Encouraging Student Understanding of Negotiation and the Value of Notetaking during the 1787 Constitutional Convention

This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, Director of Learning and Innovation at the Library of Congress.

In the September 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured two pages from James Madison’s Original Notes on Debates at the Federal Constitutional Convention, 1787. Specifically, the pages were two of the seven pages that Madison wrote describing the events of Monday, June 18, 1787.

James Madison’s Original Notes on Debates at the Federal Constitutional Convention, 1787, image 173

James Madison’s Original Notes on Debates at the Federal Constitutional Convention, page 174

The 18th was unusual because Alexander Hamilton, a 30-year old delegate from New York who had not contributed much to the discussion since the convention began four weeks earlier, spoke up—and did so for about six hours! According to Madison, in those hours, Hamilton “declared himself unfriendly to both plans” for the federal government that delegates Edmund Randolph and William Patterson had proposed, the Virginia Plan and the New Jersey Plan.

Instead, Hamilton provided a sketch for a strong federal government that contained eleven core elements, or articles. Among them were: a bicameral legislature with power to pass all laws; a House elected by the people for three years; a Senate elected by electors from electoral districts to serve for life; a Governor to be chosen by the people voting in electoral districts to serve during good behavior; and state governors to be appointed by the Federal Government.

The first of Hamilton’s articles, that appeared on the preceding page, proposed that “The Supreme Legislative power of the United States of America to be vested in two different bodies of men; the one to be called the Assembly, the other the Senate who together shall form the Legislature of the United States with power to pass all laws whatsoever subject to the Negative hereafter mentioned.”

The teaching suggestions we included in the article began by encouraging a brief class discussion about the extent to which this first idea was ultimately included or reflected in the Constitution.

Our next suggestion was to divide students into 10 groups; provide them with a copy of the two featured sources; assign each group one element (article) of Hamilton’s sketch and direct them to compare Hamilton’s proposal with what was included in the Virginia and New Jersey plans, and eventually included in the Constitution.

Finally, we encouraged a class discussion to highlight the similarities and differences—and for students to consider the roles played by negotiation and compromise at the convention, as well as the value of Madison’s notes.

If you tried these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students as you celebrated Constitution Day earlier this month, tell us about your experience!