The Critical Period

" 'Tis really astonishing that the same people, who have just emerged from a long
 and cruel war in defense of liberty, should now agree to fix an elective despotism
 upon themselves and their posterity."



   I. Articles of Confederation
       A. Formation (committee headed by John Dickinson)
       B. Ratification (stamp of approval on status quo)
            1. Nearly 5 years from committee to implementation
            2. Maryland balked at messy western land claims
                  • vague, exorbitant, disconnected, overlapping
                  • motive both wise & selfish
                  • single-state delay bad omen for Articles
       C. Shortcomings ("league of friendship" only)
            1. Fed'l gov't denied adequate authority over states
            2. Unanimous consent necessary for amendment
            3. Apparent errors understandable (not accidental)
  II. Westward Expansion
       A. Land Ordinance of 1785 (systematic settlement)
            1. Divided into townships
                  • 36 mi² (6 mi × 6 mi)
                  • section = 1 mi² = 640 acres
            2. Made available thru public auction
                  • entire section only @ $1 per acre minimum
                  • land companies sold smaller plots to farmers
       B. Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (sanctioned gov't)
            1. Northwest Territory
                  • Ohio River, Mississippi River, Great Lakes
                  • Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin
            2. Statehood formula
                  • territorial governor, secretary, 3 judges
                  • 5,000 voters = representative to Congress
                  • 60,000 bodies = constitution, then statehood
            3. Bill of rights
 III. Critical Period
       A. Mt. Vernon Conference (March 1785)
       B. Annapolis Conference (January 1786)
       C. Shays's Rebellion (late 1786)
 IV. Constitutional Convention
       A. Delegates = "demigods"
            1. Washington, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton
            2. Lawyers, planters, merchants, slaveowners
            3. Notable absentees = Jefferson, Adamses, more
       B. Attendance = irregular/uncertain
            1. 74 delegates named; 55 attended (12 states)
            2. 30-40 average attendance per session (88)
       C. Purpose = revise Articles of Confederation
            1. Meetings closed to ensure quality debate
            2. Articles abandoned in favor of federalism
            3. Dramatic power shift (convention extralegal)
       D. Theme = "agreement thru compromise" (569 votes)
            1. Great Compromise
                  • Virginia Plan vs. New Jersey Plan
                  • bicameral legislature
            2. Three-Fifths Compromise
                  • northern states vs. southern states
                  • slaves = 3/5 for representation & taxation
            3. Commerce Compromise
                  • North (manufacturing) vs. South (agrarian)
                  • uniform trade laws from state to state
                  • all treaties (inc. trade) need 2/3 Senate vote
                  • no export taxes allowed
            4. Slavery Compromise
                  • moral anxiety vs. political/economic issue
                  • no interference w/ slave trade until 1808
                  • tax of $10 per slave permissible
            5. Electoral College Compromise
                  • direct election vs. alternate selection
                  • system flawed (abolishment later considered)
  V. Ratification
       A. Convention
            1. 38/41 remaining delegates (+ 1 absentia)
            2. At least one signee from each state
            3. Opposed = Randolph, Mason, Gerry + 4 absent
            4. 7 absent favored; 2 gave no indication
       B. Congress (under the Articles)
       C. States (9 of 13 req'd)
            1. Delaware #1; New Hampshire #9 (June 1788)
            2. Massachusetts, New York, Virginia key states
       D. Federalists = strong central gov't
            1. Upper class; lawyers, doctors, ministers; urban
            2. Hamilton, Madison, Jay
            3. The Federalist (series of 85 essays by "Publius")
       E. Anti-Federalists = states' rights
            1. Lower class; farmers & laborers; rural
            2. Hancock, S. Adams, Clinton, Henry
            3. Three major objections
                  • no gov't protection of civil liberties
                  • states' rights denied (esp. "elastic clause")
                  • not democratic enough
       F. Bill of Rights to appease Anti-Federalists (Dec 1791)
 VI. The Enduring Constitution
       A. Checks & balances system ensures gov't credibility
       B. Formal amendment process (Article V)
       C. Brevity/lack of detail allows custom & usage


  • Articles of Confederation
  • Land Ordinance of 1785
  • Northwest Territory
  • Mt. Vernon Conference
  • Annapolis Conference
  • Philadelphia Convention
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • George Washington
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • James Madison
  • federalism
  • separation of powers
  • checks and balances
  • Virginia Plan
  • New Jersey Plan
  • Great Compromise
  • Three-Fifths Compromise
  • Electoral College
  • Patrick Henry
  • John Jay
  • Federalists
  • Anti-Federalists
  • "elastic clause"
  • Bill of Rights
  • The Federalist
  • Shays's Rebellion

Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution by Richard Beeman
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis


  • Abigail Adams: Letter to her husband at the Second Continental Congress (1776)
  • James Madison (aka Publius): The Federalist, No. 10 (1787)


1.  The government under the Articles of Confederation has been considered a general
     failure. Describe three actions of the Confederation government and evaluate those
     activities as either successful or futile.

2.  "One underlying theme of the Constitutional Convention could be 'agreement
     through compromise.' " Support this statement.

3.  "The Declaration of Independence was the promise; the Constitution was the
     fulfillment." Support this statement.

4.  "The Declaration of Independence issued a call for a democratic government of equal
     citizens which was rejected by the writers of the Constitution, who instead created an
     aristocratic government that benefitted only the wealthy few." Access the validity of
     this statement.

5.  Select any two of the following individuals and give an account of their activities
     during, and contributions to the total cause of, the American Revolution—Samuel
     Adams; Benjamin Franklin; Alexander Hamilton; Thomas Jefferson; James Madison;
     George Washington.

6.  "The king governs with the consent of the governed." Trace this concept through its
     English tradition to its position in the Constitution.


  1. All of the following were boundaries of the Northwest Territory except the
    1. Appalachian Mountains.
    2. Ohio River.
    3. Great Lakes.
    4. Mississippi River.

  2. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention were in general agreement that
    1. basic human rights should transcend all minority lines, including economic, gender, racial, and religious.
    2. the Articles of Confederation should be junked.
    3. separation of powers was truly workable only in a monarchical government.
    4. most of the common people were knowledgeable enough to elect responsible governmental leaders.

  3. The Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause
    1. is a crucial part of the document's amendment process.
    2. was eventually determined by the Supreme Court to be a violation of the separation of powers principle.
    3. extends the powers of Congress.
    4. was added to the document due to the strong influence of the Anti-Federalists.

  4. At the Constitutional Convention, the issue of slavery was
    1. addressed forthrightly in the Bill of Rights.
    2. postponed until a special committee, to be formed after the Constitution was ratified, could determine its future.
    3. left to the individual states to decide as part of their statehood application process.
    4. generally avoided so as to not threaten disunion of the states.

  5. The fact that the Constitution has endured for better than two centuries is strong evidence that
    1. Great Britain's mercantilistic policies were unfair to the colonists.
    2. the colonists learned valuable lessons under the unsuccessful Articles of Confederation.
    3. objections of the Anti-Federalists to the Constitution were unfounded.
    4. the Constitution's formal amendment process was probably not necessary.

Most Americans probably don't realize that Mount Rushmore was not created as a tribute to the four Presidents so much as it was meant to celebrate basic themes in American history and culture. The intent of Gutzon Borglum is clear in his 1924 report which recommended "building...this great monument as a memorial to...the continental development of the republic, commemorating in sculptured portraits those dominating personalities who furthered its creation and preservation." Click on the faces to access LECTURE GUIDE for this unit.


 Emma Stoner & Miranda Tesch '11



"Philadelphia Freedom"   by Elton John