Birth of the Nation: The First Federal Congress 1789-1791


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Lesson Plans

Approach I. Issue based single lessons

This approach presents three specific lessons (A, B,C ) which use a document or a selection of documents to focus on a particular issue.

This approach explores issues often covered in US history but is designed for supplementary use, to "plug into" the regular curriculum.

Lesson A: This lesson uses the Introduction: The First Federal Congress to develop the theme "The Ship Sets Sail."

Concept: The expectations of the new nation rests on the actions of this First Federal Congress. Using period imagery, students explore not only the hopes of the FFC but create their own conception of building a government.

Action Plan:

-In discussion (pairs, small groups or whole class) create a list of the purposes and a list of the tasks of government

-Explore the Introduction to the FFC:

-Identify what values, goals and objectives are voiced.

-Craft a mission statement for the nation which includes the ideas found in the four readings. (Unity, Freedom, the Arts, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Religion, Justice and law, Peace)

-As part of this exercise consider:

  • What hopes and dreams did Americans hold?
  • Who did not buy in? (NC and RI) How was their reluctance received?

-Create a Ship and label the component parts of the "ship" using information from these pages. Display the ships and discuss.

  • Consider what would be the force to fill the sails?
  • What cargo would the hull contain?
  • What force would act on the keel to hold it steady?
  • Who would steer?

-Compare that ship with the Slave Ship image found in Unit 11, Petitioning the Federal Government. Consider how one is a positive image and one a negative image.

  • What force drives the slave ship?
  • What problematic course does the slave ship chart for American development?
  • How well do the hopes and aspirations of both the slaves and the ship owners fit with the mission statement for the nation you created earlier?

-Close with a discussion of the following questions:

  • How could our country be like a ship?
  • What role does government play in our daily lives?
  • What is the relationship between government and the Constitution and laws?
  • How important is American government? To whom? For what?

Lesson B: This lesson uses an individual document as the basis for study: Rep. William L. Smith to Edward Rutledge found in Creation of the Executive

Concept: This particular letter is full of concerns about the early government. It is a particularly good example of how real people articulated issues that are presented in the textbooks by historians who have analyzed the documents. Using this letter, students can become historians themselves with a manageable piece of history. William L. Smith was representing South Carolina in the First Federal Congress while Edward Rutledge was a state and local Charleston political leader. This letter demonstrates many of the issues raised between federal and state government.

This lesson is most appropriate for advanced classes.

General Thread: Smith articulates large principles, the political tensions in "fleshing out" the functions of government and its operation on a day to day basis. How does Rep. Smith demonstrate the issues facing the Early Republic?

Summary of paragraphs and questions to raise:

  • -It is interesting that his rather long letter is not a full answer because he is pressed for time. What does this indicate about the nature of correspondence in this period?
  • -Smith explains how the process of the Senate amending of House bills has worked to obviate many of Rutledge's concerns. How does the process of having both houses of Congress debate bills work to help reach consensus in government?
  • -Smith notes that the work on the Amendments (Bill of Rights) is important to NC entering the union. Even though the Constitution has been ratified by the majority of the states, why is it important for NC and RI to join?
  • -Next Smith explores the nature of Amendments and concerns over strict and loose interpretation of the Constitution. Here the issue of unequal representation by southern states and fear that the Union is detrimental to local rights is raised. Particularly stark are his reservations concerning legislative construction, the democratic nature of the legislature and powers of the executive at work on the Constitution. It would be fruitful to explore the roles of the branches vis-a-vis the Constitution and the issue of federal and state powers. How does the legislature help or hinder the cause of states rights? Most importantly, what is the nature of federalism?
  • -Smith's critique of Madison is interesting in light of Madison's evolution from a Federalist position when framing the Constitution to one where he supports enactment of the Bill of Rights and eventually becomes a leader of the Democratic Republicans as issues of sectionalism and constitutional interpretation mature and evolve through application. How does the application of the constitutional structure create new issues and alignments?
  • -Next Smith refers to Shays's rebellion in Massachusetts and how it affects the question of legislative supremacy as a fundamental principle of republican government. What are the risks of legislative supremacy?
  • -The next several paragraph are particularly informative about the Federalist and Antifederalist debate. Smith's demonstration of what historian Richard Hofstadter has called the "paranoid style" of American politics is clear.(Students need to find out what Hofstadter's thesis is.) Note also Smith's concern over self interest and special interest and fear of monarchy and the role these issues play in the struggle over how the government should work. How does this "paranoid style" affect partisan politics?
  • -Smith discusses the relationship between state and federal constitutions. As part of this discussion he clarifies implied powers and the particular role of the Senate. What role does state government play in defining the federal government?
  • -Explicit and implicit powers of the government is the next topic. Enumeration of powers is an issue. The judiciary is defended as part of protecting constitutional rights. Impeachment is cited as an important control.

