Congress and the Constitution

All Legislative Powers Herein Granted— The Legislative Process 1789-1860

Clock 135 minutes

In the early republic, Congress was a colorful, exciting, unpredictable, and contentious branch of the United States government. The members constantly quarreled but often deliberated and compromised through persuasive oratory and rational conversation. Congress was divided by party and sectionalism, but was guided through these difficulties by legislative statesmen. The Congress continued to function as the undisputed law making body of the people of the United States. Even during some of its most tumultuous years, from 1789 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, the Congress effectively governed the nation.

Founding Principles

Federalism image

Federalism

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.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

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.

Quotes

James Wilson [Pennsylvania]: He wished for vigor in the government, but he wished that vigorous authority to flow immediately from the legitimate source of all authority. The government ought to possess, not only, first, the force, but second, the mind or sense, of the people at large. The Legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society. Representation is made necessary only because it is impossible for the people to act collectively. - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)

Overview

In the early republic, Congress was a colorful, exciting, unpredictable, and contentious branch of the United States government. The members constantly quarreled but often deliberated and compromised through persuasive oratory and rational conversation. Congress was divided by party and sectionalism, but was guided through these difficulties by legislative statesmen. The Congress continued to function as the undisputed law making body of the people of the United  States. Even during some of its most tumultuous years, from 1789 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, the Congress effectively governed the nation.

Objectives

  • Students will evaluate the role of Congress and what powers it was intended to have.
  • Students will analyze the fears the Framers had concerning legislative tyranny.
  • Students will be able to understand the changes in Congress from the framing of the Constitution to the Civil War.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay: All Legislative Powers Herein Granted— The Legislative Process 1789-1860
  • Handout B: America’s Great Debates
  • Handout C: Position Assignment Cards
  • Handout D: Elections!
  • Answer Keys

Key Terms

  • Contentious
  • Quarreled
  • Sectionalism
  • Nationalism
  • Parliamentary
  • Coalitions
  • Agrarian
  • Electoral College
  • Divisive
  • Antebellum
  • Slave state
  • Free state
  • Tariff
  • Nullification
  • Comply

Standards

  • NCSS C3 Framework: D2.Civ.8.9-12, D2.Civ.10.9-12, D1.9-12, D1.4.9-12, D2.His.3.9-12
  • CCE: I: B, II: D, III: D, III: E, V: C
  • NCHS: Era 3: Standard 3, Era 4: Standard 1, Era 4: Standard 3

Background Homework30 min. total

Distribute and assign for homework Handout A: Background Essay—All Legislative Powers Herein Granted, The Legislative Process 1789-1860.

  • Have students complete the critical thinking questions at the end of the essay.
  • At the beginning of class, have the 5 critical thinking questions on the board. Go through them as a class.

Activities 90 min.

  1. Your students have been tasked with debating a historical controversy. For some added fun, feel free to incentivize your students with an award for the winning side.
  2. Pass out a list of topics and instructions on Handout B: America’s Great Debates. Some suggestions are below, however, students should feel free to add a topic(s) of their choice to the list. Give the students a few minutes to review the list.
    • War of 1812
    • National Bank
    • Second National Bank
    • The Tariff of Abominations
    • Nullification
    • Missouri Compromise
    • Kansas-Nebraska Act
    • Mexican-American War
  3. The class will take a vote on which issue they want to debate.
  4. Print and cut out the assignment cards on Handout C: Position Assignment Cards. Make sure the number of cards exceeds your class size. Have your students randomly draw a card. This will tell them whether their constituents have elected them to be for or against the specific topic they will be debating.
  5. Give your students time to research the topic in class or as a homework assignment.
    • Remind the students that the assignment cards only tell them what their constituents want. They are members of Congress, and they may decide to go against the wishes of their constituency if they think that best. Remind them that going against their constituents’ wishes may have consequences.
    • Be sure to remind the students that in favoring or opposing the measure, they may offer different solutions. These solutions may have a historic precedent or they may be novel creations. Students should be encouraged to advocate these varying positions. No debate is two-dimensional.
  6. On the day of the debate, students in the majority party (the group that has the most cards from above) should elect a speaker to moderate, but not participate actively in, the debate. The students are then free to debate the issue, with the speaker moderating the debate.
  7. At a point in the middle of the debate, the teacher should hold a reelection.
    • Distribute the assignment cards on Handout D: Elections! The students who sided with their constituents will be automatically reelected. However, those who went against their original assignment must draw a card to see if they’ve been reelected or not. If they are not reelected, they must sit out the rest of the debate. If a new party is elected to the majority, they may choose a new speaker.
  8. Continue with the debate after the reelection. Students should note whether there is a change in the debate based on the party in power or the lack of participation from those who were not reelected.
  9. At the end of the debate, take a vote to see which side wins the argument for or against the topic students debated.

Wrap-up Discussion 30 min.

  1. Hold a class discussion regarding the debates. To begin the discussion, have your students write a short response to the following prompt:

    What was the biggest factor influencing the debate? Was it a particular argument? A particular person? A particular friendship? Do you think this may also be the case in Congress?

  2. Discuss with your class their observations regarding their legislative experiment. Possible discussion questions are listed below:
    • What challenges did you face in the debate?
    • Did anyone feel alienated?
    • Do you think you should have had the option to go against your constituents?
    • Why might going against your constituents’ wishes be a good idea? How might going against your constituents’ wishes be risky?
    • How were you able to come to a consensus?
    • Do you think this process was efficient?
    • To what extent should the process of legislation be efficient? What did the Founders think about that?
    • What frustrations did you have?
    • How did the speaker affect the debate?
    • Did humor or witty remarks play any part?
    • How much do you think personalities played a part in the outcome?
    • How did the election in the middle of the debate affect the discussion? Did it affect the outcome of the debate?
    • How do you think a powerful personality like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, or John C. Calhoun would have affected your debate?
    • Do you think the executive (in this case the teacher) should have had a role in controlling the debate? Does your answer depend on who holds the role of executive?

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