Claiming We the People: Political Participation in Revolutionary America

In this activity students will learn about how groups without political power--African Americans, women, and working-class men--sought to expand their political power in the Revolutionary era. Students will analyze primary sources to determine the methods by which non-voting groups made their claims on being part of "We the People".

Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify the methods that ordinary people without voting rights participated in revolutionary politics.

  • Students will analyze the extent to which non-voting groups exerted political influence in revolutionary America.  

Instructions

Step 1: (Optional: Lead students through the short non-document-based activity "Rights in Early America" to help them understand the extent of political rights in the 1770s and 1780s.) Tell students that the story of the American Revolution is not just about the leadership of elite white men like John Adams or George Washington. Tell students that in this activity they will be learning about how different groups in society participated in and were inspired by the American Revolution. The teacher may want to discuss with students their prior knowledge of who had what rights in colonial society.  

Step 2: Divide students into small mixed-ability groups of 3-5 students. Assign each group one of the following groups: women, African Americans, or working-class men. Pass out the worksheets and appropriate primary sources to each group.  Tell students to read the pair of documents, answering the questions at the top first, then answering the questions at the bottom.  

NOTE: The materials list includes versions of documents that include literacy supports such as definitions and formatting changes to make the documents easier to read. You can find versions without reading supports by searching by title in HERB.  

Step 3: Ask each group to summarize their documents in 1-2 sentences to share with the whole class. The teacher may also want to ask groups to share one thing that surprised them about each document. Project each document on the overhead or Smartboard and allow groups to share out their document summaries. 

Step 4: Now ask each group to share out their response to the question: Which document supports the claim that people without political power have used non-voting methods to expand the definition of "We the People."  Ask each group to explain their choice. Then summarize by reviewing the three methods presented in the documents: signing petitions, participating in boycotts or non-importation campaigns, and mob activity.  

Step 5: Lead students in a discussion of the following question:

  • What do these documents reveal about tensions in society over the definition of "We the people"? 

Historical Context

As war erupted between the American colonies and Britain, and as the colonies declared their independence, great numbers of working men and women took up the patriot cause. Ordinary people helped bring about the military successes that secured independence, questioned older hierarchical assumptions, and claimed for themselves a stake in political sovereignty. Following the Revolution, Americans had to make crucial decisions about how they were now to govern themselves, how they should act in relation to one another, and who would get a say in public affairs. 

In the years leading up to and during the Revolution, working people, including women and slaves who had few or no rights in colonial society, echoed the revolutionary rhetoric of the patriot cause. They claimed that the evolving notion of "we the people" should include people like themselves, and that the newly formed government should protect their civic and economic rights. They used various methods to participate in the politics of the era, even though they were denied many of the traditional routes--voting, serving in assemblies--for swaying political leaders and law. Many among American elites disagreed with popular conceptions of republican society, and their views shaped the U.S. Constitution that would be drafted and ratified in the late 1780s. Large groups were excluded from the aspiration for equality.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Claiming We the People: Political Participation in Revolutionary America,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 23, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1673.