When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in the summer of 1787 to deliberate on a new plan of government to supplant the ineffective Articles of Confederation, the first point on which they agreed was that their deliberations remain strictly private. The matters they were to discuss were highly controversial. There would be little possibility of reaching an agreement–a mutually acceptable compromise–if delegates had to argue under the scrutinizing lens of public report and comment. They would not be able to listen to each other’s arguments, giving differing opinions due consideration, if they had to constantly justify every word they spoke and every vote they took to constituents at home.
So it is fortunate that in this atmosphere of strict secrecy James Madison set out from the beginning to keep a record of each day’s proceedings. Largely because of Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, we know today what issues the delegates discussed, what concerns they raised, and through what process they reached the joint agreement that became our Constitution. Madison respected the rule of secrecy during his life, not allowing the publication of his notes before his death. (For more on this and numerous other aspects of the Convention, See Professor Gordon Lloyd’s interactive website.)
This excerpt from Madison’s Notes, part of our collection on 50 Core Documents, includes summaries of major points made in the critical debate on representation in the legislative branch: whether the members of Congress would be elected directly by the people or rather elected as delegates to Congress by the state legislatures. It reveals interesting insights into the positions taken on this question by such key delegates to the convention as Elbridge Gerry (MA), Roger Sherman (CT), James Wilson (PA), George Mason (VA), and Madison (VA) himself. At the bottom of the excerpt from the Notes, you can find a drop-down list of documents related to this debate.
New York was the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution. Its ratifying convention met between June 17 and July 26, 1788, at roughly the same time that Virginia and New Hampshire were holding conventions. When these three conventions began, the approval of at least one more state was needed to make the Constitution the law of the entire country. In his detailed discussion of the nationwide ratification debate, Gordon Lloyd notes that “New York, in many ways, was at the center of the ratification controversy.” It was there that the most vigorous newspaper debates took place, and it was Alexander Hamilton of New York who originated the idea of writing The Federalist to explain and defend the provisions of the new constitution. Although Hamilton had left the Constitutional Convention early due to frustration over objections to a strong central government, once a final document was approved, he threw his support behind it. His advocacy was critical to New York’s decision to ratify. One of the most notable speeches made in the course of the nationwide ratification debate was made by Hamilton on the second day of argument in the New York Convention, June 20. Answering criticisms made by John Lansing and Melancthon Smith, Hamilton insisted on the inadequacy of the existing Articles of Confederation. He then went on to explain how the document written in the Philadelphia convention was the product of necessary and reasonable compromises between large and small states and between Northern, commercial states and Southern states whose economy was based on slave-labor agriculture. As he explained to his fellow delegates,
The natural situation of this country seems to divide its interests into different classes. There are navigating and non-navigating States. The Northern are properly the navigating States; the Southern appear to possess neither the means nor the spirit of navigation. This difference in situation naturally produces a dissimilarity of interests and views respecting foreign commerce. It was the interest of the Northern States, that there should be no restraints on their navigation, and that they should have full power, by a majority in Congress, to make commercial regulations in favor of their own, and in restraint of the navigation of foreigners. The Southern States wished to impose a restraint on the Northern, by requiring that two thirds in Congress should be requisite to pass an act in regulation of commerce. They were apprehensive that the restraints of a navigation law would discourage foreigners; and, by obliging them to employ the shipping of the Northern States, would probably enhance their freight. This being the case, they insisted strenuously on having this provision ingrafted in the Constitution; and the Northern States were as anxious in opposing it. On the other hand, the small States, seeing themselves embraced by the Confederation upon equal terms, wished to retain the advantages which they already possessed. The large States, on the contrary, thought it improper that Rhode Island and Delaware should enjoy an equal suffrage with themselves. From these sources a delicate and difficult contest arose. It became necessary, therefore, to compromise, or the convention must have dissolved without effecting any thing.
Today and tomorrow, May 14 and 15, are the anniversaries of two linked events in our Founding. On May 15, 1776, the Continental Congress issued a “resolve” to the thirteen colonies: that each “Adopt such a government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the safety and happiness of their constituents in particular and America in general.” This instruction initiated the effort that all the colonies—soon to be states—would undertake by 1780: the creation of state constitutions. Gordon Lloyd, in his website on the Constitutional Convention, notes that: “Between 1776 and 1780 each of the thirteen colonies adopted a republican form of government. What emerged was the most extensive documentation of the powers of government and the rights of the people that the world had ever witnessed.” He goes on to say that “These state constitutions displayed a remarkable uniformity. Seven attached a prefatory Declaration of Rights, and all contained the same civil and criminal rights. Four states decided not to “prefix” a Bill of Rights to their constitutions, but, instead, incorporated the very same natural and traditional rights found in the prefatory declarations. New York incorporated the entire Declaration of Independence into its constitution.”
