Debate on ratification

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Should we ratify the new Constitution?

After spending a hot summer in Philadelphia arguing, compromising, writing, and finally finishing the new Constitution, only 40 of the original 55 delegates (or deputies) actually signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787. When it went to the states for their ratification votes (remember it would take a vote 3/4s of the states to ratify), the debates were intense. The Federalists led by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay argued in favor of ratification, while Antifederalist, George Mason, Patrick Henry, Luther Martin and Richard Henry Lee argued against ratification. What was the big deal? Let's find out!

The Task

You will "become" one of these famous men, research their arguments, and stage a debate in front of your state's legislature (the class). The class will then vote whether or not to ratify the new Constitution, based upon the success of your debate.

The Process

  • After reviewing information about the men involved, you will choose which of them you wish to become.

  • Begin your research by using the sites specifically designated for your man, but be sure to also review the general information sites as well.

  • As you research, use the following questions to guide you through the information:

    • Why would he be considered a Federalist or an Antifederalist?

    • What in his background would lead you to believe he would take the stand he did?

    • What were his main arguments? (Choose one or two you can argue best for the debate.)

    • How did he rebut his opponent's arguments?

    • Did he concede any arguments to his opponents?

    • What made his speeches so persuasive? Technique or content?

    • What was he like as a speaker? (e.g., bold & strong, or quiet & soft spoken?)

  • Write a four minute prepared speech giving your man's best arguments in a most persuasive manner. Remember to start your speech with an attention grabbing statement. Organize it so your conclusion restates the most important points of your argument. These men all felt very strongly about their positions, so a little emotion may be in order!

  • Create a costume and any props you feel will make your presentation more effective. (See suggestions under "Learning Advice".)

  • Stage a debate - each of you will have time to do your four minute prepared presentation alternating between Federalists and Antifederalist, and then each of you will have one minute for your rebuttal of points and restatement of your own position. A time keeper will be appointed, and you will need to adhere to the time limitations.


After listening to the debate and individually taking notes, the students will:

    • In groups discuss the debate coming up with consensus as to the main arguments given by both sides. Report their findings to the whole class.

    • Individually create a "one-pager" which is an analysis of the two positions on a single sheet of paper following these directions:

      • Divide your paper in half.

      • Label one half "Federalist" and the other "Antifederalist".

      • Choose an over-arching theme or symbol for each side.

      • Write or sketch some of the main arguments for each side.

      • Cast your vote for or against ratification based on the debate.

      • On the back of your paper, justify your vote in one paragraph.


View all of the sites listed under your own person, reading all pertinent information carefully. Don't forget to look at the sites listed for general information as they can provide valuable resources too.

Patrick Henry:

Portrait of Patrick Henry

Portrait and Biography of Patrick Henry

Anti-Federalist #4
Collected by David Sampson

Anti-Federalist #34
Given to the Virginia legislature.

George Mason:

George Mason and Bill of Rights
This is from The Freeman article on George Mason & Bill of Rights.

Anti-Federalist #35
Mason argues against the laying of taxes.

Biography of George Mason

Luther Martin:

Biography of Luther Martin

Federalist #71
Martin questions the executive branches terms, manner of election.

Federalist #83
Martin argues that the Supreme Court will effectively do away with the right to a trial by jury.

Richard Henry Lee:

Biography of Richard Henry Lee

Biography of Lee

Statue of Lee

Anti-Federalist #36
Lee argues against the power to tax and how representation was to be determined.

John Jay:

Biography with Portrait

Biography with Portrait

John Jay

James Madison:

Portrait of Madison

Biography and Portrait of James Madison

Father of the Constitution

Alexander Hamilton:

Biography and Portrait of Alexander Hamilton

General Information:

To Form a More Perfect Union
The Constitution
These links to high resolution of each page of the Constitution and the letter of
transmittal, and also links to the Founding Fathers and "A More Perfect Union" article.

Anti-Federalist Paper
This is a general overview of the Anti-federalist Papers with index and links to all 85.
Federalist Papers
This site allows you to search the Federalist Papers using keywords.

Print resources:

We The People. Calabasas, California:Center for Civic Education, 1988.- The high school version of We the People is much more thorough, and presents the Federalist/Antifederalist arguments quite well, especially Chapters 16-19

With Liberty and Justice for All. Calabasas, California:Center for Civic Education, 1991.

This book deals with the story of the Bill of Rights, and chapters 11 and 12 are directly linked to this study.

Armento, Beverly, A More Perfect Union. Boston:Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.

This textbook uses primary sources, including Henry's speech before the Virginia State Convention and paintings, to bring this era to life on pages 113 - 127.

Garraty, John A.The Story of America. Volume 1. Austin: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1991.

This textbook takes a rather scholarly view of ratification and the opposing positions of Federalists and Antifederalists. Pages 226-231 are right on topic.

Learning Advice

You must become very familiar with the important historical figure you have chosen to "become" in these debates. As you read his biographical information, his speeches, and what he wrote of important, highlight those areas you feel are most pertinent to use with your notes. Be sure to stay aware of your opponents' points of view, trying to figure out what arguments they use against you in the debate, so you can be prepared to answer them in rebuttal.

Your arguments will take on an air of authenticity if you will dress in a costume befitting the times and occasion. Look at the portraits (listed in resources) for ideas. A blazer jacket (perhaps a velvet one) over a ruffled tux shirt or blouse (especially with ruffled cuffs) coupled with a pair of long knee socks and knickers (easily created with sweat pants pulled up and bloused over a pair of baseball socks pulled up to the knees) are fairly easy to obtain. Be creative!


Students who take on the persona of the men and do the role-playing will receive extra credit points based on their self, peer, and teacher evaluations.

  • Self - Students will use the self evaluation form which asks them to reflect on their preparation, including research and costuming, and their actual performance in the debate rating the areas of excellence and areas for growth.

  • Peer & Teacher - Using the "Historical Character Presentation Rubric" each student participating will be evaluated by five randomly selected peers and teacher. These scores are averaged and applied to extra credit grade.

The whole class will receive individual evaluations on their "one-pager" through a 4 point rubric created by the class after the task is explained and before it is completed. We will look at what would a "4" one-pager look like, then a "3", a "2", etc., including over-arching theme or symbol that becomes a metaphor for Federalist and Antifederalist. The quality and quantity of arguments either sketched or discussed will be important, and of course their concluding justification of their vote. Their actual vote will not count; just their justification.


Many of the ideas in the Federalist/Antifederalist Debates seem to some quite relevant today. Some people distill the differences down to a question of the benefits of a strong central government versus states' rights or the rights of states to make their own decisions. Others would say it is a question of more government controls versus an individual's personal right to make his or her own decisions as to what is best for him or her. How do you feel? After doing this study, would you classify yourself as a Federalist or an Antifederalist and why? Is one "good" and one "bad"? Are they relevant classifications for today? Why or why not?


Look at the process followed in this short study. Answer these questions. You will not be graded on this, but you will be expected to turn in your answers as they will help us to improve our teaching in the future. Thanks!

  • Was it helpful to have students actually debate the case for ratification?

  • Did it increase your understanding of the issues?

  • Would it have been better if all students had to read all of the material?

  • Would it have been better if small groups had researched each man and chosen someone to role-play from your group?

  • How would you change this process to make it more meaningful to you?

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