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Library of Congress: The Bill of Rights - Debating the Amendments

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computer lab or computer-projector-screen

Activity Description

In this lesson, students will examine a copy of twelve possible amendments to the United States Constitution as originally sent to the states for their ratification in September of 1789. Students will debate and vote on which of these amendments they would ratify and compare their resulting “Bill of Rights” to the ten amendments ratified by ten states that have since been known by this name.


This lesson is meant to be an introduction to primary source analysis, but is best used with students who have a basic understanding of the Bill of Rights and the amendment process.

  1. Review the entire Lesson
    Materials: Have the requisite materials ready before the activity:
    1. John Beckley’s copy of the Bill of Rights, 1789 as sent to the states (PDF, 9.54 MB) (one assembled copy per student or per group)
    2. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, later known as the Bill of Rights (PDF, 245 KB) (one copy per student or per group)
  2. Resources: Brief background to the lesson:
    1. In September 1789, under the direction of John James Beckley, clerk of the United States House of Representatives and the first Librarian of Congress, twelve possible amendments to the Constitution were sent to the states for their ratification. By December 15, 1791, ten of these amendments were ratified by ten states and have since been known as the Bill of Rights.

(Note: Do not share this information with students until after lesson step 3.) Before leading students through the exploration process, teachers should make themselves familiar with the drafting and ratification of the Bill of Rights.


The entire lesson is prepared for you in details at

  1. Working with the entire class, discuss students’ understanding of a document.
  2. Explain that in this lesson, students will take a close look at an important historical document.
  3. Distribute copies and engage students with John Beckley’s copy of the Bill of Rights 1789 as sent to the states (Note: Do not identify the document).
    • Ask students to examine the document.
    • Encourage students to speculate about the document, its creator, and its context.
    • Help students to think about their personal responses to the document.
  4. Ask students to draw conclusions about what this document was for, who created it, and why. Reveal (or confirm) the document’s identity as John Beckley’s copy of the Bill of Rights 1789 as sent to the states. Probe students about their prior knowledge.
    • Ask students to summarize what they know about the Bill of Rights.
    • Ask students how they would select which amendments to ratify. Discuss how an analysis and debate of each amendment should inform their decisions.
  5. Model the analysis process using one of the twelve amendments from John Beckley’s copy of the Bill of Rights 1789 as sent to the states. (See step five below for process.)
  6. Assign students (working in pairs or groups) specific amendments to analyze and present to their classmates for ratification.
    1. Ask students to first identify unfamiliar vocabulary.
    2. Encourage students to analyze the amendment’s wording by making notes on a separate piece of paper.
    3. Ask students to respond to the following questions on another piece of paper:
      1. What is the specific right articulated in this amendment in your own words?
      2. Do you think this amendment should be included in the Bill of Rights? Why or why not?
    4. Working with the entire class, have students present and debate their analyses, by amendment, to the questions above.
    5. Conclude by holding a secret ballot on which of the twelve amendments should be ratified. Compare the students’ “Bill of Rights” to the Bill of Rights.

Teacher Tips

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Social Studies

  • U.S. History
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OTAN activities are funded by contract CN200091-A2 from the Adult Education Office, in the Career & College Transition Division, California Department of Education, with funds provided through Federal P.L., 105-220, Section 223. However, OTAN content does not necessarily reflect the position of that department or the U.S. Department of Education.