Congress and the Constitution
The Constitutional Powers of Congress
The weakness of the national legislature under the Articles of Confederation meant that were unable to effectively govern the country. To fix this deficiency, the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 created a stronger legislature with more adequate powers with which to govern. These powers, enumerated in Article I, Section 8, continue to be the foundation for Congressional authority. In the debate over ratification, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists discussed at length the extent of the powers that should be given to the national legislature. This lesson explores the foundation of these Congressional powers.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Separation of Powers
A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.
James Madison [Virginia]: “I had brought with me into the Convention a strong bias in favor of an enumeration and definition of the powers necessary to be exercised by the national Legislature; but had also brought doubts concerning its practicability. My wishes remained unaltered. But I should shrink from nothing which should be found essential to such a form of government as would provide for the safety, liberty, and happiness of the community. This being the end of all our deliberations, all the necessary means for attaining it must, however, be reluctantly submitted to.” - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)
The national legislature created by the Articles of Confederation lacked sufficient powers to govern the country properly. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created a stronger Congress with adequate powers to govern. The legislative powers were enumerated, or listed, in Article I, Section 8, whereas Article I, Section 9 enumerated powers which Congress was constitutionally restricted from exercising. Article VI made constitutional congressional laws and treaties part of the supreme law of the land.
During the 1787-1788 ratification debate over the Constitution, the Federalists defended the strengthened, though limited, legislative branch and its relationship to the executive and judicial branches. The Anti-Federalists were critics of the Constitution including the Congress because they argued that it had unlimited powers and would destroy liberty.
- Students will examine the principles of republican government, popular sovereignty, limited government and enumerated powers, and federalism through the study of Congress in the creation and ratification of the Constitution.
- Students will compare and contrast the powers of the Confederation Congress under the Articles of Confederation to the Congress created by the Constitution.
- Students will analyze the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debates over the powers of Congress during the ratification process.
- Handout A: Background Essay: The Constitutional Powers of Congress
- Handout B: Articles of Confederation: Legislative Powers
- Handout C: Powers of Congress in the U.S. Constitution
- Handout D: The Powers of the Articles of Confederation and U.S. Constitution Venn Diagram
- Handout E: Constitutional Convention Role-Play
- Handout F: Federalists and Anti-Federalists on the Powers of Congress
- Proportional representation
- Enumerated powers
- Interstate commerce
- Federal supremacy
- NCSS Framework: D2.Civ.2.9-12, D2.Civ.4.6-8, D2.Civ.4.9-12, D2.Civ.5.6-8, D2.Civ.5.9-12, D2.Civ.8.6-8, D2.Civ.8.9-12, D.2.His.9.6-8, D.2.His.9.9-12, D2.His.12.6-8, D.2.His.12.9-12.
- Center for Civic Education (CCE: CCE I, B, 1; CCE I, C, 2; CCE I, D, 1; CCE I, D, 2; CCE I, D, 2; CCE II, A, 1; CCE III A, 1; CCE III A, 2; CCE III B, 1; CCE III, B, 3.
- UCLA Department of History: National Center for History in the Schools, United States History Content Standards (NCHS): Era 3, Standard 3
Background Homework15 min.
Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: The Constitutional Powers of Congress and answer the critical thinking questions.
Activities 40 min. total
Activity I » 20 minutes
- Have students read Handout B: Articles of Confederation: Legislative Powers and Handout C: The Powers of Congress in the U.S. Constitution.
- Assign the students to groups of four. Have them briefly compare and contrast the respective legislative powers in the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution from Handout B and Handout C.
- Each group will complete Handout D: The Powers of the Articles of Confederation and U.S. Constitution Venn Diagram using the primary sources in Handout B and Handout C.
Activity II » 20 minutes
- Assign students parts for the Constitutional Convention Role-Play which is divided into six sections related to different debates on the powers of Congress at the Convention. One student each will play Edmund Randolph, William Paterson, Charles Pinckney, Pierce Butler, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Elbridge Gerry, George Mason, and Roger Sherman. The role of narrator can be played by one student or by several students who each read one section for the narrator.
- Have the members of each section stand and read the provided script from Handout E: Constitutional Convention Role-Play. After each section, briefly discuss with the class how that section of the role-play relates to the powers of Congress. Perform and discuss all six.
- After students have performed the role-play, discuss two important themes. First, the importance of deliberation at the Constitutional Convention and the need for debate to hear different points of view in order to come to a conclusion about a topic, in addition to persuading others to adopt your viewpoint. Second, discuss the themes that were raised during the Convention about the powers of Congress.
Wrap-up Discussion 15 min.
- Assign the students into pairs and have the groups read the quote cards from Handout F: Federalists and Anti-Federalists on the Powers of Congress to each other. The pairs should then discuss whether the author of the quote is a Federalist or Anti-Federalist based upon the content of the quote and then place the card into a Federalist or Anti-Federalist pile on their desk.
- Once the groups have assigned all of their quote cards to the Federalists or Anti-Federalists, poll the class and ask different groups which pile they assigned the individual quote cards and their reasoning.
Have the students complete ONE of the following brief writing assignments:
- Write a 5-7 sentence paragraph comparing and contrasting the powers of Congress under the Articles of Confederation with those of the Constitution. Students can use Handout B: Articles of Confederation: Legislative Powers and Handout C: Powers of Congress in the U.S. Constitution.
- Write a journal entry of 5-7 sentences as if they were a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and describe a debate on the floor of the Convention related to a power of Congress. (Students can use Handout E: Constitutional Convention Role-Play to complete the journal entry.)
- Write a newspaper editorial supporting either the arguments of the Federalists or the Anti-Federalists during the ratification debate on the powers of Congress and explaining why the editor defends the particular view. (Students can use Handout F: Federalists and Anti-Federalists on the Powers of Congress to complete the editorial.)
- Write an exchange on a Twitter or Facebook feed about a debate on ONE of the following:
- A supporter of the Articles of Confederation and a supporter of the new Constitution. (Students can use Handout B: Articles of Confederation: Legislative Powers and Handout C: Powers of Congress in the U.S. Constitution.)
- Two delegates at the Constitutional Convention who disagreed on the powers of Congress. (Students can use Handout E: Constitutional Convention Role-Play.)
- A Federalist and an Anti-Federalist. (Students can use Handout F: Federalists and Anti-Federalists on the Powers of Congress.)
Direct students to the House of Representatives website http://history.house.gov/HistoricalHighlight/Search/ and have them create a timeline of five events related to the House of Representatives exercising its powers, and find the related constitutional clause for the exercise of those powers. Then go to the Senate website at http://www.senate.gov/history/chronology.htm#chronology=y1787_1800 and create a timeline of five events related to the Senate exercising its powers and list the related constitutional clause for the exercise of those powers.
- Handout A: Background Essay
- Handout B: Articles of Confederation
- Handout C: Legislative Powers of Congress
- Handout D: The Powers of the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution Venn Diagram
- Handout E: Constitutional Convention Role-Play
- Handout F: Federalists and Anti-Federalists Debate Congressional Powers