Connecticut History on the Web 

Teacher Guide

The Ratification

of the

Constitution

 

by

Mark Williams

 

 

This guide contains the following sections. You may move directly to each section by clicking on the section's name, or scroll down through the guide from beginning to end. If you have not done so already, please read the General Introduction for the Teacher which discusses the philosophy behind these teaching units.

Connecticut's Roger Sherman

Unit Overview

Historical Background

Objectives

Assessments

Materials

Strategies

Bibliography

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This site was created by Mark Williams, a history teacher at The Loomis Chaffee School, Windsor, Connecticut, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council. Some of the materials published here were originally created by Mark Williams as Connecticut Case Studies, under a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, and printed by the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. John F. Sutherland of Manchester Community College, Ronald P. Dufour of Rhode Island College, Thomas P. Weinland of the University of Connecticut, Tracey Wilson of Conard High School, Robert K. Andrian of The Loomis Chaffee School, and State Historian Christopher Collier served as consultants. The Connecticut Humanities Council is the State Committee of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The viewpoints or recommendations expressed in the materials on this site of are not necessarily those of the Council or the Endowment. Teachers are encouraged to print and make copies of these materials for their students.

Unit Overview

Description

Students use background information on Connecticut politics during the Revolution, the U.S. Constitution and newspaper arguments to prepare for playing roles of delegates to Connecticut's ratification convention of January, 1788. In arguing the merits of the proposed constitution as actual people from various towns and political persuasions, they learn about the Constitution of the United States as well as the evolving political culture of Connecticut and of the new nation.

State Standards Addressed

St.1: see national standards on historical thinking below
St.2: Local and state hist./US and World: see national standards for particular eras below
St.3: emergence of government systems and principles; outcomes of conflict
St.4: empathy
see also Civics standard 5: U.S. Constitution and government
   

National Standards Addressed (from the National Standards for History: Basic Edition)

Historical thinking: 2. comprehension, 3. analysis and interpretation, 4. research, 5. decision making

U.S. History: Era 3: St. 2A Revolutionary government making; 2B economic issues and Revolution; 3A U.S. Constitution 

Activity Types

primary source analysis
secondary source reading
role-playing
debate
interpretation and synthesis
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Historical Background

During the summer of 1787 fifty-five delegates from the original states met behind closed doors and curtained windows in Philadelphia to write a new constitution for the United States of America. What they were supposed to be doing was drafting amendments to the Articles of Confederation, but it did not take them long to realize that the vast majority of them believed an entire revamping was in order. They were nationalists - they felt the United States was in trouble and could be saved only by creating a national government with sufficient powers to pay its debts, provide for national defense, and secure internal order. The past decade had given them a taste of disorder and ineffective government, and they were determined to make correction. At the same time, they were republicans, unwilling to give up on the fundamental ideology of the American Revolution. The new Constitution was their answer to the question of how to find a republican cure for the ills that republics commonly suffer.

Reliving the debates and compromises of the Founding Fathers is always a good exercise, and teachers who have created simulations and role-plays of the Constitutional Convention have been rewarded with good debate and a healthy understanding of the regional differences that existed in the new nation. But the danger of leaving the study of the Constitution at that, is that students may come to accept the age-old and much disputed "Critical Period" interpretation of the Constitution. That is, the 1780's were a time of crisis; the new nation was falling apart; the Federalists saved the day with a carefully crafted Constitution - the result of brilliant compromises; and Washington led a grateful nation into the next century. Many scholars have argued that the crises were not all that great, and students really should know that when the new Constitution emerged in September of 1787, it was greeted with nationwide suspicion, if not loathing in some quarters.

Considering the revisionist interpretations of historians like Charles Beard, Merrill Jensen, Staughton Lynd and Gordon Wood, it is just as important to take a close look at the ratification struggle as it is to understand the drafting of the Constitution. It is in that struggle that students can discover (1)that the Constitution was not always venerated (thus, they can learn to think more critically about it); and (2)that in attempting to persuade democratic-minded provincials to ratify, the Federalists played fast and loose with basic paradoxes in American political values. (Did they believe in states' rights or a strong central government? Did they believe in deference or democracy? Was this to be a government of the people or a government of The Law? Were slaves property or people? All of the above?)

