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Unit 1: From Revolution to Constitution

Suggested Activities

John Jay

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation

  1. This formal portrait of the American diplomat John Jay was begun shortly after he and his fellow commissioners negotiated the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the Revolutionary War. Who were the other statesmen involved in the negotiations with Great Britain? What were the terms of the treaty?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Henry Laurens made up the American diplomatic team that negotiated the Treaty of Paris. The treaty recognized America's independence from Great Britain and set the Mississippi River as the western boundary of the United States. Britain ceded East and West Florida to Spain and surrendered Tobago and Senegal to France, but retained Canada. The agreement also stipulated that the Mississippi River would be open to both Great Britain and the United States and guaranteed American access to Newfoundland fisheries. In addition, the collection of private war debts between countries was protected, and fair treatment of American loyalists and restoration of their confiscated property was urged.

John Jay (1745–1829)
Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828) and John Trumbull (1756–1843)
Oil on canvas, begun in 1784 and completed by 1818

  1. Jay served as America's secretary for foreign affairs from 1784 to 1790, during which time he became convinced that a more centralized government was necessary to lead the new nation successfully. To this end, Jay zealously argued for ratification of the new federal Constitution. Study the first three articles of the Constitution (visit and explain the fundamental structure of the federal government that it creates, including the distribution of powers and the system of checks and balances.
    [Standard 2—historical comprehension]

The first three articles of the Constitution separate the federal government into three distinct branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. Article I gives Congress (made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate) legislative powers, including the right to declare war, levy taxes, borrow money, regulate commerce, provide for military forces, establish a system of weights and measures, coin money and set its value, and organize and maintain the postal system. Congress can exercise ultimate control of the President through impeachment, which would be initiated by the House and adjudicated by the Senate.

Article II gives executive power to the President, making the holder of that office commander in chief of the armed forces and responsible for treaties. The President has the right to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the country and has the power to appoint ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, and other high-level government officials (subject to the approval of Congress). The President is entitled to call both Houses into session, is required to keep Congress informed about the state of the union, and is given the power to veto. Article II also stipulates that the President must be at least thirty-five years old and an American citizen with a residency of fourteen years or more. The presidential term is limited to four years.

Article III gives judicial power to the courts, which are responsible for interpreting the Constitution. It makes the Supreme Court the final court of appeal from the state and lower federal courts, gives the accused party the right to a jury trial, and appoints federal judges to the bench for life. The Supreme Court is empowered to veto any state laws that conflict with the Constitution or with federal statutes.

  1. In an effort to convince delegates from the key state of New York to vote for ratification of the Constitution, Jay collaborated with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton on writing a series of eighty-five essays that explained and defended the Constitution. The essays, collectively called the Federalist Papers, were written in the form of anonymous letters to New York newspapers and are considered the authoritative commentary on the Constitution. Read Hamilton's "General Introduction" to the Federalist Papers ( fedpapers.html) and select one of the remaining eighty-four essays to study in-depth. Present to the class the arguments offered in support of the Constitution in your chosen essay.
    [Standard 2—historical comprehension]

Hamilton openly declares his passionate support for the Constitution in the introduction to the Federalist Papers, stating "this is the safest course for your liberty, your dignity, and your happiness." Despite the publication of these essays in New York newspapers, New York was not among the first nine states to ratify the Constitution (approval from nine out of thirteen states was necessary for ratification to occur).


James Madison (1751–1836)
Unidentified Artist
Copy after John Vanderlyn (1775–1852)
Stipple engraving, circa 1833–1840
National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution
NPG 91.20

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1757–1804)
James Sharples (1751?–1811)
Pastel, circa 1796
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

  1. The Constitution was submitted to the thirteen states for ratification on September 28, 1787; by June 1788 the required two-thirds of states had ratified it. Ratification for many states, however, depended on the promised addition of a Bill of Rights (Amendments one through ten). Why was the Bill of Rights considered such an essential addition to the Constitution? Outline the basic rights guaranteed to citizens in each of the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. How many amendments to the Constitution have been made in total since it was ratified?
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

American citizens were generally wary of a powerful central government that resembled in any way the monarchy of Great Britain. The Bill of Rights set limits on the powers of the federal government and guaranteed specific rights of American citizens.

First Amendment: freedom of religion, freedom of speech; freedom of the press; right of assembly; right to petition for redress of grievances
Second Amendment: right of citizens to keep and bear arms as necessary for the security of the state
Third Amendment: limitation of the quartering of soldiers in private homes during peace
Fourth Amendment: protection from unreasonable search and seizure of property; issuance of warrants limited to cases of probable cause
Fifth Amendment: requirement of grand jury indictment in prosecution of major crimes; prohibition of double jeopardy
Sixth Amendment: right to a speedy and public trial before an impartial jury with the assistance of counsel
Seventh Amendment: right to a jury trial
Eighth Amendment: prohibition of excessive bail and cruel or unusual punishment
Ninth Amendment: protection of citizen's rights not specifically included in the Constitution
Tenth Amendment: delegation of powers not assigned to the federal government to the states and their citizens

The Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times since ratification.

  1. Although the 1783 Treaty of Paris formally ended the war between the United States and Great Britain, relations between the two countries continued to be difficult. The fear of reentry into war compelled President Washington to send John Jay to Great Britain in 1794 to discuss American grievances. Jay successfully settled the disputes in Jay's Treaty, ratified in the U.S. Senate in 1795. Make a list of the American grievances addressed in Jay's Treaty and the agreements reached by the two parties. How was the treaty received at home in America?
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

American grievances included England's refusal to evacuate frontier forts in the Northwest Territory; the seizing of American ships and sailors to fight in Britain's war against France; and discrimination against American commerce. England agreed to the following: evacuation of the Northwest Territory by June 1, 1796; compensation for the illegal seizure of American ships and sailors; and the granting of United States trading privileges in Great Britain. In addition, the treaty declared the Mississippi River open to both countries and provided for payment of American pre war debts to British merchants.

Although many historians agree that Jay negotiated a fair treaty that was quite favorable to the United States, Jay's Treaty was very controversial in America at the time. John Jay was burned in effigy by mobs of angry citizens, and the treaty was ratified by a very narrow margin in the Senate.