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The Articles of Confederation

145 min

Guiding Questions

  • To what extent does an excess of liberty endanger individual liberty?
  • To what extent can individual rights and liberties be protected without a strong central government?


  • Students will analyze the provisions of the Articles of Confederation.
  • Students will determine why individuals such as George Washington expressed a growing concern over government’s inadequacies, and why these concerns were expressed by and heightened after events such as Shays’s Rebellion.
  • Students will explain why there was a growing call for creating a strong central government and the rationales for the various arguments.

  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Constitution
  • Continental Congress
  • George Washington
  • James Madison
  • John Jay
  • Justice
  • Thomas Jefferson

Begin with whole-class discussion to refresh students’ memory regarding grievances that the colonists expressed about the British Government.

Provide the students with a copy of the Declaration of Independence for reference.

Note that, as long as the colonies had a common enemy in King George III and Parliament, their internal squabbles were limited. However, once the American Revolution was over, those interstate rivalries surfaced.

Study Groups [20 minutes]

Divide the class into 5 groups and assign one of the following readings to each group:

Sharing Groups [30 minutes]

Regroup the class, jigsaw style, so that the new groups include at least one person to report on each of the documents above. Allow time for this reporting and encourage students to annotate the handouts as their classmates describe each document.

Shays’s Rebellion Role Play [45 minutes]

Handout F: Articles of Confederation One-Pager provides a summary of the strengths and weaknesses of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Use Handout F along with Handout G: Shays’s Rebellion Participants and Locations, Handout H: Role Play Outline, and Handout I: Analysis of Shays’s Rebellion to provide classes with a role play in which they analyze the purposes of a central government, evaluate the Articles of Confederation, reenact Shays’s Rebellion, and reflect on its results.

Problems Facing the New Nation [20 minutes]

In whole-class dialogue, review Handout J: Main Headings from the Vices of the Political System of the United States, and then discuss the Critical Thinking Question: Based on a quick overview of this list from Madison, and on your background knowledge of the functioning of the government under the Articles of Confederation, which 3 to 5 problems do you think were the most serious and important? Be prepared to discuss your reasoning with others.

In a class discussion, written response, graphic organizer, poster, flow chart, or some other format, students will trace the evolution of the growing concerns and necessity to change the Articles of Confederation. Students will discuss/debate whether individual rights and liberties are more in jeopardy from a strong central government or from a weak central government.

Students analyze further Madison’s Vices (Handout J) and draw connections to the debates at the Constitutional Convention and the U.S. Constitution. In an essay after the study of Philadelphia Convention, the students assess to what extent these vices made it into the debates at the Convention and the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

The Constitutional Convention

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