Who is the Constitution designed to protect? Who “the people” are is not as simple a question as it first appears to be.
This curriculum unit will introduce tenth grade United States History students to criticisms and defenses of the Constitution. The unit aims to challenge students to evaluate the Constitution’s accuracy in claiming to “promote the general welfare,” and is imagined to follow and culminate a traditional study of the Constitution. This unit will help students situate the Constitution within the context of the race, gender, and class dynamics of the early nation. Students will read and discuss challenging primary and secondary documents, practice oral and written debate, and have an opportunity to bring the Constitution to life through acting.
The Constitution was written by a group of people who did not mirror the diversity of the nation at the end of the 18th century. All of the delegates to the Constitutional Conventions were white, male property owners. It was obviously not in their interest to promote increased freedom or economic opportunities for women, African-Americans, Native Americans, or unpropertied men. An argument can be made that the lifestyles of the “founders” depended on the cheap labor and diminished social positions of these other groups, and that their position as elites caused the framers to draft a document that protected the status of the rich and powerful, more than general equality. Students will engage with this criticism of the Constitution, as well as developing and defending their own opinions about its strengths and weaknesses.
The unit includes reading the Constitution to understand the compromises it contains on controversial topics of the day; a discussion of a historian’s criticisms of the Constitution; a panel discussion between the founders and the voices left out of the Constitutional debates; and a writing assignment in which students address themselves as citizens at the time of the debate over ratification, sending their critique of the Constitution to their state’s delegate to the Connecticut ratification convention.
Several linked ideas about the teaching of history contributed to the structure of this unit. The first is the use of primary documents. Students of history will connect better with what happened in the past if they see the actual words that were written or spoken at the time. The expression used in writing, “Show, don’t tell,” applies to history as well. With topics like the Constitution, it is often difficult to convince students that the information is important, and miraculous if one can convince them that it is interesting. When a student reads a primary source a letter from a president’s wife while he’s away at the Constitutional Convention, a speech given by a Constitutional delegate she is more likely to see the humanity and the drama in the issue being studied. She will be better able to identify with historical figures as people in quandaries, who made difficult decisions, and less likely to think of them as simply names to place next to an event or date.
The second practice this unit employs in an effort to breathe life into the study of the past is asking students to assume, as often as possible, the roles of the people being studied. By writing or speaking as an historical actor, student enter into the historical moment. This imaginative leap almost always makes their writing more persuasive and lively. They frequently add stylistic flair and historical details they aren’t motivated to when they are writing or speaking as a student to a teacher or other students.
The unit is also designed to help prepare students for the kinds of tasks they are being asked to perform in many statewide tests, such as the Connecticut Academic Performance Test. Many tests of writing and reading comprehension have become much more open-ended, and in many ways more challenging. In addition to understanding sometimes difficult readings, students need to know how to analyze and evaluate other writers’ arguments, and respond with their own opinions, clearly and carefully defended. Several components of this unit give students opportunities to practice these skills of analysis and argumentation: they paraphrase and evaluate passages from the Constitution and a challenging selection from Howard Zinn’s
A People’s History of the United States
; they identify different reasons used by authors to support their arguments, and they advance their own arguments, supported by solid reasons.
The final aspect of this unit that needs introduction is its emphasis on issues of race, class and gender in looking at an historical issue. I feel strongly that this approach is appropriate, both because it is a “live” issue which students can identify with and think through in today’s terms, and because there are historical figures who raised race, gender, and class concerns at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. Many of these figures have been ignored or de-emphasized in history textbooks.
Abigail Adams’ plea to her husband to “remember the ladies” is often included in chapters on the early nation as a side issue, but is rarely integrated into a discussion of the severe double standard of Enlightenment thinking in regards to women.
Benjamin Banneker’s correspondence with Thomas Jefferson is also discussed in isolation. This is a tricky topic, since Jefferson’s writing about slavery in Virginia is, to the contemporary reader, so shockingly racist as to be controversial material for young readers. But as it is important for students to understand the silence about women’s rights in the constitutional debates, it is also important for them to know how directly the rights of African-Americans figured, if often in veiled terms, in these discussions. Letters and speeches from this period are full of conflicting views on the future of slavery and the status of enslaved African-Americans.
Another crucial aspect of the founders’ deliberations was social and economic class. Most textbooks attribute the final decision to revise and ultimately discard the Articles of confederation to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts. This was a class struggle, and the Constitution can be interpreted as the elite tightening of government control in reaction to a poor farmers’ revolt.
The influence of the Iroquois League of Nations on the thinking that went into the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution is often mentioned and rarely explored in textbooks. This is an important opportunity for students to see Native American traditions integrated into American society at the highest level, counteracting the tendency we have to look at Native American history as an unbroken series of tragic defeats by a group of victims.
The questions which each of these lines of exploration should raise in students’ minds and in discussions are about fairness. Does the Constitution protect Americans, as it claims to do? When it compromises, does the compromise favor both sides equally? Justice and fairness are often on the minds of adolescents, and this approach should stimulate them to engage with and think critically about the Constitution.