A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1873
Through careful selection, documents in A Century of Lawmaking can lead students to think critically about historical events that shaped our nation.
1) Chronological Thinking
Maclay's Journal provides a personal account of the First Congress. Use Maclay's words to trace the debate over a permanent home for Congress. Have small groups make a story board for a television miniseries about the debate.
- Who are the lead characters?
- How did the tone of the debate change over time?
- Why do you think Virginia/Maryland won out over Pennsylvania and New York?
Build a story board using excerpts from the list below.
- First Session, Chapter I (page 15)
Second Session Chapter IV (pages 134, 142, 145, 162, 165, 168)
- Chapter VII (page 274)
- Chapter VIII (pages 284 - 286, 294)
- Third Session Chapter X (pages 305 - 307, 312, 313)
- Chapter XI (page 328, 329, 340, 341, 342).
Visit the online exhibit Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation to explore how the Capitol was finally constructed.
Use the collection to explore the content of early Congressional debates. Search on Association, taxation, proportional representation, state sovereignty, separation of powers, federal powers, veto, and slavery to identify hotly contested issues.
Ask students to identify two sides of a debate of one of these issues in the historical Congress. Have them list key points for each side of the debate. With which side do you agree? For example, compare Joseph Galloway's Resolution which suggested the First Continental Congress reconcile with Britain to the Association decision, which resulted in a colonial boycott on British goods.
You might also have students complete the same assignment using congress.gov to examine Congressional today. How has debate changed and stayed the same since Galloway tried to influence the first Congress?
3) Analysis and Interpretation
Farrand's Records contains notes of the 1787 Federal Convention from two different sources, James Madison and Robert Yates. Discuss with your students the issue of reliability in the historical record. Use the collection to illustrate how different points of view can affect what is recorded.
From the Navigator select two versions of events from the same day. For example, Thursday May 31, 1787 covers debate over how to elect the Legislature. Compare Madison (page 48, from Mason to the vote tally on page 50) and Yates (page 56, from Mason to the vote tally, also page 56).
Ask students to assume the role of a news reporter. Using the notes above, have them write a newspaper headline and article about what happened that day. Whose notes were most useful for the article? Why?
4) Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making
Use A Century of Lawmaking to analyze how the issue of freedom of religion was addressed in the Bill of Rights. Assign the following, "You are a time traveler who has landed in 1778. Write an editorial for a 1778 newspaper. In your opinion, why has the Freedom of Religion provision in the Bill of Rights proven important up to this point in history?"
Search religious freedom to find how representatives tried to protect religious freedom. For example, review Journals of the Continental Congress for Thursday, July 6, 1775 (pages 129 and 142), Elliot's Debates for Tuesday, June 10, 1788 (Randolph's statements on page 204), and Elliot's Debates for Thursday, June 12, 1788 (Madison's statements on page 330).
Visit the National Archives Charters of Freedom exhibit to read the full text of the Bill of Rights.
Use the collection to launch a research project on the position of Quakers during American wars. The collection shows that during the Revolutionary War period, Quakers were accused of being traitors because of an anti-war publication. Ask students to research how Quakers have responded to wars throughout American history. Have students include the government's response to Quaker beliefs.
"…Quakers, render it certain and notorious, that those persons are, with much rancour and bitterness, disaffected to the American cause: that, as these persons will have it in their power, so there is no doubt it will be their inclination, to communicate intelligence to the enemy, and, in various other ways, to injure the councils and arms of America;"
and Wednesday September 3, 1777 that states,
"Resolved, That Congress approve of the Quakers prisoners being sent to Virginia, and, in the opinion of Congress, that Staunton, in the county of Augusta, is the most proper place in the State of Virginia for their residence and security."