Congress and the Constitution

The Battle for Balance

Clock 70 minutes

The Framers of the Constitution had a rich intellectual foundation and long practical experience with representative legislatures to draw from as they framed the new Constitution and founded a new nation. The Framers at the Constitutional Convention debated the principles of republican government, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances throughout the summer of 1787. They unanimously agreed that the government would be republican, or representative of the sovereign people, who gave their consent to form a government to protect their natural rights.

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.

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.

Quotes

James Madison [Virginia]: “It was an important principle in this & in the State Constitutions to check legislative injustice and incroachments. The Experience of the States had demonstrated that their checks are insufficient.” - THE DEBATES IN THE FEDERAL CONVENTION OF 1787 (MAY 31, 1787)

Overview

The Framers of the Constitution had a rich intellectual foundation and long practical experience with representative legislatures from which to draw as they framed the new Constitution and founded a new nation. The Framers at the Constitutional Convention debated the principles of republican government, federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances throughout the summer of 1787. They unanimously agreed that the government would be republican, or representative of the sovereign people, who gave their consent to form a government to protect their natural rights.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to define the following constitutional principles: republican government, federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances.
  • Students will be able to identify how these principles were originally understood in the constitutional ratification debate.
  • Students will be able to analyze how the principles operate in the Constitution.

Materials

  • Handout A: Background Essay—The Battle for Balance
  • Handout B: Student Reading Guide
  • Handout C: Problem Solving Chart—Articles of Confederation
  • Handout D: The United States Constitution
  • Handout E: Student Note Guide—Separation of Powers
  • Handout F: Class Notes
  • Handout G: Checks and Balances
  • Handout H: Excerpts of Federalist No. 51
  • Handout I: Excerpts of Federalist No. 57

Key Terms

  • Separation of powers
  • Checks and balances
  • Federalism
  • Unicameral
  • Bicameral

Standards

  • NCSS C3 Framework: D1.Hist.2.9-12, D1.Hist.3.9-12, D1.Hist.5.9-12
  • CCE: II: A, II: D, III: A, III: B
  • NCHS: Era 3: Standard 2, Era 3: Standard 3

Background Homework15 min.

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay—The Battle for Balance, answer the critical thinking questions, and complete Handout B: Student Reading Guide.

Warm-up 10 min.

  • Students will complete Handout C: Problem Solving Chart—Articles of Confederation with a partner.
  • Have the students work together to create an appropriate list of problems and possible solutions on the board. This will be a review activity.
  • Use the list as evidence to justify the necessity of the Constitutional Convention and this discussion will be the launch into the main activity.

Activities 45 min.

Task One: Separation of Powers » 25 minutes

  • Divide into groups of three. Assign each student one of the three branches of government: legislative, executive, or judicial.
  • Have each student research where their branch is located on Handout D: The United States Constitution and identify what powers are vested to their branch by the Constitution and fill in their appropriate columns on Handout E: Student Note Guide—Separation of Powers.
  • After the students finish their portion of the chart have them share their answers with the other two students in their group. Repeat until all three students have shared their information and the chart is completed.
  • When all the groups have completed their chart, recreate the chart as a visual on the board and have the students guide you in completing it.
  • Read the quote from Federalist No. 47 to the class. Then have students rewrite the quote in their own words on Handout E: Student Note Guide—Separation of Powers. Have the students identify Madison’s point of view on Handout E.
  • Lead a classroom discussion about the main ideas of Federalist No. 47 and Madison’s point of view with the class to introduce the idea of separation of powers.

Task Two: Checks and Balances » 20 minutes

  • Write on the board: “How do you prevent tyranny under the new Constitution? Ask students what they think and record their answers on the board.
  • Present the answer: “Checks and Balances” after discussing student answers.
  • Lead the students as they complete Handout F: Class Notes by discussing the definition of checks and balances. Have them use Handout D: The United States Constitution to determine ways in which each branch checks and balances the other branches.

Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.

  • Have students complete an “exit ticket” by answering this question: “How might one branch try to get around the system of checks and balances and overpower the other two branches?”
  • Have the students write down their answers on an index card and use that card as their exit ticket out of the class.

Homework Options

  • Have students complete Handout G: Checks and Balances as homework.

Extensions

  • Have students read Handout H: Excerpts of Federalist No 51 and Handout I: Excerpts of Federalist No 57 and write a short essay explaining Madison’s defense of checks and balances.

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