Congress and the Constitution

Legacy of Republicanism

Clock 90 minutes

Delegates at the Constitutional Convention debated the nature of representative government and how best to organize legislative bodies into a stable and responsive branch of government.  Other questions included whether enslaved persons would be counted towards a state’s population count, how representatives ought to be elected, and whether the legislature should be a unicameral or bicameral organization.  After the Convention concluded, Americans continued to debate whether the proposed House of Representatives and Senate could adequately safeguard liberty.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Majority Rule / Minority Rights image

Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

Representative / Republican Government image

Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.

Separation of Powers image

Separation of Powers

A system of distinct powers built into the Constitution to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.


Mr. Sherman [Connecticut] opposed the election [of the House of Representatives] by the people insisting that it ought to be by state legislatures. The people, he said, should have as little to do as may be about the government. They lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.

Mr. Gerry [Massachusetts]: The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not lack virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots…

Mr. Wilson [Pennsylvania] contended strenuously for drawing the most numerous branch of the legislature immediately from the people. He was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. No government could long subsist without the confidence of the people. In a republican government this confidence was peculiarly essential. - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)


In this lesson, students trace the major debates regarding representation that occurred at the Constitutional Convention and during the ratification process, analyzing the constitutional principles that animated the deliberations. These debates included whether the legislature would be unicameral or bicameral, the method of electing representatives, whether states would be represented equally or proportionally by population in the legislature, and whether enslaved individuals would be included in the population count. After completion of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, the debates continued as Anti-Federalists argued that the form of government created by the Constitution was insufficiently representative, and the liberties of the people would be in danger. Federalists defended the Constitution’s structure and insisted that the people would hold their elected representatives to high standards. Students participate in role play activities based on primary sources including James Madison’s The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, and the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.


  • Students will trace the major debates regarding representation as they occurred at the Constitutional Convention and during the ratification process for the U.S. Constitution.
  • Students will participate in role play performances based on primary sources including Madison’s Notes from the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist/Anti-Federalist papers.
  • Students will evaluate arguments for and against the U.S. Constitution with respect to republicanism.
  • Students will apply arguments about the proper role of representation to evaluate republicanism today.
  • Students will analyze constitutional principles including limited government, republicanism, consent, and inalienable rights.


  • Four quill pens or similar feathers (optional)
  • Handout A: Background Essay—A Legacy of Republicanism
  • Handout B: Nametags (printed on heavy paper, laminated, and attached to yarn lanyards)
  • Handout C: Dates Signs (printed on heavy paper and laminated)
  • Handout D: Role Play—The Significance of Representation
  • Handout E: Anti-Federalist Objections to the Constitution

Key Terms

  • Excess of democracy
  • Virtue
  • Dupe
  • Federal pyramid
  • Republic
  • Consent
  • Virginia House of Burgesses
  • Autonomy
  • Parliament
  • Stamp Act
  • Repealed
  • Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union
  • Unicameral
  • Confederation
  • Virginia Plan
  • Sovereign
  • Bicameral
  • New Jersey Plan
  • Impasse
  • Three-Fifths Clause
  • Proportional representation
  • Ratify
  • Federalist
  • Anti-Federalist
  • Brutus
  • Federal Farmer
  • Cato
  • Constituents


  • National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS): D2. Civ 5. 6-8; D2. Civ 4 9-12; D2. Civ. 8 6-8; D2. Hist. 3 6-8; D2. Hist. 16 6-8; D2. Hist. 16 9-12
  • Center for Civic Education (CCE): II: D, V: C
  • UCLA Department of History: (NCHS): Era 3, Standard 3

