights protecting individual freedoms. Others did not agree with the final decisions regarding state representation. Three delegates (Elbridge Gerry, George Mason and Edmund Randolph) refused to sign the document at all.

This exercise requires students to use primary sources to research some of the issues our founding fathers grappled with. Some of the sources that will enable students to connect more intimately with these characters include letters, speeches and transcripts from the Constitutional Convention. During this process, students will have an opportunity to connect with some of the lesser known characters from history, see their role in the development of the Constitution and recognize some of the shortcomings of the document as well. It can also lead to discussions about how we, as a nation, resolve problems later in time and how we continue to address challenging issues today.


individual rights, patriotism, loyalty, slavery, checks and balances, separation of powers

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Discuss the ideas of checks and balances.

2. Identify separation of powers.

3. Discuss the influence of slavery on constitutional formation.

4. Identify the importance of protecting individual rights.

5. Identify the three branches of government.

6. Reconstruct historical arguments and present them in a talk-show setting.


STANDARD 6.1 (Social Studies Skills) All students will utilize historical thinking, problem solving, and research skills to maximize their understanding of civics, history, geography, and economics.

STANDARD 6.2 (Civics) All students will know, understand and appreciate the values and principles of American democracy and the rights, responsibilities, and roles of a citizen in the nation and the world.

STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Copies of each of the Primary Sources for Panelists:

1. Elbridge Gerry's Reasons for not signing the Constitution, 1787.

2. Patrick Henry's Speech to the Virginia Ratification Convention, 1788.

3. George Mason's Objections to the Constitution, 1787.

4. William Patterson's Presentation of the New Jersey Plan to the Constitutional Convention, 1787.

5. Edmund Randolph's Presentation of the Virginia Plan to the Constitutional Convention, 1787.

6. James Madison's Presentation of the Connecticut Compromise (Great Compromise), 1787.

Other Materials Needed for all Students: Internet and Computer Lab Access.

Details of Activity

PART I: Background (2 days)

In order to prepare for this event, students will be assigned the role of Panelist, Research Assistant or Audience Member. Panelists include Patrick Henry, George Mason, Elbridge Gerry, Edmund Randolph, James Madison or William Patterson.

Panelists will be asked to focus on five topics that shaped Constitutional ratification debates: separation of power, voting representation, checks and balances, individual rights, and slavery.

Students will be required to research each topic using primary source documents provided and be prepared to articulate their position during the in-class talk show exercise. Primary documents include speeches and transcripts from the Constitutional Convention. Panelists and Research Assistants will work as teams and both students should be well-versed on their assigned character.

The remainder of the class will be the studio audience. Each audience member will be assigned one of the five topics above, and is responsible for researching how this topic relates to the Constitution. Audience members should also be able to summarize both viewpoints about the issue (for and against) and formulate two questions to present to panelists during the talk show event. They will conduct this research using general sources, such as textbooks and the internet links provided.

PART II: We the People Talk Show (45 minutes)

10-15 minutes: The teacher facilitates the talk show and serves as host, providing a brief history of the Constitutional Convention and overview of the program format and topics to panelists and audience members. He or she also introduces the key issues shaping the debate: separation of power, voting representation, checks and balances, individual rights, and slavery. The host then introduces each panelist, who provides a brief background on themselves and their position on the Constitution.

20 minutes: The host facilitates the question and answer segment of the show and ensures that audience members direct their questions, based on their assigned topics, to specific panelists. Audience members should be prepared to offer a follow-up question based on panelists' responses.

10 minutes: The host closes the discussion and allows panelists to offer their final thoughts. The host then offers final comments and reiterates some of the issues and panelists' positions regarding the signing of the Constitution. The talk show concludes and follow-up class discussion can help clarify the issues behind the signing of the Constitution.

This lesson incorporates a multitude of learning styles and techniques that will help all students be able to grasp these difficult concepts to the best of their ability. Examples of these techniques being used include individual research, group collaboration, public speaking and impromptu response to questions.

Practice and Reinforcement

Students will write a speech stating their position on the Constitution (to sign or not to sign) and support their decision based on the issues discussed and researched in class: separation of power, voting representation, checks and balances, individual rights and slavery. Students will read their speeches in class and recreate the signing of the document.

Evaluation of this lesson plan can vary depending on the role of the student. All students will be responsible for participating in the culminating 'Talk Show' activity and their performance could be graded using a rubric. Some elements on this rubric include evidence of solid preparation, enthusiastic role-playing, developing a strategy with teammates, etc.

In addition, panelists will be responsible for submitting a short biography that they plan to present during the introduction and a short summary of the key points outlined in the documents.

Research assistants will be responsible for submitting an essay summarizing the key arguments outlined in the documents.

Audience members will be responsible for submitting a short summary of their assigned issue and two well-written, well-conceived questions relating to that issue.


The Avalon Project at Yale Law School: 18th Century Documents.

National Constitution Center: Biographies of the Founding Fathers.

National Archives: Charters of Freedom.

Web Links:
Background information on Congressional positions.

Source for Federalist primary documents.

Source for Anti-Federalist primary documents.

National Constitution Center founders' biographies

National Archives "Charters of Freedom" exhibition

For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here