Federalism: The Evolution of a Democratic Republic

Teacher Guide By Richard Cleggett

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Federalism Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Federalism: The Evolution of a Democratic Republic Include:

The United States did not spring into being, fully formed. It took the valiant efforts of patriotic revolutionaries, and not only on the battlefield. The creation a government that could unite the colonies into a single nation was a controversial idea. After many debates and compromises, however, our federal government came to be.

Federalism: The Evolution of a Democratic Republic Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Influence, Ideas, and Ideologies of Early American Government Graphic Organizer

Using a grid storyboard, students will summarize and explain influences on early American government. This will provide a deeper, historical context for early American government, through the ratification of the Constitution. Students will be able to explain and analyze these influences and ideas, as well as their relation to government. By putting each topic on one axis, students will summarize what defines each topic, and provide the influence it had on government on the other axis.

Influential Early American Documents

Explanation Influence on Early Government
Paine’s Common Sense Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense was widely circulated throughout the American colonies. Colonists read about ideas of representative governments, populist power, and natural rights that included life, liberty, and property. All of Paine's ideas greatly influenced early Americans' perspectives. Common Sense had an immense influence on colonists living in early America. It gave them ideas and dreams of operating their own country under their own terms. It instilled a belief in natural rights and the voice of the people dictating law. It would go on to be a founding influence on early government.
Republicanism Republicanism is the practice of government representatives advocating for a larger group's needs and interests. America is a democratic republic, meaning the people vote on their representatives in government level. Ideas of republicanism are the foundation of early, and current, American government. In electing representatives, Americans believed they were voicing their opinions, concerns, and thoughts by controlling who ultimately controlled their politics. The United States still functions as a republic today.
Revolution Revolution itself is the action of change. By revolting against the British, American colonists put into action the change they wanted to see. By fighting for their independence, ideas that spurred revolution would carry over to how early American government would function and serve the people. The American Revolution itself was a tremendous influence on Early American government. Fighting for what they wanted to see happen, the revolution served to realize these ideals. They fought under the belief of the people powering their nation, not one singular king.
Democracy Democracy is a government run by the people. There is no singular king, or ruling class. Each citizen retains certain rights, including the right to vote, own property, and conduct their own business. For America, the power lies in the people's ability to elect their own representatives, and create their own laws. The idea of democracy was a founding principle in early American government. The citizens of British America believed they had the right to control their destinies, not a king thousands of miles away. Furthermore, colonists had functioned well governing themselves without British influence or interference.

Extended Activity

Have students create a grid storyboard for America’s current government. Have them define topics they believe influence government today, making connections to the influences on early American government. Some topics can even be the same, with students directly connecting its past and current influence.

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State Government vs. the Articles of Confederation Comparison Activity

A T-Chart storyboard will separate and identify the respective powers and ideas surrounding the function and power of state governments and those of a federal government should be. By comparing and contrasting how each government functioned, students will be able to explain the differences between the two and evaluate how strong state governments were compared to the weak federal government under the Articles of Confederation. This will allow students to see the divisions among leaders that exist all the way to the ratification of the Constitution.

Articles of Confederation Comparison

State Governments Federal Government
Powers In early American government, much of the country's power lay with the states. States held a strong belief in conducting their own affairs. States could operate voting rights, taxes, money, defense, etc. Each state was governed by its own constitutions that were created prior to any federal government structure. States also operated their own judicial systems, and had strong legislatures. The federal government in early America was weak. The Articles of Confederation were created by the Continental Congress in 1777 and adopted in 1781. Powers mostly included making limited laws and enforcing them. It could declare war, but not collect taxes. They had to petition states for money, which could be problematic. In addition, each state had one vote, and achieving a majority to change law was very difficult.
Structure State governments were structured with three branches and separated powers. They operated under an executive (the governor), a legislature (law-making body), and judicial system (courts and decisions on law). State representatives were elected by those who could vote. They also maintained their own monetary and tax systems. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government had one united legislature, it operated unicamerally. The only branch existent was the legislature, or law-making body. The Articles did not create a judicial system; that was left to the states. Furthermore, the executive portion of government was weak, as presidents had very limited powers, if any. Overall, the Articles were weak and poorly structured.
Strengths The strengths of state governments in early America mostly lay in each state's ability to operate on its own. They conducted their own courts, taxes, and citizens generally identified with their states, not their national government. State constitutions had existed for years, making them strong and popular. In addition, state governments enjoyed strong support from its citizens. The strengths of the Articles of Confederation were few and far between. With no real power to tax, conduct foreign affairs, and force states to do things at will, the Articles strength mainly lay in the legislative abilities. They also provided structure to the newly formed United States. Having little power was, in fact, a strength, as it eased people into not fearing central power, post-revolution.
Weaknesses State governments did have weak points. Each state operated differently, and had contrasts in economies, money, law, and rights, like voting. This promoted disunity, and it was difficult for states to agree on things. Overall, these differences, along with each state's independence, proved to be a major weakness. Many weaknesses existed within the Articles of Confederation. For one, they lacked major powers such as taxation, conducting war, and managing the economy. In addition, in order for amendments to be made to the Articles, all 13 states had to agree, making changes nearly impossible. Even to achieve a majority of 7 out of 13 states proved to be difficult. In essence, the national government was weak and needed to be changed.