Background Homework10 min. homework and 15 min. class time

  1. Prior to the lesson, create the nametags and attach them to yarn lanyards. Print on heavy paper, cut apart and laminate Handout B: Nametags and Handout C: Dates Signs. Print the set of Nametags on one color paper, and the Dates Signs on another color. Acquire quill pens or similar feathers if desired.
  2. Distribute and assign for homework Handout A: Background Essay—A Legacy of Republicanism.
  3. Have three volunteers read the statements by Sherman, Gerry, and Wilson from The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, May 31, 1787, as shown above. Write on the board or display this question: What assumptions and beliefs about the proper role of government are reflected in the May 31 remarks and in the essay you read for homework? (Through whole-class discussion, lead students to an understanding of such principles as representation/republicanism, limited government, consent, and inalienable rights.)
  4. Have students continue to consider these constitutional principles throughout the remaining activities in the lesson. They should jot down their observations regarding how those principles are reflected in the primary sources they will examine.
  5. There are nineteen different speaking parts in the role play (four in Act 1, eleven in Act 2, and five in Act 3). In class, assign speaking parts and distribute Nametags. Narrator 2, James Madison, and James Wilson have the parts that require the most speaking; other parts only speak one – three times. Narrator 3 is an ideal role for a student (or a team of two students) who prefer not to perform much spoken dialogue.
  6. Distribute Handout D: Role Play—The Significance of Representation script and have each student review the role play as a whole, find his/her assigned speaking part and practice it, while you circulate answering questions, and clarifying vocabulary or other points of emphasis. Give Narrator 3 his/her Nametag and all of the Dates Signs, and position him/her at the front of the room facing both the actors and the audience, similar to a time-keeper in a debate. Point out that it is Narrator 3’s job to watch for the dates mentioned in the role play and hold up each sign at its appropriate time. You might consider assigning two students to be Narrator 3 in order to help one another closely follow the dialogue and keep the Dates Signs organized.
  7. Designate one section of the classroom for each of the three acts in the role play and have actors move to the appropriate areas. Instruct students in each area to move/ position desks or chairs (perhaps in a circle) to engage in dialogue with one another. After Act 2, James Madison will move to the Act 3 section since he appears in both.
  8. After students understand their tasks, perform Act 1: Stamp Act Congress. Before proceeding to Act 2, allow the audience members to ask the actors questions and take a few moments to address any questions/comments that students raise. For example, terms that may require clarification for the whole class are French and Indian War, consensus, House of Commons, and renounce.
  9. Have students apply their knowledge of constitutional principles by asking them what principles were reflected in Act 1, and have them explain how each principle they name was reflected.

Activities 35 min.

  1. Display the following questions regarding representation that will be covered in Act 2. Designate a student to write on the board or display the answer to each question as it is addressed in the performance.
    1. Unicameral or bicameral legislature?
    2. Representatives elected by state legislatures or by the people?
    3. Equal or proportional representation for the states?
    4. Whether and how to count enslaved individuals?
  2. In the same manner as Act 1, continue to perform Act 2: Independence, Confederation, and Constitutional Convention from Handout D: Role Play—The Significance of Representation
  3. Allow the audience members to ask the actors questions at the end of Act 2 and take a few moments to discuss any questions/comments that students raise.
  4. Review the four representation questions and have students from the audience summarize the main arguments on each side of each question, as well as stating whether they agree with the way the Convention answered the question.
  5. Have a volunteer from the audience (or James Madison) explain the following statement:

    “There [are] five States on the Southern, eight on the Northern side of this line. Should a proportional representation take place, it [is] true, the Northern would still outnumber the other; but not in the same degree, at this time; and every day would tend towards an equilibrium.” (Madison points out that, using proportional representation, the northern states will have more power than the south. However, he believes that, over time, the two sections will move toward equal population and influence.)


    • Refer again to constitutional principles: how are they illustrated in the primary sources excerpted for Act 2?

Wrap-up Discussion 30 min.

  1. Distribute Handout E: Anti-Federalist Objections to the Constitution, and instruct students to listen closely to identify the Federalist response to each Anti-Federalist objection. They should take some brief notes in the appropriate portions of the handout during the performance, but stress that they are not expected to catch everything the first time through.
  2. Perform Act 3: Ratification from Handout D: Role Play—The Significance of Representation.
  3. Debrief in a whole-class discussion by guiding students through the responses for Handout E.
    • What is the continuing relevance of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist positions with respect to the principle of representation and other constitutional principles?
  4. Have students analyze and paraphrase the following statements.

    “It is essential to such a government [a republic] that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion or a favored class of it,” and that “the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people [for a limited time and based on good behavior. Madison, Federalist No. 39


    “The federal government will be [limited] by the authority of a paramount Constitution” Madison, Federalist No. 53


    “The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people.” Madison, Federalist No. 57


    • To what extent do students agree with the principles that Madison expressed in each of the three passages quoted above?
    • To what extent has our republic lived up to Madison’s confidence expressed in The Federalist?
    • In a republic that functions as Madison believed it should, what is the main responsibility of the elected representatives? (Students might suggest that elected officials are responsible for being wise, virtuous, and liberty-loving as they faithfully carry out the will of the people and protect the common good.)What is the responsibility of the electorate? (Students might suggest that Madison believed the best protection of the liberty of the people is for them to pay attention to the representatives and hold them accountable for being wise and virtuous.)

Extensions 15-30 min. per article selected

  1. Have students collect current events articles related to the principle of representation and analyze those articles in light of Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments. Have students respond to the following two questions based on the articles they select.
    1. To what extent was Madison correct in his faith that the people would elect only the wisest and most virtuous representatives who would correctly understand and interpret their constitutional limits?
    2. What can the people do to better fulfill the aims of republican government as Madison saw them?

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