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Lesson Procedure

Lesson One: Drafting the Constitution

This lesson, a supplement to a study of the Constitutional Convention, focuses on The Committee of Detail's draft of the Constitution submitted on 6 August 1787. The delegates debated its contents for a month before referring the document to the Committee of Style. The Committee's report, presented to the Convention on 12 September, became the Constitution of the United States.

Preliminary Activity:

  1. Examine the powers of the central government under the Articles of Confederation [Student Background on the Articles of Confederation].
  2. Review the Resolution of the Continental Congress, 21 February 1787, which called for a convention to propose amendments to the Articles of Confederation.


Frame the discussion of the Committee of Detail's report in the context of the debates and compromises of the Federal Convention.

  1. Working within groups, read the Report of the Committee of Detail and compare it with the final version of the Constitution.
  2. Chart the major differences in the two documents.
  3. Discuss the significance of the wording of the preamble. Consider questions such as:
    Why is the Preamble of the Constitution drafted by the Committee of Detail worded, "We the people of the States..."?
    What conclusions could you draw from this wording?
    How significant was the change in wording in the Constitution?
  4. Examine Article IX of the Report of the Committee of Detail. Consider questions such as:
    How do the Committee of Detail's draft and the adopted Constitution differ regarding the executive branch?
    What may account for these changes?


Culminating Activity:

Debate the efficacy of having the president elected for one term of seven years as opposed to the present constitutional limitation of two four year terms established by the Twenty-Second Amendment.

Extension Activities

1. Thomas Jefferson on the Constitution

Read excerpts from Thomas Jefferson's letter to James Madison from Paris, 20 December 1787, regarding the failure to limit the term of the executive. Examine elections of the president in U.S. history as a means of evaluating Jefferson's concerns regarding "rotation in office."

2. Correspondence of Delegates at the Philadelphia Convention

Read the personal correspondence of delegates to gain a better understanding of hopes, aspirations, and fears of members of the Federal Convention.

  • Numerous letters from Elbridge Gerry to his wife Ann are included in Supplement to Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 edited by James H. Hutson (Yale University Press, 1987).
  • Other letters are included in The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Volume 3, edited by Max Farrand (Yale University Press, 1966).
    Refer to George Washington's letters to Thomas Jefferson (30 May 1787), to the Marquis de Lafayette (6 June 1787), and to Alexander Hamilton (10 July 1787); and
    James Madison's letters to Thomas Jefferson (18 July 1787) and to his father (28 July 1787); and
    Robert Morris's letter to his sons (25 June 1787).

3. The Veto Power

Examine Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution of the United States regarding the presidential veto.

  • What bills may a president veto?
  • What is required to override a presidential veto?
  • Investigate what is meant by the "Pocket Veto."

Refer to Public Law: 104-130 (S.4), Sec.2 Line Item Veto Authority, the line item veto approved by Congress in committee on 28 March 1996 and signed by the President on 9 April 1996.

  • To what extent does the line item veto enhance the power of the presidency?
  • Why did Congress agree to the line item veto?
  • Write a position paper expressing your views on the line item veto.

Lesson Two: The Bill of Rights

On 12 September 1787, during the final days of the Constitutional Convention, George Mason of Virginia expressed the desire that the Constitution be prefaced by a Bill of Rights. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed a motion to form a committee to incorporate such a declaration of rights; however the motion was defeated. This lesson examines the First Congress's addition of a Bill of Rights as the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Preliminary Activity:

Review the amendment process outlined in Article V of the Constitution.


1. Examine the documents entitled Richmond, State of Virginia. In Convention... Consider such questions as:

  • What were the concerns expressed by the Virginia Ratifying Convention?
  • Why did a minority of the Convention desire to have amendments attached before agreeing upon ratification?
  • On what conditions did the Convention agree to ratify the Constitution?

2. Within groups, assume responsibility for examining several of the Virginia resolutions adopted Friday, 27 June 1788, so that all 20 articles are studied. Report to the class on the scope of the reviewed articles. Consider such questions as:

  • What is the purpose of government?
  • Why did Virginia feel that it was necessary to propose amendments to the Constitution?
  • What are the limitations these proposed articles would place on government?
  • How do these proposed amendments reflect on the experiences under the British system?
  • To what extent are the proposed amendments either stated or implied in the Constitution?