Extended Activity

Have students create a T-Chart storyboard to compare and contrast the powers of state governments and federal government of today. Have them pinpoint the same separation of powers in the past, and how such powers have evolved now. Use your own state government to show specific state law and how it contrasts or is the same as federal law.

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Solving the Problems the Articles of Confederation Graphic Organizer

Using a spider map, have students summarize and explain the several problems that existed under the Articles of Confederation and where such issues were debated: the Constitutional Convention. Focus on the issues that existed, and also how divisions arose in finding a solution. Students will be able to explain and analyze the problems of a weak federal government, and how early politicians aimed to correct them and preserve the new nation.

The Constitutional Convention

Divisions at the Convention

Divisions existed among the delegates at the convention. One group, the Nationalists, argued for a stronger federal government to resolve many issues. The other group, the Anti-federalists, were still supportive of states' power. In addition, smaller states were pitted against larger states over how each would be represented in the federal government.

Amending the Articles

The first order of business stemmed from whether, and how, to alter the Articles of Confederation. For some, change was enough, however, many wanted to start from scratch. Eventually, the delegates, in secrecy, agreed to throw out the Articles entirely and start anew in creating the Constitution.

Structure of Government

Delegates debated the manner in which this new government would be structured. First, the federal government as a whole would hold more powers, including the power to tax and regulate commerce. The Executive Branch was strengthened, with Washington being elected president. Federal Courts were also established as part of the Judicial Branch.

The Virginia Plan

James Madison of Virginia came to the convention with a structured plan to help aid the overhaul of government. In his Virginia Plan, Madison proposed three branches of government. The Legislative Branch would also be a bicameral, or two house, legislature. Representation would be based off of state population.

The New Jersey Plan

Fearing that larger states would dominate government, smaller states proposed the New Jersey Plan in response to Madison's plan. Ultimately, it called for three branches, legislative powers, but a unicameral house. In this one house, each state would hold an equal vote, thus giving smaller states the same voting power as larger states.

The Great Compromise

In order to resolve differences between the Virginia and New Jersey plans, the Great Compromise was presented. It created a two house legislature, made up of the Senate and House of Representatives. The Senate would call for two representatives from each state. The House would base representation off state population. This satisfied small and large states.

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map or a character map about figures who participated in the Constitutional Convention. Students should detail who they were, their ideas, and where they stood on the status of federal government. Students could also detail their beliefs on state governments.

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Compromise at the Convention T-Chart Activity

Using a T-Chart storyboard, students will summarize and explain the problems debated at the Constitutional Convention and how representatives compromised on the issues. It will function as a cause and effect organizer to demonstrate how issues and problems were solved at the dawn of American government. Furthermore, students will be able to explain how the Constitution was constructed and what it called for. Students will also be able to further describe divisions over how the federal government would operate.

Constitutional Convention Compromises



With James Madison's Virginia Plan of legislative representation based on state population, smaller states feared they would be overpowered. They too presented a plan, the New Jersey Plan, to have one house with equal representation for each state. Once again, states were pitted against each other for fair powers in a federal government.

The Great Compromise

A solution was finally proposed under what is known as the Great Compromise. In it, a bicameral legislature would be created which included the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate would have equal representation, whereas representation in the House would be based on state population. This satisfied both large and small states.

Slave Population

Soon, many began to question how the slave populations would factor into the counting of state populations. Southern populations would be much larger than free, Northern states. Should slave populations count towards the number of representatives in government? For many, the issue proved critical in coming to a solution.

Three-Fifths Compromise

To resolve the issue of southern slave populations, delegates at the convention agreed to count three of every five slaves towards a state's population. This would allow southern states to incorporate their large slave populations, while also giving the North a peace of mind. Many founding fathers, however, believed the slave issue would resolve itself over time.

Separation of Powers

It was in total agreement that the newly formed federal government would honor people's basic rights and freedoms, as well as prevent another tyrannical ruler. How this would be done, however, proved difficult to design. The balance of power between a strong, national government and the people was the centerpiece in avoiding one part of the government becoming too strong.

