Teaching the Philadelphia Convention with Madison's "Notes"
By Anonymous, June 13, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching

I am looking for comments and suggestions regarding the use of Madison's Notes in teaching the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. I am putting together a class for junior and senior history majors on Early American History. I plan to use a mixture of primary and secondary sources in the course but I want to focus on primary sources to teach the framing of the Constitution. I have used selections from Madison's Notes before, but have not had much success. Students found the notes hard to understand. This is not surprising given the decline in reading habits of today's students. Previously, I coupled Convention speeches so that students could compare two arguments on a given topic (slavery, representation, etc). I want, however, to have the students to read a selection of speeches that will give them an understanding of how the Convention unfolded. Are there, let's say, eight to ten speeches that could do this?

Tags: Constitutional Convention, James Madison

Colleen Sheehan on Jun 13, 2009 at 11:39 am

For a number of years now I have taught a class on the American Founding, the first half of which is focused on the Constitutional Convention and Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention. This is a college course (I'm not sure if you are teaching high school or college), but I think it would work for either, with some attention to the amount of reading assigned. I'm also not sure how much time you want to spend on the Convention; the following is for a substantial time period (about half a semester).

Essentially, we recreate the Convention in class. First I give the students a list of the delegates (with their states listed and in categories of high activity, moderate activity, and low activity), and then I ask the students to give me their four top picks for a Convention delegate whom they would like to represent in our re-enactment of the Constitutional Convention. I tell them a bit about the various candidates and encourage them to do some research before making their list. I then assign each student a delegate, paying attention to the number of students in the class and what delegates need most to be represented in order for the arguments to be made. Each student also writes up a character sketch on his/her delegate; these are presented briefly at the start of each class throughout the first half of the semester. Each student has a tent card with his/her delegates name on it, and we sit in double desks, organized as much as possible by state delegations -- with Washington in the President's chair facing the delegates (I take the role of Washington and use that, when need be -- unhistorically, of course -- to keep things on track and moving along at a sensible tempo). Madison sits at the front of the room, etc.

The 14 or so 1 1/4 hour class sessions each covers about two weeks of the convention (though this is modified toward the latter part of the convention when much of the work is done in committee and is fairly technical).

The students are asked to read each segment before class and to know the gist of their delegate's speeches and contributions. The goal is not to read from Madison's Notes or simply to repeat what is in the Notes of Debates; rather, it's to know your delegate's arguments, to whom he is responding, and to try to bring the arguments and the spirit of the session alive in the class room.

The first time I tried this I was very worried that it would not work. I thought it was probably too ambitious, that it would be too confusing, require too much prompting, etc. Well, the students taught me that my fears were groundless. They stepped up to the challenge wonderfully (and have consistently in every American Founding course). And, they actually learn the issues, arguments, challenges, near defeats, achievements, etc. of the Convention in a way that they will remember. In fact, the course has been nominated for the best course at the university by seniors (it came in second...). Students have told me that when they see each other outside of class they call each other Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Hamilton, etc. (sometimes in pubs I hear, taking the City Tavern model to a new height, I'm afraid!).

The one problem with this approach is that I wish there were time for more discussion; the time available each class tends to be needed to get through the selected Convention segment. However, I do build in discussion time as much as possible, and the second half of the semester is Federalist v. Antifederalist, in which the various arguments at the Convention are brought back in and analyzed in greater detail. Still, the recreation is actually a powerful method to teach students what was at stake at the Convention -- I think probably better than the lecture method. It brings the Convention, the delegates, the issues, and the ideas to life.

Here's just one example: at the beginning of the semester usually a number of students have the opinion that the 3/5 compromise was merely a racist decision and that the delegates could have and should have decided things differently. Each time I've used the recreation approach, I have witnessed a transformation of the students' views on this issue. In conjunction with the South Carolina delegates, in particular, making it clear that their state will not ratify a document that threatens the institution of slavery (or what they consider a fair compromise on the representation and taxation issue vis a vis slavery), one also hears the impassioned speeches of other delegates on the moral wrong of slavery. The student-delegates hear and feel the frustrations of G. Morris, for example, especially in his "curse of heaven" speech. Indeed, at this juncture, one can hear a pin drop in the room. But at the same time that they understand Morris's and other anti-slavery delegates' stark disagreement and feel their frustrations, most of the student-delegates are also at this point in the debates commited to preserving the union, and they see that if SC and GA will not ratify and join the newly modeled union, this is not a solution that will free the slaves concentrated there. If one's goal is to abolish slavery, would it be more practical and effective to give what must be given to SC and GA in order to keep them in the union, but at the same time make it almost guaranteed that the foreign slave trade will be abolished and that, in principle, the document recognizes slaves as "persons" and nothing less than that, paving the way for abolition in the future? These are considerations that the most ardent and vocal advocate the Founders-as-Racist view comes to see and wants to discuss in class. It is, in essence, a lesson in founding -- political principle and prudence -- taught by the Founders themselves.

It is also helpful, in fact necessary, to give the students focus issues for each class/convention segment. This also helps to point them to the speeches that are most critical, though it does not reduce the convention to a few speeches and it retains the dynamics of the proceedings and the distinctive character traits of the various delegates.

If you'd like to chat more or like a copy of my syllabus, ordered delegate listing, issues focus, etc. (which is always a work in progress, though), feel free to email me at colleen.sheehan@villanova.edu

Good luck with teaching this important text and material!

Colleen Sheehan Villanova University

Anonymous on Jun 15, 2009 at 9:46 am

Wonderful idea! Wish I could do it (but I only teach surveys).