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Actions of the First Congress

95 min
  • Students will be able to explain how the First Congress in 1789 implemented the Constitution through laws that organized the new government.
  • Students will be able to summarize and explain the need for the actions taken by the First Congress.
  • Students will be able to paraphrase and evaluate the constitutional amendments that James Madison proposed in his speech to Congress on June 8, 1789.

Class sets of pocket Constitutions are available from the Bill of Rights Institute, but any printed copy of the founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) can be used in this activity.

1. Ask students to consider a time when they had to work with a group in which they did not agree on something. How did they resolve their differences? Guide discussion toward the idea of compromise and the role of compromising in trying to move toward a goal.

2. Ask students to recall how the creation and ratification of the Constitution provide several examples of compromise and group work. If students struggle to answer, play the BRI Homework Help video (5 minutes) on the Constitution, which reviews delegates compromising on creating a bicameral legislature, on how to count slaves in determining representation, and on the need for a Bill of Rights.

1. Distribute Handout A: Refining the Bill of Rights: Madison’s Proposals, and have students move into thirteen small groups.

2. Students will discuss each of Madison’s proposals listed in Column A and write each in their own words in Column B.

3. After discussion, each student may decide to write their individual paraphrase or write a group paraphrase.

4. At this point, designate each of the groups to be the delegation from a specific state: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia. Point out that the sixty-five representatives were not equally apportioned among the states, but that more populous states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts had larger delegations, and Delaware and Rhode Island each had only one representative.

5. Once students have been assigned their delegation, have them brainstorm what would be important to their state to consider in the amendment process. Ask students to consider the knowledge of the different economies and patterns of settlement in the colonies from previous chapters.

6. Students will discuss the merits of each excerpt in Column A of their chart, in light of their responsibility to faithfully represent their constituents from their assigned delegation.

7. Students will then record a check in Column C for each amendment they would support, assuming the identity of a member of their assigned delegation. Students within a state delegation may or may not come to a unanimous decision, but they should come to a majority decision. Have each group select one person in the delegation to act as a spokesperson for the vote.

8. Call for a final vote on each proposed amendment. Each state spokesperson will vote for their delegation and should be prepared to briefly share the reasoning for their response.

1. Have students work with their small groups and pocket Constitutions to complete Column D and answer the analysis questions that follow. Lead a discussion on the analysis questions or collect them, as best suits your classroom.