Virginia and the Ratification of the Constitution
Standards and Skills
Virginia Standards of Learning: Virginia and US History; Civics and Economics; Virginia and US Government
Standards of Learning: VUS.5a; VUS.5c; CE.2a; CE.2b; GOVT.2f; GOVT.4a
Using Information Sources; Questioning and Critical Thinking Skills; Demonstrating Comprehension; Exercising Civic Responsibility; Comparing and Contrasting
Meets National Standards of Learning for Social Studies
By examining debates and viewpoints of Federalists and Anti-Federalists from Virginia’s Ratifying Convention, students will be able to identify how both Federalists and Anti-Federalists envisioned the role of citizens in making the United States and Constitution a success.
- What were the arguments for and against ratifying the Constitution that emerged in the Virginia ratifying convention?
- What was the role of Virginia in ratifying the Constitution?
- How do both Federalists and Anti-Federalists envision the role of citizens in making the United States and Constitution a success?
MATERIALS AND PREPARATION
In 1783, Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris with its 13 former North American colonies, now the new United States. The Americans now officially had the independence they had declared in 1776. With the war won, Americans turned toward governing their new nation. One of the top concerns was the Articles of Confederation, which had been the governing document of the United States since their adoption in 1777 (although the Articles of Confederation weren’t ratified until 1781). But the Articles of Confederation created a loose confederation of states that gave very little power to the central government, which was unable to even enforce taxes.
Americans debated whether the Articles of Confederation were strong enough to hold together the new nation. Then, a group of farmers in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shay staged a rebellion in protest of taxes in 1786. When the national government was not able to stop the rebellion because of the limits of the Articles of Confederation, American leaders knew that big change was needed. Shay’s Rebellion, coupled with a struggling economy and the limits of the federal government imposed by the Articles of Confederation, American leaders needed to solve what felt like an impending national crisis.
In 1787, representatives from 12 of the 13 states met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. The goal of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation, but some representatives had a different idea. Early on, James Madison and his allies at the convention convinced the group that a major overhaul was needed. Over the course of two months, the delegates wrote what would become the United States Constitution.
When they emerged from the secret convention, Americans were surprised to hear that a whole new form of government was being proposed. The states now had to decide whether or not to adopt the Constitution. Each state held its own convention to debate the Constitution and decide whether to ratify it or not. Once 9 states decided to ratify, then the Constitution would go into effect.
In Virginia, the debates over whether to ratify the Constitution were fierce, and those opposed (Anti-Federalists) seemed just as numerous as those in favor of ratification (Federalists). Each county elected two delegates to represent them at the ratification convention, and the number of Federalist and Anti-Federalist delegates were as evenly matched as the population of the state. As the largest, richest, and most populous state, Virginia’s vote was crucial to the future of the United States. If Virginia decided not to ratify, how could the United States succeed without its wealthiest and most populous state? This lesson plan uses primary sources from the Virginia Ratification Convention debates to explore how Virginians came to the decision to ratify the Constitution in 1788. The notes from the convention reveal what Virginians saw as the pressing issues.
Taking Informed Action: Have students list reasons why voting is important in a democracy.
Watch the video “What was at stake at the Virginia Ratification Convention?” and review with the following questions:
- What was the Virginia Ratification Convention?
- Why was Virginia’s final vote at the convention important?
Explain to students that they will be reading primary sources from the 1788 debates at the Virginia Ratification Convention. First, they’ll talk about some of the main people who attended the convention.
- Patrick Henry: Patrick Henry was well known as a skilled orator, and his infamous line “give me liberty, or give me death,” is well known today. Henry was a vocal opponent of the Constitution. He even refused to attend the Constitutional Convention on the grounds that he “smelt a rat.” He feared that liberties the United States had won during the American Revolution would be lost by giving too much power to the federal government.
- George Mason: George Mason was a friend and neighbor of George Washington. However, the U.S. Constitution, and the debate around it, fractured their friendship forever. George Mason was at the Constitutional Convention and he was one of few delegates to refuse to sign the document. Mason was strongly opposed to the Constitution and he worked to convince other Virginians to oppose it as well.