3. Discuss why the majority of Virginia's ratification convention felt it was necessary to include these articles.

4. Read the proposed amendments passed by the Congress of the United States meeting in New York on 4 March 1789. Consider such questions as:

  • How do the first two amendments differ from the remaining ten?
  • What may account for the failure of three-fourths of the states to ratify the first two of the proposed twelve amendments?

5. Compare Virginia's proposed amendments to the Bill of Rights which were ratified in 1791.

Culminating Activity:

Debate the proposition: Resolved, the inclusion of a Bill of Rights in the Constitution was necessary and prudent.

Extension Activities

The Bill of Rights

  • Read Federalist 84 from The Federalist Papers edited by Clinton Rossiter, regarding the reasons why a Bill of Rights was not included in the Constitution and evaluate Alexander Hamilton's assertion that a bill of rights is " ...not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution but would even be dangerous."
  • Read Brutus' letter, To the Citizens of the State of New York, 1 November 1787, in The Antifederalist Writings by the Opponents of the Constitution, Herbert J. Storing, ed., on the need for a Bill of Rights.
  • What are the arguments used to convince the people that specific guarantees of rights are necessary?
  • Review Thomas Jefferson's Letter to James Madison [extension activity for Lesson One] for Jefferson's concern regarding the failure to include a Bill of Rights.

Amendments proposed by the House of Representatives

Examine the seventeen amendments in the House of Representatives' Resolution and Articles of Amendment passed on 24 August 1789, from The Founders' Constitution: Major Themes, edited by Philip Kurland and Ralph Lerner. How do these seventeen amendments differ from the twelve approved by the Senate on 14 September 1789?

Amending the Constitution

  • Review Article V of the Constitution and explain the two ways in which the Constitution may be amended.
  • Examine H.J.Res. 2, H.J.Res. 73, and S.J.Res. 21 (104th Congress, 1st Session), proposed amendments to the Constitution with respect to the number of terms of office of Members of Congress. To track the legislative history for those bills, see the Bill Summary and Status Information for each bill.
  • Read editorials in newspapers and magazines which help provide a survey of public reaction to the proposed amendment.
  • Write a position paper expressing your views on limiting terms of member of Congress.

Lesson Three: Linking Past to Present

The Constitution of the United States vests in Congress the power to make laws, to collect taxes, and to allocate funds for government programs, both domestic and foreign. It is in Congress that the day-to-day work of our democracy finds its most clear expression at the national level. It is up to the men and women elected to serve in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States to formulate policy and enact legislation on behalf of their constituents, as well as the entire country.

A study of three perennial issues -- veterans' benefits, the national debt, and terrorism -- shows the ways in which Congress responded to problems in 1785, and in recent years.

Preliminary Activity:

  1. Review the purpose of government.
  2. Read Alexander Hamilton on "Good Government": The Federalist #1.
  3. Review how a bill becomes a law [A Note on Legislation]

Veterans' Benefits:

Distribute copies of: "By the United States in Congress assembled. June 7, 1785. . .", (Continental Congress) P.L. 108-183, (H.R.2297) Veterans Benefits Act of 2003, and P.L. 108-454 (S.2486) Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004. Compare and contrast the legislative actions relative to veterans' benefits, and respond to questions such as:

  • How much did Congress propose to pay disabled veterans of the American War for Independence? What were other parts of the plan to take care of disabled veterans?
  • How does P.L. 180-183 reveal the concerns of today‚Äôs government in dealing with current veterans?
  • Why was the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004 necessary? Which concerns are addressed in this legislation?


National Debt

The following documents can be used in succession (or working within pairs study one set of documents at a time), to investigate Congress' efforts to reign in the national debt during the time of the Continental Congress and in recent years:

Set 1

  1. "By the United States, in Congress assembled, September 4th, 1782"
  2. "Impressed with a sense of the sacred trust committed to them..."

Consider such questions as:

  • How much money was needed to pay the interest on the nation's debts in 1782? In 1783?
  • What is the tone of Document #2? What was "the dangerous situation of this nation" to which Congress referred in 1783?