The usual focus in the matter of ratification is The Federalist Papers, and, for contrast, perhaps some snippets from the voluminous oratory of Patrick Henry. Unfortunately, though, that focus, helpful as it is toward a necessary understanding of the tensions implicit in the ideology of republicanism, lacks breadth. Madison, Hamilton and Jay did not really get down to work penning their amazing propaganda exercises until well along in the ratification process, when it was clear that New York and Virginia were needed to clinch the union. There were plenty of debates in the states that ratified earlier; and it is these debates, like those in Connecticut, which demonstrate how dependent the new order was upon local circumstances. Every state had its own political agenda, and these local agenda became intimately tied to the issue of ratification. In fact, the rationalization of the Founding Fathers, - that ratification was best done in special conventions because that method was closest to the forming of a social contract between the people and the national government,- is perfectly acceptable. In reality, they may have been seeking to by-pass the state legislatures which were being asked to give up prerogatives, but in so doing they created a process thoroughly dependent upon popular local issues in each state. In effect, they were creating thirteen processes, each with its own dynamics, each sensitive to the "popular whim" they so deeply distrusted.

To study the foundations of the American constitutional tradition through the Philadelphia Convention and The Federalist Papers, therefore, does not tell enough of the story to bring American history to life. Without the local dimension, the ideology is sterile and, probably, will fail to convince students that the Constitution was being "ordained and established" by real people with real down-to-earth concerns. On such a pivotal issue in our history, a case study in Connecticut history can get at the more subtle elements in the evolution of our political system, thus adding the human dimension to a system that cannot work without the human dimension, as much as Madison may have claimed it would.

The idea, then, of this unit of Connecticut Case Studies is to provide a broader understanding of the establishment of the Constitution of the United States. Through study of local issues and the local debates, students can see that even in a state which ratified quickly (fifth to do so) and relatively "easily" (by vote of 128 - 40 at the convention on January 9, 1788), there were serious issues at stake, and that citizens saw great implications for their future in the resolution of the question put before them. Students will thus learn to criticize the document and defend it, as if their lives and fortunes depended on their success; and, in reflecting on their debates, they can understand, at a deeper, more human level, how the American political system functions and how it originated. That many of the names of the participants in the debate will be familiar to them as names of streets, schools, and local historic attractions, can only help in bringing home rather abstract principles of politics.

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Objectives

While each teacher will want to define his or her own purposes in using these materials, depending on the context in which they are used and the overall goals of the course, the following are some possibilities for which these materials are particularly well suited:

1)to bring the ratification struggle to life, and to see that, in making the decision to ratify the Constitution people were thinking about real issues that affected their everyday lives

2)to understand that ratification was just as difficult, and just as significant, as the drafting of the Constitution (since the new Constitution was widely opposed, and, since republican ideology stressed the need for people to enter into a "social contract" that defined the powers of government and secured their Liberty)

3)to acquire some understanding of the pressing issues in Connecticut (and in some individual towns) in the 1780's and to see how local issues indirectly affected national issues in interesting ways (and thus to begin to understand relationships that exist between politics and socioeconomic issues)

4)to understand that the supporters of the Constitution (nationalists) tended to be merchants and other people with a more cosmopolitan view of things (particularly former officers of the Continental Army), and that opponents tended to be from rural, agrarian backgrounds in Connecticut - differences broke down by social and economic class

5)to develop debating skills

6)to encourage students to think critically, even about some of our most idolized national icons

7)to provide students with some experience in politics

8)to learn more about the provisions of the Constitution, by being required to refer to it in preparation for defending or criticizing it

9)to reinforce knowledge objectives regarding basic American political values, particularly those which concern tensions or paradoxes in American political thought

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Assessments

The student handouts and rubrics for these assessments are described on the assessment page. You may go directly to this unit's assessment by clicking here.

If there is to be a general assessment on the Revolutionary period, the teacher may choose to assess this unit with the rest of the lessons on that time period. For a more particular assessment of work with this material, use the role play itself,with a follow-up writing assignment. Assign roles to students from the roles provided in the readings. Each student should study his or her role information, as well as the newspaper articles and the Constitution and prepare arguments for a debate. These arguments could be written, or the teacher may simply evaluate each student's oral contributions to the debate. After the debate and follow-up discussion, students should write a reflective paragraph on why Connecticut ratified the constitution.

Alternatively, after the debate, students could take on the role of a newspaper reporter and write a news analysis of the ratification of the Constitution in Connecticut.

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Materials

The materials in Ratification of the Constitution are designed for the purpose of recreating the Connecticut Ratification Convention of January, 1788 through role-play. Students will assume roles of some of the delegates who attended the convention and debate whether or not Connecticut should ratify the new Constitution. The convention was held in Hartford, opening and closing at the state house (soon to be replaced with "The Old State House" we see today). The debates were held in the First Congregational Church because there were stoves in that building (the third meetinghouse - the present fourth meetinghouse of the First Church of Christ in Hartford is on the same site at the corner of Main and Gold).

