Founders and the Constitution
George Washington (1732-1799)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of George Washington. They will learn why he is known as “Father of His Country”, his reasons for not seeking a third term as president, the purposes of his Farewell Address, and much more.
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.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
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.
The time is now and near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves. . . . Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us the only choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die. - George Washington (1776)
Americans have long appreciated the importance of George Washington to their nation’s history. Deemed “the indispensable man” by one historian, Washington secured American independence as commander of the Continental Army and established republican traditions as the nation’s first president. His unblemished character and force of personality steeled men’s hearts in combat and stirred their souls in peace. But only recently have historians begun to recognize Washington’s intellectual contributions to the formation of the American republic. Though never a systematic thinker, Washington understood the relationship between political theory and practice and was a close associate of many of the leading statesmen of the day, such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the friendship between Washington and Madison is one of the most important political partnerships of the Founding Era.
During the 1780s, Washington’s home at Mount Vernon served as a crossroads for ideas that led to the shaping of the Constitution in 1787 at Philadelphia. Representatives of the Confederation Congress, delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and members of state ratifying conventions all stopped at Mount Vernon during the decade on their journeys north and south. Few of these conversations are recorded in detail, but no other private home in America was the scene of so many discussions among the politically powerful. It could justly be said that the outlines of the new republic were largely drawn one hundred feet above the Potomac River on a farm whose location marked the exact geographic midpoint between North and South.
In this lesson, students will learn about George Washington. They should first read as homework Handout A—George Washington (1732–1799) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to those in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: George Washington on the Constitution in which Washington admonishes citizens of the new nation to cherish the Constitution. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options, which ask students to analyze Washington’s leadership qualities, or to reflect further on additional sections of Washington’s address. The Extensions option asks students to compare Washington to other historical figures.
- explain why Washington is known as “Father of His Country.”
- explain Washington’s reasons for not seeking a third term as President.
- understand the historical significance of Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.
- understand the purposes of Washington’s Farewell Address.
- analyze how the admonitions of Washington’s Farewell Address apply to modern society.
- appreciate the various roles Washington played in defending and creating the new nation and its government.
- Handout A—George Washington (1732–1799)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: George Washington on the Constitution
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 1C, 3A, 3B, 3D
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—George Washington (1732–1799) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of George Washington.
George Washington was a Virginia farmer who commanded the Virginia militia and the Continental Army. Washington was chosen to preside over the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787. He was then unanimously elected as the first president. He is known as the “Father of His Country.”
Context 5 min.
Explain to students that Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation was written with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, and was never delivered orally. Rather, it was published in newspapers throughout the nation. The Address represents Washington’s legacy of service to the nation, and the excerpt on Handout C is a representative excerpt of a much longer (seventeen-page) document. Tell students that in his first paragraph, Washington is referring to the Articles of Confederation when he says “your first essay.”
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: George Washington on the Constitution.
- Divide students into six groups and have them read Handout C and complete Handout B.
- Assign each group one paragraph from the speech and have them rewrite the paragraph in their own words.
- Ask students to then write one or two discussion questions about the other paragraphs.
- When students have finished, ask the group that worked on the first paragraph to stand at the front of the classroom and have a spokesperson read aloud the original paragraph.
- Next, have a different student from the group present the group’s new paragraph.
- The class should then present their discussion questions to the remaining students in the group.
- Have each group in turn go to the front of the class and continue with the “speech” and discussion questions.
Suggested discussion questions answers:
Paragraph One: Why will the new Constitution better unify the country? It will form a closer union and address common concerns of the people.
Paragraph Two: Why is the Constitution worthy of Americans’ confidence? It was carefully crafted, balances government power with liberty, and provides within itself the means for constitutional change.
Paragraph Three: What is necessary for liberty? Respect for the Constitution and the law.
Paragraph Four: What is one basis of American government? The people’s right to change their government. Can people ignore the law because they don’t agree with it? No—the Constitution as it exists should be respected, unless and until it is changed by the people.
Paragraph Five: What does the people’s power depend on? The responsibility of people to obey the law.
Paragraph Six: What is one reason the country needs a strong government? Its “extensive” size. What is the significance of “powers properly distributed?” Separation of powers checks government abuse of liberty.
- After all groups have presented, ask each student to write a one-sentence summary of Washington’s message. Students should then share their sentences with the class.
- The Constitution is worthy of Americans’ confidence.
- Liberty depends on citizens obeying the law and the Constitution.
- The Constitution should be respected and cherished.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Tell students that in his Address, Washington warned Americans to “resist with care the spirit of innovation” regarding the principles of the Constitution. Ask the class if they believe Washington’s message is relevant today. Why or why not?
Students may cite modern controversies about the separation of powers and which branches of government have the authority to do certain things such as declare war, outlaw certain practices, etc. Students may discuss calls for constitutional amendments and whether specific proposed amendments undermine or strengthen the spirit of the Constitution.
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Ask students to list five qualities that George Washington had as a leader and write two or three sentences about how Washington embodied these traits.
- Have students choose one of the following quotes from Washington’s Farewell Address and write a paragraph explaining whether they agree or disagree with Washington’s idea.
- “And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
- “Promote . . . as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
- “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
- Have students research other historical and/or contemporary figures whom they believe embody the same kinds of leadership qualities as George Washington. Students should explain why they chose the leader(s) they did and provide specific examples of the characteristics these leaders have in common with Washington.
- Have students read more of Washington’s Farewell Address and use it as the inspiration for their own Farewell Address that they might deliver to their school upon graduation. The text of George Washington’s Farewell Address can be found at: <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm>.
Allen, W.B. George Washington: A Collection. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988.
Brookhiser, Richard. Founding Father. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.
Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensable Man. Reprint. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1994.
Leibiger, Stuart. Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of George Washington. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 1974.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon. <http://www.mountvernon.org/>.
George Washington Papers at The Library of Congress, 1741–1799. <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html>.
Historic Valley Forge. USHistory.org. <http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/washington/>.
The Papers of George Washington at The University of Virginia. <http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/>.
“Rediscovering George Washington.” PBS. <http://www.pbs.org/georgewashington/>.
By George Washington
- Circular to the States (1783)
- First Inaugural Address (1789)
- Second Inaugural Address (1793)
- Farewell Address (1796)
- Handout A: George Washington (1732–1799)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: George Washington on the Constitution
- Thematic Essays