- James Madison: James Madison played an important role at the Virginia Ratification Convention. He is widely known as the architect of the U.S. Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, he proposed to scrap the Articles of Convention and create a new form of government. His outline for this new government, known as the “Virginia Plan,” became the basis for the U.S. Constitution. At the Virginia Ratification Convention, Madison defended the Constitution and argued for the delegates to ratify the document.
- Edmund Randolph: Edmund Randolph was the Governor of Virginia at the time of the Constitutional debates. Randolph had been one of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention. He refused to actually sign the document that the Constitutional Convention created. Afterward, Virginians sought to understand why he had refused to sign, and some became frustrated at his vague answers. Some believe he was playing politics and waiting to see how Virginians would lean before coming out for or against the Constitution. By the time of the Virginia Ratification Convention, Randolph decided to support the Constitution.
Ask students what these four people had in common.
- In order to be elected as delegates to the Ratification Convention, you had to be eligible to be elected for political office. Those requirements included being an adult landowning male. Other commonalities between these men include that they were Patriots during the American Revolution and had previous experience in government. These men also all held humans in bondage.
- While only property owning men could be elected as delegates to the convention, Virginians debated the Constitution in taverns, households and all over the Commonwealth. There isn’t as much written evidence of the opinions of women and people of color, but the debates at the convention would affect them just as much (if not more) than it would affect the men charged with making the final decision.
Pass out one primary source to each student or group of students. Explain that these primary sources are from notes taken at the Ratification Convention by Virginia attorney David Robertson. Each source includes the topic of debate that it relates to and the person who said it. (Note: Since the debates went on for about three weeks, not every topic of debate is covered in this selection of sources.) Have the student(s) read the source, analyze it, and rewrite it in their own words.
As the students work, have them:
- Highlight any unfamiliar words and look them up.
- Think about/discuss the viewpoint of the author based on their quote. Are they using facts and evidence to support their claim, or are they relying on rhetoric? Do you think their strategy was effective?
- How does the speaker, based on their quote, envision the role of citizens under the Constitution? Underline sections that provide evidence.
Create a chart on the board (or virtually), showing each position and topic and fill in the chart as a class. For example, start with one topic of debate and have students read their “translated” source for each position. See the attached sample chart. We recommend starting with the Anti-Federalist position for each topic, as these are typically critiques that Federalists tried to defend.
Discuss with students:
- What are some themes that emerge in each viewpoint (Federalist versus Anti-Federalist)? [Potential Answers: Students might discuss themes of liberty of citizens, a fear of elected leaders abusing their power, the balance of power between the federal and state governments, and the need for legislators to understand their constituents.]
- What are some of the roles and expectations of citizens that the delegates discussed in the debate? [Potential Answers: Students should discuss how delegates often brought up voting, both as a way to choose virtuous legislators and as a method for citizens to hold their elected officials accountable. This requires citizens to be informed and engaged.]
- Based on the debate, what do you think is going to happen? Which side do you think was the most convincing and why?
Taking Informed Action: The Virginia Ratification Convention debates reveal that delegates believed deeply in the role voters had in the United States under the Constitution.
- Ask students to return to their list of reasons why the right to vote is important. After reading the Ratification Convention debates, do they have any reasons to add to the list?
- Ask students what historical movements Americans have participated in to guarantee all citizens have the right to vote (students will likely bring up the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement).
Taking Informed Action: Have students create broadside posters informing Americans that the Constitution has been ratified, and what they will have to do in order to make the Constitution a success. (For example, students might choose to highlight the need to expand voting rights to all citizens).
Historical Background: Lorri Glover, The Fate of the Revolution: Virginians Debate the Constitution (John Hopkins University Press, 2016).
Primary Sources: Consource, Virginia Ratification Convention, https://www.consource.org/library/?collections=virginia-ratification-debates.