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Argumentation: The Process of Compromise

90 min
  • Students will be able to summarize the main ideas behind the major compromises at the Constitutional Convention by reading a scholarly analysis of the event and answering questions.
  • Students will reflect on the historian’s process for creating an argument by examining and evaluating the data on the Quill Project website, which summarizes the complex activity of the Constitutional Convention.

This lesson acknowledges the main ideas and huge significance of the outcomes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and asks students to consider the process by which the compromises of the convention were achieved. It offers insight into the historian’s craft of interpreting history based on the clues left behind by those who lived though the event. Over the past several years, the Quill Project at Pembroke College, Oxford, has used data analysis to better understand the process of negotiation that resulted in the compromises of the Constitution. It is recommended that students are familiar with the context and figures involved at the Convention before participating in this activity.

Distribute Handout A: Warm-Up Scenario and Reflection Questions to students. Allow students to answer the questions individually or discuss with a partner or small group. After a few minutes, call the class together and lead a brief class discussion on student responses and comments.

Transition the conversation to providing context for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates gathered in Philadelphia for an extremely important task but had no real rules or guidelines for how they would accomplish this task. In this activity, students will consider not only the momentous decisions reached by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention but also the process by which they debated, discussed, and, ultimately, compromised to create a document that has guided the United States for over 200 years.

Distribute Handout A: Warm-Up Scenario and Reflection Questions to students. Allow students to answer the questions individually or discuss with a partner or small group. After a few minutes, call the class together and lead a brief class discussion on student responses and comments.

Transition the conversation to providing context for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The delegates gathered in Philadelphia for an extremely important task but had no real rules or guidelines for how they would accomplish this task. In this activity, students will consider not only the momentous decisions reached by the delegates at the Constitutional Convention but also the process by which they debated, discussed, and, ultimately, compromised to create a document that has guided the United States for over 200 years.

Distribute Handout B: Background Essay and Questions: The Great Compromise of 1787. 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.

Students need access to computers* Students should explore The Quill Project website and complete the Handout C: The Quill Project: The Process of Compromise. Note that students will watch an introductory video and should have headphones available. Alternatively, play the video for the class and then allow students to explore the site individually, in pairs, or in small groups.

Have students respond to one of the following prompts:

Option A: The Writer

The Constitution has often been called a “Bundle of Compromises.” To what extent and in what ways is this description accurate? How does the work of the Quill Project illustrate the complexity of the compromise process?

Option B: The Artist

The scholars at the Quill Project have created several visualizations to allow users to appreciate the complexity and detail of the work behind creating the U.S. Constitution. Create your own annotated illustration or cartoon that depicts the process of compromise that occurred in Philadelphia in 1787, rooted in the data provided by the Quill Project. Your illustration should also indicate how the Quill Project’s work challenges the traditional historical narrative of the Convention’s work being a blend of the Virginia and New Jersey Plans.

  • A good narrative account of the Constitutional Convention is Richard R. Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution. New York: Random House, 2009.
  • A more recent volume, that covers the period of the Convention and the struggle for Ratification, and which covers the controversy over the shift of so much power to the Federal government is Michael J. Klarman’s The Framers Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • A thorough examination of the history of the most important account of the Convention is offered in Mary Sarah Bilder’s Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • This source discusses delegate James Wilson’s role in the Convention, especially as a leading member of the Committee of Detail, from which almost half the text of the final Constitution originates: Ewald, William. “James Wilson and the Drafting of the Constitution.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law. 10 (2008): 901–1009.