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The Commercial Republic Before the Civil War, 1815-1860

145 min

Guiding Questions:

  • What is federalism?
  • What role in economics does the federal government play? What role in economics does the state government play?
  • What does it mean to veto? What part of the United States government has the ability to veto?


  • Students understand the impact of federalism on American government
  • Students explain the veto process and apply it to real examples in the government
  • Students know the federal powers that exist in American government

  • property
  • James Madison
  • Articles of Confederation
  • Bill of Rights
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • Justice
  • Constitution

Students read the essay, The Commercial Republic Before the Civil War, 1815-1860 to establish context for the lesson.

The teacher will cut apart the clauses on Handout B: Article I Section 8 Slips, creating 18 different slips. Laminating the slips is recommended.

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 they will improvise a scene that might have taken place at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 during debate on Madison’s proposal that Congress be given power to grant charters of incorporation for the construction of canals. They should base their role play on Handout A: James Madison and the Bonus Bill, under The Constitutional Convention heading. Their dialogue should make clear Madison, Wilson, and Franklin’s reasons for suggesting and supporting the proposal and Sherman and King’s reasons for objecting to the proposal.

Activity 1: To Veto or Not? [30 minutes]

Arrange at least 19 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.

Using Handout C: To Veto, or Not to Veto, either display the first proposed federal law, or simply read it aloud, 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 each of the remaining proposed laws on Handout C.

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

Activity 2: McCulloch v. Maryland [90 minutes]

To prepare students for his lesson, have students read Handout E: Case Background and Handout F: Background Information on McCulloch v. Maryland. Lead students through a careful whole-class study of Documents F, G, and H on Handout G: Documents. These reports prepared by President Washington’s cabinet members on the National Bank establish the primary lines of reasoning for differing methods of interpreting the Necessary and Proper Clause.

Assign appropriate documents for student analysis. Documents A – I address the historical background and Constitutional significance of the issues in McCulloch v. Maryland. Documents J – M prompt students to consider the continuing significance of these constitutional issues.

Use the key question, “Does the Necessary and Proper clause grant a new power or does it serve to limit the ones that come before it? What does “Proper” mean?” for class discussion or writing assignment, focusing on the constitutional principles involved in the case.

Have students use Handout H: Graphing Federal Power to show the change in the level of federal power over time, using only the Supreme Court cases, McCulloch v. Maryland and U.S. v. Comstock. Students should keep Handout H in their folders and score the level of federal power for each of the later cases as the course progresses.

Have students find other examples of how federalism has played a role in American government and explain the impact it had or is having on our country.

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

The Civil War and the Industrial Revolution

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