Virginia and the Ratification of the Constitution


Grade Level
High School

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.

Essential Question



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.


Step One
Taking Informed Action: Have students list reasons why voting is important in a democracy.

Step Two
Watch the video “What was at stake at the Virginia Ratification Convention?” and review with the following questions:


Step Three
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.

Ask students what these four people had in common.

Step Four
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:

Step Five
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.

Step Six
Discuss with students:

Step Seven
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.


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,