Getting to Union
Navigating Differences in the Constitutional Convention
In Part I, students will learn about the dire condition of the American Union soon after the Revolutionary War. They will learn about some issues dividing the nation and the challenges facing the delegates of the Constitutional Convention as they gathered to save their country from failure.
In Part II, students will learn how the delegates agreed to a process of giving space to work through issues. They will learn about the rules for debates in the Convention. Following this process built trust among the delegates.
In Part III, students will learn about some of the critical agreements the delegates navigated across their differences, including representation in the national legislature and negotiations over slavery.
In Part IV, students will be guided in a class discussion exploring how we can look to the Constitutional Convention as a model for how to navigate our deep differences today. Successfully navigating our differences makes it possible for our experiment in liberty to continue and keep our Union.
Watch Eleesha introduce this lesson:
Hey there. I’m Eleesha, the director of the Utah 3Rs Project. I’m a humanities scholar here in Utah. Wishing you a happy Constitution Day. Each year on September 17th, we celebrate the day when the framers signed the U.S. Constitution. I think it’s really important to know what the framers were thinking and doing when they created the Constitution because their decisions impact us every day.
This lesson shows how the delegates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 navigated their differences to create the Union. This lesson is generously funded by the Craig and Connie Thatcher Foundation.
During the summer of 1787, delegates came to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia intensely worried the future of the United States. The fragile new experiment in self-government appeared to be headed down the road to failure. States were divided by their economic interests, religious beliefs, and reliance on slavery. The Articles of Confederation had created a confederation government during the Revolutionary War, but Congress’ inability to collect taxes or call-in state debts left Continental Army soldiers unsupplied and bitterly cold and hungry. Now, a few years after the war, states were bickering over boundary disputes, printing their own currencies (causing inflation), and violating the peace treaty that ended the war. Britain watched and waited patiently for the American experiment to collapse, ready to move back in and regain some of its resources lost in the war.
As the delegates came to the Constitutional Convention, they knew they had huge problems to solve. How would they navigate their differences and save the American experiment? They knew there would be no United States unless they could find ways to accommodate one another across their differences.
What were the fears that drove their differences? The states mainly feared any changes that might lead to losing their decision-making power. Rhode Island feared changes to the Union so much that they refused to send delegates to the Convention. At a basic level, when the members of the Convention arrived, they did not agree on their task. Some wanted to form a new national government with sovereign power over the states that included powers such as the ability to tax and representation based on population. This vision was outlined in the Virginia Plan, orchestrated by James Madison and introduced to the Convention by the Virginia delegation. Others wanted to strengthen the confederation, or the compact among independent states. This vision was outlined in the New Jersey Plan, which was a response to the Virginia Plan in the Convention.
How did the delegates to the convention navigate these vast differences to create the Union?
It is not just what was achieved, but how it was achieved. The Constitution was created through an involved process of giving space to address issues, wrestling with concerns, and working out legislative solutions that that representatives from all the states could accept.
The process involved agreeing to rules before they began to wrestle across differences.
The delegates were willing to engage in this process and submit to the outcome. This process built trust across their differences and made the Union possible. If they could not trust in the process, they would not have been able to come up with legislative solutions to their problems.
It’s important to learn about this process because every American generation is responsible to engage in similar processes today to keep our experiment in liberty going.
Join me to learn more about how the delegates in the Constitutional Convention navigated their differences to create the Union.
Eleesha Tucker is a history and civics educator living in Utah. She loves history about the American Revolution, U.S. Constitution, and Utah. She believes in the 3Rs for citizenship: Rights, Responsibility and Respect where every person has rights, everyone has the responsibility to protect the rights of others, and everyone has the duty to respectfully contribute to civic discourse.