“Be it resolved that slavery will be abolished in these thirteen states and in any future states.” This is the first motion that was debated and passed in our Constitutional Convention Role Play in my 7th grade class last week. Our Constitutional Convention differed dramatically from the one that occurred in 1787 on many levels. First, girls were part of the debate in our convention. Second, students were role-playing as enslaved African-Americans, bankers/merchants, small farmers (like the ones who rebelled with Daniel Shays), Southern planters, and workers/small cottage industry owners. With this variety of voices and interests at the table, the debate ranged widely, from an amendment to the first resolution that had the Federal Government not only freeing slaves, but paying them for past service, to an amendment that freed slaves only if they could prove an ability to support themselves.
The students eagerly attempted to remain true to the roles they had been assigned, and it was a feat of imagination and acting to see them fervently support slavery when they had been assigned to play Southern planters.
However, even though they enjoyed the emotion and intellectual gymnastics of the debate itself, our most important insights came when we reflected upon what happened during the debate. Students noted that it was difficult to support slavery since we all recognized how morally wrong it was/is. We noted that it is hard to leave our 21st Century morals behind, no matter the role assigned. One student who had been a Southern planter noted that no matter the validity of his argument, students who were enslaved African-Americans, farmers and workers unanimously voted against his motions, and because the planters and bankers were outnumbered by farmers, workers and slaves, his motions had no chance of passing. He noticed that alliances had been made by those who would not benefit from the practices that would secure his wealth and status.
Another student chimed in, “All of these people who voted to end slavery would not have been at the Convention. So this seems unrealistic.”
When I explained that our Convention raises the important fact that other voices were not heard at the actual convention, and that if the Convention had been truly democratic in its representation the outcome might have been different, they were most interested. The numbers game that students noted in our debate — where the alliance of farmer, worker, and slaves outnumbered the bankers and planters — is one that seems as real today as it was then. What they come to realize is that the Constitutional Convention was not democratic at all; rather, it was a meeting of wealthy lawyers, land owners, merchants, bankers, all of whom were protecting their narrow interests. The vast majority of those early Americans were not represented at the Convention. An analysis of the 55 attendees reveals that 22 of the 55 were slave owners, and all of them profited from the slave trade in some way (as bankers, investors, merchants).
Students came to realize that had the vast numbers of people in America at the time been actually represented at the Convention, things might have been different.
During the debate itself, I did notice that students tended to polarize themselves and they found compromise a difficult practice. I wondered how much of the polarization came naturally from the very difficult topics of slavery and the question of granting voting rights and to whom. Given the roles students were playing, the choices seemed obvious to them. However, the polarization in what passes for debate by our elected representatives is perhaps the only model these students have for how to engage in political decision-making.
What also became apparent as we discussed the aftermath of our Constitutional Role Play is that our current representation in the legislative bodies is strangely similar to the wealthy, narrow self-interest that characterized the Convention in 1787. The number of women who debate in our Congress, for example, in no way mirrors the actual numbers of women in our country. Additionally, some sources show that the numbers of wealthy Congresspersons (with assets over $1 million dollars), is about 44% — two-hundred-and-thirty-seven members of Congress are millionaires.
Perhaps the students will remember this role play, and their insights, when they find themselves in the position of making choices that will affect others who are not present, or who have no voice in the decision-making process.
This lesson echoes Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, “The Lesson,” in which poor kids from Harlem note, “Not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough.” The lesson for me — use my voice to ask questions about who makes our laws, why, and for whom.