Debating the Constitution

For this assignment, we will re-enact the debates about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights during the class meetings of November 16 and 20. Each student in the course will be assigned to one of four groups, which will determine the date of your presentation and the side you will take in the debate. The assignment will encourage you to understand the contours of debates in the 1780s about the nature and form of government in the United States, and develop the skill of presenting information orally.

On each day, half of the class will be responsible for presenting/discussing, and the other half will serve as informed listeners and voters who may ask questions and will ultimately make a decision. You will receive your group assignment in class on Monday, November 6.

On Thursday, November 16, Groups 1 and 2 will debate the Constitution of 1787. On that day and continuing to Monday, November 20 if necessary, Groups 3 and 4 will debate the proposed amendments to the Constitution introduced by James Madison in 1789, 10 of which became the Bill of Rights.

Before the date of your debate, you should prepare a set of arguments that lay out the positions of your assigned group. Each person should be prepared to speak and should participate in the research process. You will have some time in class to meet and prepare, but you may also need to coordinate research outside of class.

To prepare for your debate, you should consider the following questions:

  1. What general arguments did your side make with regard to the Constitution and the proposed bill of rights?
  2. What specifics sections/clauses/provisions were most important to your side to support or oppose?
  3. In what areas of government would your side have been willing to compromise? How?
  4. What are the best arguments that the other side will make? How do you plan to rebut them?
  5. What divisions existed within your side? How do you intend to present that?


  • All members of the group should plan to speak for at least four minutes. You should not, however, assume that you will be making a series of consecutive speeches. Think of it as a true debate in which you will have the opportunity to offer your arguments and rebut the other side.
  • You should consult the readings we have done in the course, including the state constitutions, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution and proposed bill of rights, as well as Holton, Unruly Americans and Wood, The American Revolution.
  • You may also use other course readings as relevant, and you may consult with other resources in the library, in newspaper or secondary-source databases.
  • You may use web resources with permission of the instructor.
  • You must keep written notes of your sources. (Each group will submit one copy as described below.)


Your grade will consist of a group and individual component.

The group will be graded overall on the quality of its research and presentation. (The vote, even if lopsided, will not count for or against you.) At the conclusion of the debate, you will submit in writing a single document that includes a set of explanatory notes, including full citations in Chicago style. The notes may be in bullet-point format, but should give a full sense of your ideas. (That is, rather than a bullet point that says “Taxation,” explain your side’s position on taxation.)

In addition, you will also receive an individual grade that assesses the quality of your individual contribution to the group debate. As part of that, you will submit a 100-word statement explaining your contribution to the group’s work.

The presentations will be evaluated with a rubric (on a scale of 0-4) based on the following elements:


  1. Overall quality of argument
  2. Reference to arguments from the time period
  3. Use of secondary sources for arguments
  4. Rebuttal of other group’s arguments
  5. Notes
  6. Integration of outside sources
  7. Citations


  1. Participation/contribution
  2. Quality of arguments
  3. Clarity and poise
  4. Personal statement