The Constitutional Convention of 1787: Constructing the American Republic

W. W. Norton & Co. | Now Available | ISBN 978-0-393-64090-8

The Constitutional Convention has as its subject the most fundamental legal event in American history—the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  Students gather as delegates sent to Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation or to replace it with something better.  Familiar elements, such as the Virginia Plan, the New Jersey Plan, and the Great Compromise, structure the first half of the game.  Here the principal theoretical divide is between large-republic advocates, called nationalists, and small-republic advocates, called confederalists.  In order to give prominence to these competing visions of republican government, the game deviates from the historical original in one significant respect:  it incorporates arguments articulated in Federalist and Antifederalist writings and at the state ratification debates.  The purpose is to use this one, seminal event as a vehicle for teaching much of the thought of the Founding period.

In the second half of the game, the Convention takes up new issues not a part of the structure of government.  What to do about slavery, how to regulate commerce, and whether to include a bill of rights are just a few of the topics that come up at this time.  Sectional interests, backroom deal-making, personal rivalries, foreign intrigue, and the danger of leaks all work to add drama to the proceedings. The game ends in a vote to accept or reject the constitution.

The game now exists in three versions:  an advanced-level game taking eight weeks to play; an intermediate-level game taking five weeks to play; and an introductory-level game taking four weeks to play.  All versions use the same game book; each though has its own instructor’s manual and role descriptions.

The advanced- and intermediate-level games are similar in that they follow the storyline of the Convention.  Their role descriptions are fully individualized and are quite long, as each of the game’s twenty-two characters is walked through the entire Convention.  One-page role abstracts accompany the role descriptions as a means of reducing the amount of reading required of instructors—about 200 pages.

The introductory level game is differently structured.  It extracts several issues from the Convention for general debate, and it makes no serious attempt to write a complete constitution.  Here group roles—four in total—are more important than individual roles—thirty in total (to be used or not, depending on the size of the class).

In addition to the “Constitutional Convention” game in all of its versions, a short, spin-off game is available, which takes one issue from the Convention—representation—and places in the New York State Ratifying Convention, where it actually received its fullest hearing.  Called “Raising the Eleventh Pillar The New York State Ratifying Convention of 1788," the game takes one week to play.

About the Designer:

J. Patrick Coby is professor of Government at Smith College where he teaches courses in political theory and American political thought. He studied at the University of Dallas and the University of North Carolina and taught previously at Kenyon College and Idaho State University. He is the recipient of the Smith College Faculty Teaching Award, the Sherrerd Prize for Distinguished Teaching and the Board of Trustees Honored Professor Award He is author of Socrates and the Sophistic Enlightenment:  A Commentary on Plato’s Protagoras, Machiavelli’s Romans:  Liberty and Greatness in the Discourses on Livy; Henry VIII and the Reformation Parliament (“Reacting to the Past”); Thomas Cromwell: Machiavellian Statecraft and the English Reformation; and of over eighty articles and reviews.