For the past 12 years, I have regularly taught an upper-division course titled American Political Thought. This course typically enrolls between 30 and 40 students and provides the single opportunity for political science majors to focus intensively on the political thought of the Revolutionary and Constitutional eras. Like most courses on American political thought, this one includes a section on the Federalist Papers and a good deal of reading and discussion of the speeches and writings of the anti-federalists. And, like most instructors, I have often felt frustration in trying to get students excited about these “classics.”
This year, inspired by the fanfare surrounding the Bicentennial of the writing of the Constitution, I developed a constitutional ratifying convention simulation as a major component of the course. Rather than simply reading and discussing the writings of federalists and anti-federalists, the students would have to roleplay particular writers and act-out the arguments that are found in anti-federalist documents and The Federalist Papers. The class was divided into two equal-sized teams of federalists and anti-federalists, and they were given nine topical areas with corresponding readings which would form the substance of the convention debates. The students were encouraged to play the role of particular characters, for example, Madison, Hamilton and Jay on the federalist side and Richard Henry Lee, Patrick Henry, and Melancton Smith on the anti-federalist side. To get students fully involved in their subject matter and to make the simulation fun, I made it clear that high sounding rhetoric, period costumes, and appropriate decor in the convention room would be most welcome.