Pedagogical Suggestions for Using the Instructions to the Convention Delegates Page

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What are they to be doing at Philadelphia? This exercise can be used as a lesson to illustrate the subtleties in the instructions given to the Delegates to the Philadelphia Convention. This can be used when having students consider the legitimacy of the delegates creating an entirely new system of government rather than simply revising the Articles of Confederation.

  • Divide the class into working groups of 3-5 students.
  • Have each group create a spectrum that looks something like the one below.

Very Specific                             Somewhat Specific                              Not Specific

  • If you want to cover this material in a single class session, you should divide the 13 sets of instructions among the groupings. If you want to spend more time, you could have the groups look at the entire sets of delegate instructions.
  • Have the groups read through their assigned set of instructions. They should generally look for the following items as they read:
  • The specific words and phrases that define the task given to the delegates from that state. These are often Found in the sections that begin “Be it enacted….”
  • Whether or not the delegates should report their efforts and to whom they should report their efforts.
  • The preamble sections that often begin with “Whereas….” These may contain words that in some way define the task of the delegates that they are sending to Philadelphia.
  • Whether or not the words “Article of Confederation”, “federal union”, “union”, “Constitution” are used in describing the task assigned to the delegates.
  • Have students within their groups discuss and reach a consensus as to where they would place their state’s delegate instructions on their spectrum. Be sure to have them also select the key words or phrases that support their decision and on the spectrum have them place that phrase along with the state name.

* For example if a group suggests that Virginia’s instructions left a lot latitude (vaguely defined task) for their delegates whereas Massachusetts left little latitude (very specifically defined task) for their delegates, they would have a spectrum that looked something like:


  • After groups have had some time to read and discuss their findings, have them report their conclusions to the class. It may be important to have the class look at the state instructions in question so they can see if they would agree with the conclusions of their peers.

It is important to note that this issue continued throughout the period. At the convention, when the Virginia Plan was introduced in the Philadelphia Convention on 30 May, some delegates expressed concerns that they were in violation of their instructions. This issue would surface later in state ratification conventions. In the Virginia Convention on 4 June 1788, Patrick Henry made the assertion that the convention had exceeded its powers. That same day John Randolph addressed Henry’s concerns with a lengthy explanation of the myriad of problems that warranted a departure from simply amending the Articles of Confederation. In Massachusetts on 29 December 1787 The Republican Federalist I and on 2 January 1788 The Republican Federalist II leveled accusations that the work of the Philadelphia Convention was irreparably tainted. On 3 January 1788 an article appearing in the Independent Chronicle titled A Remarker ad corrigendum answered the charges. The Federalist #49 and The Federalist #50 also addressed these and other charges made by Antifederalists in reference to the Constitutional Convention.