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Argumentation: Self-Interest or Republicanism?

80 min
  • Students will be able to evaluate competing explanations of the motives of the Constitution’s framers by reading a scholarly analysis of those interpretations and answering questions to evaluate and compare them.
  • Students will reflect on the historian’s process for creating an argument by examining and evaluating the data.

This lesson asks students to consider the ways historians interpret the motives of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. It is recommended that students are familiar with the context and figures involved at the Constitutional Convention before participating in this activity.


Students need access to computers or mobile devices to consult the website Great Seal (

Ask any students in class who have a one-dollar bill with them to take it out and examine the back, where they will find the Great Seal of the United States. Ask students to share and look on together with others who do not have a dollar and/or project an image of the Great Seal from so all can see. Call attention to the Latin motto below the unfinished pyramid: Novus Ordo Seclorum, meaning “A New Order of the Ages.” Point out features of interest regarding the creation of the Great Seal.

Allow students to explore the website for a few minutes and tell them that historians have arrived at different conclusions regarding the motivations and significance of the Founding Era. What conclusion does the story of the Great Seal suggest regarding the Founders’ motivations? Encourage a brief discussion of students’ observations regarding what the Great Seal may reveal. This lesson will offer a contrasting explanation of the Founding, and, like this Warm-Up Activity, it deals with money: What motivated the framers at the Constitutional Convention? Were they wealthy elites trying to protect their privileged positions, or were they statesmen trying to develop a republican form of government that would withstand the problems that had brought down previous republics in world history—”a new order of the ages”?

Introduce the Beard thesis by having students read aloud the introduction on Handout A: Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. Have students read the handout and answer the questions individually or in small groups, as best suits your classroom.

Distribute Handout B: Essay: What Principles Motivated the Founders: Economic Self-Interest or Republicanism? Have students read the essay and answer the questions that follow. Collect student responses for a grade or discuss when students have completed them, as best suits your classroom.

Have students respond to one of the following prompts:

Option A: To what extent were the Founders motivated by personal gain versus a desire to establish a new republican order of liberty? How important are their motives to later generations who seek to evaluate their work? Answer these questions in complete sentences using specific evidence to support your reasoning.

Option B: Draw and annotate the Great Seal as if designed from a Beardian perspective. Below your illustration, compare your version of the Great Seal with the version that appears on the dollar bill.

Option C: How should we remember the Founders? How can we use primary sources to come to a balanced and reasoned understanding of this or any other historical era, considering the good that flawed human beings did, considering their self-interested acts, and using what we learn to think and act wisely today? Answer these questions in complete sentences using specific evidence to support your reasoning.