It is assumed that students already have access to The Constitution of the United States of America and will be able to refer to it in preparation for the debate. The people of Connecticut got their first glimpse of that document on October 1, 1787 when it was printed in The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer. From that day until the vote by the ratification convention on January 9, 1788, citizens debated the question in town meetings, in letters, and in printed material. Few of the newspapers printed any opposition to the new Constitution, but the opposition was significant and many who eventually voted in favor needed convincing.

The materials for this unit include the following documents and readings. You may go to particular documents directly by clicking on their names.

§ "Connecticut on the Eve of Ratification," by Mark Williams- a background essay explaining the most important political issues in Connecticut at the time, and detailing the emergence of the merchant-nationalist coalition that eventually succeeded in getting the Constitution ratified.

§ The Call for the Convention - a declaration by the Connecticut legislature that a special convention be called to consider ratifying the Constitution

§ Newspaper clippings from three issues of The Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer, and one issue of The Middlesex Gazette containing arguments pro and con the new Constitution, including installments of Oliver Ellsworth's "Landholder" series.

§ 20 roles for delegates to the convention -many of these include excerpts from speeches and writings of the delegates. Teachers should make an effort to keep the numbers in proportion to the 3-1 final margin when selecting a smaller number to be used. Also some care should be taken to assign some able students to the opponents' roles, since the numbers there are limited. The Oliver Ellsworth role requires a very able debater, and the Roger Sherman role calls for someone who can master the details of the Constitution, particularly those clauses which outline checks and balances. All students should be expected to speak their views at the convention, even though many of the role sheets do not contain excerpts from speeches given. The names of the roles are as follows, with the most important roles listed first:

Matthew Griswold (Lyme) - President

Supporters
Oliver Ellsworth(Windsor)
Roger Sherman(New Haven)
William Samuel Johnson(Stratford)
Richard Law(New London)
William Williams(Lebanon)*
Pierpont Edwards(New Haven)
Gov. Samuel Huntington(Norwich)
Oliver Wolcott(Litchfield)*
Gen. Samuel H. Parsons(Middletown)
Stephen Mix Mitchell(Wethersfield)
Eliphalet Dyer(Windham)
Amasa Learned(New London)
Gen.Jedediah Huntington(Norwich)
William Noyes(Lyme)

*Had to be convinced during debates

Opponents
Gen. James Wadsworth(Durham)
Gen. Andrew Ward(Guilford)
Col. Noah Phelps(Simsbury)
Hezekiah Holcomb(Granby)
Capt. Ephraim Carpenter (Lebanon)
               
               
                              
                              
               
               
               
               
               
               

         

[Note: I wish to recognize here the work of several of my students whose research on these delegates was invaluable in developing the role descriptions. They are Heather McGray, Lisa Driscoll, Reneé Provost, Kristine Gual, Cheryl Ordway, Karen Robbins, Jackie Eckhouse, Samantha Rabetz, Julie Choi, Wendy Geehreng, Amy Butterworth, Barrett Smith, Dan Donshik, Karen Smith, Mary Ellen Flannery, Clarissa Horowitz, Sara Rosenberg, Josh Hollander, Jennifer Kerensky, Darren Tishler, Suzanna Henshon, and Andy Wittenberg, all members of the Class of 1989 at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut.]

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Strategies

The ratification role-play comes naturally at the conclusion of that part of the American history course which focuses on the drafting of the Constitution in Philadelphia. It is not necessary that students have a detailed knowledge, at this point, of what is in the Constitution, because one of the benefits of debating a document is that students will have to study its details to get support for their arguments. It will be sufficient to have students know that the Philadelphia Convention designed a more powerful central government, yet one that had limited powers and was run by elected officials and representatives. They should also be aware of the compromises that were reached, such as the "Connecticut Compromise," the Three-fifths Compromise, and the agreements about the limits on executive power and importation of slaves. Then make note of the final Article which declares that the Constitution would be put in force once nine of the states had ratified in special convention.

