The Evolution of the US Constitution: The Preambles to the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution


This lesson plan is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These resources were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.


Students will have the opportunity to read, interpret, discuss, and compare portions of the Articles of Confederation and two versions of the Preamble to the Constitution. They will use selected content of the three documents to explain problems inherent in the Articles of Confederation and evaluate why the first central government of the United States was not reformed, but instead replaced. They will be able to identify key changes to the government reflected in the Constitution as well as evidence of compromise during the convention in Philadelphia. They will demonstrate understanding by working in groups and developing hypothetical questions and answers for Pierce Butler and Benjamin Franklin in a mock Meet the Press.


The students will be told that following considerable debate, the Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. One representative from each colony was selected to help define the form of government for the new nation. John Dickerson’s draft of the Articles of Confederation provided for a Congress with representation based on population, and gave to the national government all powers not designated to the states. Each state retained "every Power . . . which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States," and each state had one vote in Congress. Rather than creating a strong national government, the states entered into "a firm league of friendship with each other." Ratification was completed by March 1, 1781, and the Articles of Confederation served as the United States’ first constitution until 1789.

Disappointment with the Articles of Confederation led to a Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia in late May 1787. Following cloistered and heated debate, a revised government was formulated in the new United States Constitution. Printings of a first and a final draft of the Constitution illustrate the departure from some aspects of the Articles of Confederation as well as the struggle in Philadelphia to prepare a revised and acceptable form of government.



Ask students to explain the purpose of the convention that was assembled in Philadelphia in 1787. Then ask the students to explain to what extent the activities of the delegates to the convention reflected the original objectives.


The Articles of Confederation and the two versions of the Constitution include vocabulary that may present challenges for students. Activities in this lesson present opportunities for students to work with their teacher and fellow students to define unfamiliar terms based on context clues and discussion.


This lesson, spread over two days, provides an opportunity for students to read, compare, and analyze the content of three documents pivotal to the development of the government of the United States. The structure of the lesson will include selected edited versions of the three documents with reading analysis activities, critical analysis questions, and an opportunity for group work. The timing of this lesson is best fulfilled in two forty-five-minute instructional sessions.

Day 1

  • The students, to have reached this chronological moment in history, should already be familiar with the foundations and varieties of colonial governments, petitions by colonists for redress of grievances sent to the Crown and Parliament, and the response by the Crown and Parliament leading to the Declaration of Independence. A brief discussion of the information in the introduction will provide a backdrop for this lesson.
  • Students will be provided with copies of the First Paragraph of the Articles of Confederation (1777) summary organizer. The teacher will read through the entire text indicating appropriate timing and pauses. Students will be paired to identify Key Words from the text that help provide an understanding of the document. The teacher will call upon volunteers to list and explain the words they have selected.
  • The teacher will help to model the completion of the Summary section, using the Key Words selected to summarize the meaning of the text.
  • The students, again working in pairs, will complete the In Your Own Words section, restating the summary sentence in their own words.
  • Students will be provided with copies of the First Draft of the Preamble to the Constitution (1787) summary organizer. The teacher will ask all the students to join in as (s)he reads through the text. Once again, students will be paired to identify Key Words that provide an understanding of the selection. The teacher will call upon volunteers to list and explain the words they have selected.
  • The teacher will ask the students to follow the procedure from the previous document to complete the Summary and In Your Own Words sections. Volunteers will be called upon to provide their responses.
  • Students will be provided with copies of the Final Draft of the Preamble to the Constitution (1787) summary organizer. A student volunteer will be selected to follow the model presented with the two previous documents and lead his / her peers through a reading of the text.
  • Now working individually, students will identify Key Words and prepare responses to the Summary and In Your Own Words sections.
  • The teacher will note that the portions of the documents on the three worksheets represent only a tiny fraction of each document. This will allow a segue into:
    • Critical Analysis Question #1: Explain the purpose of the three documents.
    • Critical Analysis Question #2: Leaving aside the issue of length, how do the documents differ in their explanation of the purpose of government?
    • Critical Analysis Question #3: Identify the one document that is fundamentally different from the other two documents. Note the structural and content differences.
  • Remind the students that the selections they have read and discussed are only the initial introductions to each document. Then wrap up the first day by asking the students to use the information they have gained to answer the essential question: How did the Founders struggle to form a new government?

Day 2

  1. To prepare for the second day, students should be provided with brief biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Pierce Butler, especially related to their participation in the Constitutional Convention.
  2. Divide the class into three groups, one representing Benjamin Franklin, another Pierce Butler, and a third an interviewer for a Meet the Press interviewer. Each group will work independently and will select one representative to role play.
  3. The "interviewer" should be prepared to ask at least two questions each of Franklin and Butler. For example, the teacher might suggest that a question for Butler might focus on his handwritten notes; a question for Franklin might ask why his document reads so differently from the Articles and Butler’s copy.
  4. The students representing Butler and Franklin should familiarize themselves with their document and position at the Convention based upon the biographies and the information in the documents.
  5. The three student representatives conduct the mock Meet the Press.
  6. The teacher then helps focus the class and provide a summary by asking: How does this help us understand the struggle to create a new and effective government at the 1787 Constitutional Convention?