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The Constitution and the Idea of Compromise
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Lesson Plan
The Constitution and the Idea of Compromise

Suggested Procedure:
  1. Ask students to define the word "compromise." Ask them to describe situations in everyday life where compromise is necessary.
  2. Explain to students that compromise is more difficult when the parties involved have widely different values and interests. Washington and the other founding fathers were confronted with such differences when they developed the compromises that made the U.S. Constitution possible.
  3. Distribute copies of the reading "The Constitution and the Idea of Compromise."
  4. Have students work individually or in groups to read the essay and complete the study questions. With the entire class, discuss the reading and the student responses to the questions.
George Washington defeated the British at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781 bringing an end to the American Revolutionary War. Later, he retired to his home at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, within a few years the American experiment in self-government was threatened and Washington was called into the service of his country again. Washington and others had decided the weak government created under the Articles of Confederation must be replaced. George Washington would attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1789. He was elected President of the convention and presided over the compromises that would create the government we have until this day. James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson about Washington’s decision to attend the Constitutional Convention: "To forsake the honorable retreat to which he had retired and risk the reputation he had so deservedly acquired, manifested a zeal for the public interest that could after so many and illustrious services, scarcely have been expected of him."

The importance of compromise in resolving some of the critical issues facing Washington and the other delegates at the Constitutional Convention can be seen in the following:
  1. The Need for Compromise
  2. The Great Compromise
  3. Slavery Compromises

1. The Need for Compromise

Some scholars have mistakenly argued that delegates to the Constitutional Convention were involved in a plot to design a government from which they could profit. The fact is that the delegates themselves and the states that they represented had widely different interests. It would have been impossible to form a government solely for their individual benefit even if that had been their goal. The thirteen states stretched across diverse geographic regions and had equally diverse economic interests. Large and small states had different interests. There were delegates who wanted to put an end to the institution of slavery and other delegates who wanted to protect it. To further complicate things, issues would overlap. For example, there were both large and small states opposed to slavery while there were also large and small states that supported slavery.

In spite of their differences, Washington and some of the other Founders had become convinced of the need for a strong national government. Washington had experienced first hand the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War. Since Congress had no power to tax under the Articles, Washington’s army often went without food, clothing and shelter. The soldiers fought for long periods with no pay. After the war, problems under the weak national government had continued. A crisis developed in 1786 when a veteran of the Revolutionary War named Daniel Shays led a rebellion of Massachusetts farmers against the state government. The economic problems created by the Articles had made it difficult for farmers to pay their taxes and debts. Farms were being seized and the farmers were sometimes thrown into debtor’s prison. Shays led attacks on local courthouses, destroying records in an attempt to stop the foreclosures. The rebels even threatened to capture a federal arsenal at Springfield. The Massachusetts militia finally stopped Shays’ Rebellion (there was no national army under the Articles), but Washington and others realized that the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation had to be remedied.

The weak national government under the Articles was the result of the thirteen states trying to protect their own power. The Articles created a loose confederation in which each state kept most of its own power, including the ability to raise money through taxes. To make matters worse, most Americans at the time identified more closely with their particular state than with the nation as whole. For example, a person would more likely call himself a Virginian or New Yorker rather than an American. So the stakes were high and the differences were great when the delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention.

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