Students will read an excerpt from Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” in which Zinn critiques the Constitution, arguing that the framers designed the document to exclude all Americans from power who did not already have it.
Discussion questions afterwards could be distributed first to students in groups of three to five, then brought to the whole class. Such questions could include:
1. What types of work did the founders do?
2. Why does Zinn say this is significant to the purpose of the Constitution?
3. Describe the events in Shays’ Rebellion.
4. How does Zinn suggest that Shays’ Rebellion influenced the framers of the Constitution?
5. What were James Madison’s main points in Federalist Paper #10?
6. Why does Zinn think it was really in Madison’s interest to control factions?
7. Zinn quotes historian Charles Beard as saying that “governments are not neutral. “ Why not? What do Zinn and Beard mean by this?
8. Why is the First Amendment arguably not as strong as is generally thought?
Once students grasp Zinn’s arguments, present them with two quotes from the article, one Zinn’s, the other from Bernard Bailyn, also a leading academic historian. Zinn faults Bailyn for an uncritical analysis of the Constitution. Either in class or for homework, ask students to paraphrase each argument, then choose the one which they find more convincing. Ask students to find at least three facts Zinn or their textbook provides which support the argument they chose.
The destruction of privilege and the creation of a political system that demanded of its leaders the responsible and humane use of power were their highest aspirations. ... Everyone knew the basic prescription for a wise and just government. It was so to balance the contending powers in society that no one power could overwhelm the others and, unchecked, destroy the liberties that belonged to all.
Bernard Bailyn, p. 101
Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians [or women]. Howard Zinn, p. 101
Organize a class discussion, as debate-like as you are comfortable with, around the two stances. One way to organize the debate is to create a brainstorm list of factors supporting each side on the board or overhead as students talk.