You might also want them to know that attempts to centralize power in the new nation had been made earlier. Robert Morris, in an effort to deal with the dismal financial situation of 1779 had had Congress establish a national bank and retire a lot of the low-valued paper currency that was floating around. A group of officers at Newburgh had called for a stronger national government to address some of their grievances. Congress had fought long and hard for the power to raise money by an import tax (impost), and nearly succeeded, had it not been for the association of this proposal with the abortive and "aristocratic" officers' movement. Congress did manage to deal fairly successfully with the tangle of state claims in the Northwest Territory after the War, and come out of it as the paramount power in the unsettled territories. Finally, at extralegal conventions at Annapolis and Mount Vernon, some nationalist-oriented leaders had made attempts to bring some order to interstate trade, and, in the process, identified a number of other issues they felt needed attention. All of this shows that there was a strong nationalist contingent arguing consistently for change, but, until 1787, with little success. The bulk of the people and their leaders were simply undisposed to a strong and distant national government.

With that introduction to the general suspicion about what the delegates at Philadelphia were up to and to the system of ratification outlined in the new Constitution, students should be ready to consider the case of Connecticut, the fifth state to ratify. To introduce the role-play and engage their interest, pass out the declaration of the legislature calling the convention. Some discussion might follow in which students are allowed to hypothesize on what Connecticut's reaction might be. Probably they won't have the slightest idea, although if they have studied about Connecticut during the colonial and the Revolutionary periods they might know that there was a fairly powerful merchant contingent in the state that might be predisposed to support the Constitution. On the other hand, Connecticut's long tradition of political independence might make it suspicious of giving up its sovereignty to a new national government. Make note that this reluctance was why the authors of the Constitution by-passed the state legislatures in the ratification provision.

If they have more detailed background in Connecticut's past you might remind them of the conflict between East and West Connecticut over Connecticut's western lands and over New Light preaching (see background essay in Connecticut and the Empire packet). They might hypothesize that these conflicts show, again, an independent spirit that would make centralization unpopular. However, the land issue changed somewhat in the 1780's to a class conflict, rather than a regional issue; and it had been largely merchants that had been on the rebellious side prior to 1763 - people who would now tend to support centralization.

Whether or not students are able to hypothesize much on Connecticut's reaction to the Constitution, they could now develop a series of questions, either to test their hypotheses, or to find out enough information to develop better hypotheses. They might come up with such questions as How suspicious were Connecticut people of distant central governments? Was Connecticut suffering from the currency and trade problems that plagued the nation during the Confederation period? Since Connecticut had a strong established church, how did the clergy feel about the new Constitution? Were there problems collecting taxes in Connecticut? Did farmers have complaints similar to the concerns of Daniel Shays and his followers in Massachusetts? How democratic was the Connecticut state government? These questions will give the students more focus as they reenact the ratification campaign.

Some of the answers to their questions can be found immediately in "Connecticut on the Eve of Ratification," a background essay on the local political agenda of the 1780's. This essay should be passed out at this point. It might be a good idea, to keep interest high, to assign roles at this time also. Students generally take more of an interest in details when they have a specific perspective from which to view them. If you wish, you can delay the role assignments until after a general discussion of the background essay and the newspaper articles from The Connecticut Courant and The Middlesex Gazette. This discussion should refer to the original list of questions students developed, attempting to answer as many as possible. You could then hypothesize further, asking students to predict how sentiment toward the Constitution would develop in Connecticut. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Constitution would have rough going, considering recent events in state politics. In October, before the delegates were selected from the towns, the prevailing inclination in the state was to be very suspicious of a distant and powerful national government. If students can see that, then they will be in a good position to be challenged, after the debate, with the question of why the nationalists won by such a large margin. On a more sophisticated level, you might examine with them the concept of "energy" with which the proponents in the newspapers want to endow the national government. This indicates a fundamentally different notion of what a national government was to be - an active government, in contrast to the simple protector of rights described in the Declaration of Independence. Most Connecticut citizens could not conceptualize (or feared to conceptualize) an "energetic" national government.

Thus, with a little conceptual introduction, the role-play can begin. If there are more students than roles, someone could play as Jedidiah Strong of Guilford (using Andrew Ward's sheet as reference), who was the Secretary and called the roll; and someone could play Nathan Strong, the minister who gave the opening prayer (which might include references to the wisdom of the document). Others might be assigned to roles as reporters and could be called on later to comment on the debate. Another possibility is to have some students volunteer to do original research on delegates for whom there are no prepared role sheets. While the some of the role-play sheets contain excerpts from actual speeches given by those delegates at the convention, other students should be encouraged to express their views as much as they like (and, likewise, those who have the excerpts should not feel they have to use those words, but rather should adapt the speeches in anyway that is comfortable for them).

