Constitution Day
ATT: Dinah Zeiger
JAMM - University of Idaho
P.O. Box 443178
Moscow, ID 83844-3178

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Idaho Falls

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Writing a Bill of Rights

Bill of Rights Framing Questions:

1. What role did printers and newspapers play in shaping the nature of the society that formed after American Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution?
2. How did newspapers (pamphlets and broadsides, too) help define core political issues in the new republic?

I. Toward a Bill of Rights: 

A. Background

1. For its first 12 years, a Congress of the States ruled the new nation, a system that had allowed its armies to defeat the British. Differences arose after the Revolution as to how best to govern this loose coalition of states. On one side were the Federalists, who believed the new nation needed a strong centralized government. On the other were the Anti-Federalists, who wanted to retain autonomy in the states.

2. A Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to find a compromise that would bridge their differences. The Anti-Federalists believed that the document that emerged lacked sufficient guarantees of individual rights. Despite their differences, the Convention hammered out a Constitution and presented it to the voters in the 13 colonies. Passage was not assured.

i. During the debates in the states, printers circulated essays, pamphlets and broadsides arguing both sides of the question. Federalists and Anti-Federalists waged a war of words in pamphlets and newspapers. Federalists argued for a centralized government. Anti-Federalists attacked what they feared would be the unchecked power of such a government. They demanded a bill of rights guaranteeing individual liberties.

ii. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers, often under the pseudonym “Publius.” Robert Yates, a New York delegate to the Convention is credited as the author of the Anti-Federalist Papers, writing under the pseudonym “Brutus.” The pseudonyms allude to the founding of the Roman Republic, often cited by the framers as a model for a republican government.

a. An authoritative backgrounder on the Continental and Constitutional Congress’s is available from the Library of Congress. The LOC has a general introduction and more detailed narratives of each stage of the conventions and the debates that shaped the final documents. In particular, I recommend “Identifying Defects in the Confederation” and “Creating a Constitution”. In addition, the LOC site links to dozens of original documents. Library of Congress, American Memory: To Form a More Perfect Union

B. The National Humanities Center website provides a rich toolbox of primary materials to help students understand the centrality of newspapers, broadsides and pamphlets in the battle for the hearts and minds of voters in the 13 colonies to ratify the new constitution.

a. On Government and Liberty in the New Nation

  1. Students read the delegates’ arguments over the shape of the new nation: should it be organized around a central government (the Federalists) or should it remain a loose confederation of colonies (Anti-Federalists).
    The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787/Volume 1/Proceedings of Convention, May 30, 1787” 
    The record can provide the basis for students to stage their own “readers’ theater” using the dialogues suggested by the proceedings, proposing various resolutions regarding the nature of new government.
  2. Students read Federalist and Anti-Federalist arguments concerning whether the proposed Constitution will lead the fledgling nation to liberty or tyranny. Divide students into groups, and stage a classroom debate: Resolved, that the citizen is sovereign under the new Constitution.
  3. The readings also could be used as the basis of an essay addressing how each writer views the relationship of the individual citizen to the federal government under the proposed Constitution. Are individual liberties protected or threatened?
  4. A second debate or essay could be framed around the relationship of the states to the federal government under the proposed Constitution and which should be dominant to preserve the "United States".
    Anti-Federalist #1 “Brutus”:
    Federalist #51, signed James Madison
  5. Students analyze the content of a contemporary cartoon addressing Congress’s move from Philadelphia to a new, unbuilt capitol – Washington. The link includes a detailed description of the conversations taking place on board the “Ship Constitution of America” as it sets sail for its new home. Library of Congress, American Memory, Timeline: Ship Constitution 
  6. It may be difficult to read the actual text of the cartoon, but the description translates the words. Ask students to reflect on the metaphor of a “ship of state.”** Ask them to research the phrase “ship of state” and write an essay on how it signifies the deeper debate raging in the new nation about how it will be governed.
  7. In place of an essay, form students into groups to research the origins of the phrase and its uses. Ask students, working in groups, to create a similar cartoon, using the ship of state metaphor, to comment upon a current political issue.

[**For teachers, a starting point is the Humanities Lab website, which references Plato’s use of the metaphor in The Republic and later uses.] 

These activities are adapted from lessons developed by the National Humanities Center.

Speaking Freely: The Sedition Act of 1798