Checks and Balances

To resolve the issue of the balance of power, delegates agreed that there should be three branches: the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Each branch would check and balance each others, to prevent one branch from becoming too powerful. For instance, the President could veto a law created by the legislative branch, but the legislature could override that veto. The courts could then rule on the constitutionality of any law.

Individual and State Rights

One major issue stood in the way of ratifying the newly created Constitution: How would the government guarantee and protect individual liberties, and more so, states' rights? Many felt as though they should be incorporated into the new document. Others saw the Constitution as already a protector of natural rights. Two factions would then emerge: Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

The Bill of Rights

Eventually, it was agreed upon that the Constitution would have its first 10 amendments dedicated to citizens liberties. These first 10 amendments became known as the Bill of Rights. By compromising on their inclusion, delegates were able to finally ratify and put into practice the Constitution, a document that is still a functioning, living one today.

Extended Activity

Have students create a T-Chart with one column depicting issues concerning today’s government. In the other column, have students detail a solution to that issue, or a proposed solution. Teachers may also add a column for what students would do if the issue were presented to them.

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Major Elements of the Constitution Spider Map

Using a spider map, have students create a web of the major elements of the Constitution, including its ratification and the Bill of Rights. Other topics that could be included are the structure of powers, the role of the President, and the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Students will be able to explain and summarize what made up the Constitution and how it balanced powers, as well as how it came to be ratified.

Structure of the Constitution

The Legislature

The structure of the legislature was constructed to be bicameral, to have two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each state had two representatives in the Senate. The House of Representatives counted state populations towards the number of representatives each state had. Both houses checked and balanced the other.

Role of the President

Under the Articles, the role of the President and Executive Branch were weak. Under the Constitution, the President was given much more expansive powers, as well as a functioning cabinet. The President would be elected by an electoral college. A term of four years was set, and initially, a President could be re-elected to any number of terms.

Federal Courts

Under the Constitution, a federal court system was created. This was to ensure a judiciary system was in place to resolve national issues. Presidents elected federal judges, but only with the consent of the Senate. Furthermore, the Supreme Court's details were left vague so they could evolve with the needs of the growing nation.

The Bill of Rights

To generate support for ratification, a Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments, were added to the Constitution. They guaranteed individual rights, such as freedom of religion and security from unreasonable searches. On December 15, 1791, the amendments were ratified as the new government took effect.

Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists

Despite the creation of the Constitution, divisions still existed over its ratification. Those who favored it were called Federalists. Those opposed to it were the Anti-Federalists. Federalists believed the strong, national government was necessary. Anti-Federalists believed state and individual rights were threatened.

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map on one branch of the government, either the Executive, Judicial, or Legislative Branch. Students should include what powers each branch holds, positions within the branch, and how the branch checks and balances powers with the other two branches.

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Evolution of Early American Government Timeline Activity

Students will explain and analyze the evolution of America’s democratic republic through a timeline storyboard. They will summarize and explain each step leading up to the eventual ratification of the Constitution. In addition to this, students will be able to analyze and illustrate how government evolved over time, as well as the debates that took place in terms of how the federal government should function, its relation to state governments, and the early evolvement of political parties. Teachers can pre-determine topics for students to cover.

Evolution of Early Government

March 1, 1781

Adoption of the Articles of Confederation

In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress ratifies the Articles of Confederation. However, the Articles are weak, and give no real power to the federal government. Colonists and leaders agree they need to be revised.
September 3, 1783

Independence is Won

By 1783, the Revolutionary War ends in victory for the American colonists. Defeating Great Britain, the colonies turned their attention towards self-government. The Articles were still in effect, yet just how problematic they were was still to be seen.
September 11, 1786

Annapolis Convention

Nationalists met in Annapolis, Maryland to discuss the economic problems and how the Articles failed to address them. Only 12 delegates from five states attended, and all agreed to meet in Philadelphia at a later date.

Shay’s Rebellion

In the midst of political and economic crisis, Daniel Shay, a Massachusetts farmer, led a rebellion. A new tax aimed at paying war debts ruined many farmers. Congress failed to quell the rebellion. The need for reform was more evident than ever.
September 17, 1787

The Convention Passes the Constitution

Fifty-five delegates from every colony except Rhode Island met to address the issues of the Articles. Instead, they recreated an entire new structure of government: the Constitution. After much debate, it was passed and given to states to ratify it.
April 30, 1789

Washington Elected President

With the passing of the Constitution, the position of President took on a whole new meaning. Given much more power, the electoral college unanimously elected George Washington as the nation's first president. He served as President until 1797.
December 15, 1791

Bill of Rights Ratified

In order to achieve ratification, the states ratify 10 of 12 proposed amendments and constitute what is known as the Bill of Rights. They guarantee individual and state rights. Their addition helps push states to ratify the Constitution.