After the students have had a chance to study their assigned roles, you should give them some time to "mingle" with other delegates. They could find out who their allies are, plan arguments together, find out what is on the minds of people with whom they disagree, plan appeals to those concerns, and generally get to know the backgrounds of the various delegates. This is an important step, before launching into the role-play, because you will want them to have some knowledge of the other delegates when you reflect on the exercise later.

At the convention, Matthew Griswold, a former Governor, was elected President. "He" should announce a few ground rules, such as raising hands for recognition, each speaker stating "his" name and town each time "he" speaks, not interrupting unless recognized by the person who has the floor, etc. The convention of 1788 discussed the Constitution article by article, but there may not be time for you to do that. This is the best way, however, to get students to look carefully at the specifics of the document. Whatever the procedure, Griswold should ask, first, for a motion that the Constitution be ratified, and then open the debate. When all views have been heard, or when time has run out, Griswold can entertain a motion that a vote be taken. A roll-call vote is the best technique, so students can see which delegates are voting which way.

The wrap-up discussion should touch on how local issues affected the vote on ratification, what sorts of arguments each side used successfully, and what the final outcome means about the sort of state Connecticut was. In talking about the impact of local concerns, it is a good idea to ask some of the delegates specifically, how special circumstances in their own town had an effect. Hezekiah Holcomb and William Williams demonstrate this well. It can be very interesting to get into analyzing specific arguments, particularly those of Ellsworth and Sherman. Like Madison in The Federalist Papers, both were very skillful at turning the Anti-federalist argument upside down. Instead of stressing the new powers of the national government, they pointed out how those powers were limited, how the people would be represented, how Connecticut, as a state, would benefit , and how Liberty could not survive without this government. Thus, they created tensions in the republican ideology that would be the basis for future conflict throughout American history. These arguments, and the emergence of a merchant-nationalist majority through an apparently deferential selection of delegates from the towns (apparently most of the "highly respected" leaders of the state, as well as most tabloids and most of the clergy, supported the Constitution), were responsible for the outcome at the convention. Nevertheless, the opposition did voice its concerns, and, even though they were hooted down in the press, and treated rudely at the convention when they rose to speak, they had an impact in requiring the "Federalists" to shift the emphasis of their arguments.

In conclusion, students might reflect on how political values were evolving at this time in Connecticut. Was this a democratic society? What effect would the events of the 1780's have on traditional institutions such as the established church? Were the farmers doomed to having their interests ignored by the established leaders? Who was in charge in Connecticut?

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Bibliography

Bernstein, Richard and Kym S. Rice. Are we to be a Nation: The Making of the Constitution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. Scholarly and attractive study of the Constitutional period in general. Good for an overview and for bringing teachers up-to-date on new thinking on the founding of the nation.

Buel, Richard. Dear Liberty: Connecticut's Mobilization for the Revolutionary War. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1980. Good for its discussion of the dramatic cultural differences between different classes during the late 18th century, and for underlining the complex relationship between local and national issues.

Collier, Christopher. Roger Sherman's Connecticut: Yankee Politics in the Age of Revolution. Middletown, Ct. : Wesleyan University Press, 1971. This is a superb study, not only of Sherman, but of the politics of Connecticut of the time. Collier is a skilled narrative historian, who finds the best details to recreate the spirit of the age.

Collier, James and Christopher Collier. Decision at Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention 1787. New York: Random House, 1986. This is a general treatment of the period, and there is a lot in it about Sherman and Connecticut.

The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, Vol. 2. Jonathan Eliot, ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1889. Pages 185-202 contain speeches from the Connecticut Ratification Convention, all of them supporting the Constitution.

A Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Edited by Merrill Jensen. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society,1981. Compendious collection of nearly every possible primary source anyone could want on Connecticut's ratification. Included is a complete roll of the delegates with their towns and votes, as well as many letters, newspaper writings and speeches of the delegates. A great reference source for further research by students.

Lettieri, Ronald J. "Connecticut's 'Publius': Oliver Ellsworth, The Landholder Series, and the Fabric of Connecticut Republicanism." Connecticut History 23 (April, 1982): 24-45. Very interesting study of Ellsworth's arguments and his persuasive genius.

Purcell, Robert. Connecticut in Transition, 1775 - 1818. Middletown, Ct.: Wesleyan University Press, reprint of 1918 American Historical Association edition, 1963. The classic study of the political agenda of Connecticut during and after the Revolution.

Steiner, Bernard. "Connecticut's Ratification of the Federal Constitution." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. April, 1915. Very thorough narrative of the ratification effort. This would be good to show students, who might struggle for a while with the Jensen collection, as a model of the end product of historical inquiry.

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