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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Politics
  • Religious Liberty
Grade(s)
  • 7-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are a delegate at the Virginia Ratifying Convention. You are facing a decision about the best way to protect citizens’ rights. The United States of America has been independent for only a few years and is in the process of adopting the documents that will guide the country for years to come. The most important of these documents is a constitution that will set up the structure of the new nation’s government. This constitution has been written, and now at least two-thirds of the states must approve it for it to become the law of the land.

Some of your fellow Americans are concerned about giving the new federal government too much power. They want to require the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution. This added text would guarantee certain freedoms for citizens, listing them out and protecting them from government interference. These individuals who support a bill of rights call themselves Antifederalists.

Federalists, on the other hand, do not believe a bill of rights is a necessary addition. They argue the Constitution has already set up a federal government with limited power that will respect the rights of the people. They believe these rights are already universal and that states can take the lead in defending them.

The time comes for Virginia Ratifying Convention delegates to vote on whether your state will ratify — or approve the proposed Constitution. You know your new nation needs this document to become stable. You also want to be sure that your new nation respects and protects individual rights. Your colleagues eagerly await your decision.

Should you vote to approve the U.S. Constitution without a formal bill of rights?

  1. George Mason Portrait Teaser
    ?

    George Mason was an Antifederalist, or opponent of the U.S. Constitution when it was written in 1787. He objected to the document's lack of a bill of rights, and refused to sign it.

    Library of Congress

    No. We need a bill of rights because a great threat to this emerging country is giving the federal government too much power.

    To be successful, this new nation will need to balance the power of the national government and the state governments, as well as respect individual rights. A bill of rights will clarify that relationship between governments and how both will best serve its citizens.

         

    "It is ascertained by history, that there never was a [national] Government, over a very extensive country, without destroying the liberties of the people."

    — George Mason, Antifederalist
  2. Hamilton teaser
    ?

    Alexander Hamilton was a leading Federalist who wrote 51 essays defending and explaining the U.S. Constitution during the ratification process.

    Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

    Yes. We don’t need a bill of rights because a truly free society shouldn’t need a document to ensure that the government treats its citizens fairly.

    A democracy is built around the rights of its citizens. The democracy outlined in the Constitution is radically different from Britain’s monarchy. Other governments may assume that rights can be limited, but we have established our government based on equality and liberty for all.

    "Bill of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects."

    — Alexander Hamilton, Federalist

  • Do you think the freedoms outlined in a bill of rights would already be protected in a democracy, where everyone has a role in shaping the government? Is a specific document that establishes those rights needed?
  • What might be some of the challenges to listing specific rights in our most important government documents? What might be some of the benefits?
  • If you establish specific rights now, what happens if citizens want to change them in the future?
  • If specific rights aren’t put in writing now, will it be harder to protect those rights in the future?
  • With slavery still legal, should the citizens trust the government to uphold a promise to respect individual liberties? Should a bill of rights take this practice into account?
  • Is it more important to ratify the Constitution to give the new government structure and authority or to continue debating details?
  • Would you vote to accept the Constitution as is if you were promised that a bill of rights would be added after ratification? Is that an acceptable compromise between Federalists and Antifederalists to help the nation-building process?

 

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