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James Madison and the Bonus Bill

50 min
  • What was President James Madison’s view of federal power?

Students will:

  • Understand James Madison’s view of federal power.
  • Understand Madison’s reasons for viewing unlimited federal power as a threat to liberty.
  • Apply Madison’s reasoning to determine how he would have assessed the constitutionality of federal laws.
  • Appreciate Madison’s contributions to limited government and liberty.

  • Handout A: James Madison and the Bonus Bill
  • Handout B: Article I, Section 8 Slips
  • Handout C: To Veto, or Not to Veto?
  • Handout D: Madison, Federal Law, and You

To create a context for this lesson, have students complete Constitutional Connection: The President and Federal Power.

Have students read Handout A: James Madison and the Bonus Bill and answer the questions.

Choose five students and assign them the roles of James Madison, James Wilson, Ben Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Rufus King. Let them know that next class you will invite them to improvise a scene that might have taken place at the Constitutional Convention during debate on Madison’s proposal that Congress be given power to grant charters of incorporation for the construction of canals.

In their role play, they should include:

  • Madison, Wilson, and Franklin’s reasons for suggesting and supporting the proposal
  • Sherman and King’s reasons for objecting to the proposal

Have the five students perform their scenes using Handout A.

Arrange desks in a circle. Using a hat, nametag, or other object, designate one student to play the role of “President Madison.”

Give the other students, who will serve as “Congress,” one slip each from Handout B: Article I, Section 8 Slips.

Put up an overhead of Handout C: To Veto, or Not to Veto. Reveal the first proposed federal law, taking care not to reveal the outcome. Members of “Congress” should examine their slip from Handout B and decide if it gives them the power to pass this bill. If they believe it does, they should raise their hand and explain their reasoning to the group.

“President Madison” should now decide whether to sign or veto it. Remind the student playing Madison that s/he should assess the constitutionality of the proposal as President Madison would have.

Reveal the outcome using Handout C.

Have students pass their slip or President Madison object to the person to their left. Repeat the activity for the rest of the proposed laws.

Have students complete Handout D: Madison, Federal Law, and You individually in class or for homework.

Ask students to recall Sherman and King’s objections to the proposed power of Congress to grant charters of incorporation for the construction of canals. Have any of those objections become relevant today?

Have students read Madison’s veto message to Congress and put each paragraph into their own words. How would they summarize his veto message in one sentence?

Have students use recent news articles to analyze similarities and differences between Madison’s understanding of the powers of the federal government and current approaches to its powers. How are terms such as “earmarks,” “pork-barrel projects,” and “logrolling” related to these current controversies?