The solution Smith presents is an interesting slant on the issue of checks and balances. Is it clear at this time how the branches of government function as checks and balance?

  • -Smith raises the issue of slavery in relation to states rights. How early does the specter of civil war raise its head? What were the issues?
  • -His last paragraphs concern issues of judges, Quakers, contracts and trials. What is the relationship between broad principles of government and very specific functions of day to day government?

Other letters and topics that lend themselves to close study which could take one class are:

An Imperial presidency? Rep Elias Boudinot ( NJ) to Hannah Boudinot: Inauguration and the question of style

Creation of the Judiciary: Speech By Rep Samuel Livermore (NH): Judiciary and states rights

Amendments to the Constitution: Thomas Jefferson's Letter to James Madison (VA): Judiciary, Bill of Rights, Foreign Affairs

Amendments to the Constitution: Sen William Grayson (VA) To Patrick Henry 1789: Southern fears

Establishing a Revenue System: Petition from Tradesmen and Manufacturers: the voice of special interest (lobby)

The Senate and Foreign Affairs: Sen. William Maclay's (PA) description of Washington's Senate Appearance: Difference between executive and Senate style

Funding the National Debt: Memorial of the Public Creditors of Pennsylvania: Lobby over the issue of debt and financing

The Compromise of 1790: Letter of Henry Lee to Rep. James Madison (VA): Articulation of Southern concerns over Northern majority

The Compromise of 1790: Rep George Thatcher (MA) and Rep. John Steele (NC): North Carolina concerns over economic measures

Lesson C: This lesson uses an image, a family portrait, as the basis for study.

Washington Family: found in An Imperial Presidency?

What can we learn from period art work? There are so many paintings of George Washington that they present a wonderful opportunity to study how art is a window into a period. It can be used as a "change of pace" and to encourage those students whose visual intelligence is often overshadowed in writing assignments. These exercises also allow for personal interpretation and debate. This is a good exercise to use in conjunction with visits to art museums or online sites such as the National Gallery.

-Consider the style.

  • Is this formal or informal?
  • What evidence demonstrates this?

-Consider the composition. (The way the painting is structured)

  • Is there balance or imbalance? Why did the artist use this approach?
  • Who is most important in this painting? How do you know?

-Consider the purpose.

  • Why do you think this work was produced?
  • Is there a message? What do you think it is?
  • What symbolism do you think the artist used?
  • What can we learn about the historical period through this work? For example fashion and what these people may think is important.

What answers can you give to the following interpretative questions?

  1. Why are the males on one side and the females and Washington's personal slave on the other?
  2. Why do the males have a globe and the females a map? Is there any relevance to the map showing the plan of the federal city and the background scene of the Potomac? Why do you think the artist placed G.Washington's hand on the boys shoulder and the boy's hand on the globe?
  3. Why are the males facing open space and the females and slave is behind a table? Why is the slave in shadow? Why is Billie Lee, Washington's personal slave in the portrait at all?
  4. Do you think that the ideas of public and private sphere and patriarchy have any relevance to this work? To this period in history? To our contemporary interpretation of this work? Are these questions an example of presentism?
  5. How do we know what the intentions of the artist and the patron who commissioned the work were?
  6. How is art interpreted by people when the artists are not around or no longer alive to explain their intentions?

A good follow up exercise is to have the students look at other original art from a period they have studied and apply this analysis technique to their own choice.

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Other Lesson Plans:
Introductory Lesson
Four Approaches with Lessons:
  1. Issue-based Single Lessons
  2. Topic Lessons Based on Selected Documents
  3. Whole Site by Unit
  4. Concept-based Student Application

Vocabulary list

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