Extended Activity

Have students continue their timeline to include major changes in government. Students can use a wide range of topics and subtopics, including supreme court cases, presidential actions, and changes in legislation. Teachers may condense the wide range of possible topics to ensure a desired structure of government evolution into its present form.

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The evolution of American government was certainly not one without issue. After winning independence from Great Britain, many wondered how the new country would succeed in establishing government. Throughout the revolution, the 13 colonies functioned in cooperation, but also very much as separate entities. Each had their own designated state and local governments well before joining the unified nation. State governments reigned supreme, however the idea of voting rights and representative government was very much alive. How, then, would they create a federal government to operate nationally? Many questions remained, and attempts at establishing such an entity took much trial and error. The United States, however, would remain steadfast in creating a democratic republic that balanced the many viewpoints of the time, while remaining true to the ideas and ideologies that motivated the revolution.

The evolution of America’s democratic republic began with the ratifying of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Created by the Continental Congress, the document outlined a set of laws and regulations so the colonies could function cooperatively. Much of the power lay in the states, however. With only one branch of government, the legislative, judicial and executive powers remained in state hands. Problems arose quickly. Their debt from the revolution was insurmountable. Some believed in a weak national government, while others held a stronger one was needed to regain control. These and many other issues were debated and discussed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, where the Constitution was born. Throwing the Articles completely aside, state representatives constructed an entire new system of laws and powers. Even so, debate over the ratification of the Constitution raged on.

Using Storyboard That, students and teachers will be able to analyze the history of Federalism and explain this evolutionary process of government in an historical context. From our initial Articles, to the ratification of the Constitution, many American ideas and ideologies were discussed, debated, and applied to become America’s contemporary government.

Essential Questions for Federalism: The Evolution of a Democratic Republic

  1. What are the major influences and ideas that helped create the Articles of Confederation?
  2. How did these ideas permeate through the creation of the Constitution?
  3. How was the early government of the United States structured by the Articles of Confederation?
  4. What problems arose with the Articles of Confederation?
  5. What divisions arose from these debates?
  6. What debates and discussions occurred at the Constitutional Convention?
  7. What was the process of the creation of the Constitution?
  8. How did Federalists eventually win the battle of ratification?
  9. What precedents were set by George Washington and the first generation of leaders?
  10. How can we apply these ideas, ideologies, debates, and political structures today?

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•   (English) Federalism: The Evolution of a Democratic Republic   •   (Español) Federalismo: la Evolución de una República Democrática   •   (Français) Le Fédéralisme: L'évolution D'une République Démocratique   •   (Deutsch) Föderalismus: Die Entwicklung Einer Demokratischen Republik   •   (Italiana) Federalismo: L'evoluzione di una Repubblica Democratica   •   (Nederlands) Federalisme: De Evolutie van een Democratische Republiek   •   (Português) Federalismo: a Evolução de uma República Democrática   •   (עברית) פדרליזם: האבולוציה של רפובליקה דמוקרטית   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) الفدرالية: تطور في جمهورية الكونغو الديمقراطية   •   (हिन्दी) संघवाद: एक लोकतांत्रिक गणराज्य की विकास   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Федерализм: Эволюция Демократической Республики   •   (Dansk) Føderalisme: Udviklingen af ​​et Demokratiske Republik   •   (Svenska) Federalism: Utvecklingen av en Demokratisk Republik   •   (Suomi) Federalismi: Evolution Demokraattisen Tasavallan   •   (Norsk) Føderalisme: Utviklingen av en Demokratisk Republikk   •   (Türkçe) Federalizm: Demokratik Bir Cumhuriyetin Evrimi   •   (Polski) Federalizm: Ewolucja Republiki Demokratycznej   •   (Româna) Federalizarea: Evoluția Unei Republici Democrate   •   (Ceština) Federalismus: Evoluce v Demokratické Republice   •   (Slovenský) Federalizmus: Vývoj Demokratickej Republiky   •   (Magyar) Föderalizmus: Az Evolution egy Demokratikus Köztársaság   •   (Hrvatski) Federalizam: Evolucija Demokratske Republike   •   (български) Федерализъм: Еволюцията на Демократична Република   •   (Lietuvos) Federalizmas: Demokratinės Respublikos Evoliucija   •   (Slovenščina) Federalizem: Razvoj v Demokratični Republiki   •   (Latvijas) Federālisms: Evolution Demokrātiskās Republikas   •   (eesti) Föderalism: Evolutsioon Demokraatliku Vabariigi