Set 2

  1. "By the United States, in Congress assembled, September 27th, 1785"
  2. "An address from the United States in Congress assembled..."
  3. If needed, revisit Student Background on the Articles of Confederation {Preliminary Activity for Lesson One}

Consider such questions as:

  • How much money was needed to pay the interest on the nation's debts in 1785?
  • What does Document #2 tell you about the success of the resolves set forth in Document #1?
  • What is the "circumstance too disgraceful to admit of belief" to which Congress refers in Document #2?


Set 3

  1. "Proposing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution..." (H.J.Resolution 1, 104th Congress). Select version 4, "Passed by the House."
  2. "H.J.RES.1--Detailed Legislative History"

Consider such questions as:

  • What are the essential elements of H.J.RES.1?
  • What was the final outcome of this bill?

Culminating question or essay topic for national debt discussion:

To what degree does the responsibility to address the national debt belong in Congress? What are the historical -- and Constitutional -- aspects of this ongoing issue?


In "Office for Foreign Affairs, 29 September, 1785" John Jay suggests to Congress that ". . . piracy is war against all mankind." Consider similar statements made in recent years about terrorist activities.

For modern responses to terrorism review this legislative action in the 107th Congress:

  1. P.L. 107-39 (S. J. Res. 22), A joint resolution expressing the sense of the Senate and House of Representatives regarding the terrorist attacks launched against the Unites States on September 11, 2001
  2. P. L. 107-56 (H.R. 3162), USA PATRIOT Act
  3. P. L. 107-296 (H.R. 5005), Homeland Security Act of 2002

To locate debate related to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, search on keywords "September 11" in the Congressional Record for the 107th Congress. Change the "Specify number of documents to be retrieved" box at the bottom of the page from 50 to 2000.

Review this legislation from the 108th Congress:

1. P. L. 108-458, (S. 2845) Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004

Consider questions such as:

  • What incidents prompted Congress to act in this manner?
  • What specific steps did Congress take in response to terrorism?

2. Examine "Office for Foreign Affairs, 20th October, 1785 . . ." and respond to the following question:

What "good effects" does John Jay and Paul Jones think will come out of the fact that the Algerines had declared war against the United States in October 1785?

3. Review John Jay's reports to Congress from the Office for Foreign Affairs, 29 September and 20 October 1785. Consider his suggestions for prosecuting people caught committing piracies and felonies on the high seas and discuss such questions as:

  • What title would John Jay have if he held the same position in the American government today?
  • What punishment was recommended for persons convicted of these crimes?
  • Why does Jay not specify punishments for treason? What statement of his illuminates one of the confusing aspects of citizenship in the "new" United States?

Lesson Four: Early Congress Proclaims Holidays

One of the most lasting historical effects of Congressional decision-making is the establishment of national holidays. This lesson highlights early examples of Congress declaring special days of thanksgiving and remembrance.

Preliminary Activity:

Distribute a copy of the original broadside "In Congress. December 11, 1776...". Read along as the teacher recites the first paragraph of the manuscript, and points out the early form of the letter "S". Work individually or in pairs to transcribe the second paragraph of the broadside. (The transcribed version of the broadside could be printed on the reverse of the copy of the manuscript to facilitate this task).

Consider such questions as:

  • What is the "just and necessary war" to which Congress refers?
  • When and where did the battles of that war begin?
  • When did the Americans declare their independence from Great Britain?
  • What are the recommendations Congress makes to the United States?
  • According to the tone of this document, how do you think the war was going at the time it was written?


Working in pairs, study the two additional documents: "Proclamation: Whereas, in just punishment..." and "State of New Hampshire. In Committee..." and respond in small groups or as an entire class to questions such as:

  • When was the document produced?
  • Where was the proclamation disseminated?
  • What seemed to be the course of the War for Independence at the time?
  • Which country is the "ally" mentioned in the documents?
  • What dates did the Continental Congress suggest for holidays?

Culminating Activity:

Brainstorm modern-day holidays which are reminiscent of those suggested in 1779 and 1782. Why do we commemorate special days?

Extension Activity


  1. "In Congress. December 11, 1776..."
  2. "Proclamation: Whereas, in just punishment..."
  3. "State of New Hampshire. In Committee..."

Examine the degree of religiosity contained in all three documents, and discuss how and why such references differ from the language of modern legislation.