The resulting state governments were “robust and healthy,” Lloyd notes. After the Continental Congress created a government linking all the new states—the Articles of Confederation—a conflict arose, becoming particularly noticeable after independence was secured. The state governments were more powerful than the “late arriving, weak and divisive continental arrangement.” Statesmen such as Washington and Hamilton were frustrated that the Articles could not easily compel states to comply with the articles of peace with Great Britain or easily regulate interstate commerce. Madison worried that overbearing majorities in the state legislatures “were passing laws detrimental to the rights of individual conscience and the right to private property. And there was nothing that the union government could do about it because the Articles left matters of religion and commerce to the states,” Lloyd writes. So an initiative began to convene representatives of the states in Philadelphia to discuss ways of improving the Articles of Confederation.
Professor Gordon Lloyd
The date appointed for the opening of the convention in Philadelphia was May 14, 1787.
Gordon Lloyd’s website on the Constitutional Convention amasses a wealth of information and resources useful for student research. A comprehensive online collection of information on the Convention, it presents the facts of the Founding in multiple ways, adaptable to different learning styles.
You’ve likely seen Ashbrook’s 50 Core American Documents project online at TeachingAmericanHistory.org. We’re pleased to release a new paperback book edited by Ashland University professor Christopher Burkett. The book contains all fifty documents, a brief introduction to establish context, and several questions suitable for your own private musing or for classroom discussion.
Looking for a gift for that teacher, student, or history buff in your life? Order a copy today!
Bill of Rights Day, the day on which the first ten amendments to the constitution went into effect upon their ratification, is December 15th. In addition to TeachingAmericanHistory.org’s own interactive resources on the Bill of Rights, our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have a plethora of related interactive and documentary resources designed for use in secondary school classrooms. Among these are animated games and exercises, quizzes, videos, SMARTboard activities, and lesson plans.
Learn more at the at BRI’s Bill of Rights Day page.
Sunday, December 15 is Bill of Rights Day, being the anniversary of the day in 1791 on which the document became an official part of our Constitution. When Virginia became the 11th state to ratify the document, these first ten amendments to the Constitution took effect. For a detailed exploration of the philosophical origins of the Bill of Rights and the political process by which they came to be adopted, visit the exhibit Gordon Lloyd prepared for our site, as a companion to exhibits on the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist-Antifederalist Debates, and the Ratification of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights completed the design for our government given us by the Founders, since it provided additional restraints on the federal government thought to be needed by those who were hesitant to ratify the Constitution.
James Madison, who played a pivotal role in insuring the ratification of the Constitution, also took the lead in calling for the Constitution’s first set of amendments. Madison outlined the need for a Bill of Rights in a speech before the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789. We reprint below Professor Christopher Burkett’s comment on Madison’s “Speech on Amendments to the Constitution.” It is part of a new collection of primary documents in American history edited by Burkett and published by the Ashbrook Center, 50 Core Documents: Required Reading for Students, Teachers and Citizens.
We think of our national celebration of Thanksgiving as rooted in the harvest feast of seventeenth century Pilgrim settlers. But as an official government holiday, the celebration was inaugurated by George Washington, following a resolution of Congress, in 1789. Though he issued the proclamation on October 3, he set the date of the celebration for the fourth Thursday in November, a tradition we follow today.
Washington notes in the beginning of the Proclamation that “both Houses of Congress have by their Joint Committee requested me ‘to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.’” In fact, Congress was then an almost brand-new institution, having convened for the first time the previous March. The new Constitution had not become the working blueprint of our government until late in July 1788, by which time the necessary eleven of the original thirteen states had ratified that document. Hence in issuing the Proclamation, Washington was no doubt expressing a sense of relief and jubilation that the young nation’s extraordinary process of inventing a republican form of government had actually succeeded. The new government united regions with differing economic interests, led by statesmen with sharply different views of what a republic would require for its survival.
Professor Gordon Lloyd, who created our online exhibits on the creation of the Constitution and its Ratification, underlines the uniqueness of this achievement, which required Antifederalists to quell their very real concerns, well before a Bill of Rights was hammered out and agreed to:
“Historians tell us that the importance of the 1800 election is that it’s the first peaceful exchange of power from one party to another. Yes, that is extremely important. Here is another thing that’s important. What other country prior to the United States is informed that its government doesn’t work, sits for four months in convention, comes back for an entire year and debates and debates, and not a drop of blood was spilled?”
Something else to think about as we count our blessings next week.
Our friends at the Bill of Rights Institute have introduced a new documentary resource written by teachers for use in K-12 classrooms. Documents of Freedom: History, Government, & Economics through Primary Sources is designed to be used as a supplement (or even as a substitute) for traditional government, civics, and economics textbooks. Each lesson unit highlights key primary sources and is indexed to the standards of many states, the Common Core, and the College Board. Best of all, it works equally well across all platforms: Windows, Mac, tablets, smartphones, and other devices.
Access to Documents of Freedom is free (registration is required).
Attention, High School teachers! The Bill of Rights Institute is holding a scholarship essay contest for current high school students. Winning essays can receive prizes of up to $4,000. The teacher of the winning student also may receive a prize of up to $500.
Student essays will be responses to three questions related to ideas contained in the United States Constitution. Complete details about entry, including the three writing prompts, may be found at the contest website.
The entry deadline is December 6, 2013.
