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Prompting Student Curiosity About George Washington’s Decision to Participate in the Constitutional Convention

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, the director of the Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives office at the Library of Congress.

Portrait of George Washington
George Washington. Victor Facchina, 1930

In the September 2022 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article shared a spring 1787 exchange between George Washington and Henry Knox that may prompt student curiosity about Washington and the other the fifty-four delegates to the Constitutional Convention, how they were chosen, and what motivated their service.

The letters may encourage feelings of empathy, or even surprise, as students learn that Washington sought advice from friends. They might wonder about other past leaders’ confidants and encouragers or consider those in their own lives whom they can depend on for counsel.

Washington wrote the first letter featured in the article on March 8, 1787, from Mount Vernon, and sent it to Knox in New York. In it, Washington was depending on Knox’s “friendship candour [sic] and judgment,” as he sought advice on whether or not he should attend the convention as a delegate from Virginia. He asked, “let me pray you, my dear Sir, to inform me confidentially, what the public expectation is on this head—that is, whether I will, or ought to be there?”

Knox wrote the second featured letter eleven days later, offering his opinion “with the utmost sincerity and frankness.”  He wrote, in part,

Were the convention to propose only amendments, and patch work to the present defective confederation, your reputation would in a degree suffer—But were an energetic, and judicious system to be proposed with Your signature, it would be a circumstance highly honorable to your fame, in the judgement of the present and future ages; and doubly entitle you to the glorious republican epithet—The Father of Your Country.”

In other words, Knox thought the convention should result in more than mere amendments, that Washington should attend, and that doing so would secure Washington’s place in history.

In addition to background information on Washington and Knox’s friendship that began and grew during the American Revolution, the article included teaching suggestions. The first suggestion involved sharing with students copies of (or links to) the two letters, encouraging students to read the letters in pairs, and leading a class discussion about them. We suggested asking students what observations, conclusions and questions come to their mind; and allowing their questions to drive research experiences.

For example, the letters might prompt student interest in reading more of the correspondence between Washington and Knox. They might wonder whether Washington asked anyone else for advice, or if any of Washington’s other friends tried to influence him.

We concluded by sharing that their curiosity can be satisfied by exploring the Papers of George Washington on the Library of Congress website. Also, Founders Online, a website administered by the National Archives and Records Administration through the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), in partnership with the University of Virginia Press, can serve as a helpful finding aid to the Washington Papers. It enables robust searching of transcribed materials .

If you engaged your students with these letters and suggestions, or related activities, we invite you to share how it went.

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