Lesson Plan: Formation of State Constitutions

Templates and Experiments

Ohio State University professor Margaret Newell discusses the goals of the writers of the first state constitutions.


This lesson plan opens with reflective question that asks students to reflect the development of laws in the United States. Students then watch, analyze, and respond to an introductory video clip that details the goals of the writers of the first state constitutions. Next, students view for videos that provide historical background information, including uncertainty during the revolutionary era, what the colonists agreed upon, and how citizenship and society were viewed in the wake of the Enlightenment. Students then are assigned to study either Virginia's, Pennsylvania's, or Massachusetts' first state constitution. After viewing the video clip for their assigned constitution, students then choose another first state constitution of choice and prepare a presentation comparing the two. The lesson concludes with a reflective video clip before students respond to a summative writing prompt.


  • SET UP

    This lesson offers several options for you to use with your students whether you are teaching in class, using a hybrid model, or engaging through distance learning. It can be completed in steps as a class or students can move at their own pace and complete the activities independently.

    You can post links to the videos in the lesson along with the related handout and engage in discussion to share responses on a discussion board or learning management system.

    You can also save and share the following Google resource for students to use with this lesson.

    Handout: Graphic Organizer (Google Doc).

    In Google, choose "File" then "Make a Copy" to get your own copy. You can make any needed adjustments in the instructions such as which activities students need to complete, when it is due, etc. and then make it available to them via Google.


    Pose the following brainstorming question to your students, directing them to record their responses in their graphic organizer, share with a partner, and then with the class if they choose.

    • Where do laws come from?

    Play this introductory video clip [Clip #1] (2:23) of Ohio State University professor Margaret Newell discussing the goals of the writers of the first state constitutions. Direct your students to answer the following questions on their graphic organizer.

    • What was the “amazing thing” about the Revolutionary War?
    • Based on the clip, what two things did the Founding Fathers hope the new government would contribute?
    • According to Margaret Newell, at what “level” did most of the governmental change occur?

    Direct your students to their graphic organizers to view and define the vocabulary terms that will appear in the lesson in the chart in their graphic organizer handout. The vocabulary words are also listed to the right on this webpage. We recommend having your students define and present the terms in a jigsaw activity to save time.

    Depending on time and resources, you may consider having your students define and present the terms in a Frayer's Model activity, where each student takes one or two items. Students can then post their models around the room for reference throughout the lesson. Note: This is not an all-encompassing list of terms included in each video. We recommend you previewing the video clips to determine any necessary additions/subtractions to this list for your specific students.


    Direct students to the background section of their graphic organizers. Have students students view each of the four video clips, take notes, and answer each question. Direct students to prepare to present their findings with the class when finished.

  • Clip #2: Uncertainty (4:45).

    • Why was democracy not a “shared value?”
    • According to Margaret Newell, what forced people to choose sides and what “galvanized” these decisions?
    • Based on the clip, compare the reactions in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
  • Clip #3: Agreement (4:18).

    • What did the colonists not want in their state constitutions, according to Margaret Newell?
    • Based on the clip, what type of government did the colonists agree upon and what was the “main goal?”
    • According to Newell, what questions did the colonists have to answer in crafting their state constitutions?
  • Clip #4: Citizenship and Society (5:49).

    • What does Margaret Newell mean when she says republics are “demanding?”
    • Based on the clip, why were there property requirements for the right to vote?
    • According to Newell, what questions did the colonists consider regarding equality and “public spiritedness?”
  • Clip #5: The Enlightenment (5:05).

    • According to Margaret Newell, what did Montesquieu write about republics and what impact did this have on the colonists?
    • Based on the clip, why did Scottish Enlightenment thinkers appeal to colonists?
    • How do the new state constitutions open “the doors to government?”
    • What “common features” existed in each state constitution?

    In this section, students will study one of three original state constitutions in detail. Assign your students one of the three states listed below. Direct them to watch the related video clip and respond to the questions that follow.

    Clip #6: Virginia (13:14).

    Clip #7: Pennsylvania (12:17).

    Clip #8: Massachusetts (7:47).


    • What did the constitution contribute to other constitutions?
    • Which element(s) of the constitution were debated?
    • What proposed ideas were not included in the constitution?
    • How is the constitution unique?
    • Why is the constitution significant?
    • What is/are the shortcoming(s) of the constitution?

    After students finish studying their assigned state constitution, have them choose another one of the 13 original states (Virginia, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia).

    Using the graphic organizer as a guide, have your students conduct research and prepare a presentation that compares their chosen state's original constitution with the assigned constitution from the engagement section. Their comparisons can include topics and research relevant to the constitutions' provisions for:

    • Legislature,
    • Executive,
    • Judiciary,
    • Rights of Citizens,
    • Limits on Power, and/or
    • Legacy.

    Allow time for your students to prepare and share their presentations from the application section of the lesson.

    Then, direct your students to view this reflective clip [Clip #9] (1:25) of Ohio State University professor Margaret Newell discussing key takeaways regarding about state sovereignty during the early republic. Direct your students to answer the following question on their graphic organizer and share with a partner, small group, or the class.

    • According to Margaret Newell, what are the “lasting ideas” and key takeaways from this era?

    After your students are finished with the reflective clips, direct them to complete the final culminating writing prompt in their graphic organizers, and have students share their responses, comparing their perspectives with their classmates' perspectives: Having now learned about several early state constitutions, describe which you think was most effective and why. Be sure to include evidence from the video clips and your research to support your response.

Additional Resources


  • Citizen
  • Constitution
  • Constitutional Convention
  • Continental Congress
  • Declaration Of Independence
  • Democracy
  • Evangelicalism
  • Republic
  • Revolutionary War
  • Roll Call Vote
  • Sovereignty


Constitutional FoundationState HistoryU.S. History


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