On this day in 1787, Pennsylvania became the second state to ratify the Constitution, by a vote of 46 to 23. Pennsylvania was the first large state to ratify, as well as the first state to endure a serious Anti-Federalist challenge to ratification.
If you didn’t already know, Professor Gordon Lloyd of Pepperdine University has created a website in collaboration with the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University on the Ratification of the Constitution. Professor Lloyd organizes the content on the Ratification in various ways on the website. One lesson plan has been created to align with the content of the “in doors” conversations of ratification. There are four main component parts to the “in doors” coverage on the website. 1) A Commentary that breaks down the “in house” ratification into The Six Stages of the Ratification of the Constitution. 2) Elliot’s Debates is the major source for learning what took place at the various state ratifying conventions. 3) We have provided a day-by-day summary of each of the three ratifying conventions Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York. This summary highlights the particular clauses of the Constitution that were under consideration on that day along with a synopsis of the main points that were made by the delegates. Each of the three Day-by-Day Summaries is preceded by a brief overview of the entire ratifying convention. 4) A set of individual Maps along with a comprehensive map that shows the location of Federalist and Antifederalist strength throughout the thirteen states.
The full lesson can be found here.
In 1953, the Abraham Lincoln Association published The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, a multi-volume set of Lincoln’s correspondence, speeches, and other writings. Roy P. Basler and his editorial staff, with the continued support of the association, spent five years transcribing and annotating Lincoln’s papers. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln represented the first major scholarly effort to collect and publish the complete writings of Abraham Lincoln, and the edition has remained an invaluable resource to Lincoln scholars. Through the efforts of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the edition is now available in electronic form.
Pearl Harbor Day is sadly fading from being commemorated in many U.S. classrooms. For students of the war the day still serves as an amazing event that truly placed the world into a war that would last for four more years and impact every continent. This interactive site from National Geographic illustrates the events of that infamous day in an extraordinary way.
The Battle of Fredericksburg by Kurz and Allison
The release of the cinematic masterpiece, Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, is a boon for history teachers nationwide. This movie will certainly be nominated for multiple Academy Awards and draw countless millions to theaters. Even middle and high school students have been caught up in the rush to see this mature, adult-targeted film. History teachers have a grand opportunity to capture the hype surrounding the movie to engage learners who otherwise may not be as accessible.
If you are a teacher that attempts to align your teaching calendar with anniversaries of historical events, you may want to use this renewed interest in all-things-Civil-War to utilize the Civil War Animated website. Coming soon, in mid-December, is the anniversary of the Battle of Fredericksburg. The Civil War Animated website is a tremendous tool for engaging learners. It not only provides poignant, relevant historical context of the war’s battles, but it also allows students to interact with animated battle maps. For your students that love military history (and even those who may loath it), there are very few websites constructed that can quite as effectively capture their attention
The website itself provides a brief statement highlighting historical context and battle outcomes:
Following the indecisive Battle of Antietam Creek, President Lincoln replaces General George McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside immediately submits a plan to race Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Fredericksburg and on to Richmond. Lincoln accepts the plan and the Army of the Potomac marches to Fredericksburg. But extremely poor planning causes the pontoon bridges for crossing the river to be left at the end of the baggage trains allowing to Lee to concentrate his army and prepare for Burnside’s assault.
After introducing students to the importance, context, and outcome of the battle, the teacher can then direct students to the animations of the battles, found here. Notice, the animation begins with another historical survey of the battle. After students have read and internalized this, the teacher can direct them to the actual battle maps. When students click on “Play,” the animations begin. The progress of the battle is then animated step-by-step, with helpful narratives displayed and sound effects included. Fittingly for a history class, the final scene provides excerpts from primary sources that gave contemporary commentary on the battle’s outcome.
Is it not amazing how a president can be very popular during his time and yet be evaluated downwards in subsequent years, as some have said of Eisenhower? Is it not equally amazing that some have been so pitifully unpopular that they decide to not run for reelection, as in the case of Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968?
Similarly, sometimes approval ratings mean nothing, electorally speaking, as Truman proved in 1948.
Presidential approval ratings have been tracked since 1941. The American Presidency Project from UC-Santa Barbara has compiled thorough listings of these statistics since FDR. The general index can be accessed here. To view each president’s ratings, simply click on their name in the drop-down box.
Additional statistics for job approval ratings can also be found through other links:
- Initial job approval ratings
- Approval ratings following the First 100 Days
- Final approval ratings
The American Presidency Project is a very detailed web resource for all manners of subjects related to the presidency. Put on by the University of California at Santa Barbara, this digital library covers topics ranging from presidential approval ratings to party platforms to White House staff budgets.
The upcoming election provides social studies teachers many opportunities for linking the present to the past. The American Presidency Project offers a detailed set of statistics for past presidential elections. By visiting this site, teachers and students can glean, compare, contrast, and analyze past presidential election electoral and popular vote tallies. Additionally, teachers and students can determine which way their own state went in that election, as each election year link has not only whether the state went red or blue that year, but it also has a break-down by state of how many electoral and popular votes went to each candidate.
1892 Electoral College Map