The Impact of Congress: A Look at the First Congress, 1789–1791

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Overview

The purpose of this lesson is to use graphic organizers to facilitate students’ understanding of how the national government is organized. Students will examine how the U.S. Constitution outlines the ways our government should operate, and they will explore how the First Federal Congress organized the new government.

The project will also introduce students to the use of digital resources available from the Library of Congress (Library), as well as activities and resources found at the Center on Congress at Indiana University (CCIU). They will use these resources along with computer–based tools and procedures to explore how the First Federal Congress used the guidelines provided in the Constitution to organize the executive and judicial branches of government. Students will create a graphic organizer that shows how the executive and judicial branches of government were originally organized and describes how these branches have changed.

Focusing on Library of Congress Collections:

Recommended Grade Level

Grades 5–8

Course/Subject

Civics/Government

U.S. History

Time

This lesson includes several “mini” lessons, many of which may be taught in isolation. The lesson in its entirety should take about two 60–minute class periods.

Standards

Generally, this lesson connects to standards on civic ideals and practices and historical and social studies analysis skills.

Lesson Objectives

Knowledge Acquisition Objectives
Students will:

Social Studies Skills Objectives
Students will:

Materials

NOTE: Teachers should preview all sites to ensure they are age–appropriate for their students. At the time of publication, all URLs were valid.

Prepare for projection or duplication

Equipment and Props

Vocabulary

Attorney General
In 1789, the attorney general was responsible for prosecuting and conducting all suits in the Supreme Court. The attorney general was also expected to serve as a legal adviser to the President and heads of departments. Today the attorney general is the head of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Executive Branch
The executive branch is responsible for executing laws. It consists of the President, Vice President, the Cabinet, all the executive departments, and several administrative agencies.
Judicial Branch
The judicial branch of government interprets laws. It is made up of the court system, from the Supreme Court down.
Legislative Branch
The legislative branch of government is made up of the Congress and three congressional agencies. The Constitution gives the legislative branch the power to make laws.
President’s Cabinet
The President’s Cabinet includes the Vice President and the heads of 15 executive departments. Members of the Cabinet advise the President on various subjects relating to the duties of their respective offices.
Supreme Court Justice
A single member of the Supreme Court is called a Justice. Each of the Justices of the Supreme Court has a single vote in deciding the cases argued before it. Supreme Court Justices are nominated by the President of the United States, and appointments are made with the advice and consent of the Senate. The number of Supreme Court Justices is determined by Congress. Currently, there is one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices.
U.S. District Court
U.S. District Courts hear both civil and criminal cases. Most federal cases begin in U.S. District Courts.

Procedure

Activity One
One Day

The Impact of Government

  1. List the following activities on the chalkboard or a piece of chart paper:
    • Brushing your teeth
    • Listening to the weather forecast on the radio
    • Taking a test at school
    • Talking on a cell phone
    • Buying groceries
  2. Discuss the impact of government.
    • Look at this list of activities (see No. 1). How often do you do these things? Do you think government impacts these activities? In what ways?
    • How do you think government impacts your daily lives?
  3. Display or duplicate and distribute page 8 of the TFK Extra! Supplement to TIME for Kids Grades 4 through 6. Help students complete the Map It Out! activity.
  4. Display or duplicate and distribute the most recent list of public laws. Discuss the laws:
    • Which laws do you think will have a direct impact on your own life?
    • Which law do you think will have the greatest impact? Why?

The Impact of the First Federal Congress

  1. Display or duplicate and distribute the letter titled James Madison to James Madison, Sr., July 5, 1789. Ask students if they know who James Madison is. What important contribution did he make to our country? Have students try to read the letter and explain what is written. Explain that in this letter, James Madison talks about the First Federal Congress. He states, “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us. It is consequently necessary to explore the way with great labour and caution. Those who may follow will have an easier task.”
    • What do you think Madison means by this?
    • Why do you think James Madison thinks Members of Congress should act with “great labour and caution”?
    • What would have happened to our country if the First Federal Congress had been unsuccessful?
  2. The First Federal Congress had the difficult task of interpreting and implementing the new Constitution of the United States. The Members of the First Federal Congress used the guidelines in the Constitution to organize the national government. Our government today still functions similarly to the way it did when it was first established.
  3. Access an Internet–connected, Macromedia FLASH®–enabled computer lab (or use a projection device with a single computer), and take the class through the Impact of Congress E–Learning Module. Look at the menu on the left and read the title of each act of Congress that is featured. Have students speculate what they think each act was intended to accomplish. Then quickly glance at the resources. Discuss the law and what it did. Before reading the descriptions of each resource, have students analyze them and come up with their own conclusions. Have students read the descriptions of the resources. Discuss how the law impacted citizens at the time. Have students explain if they think the law is still relevant to their lives today.

Activity Two
Two Days

LOC Collection Connection

Items used in this activity come from these collections of the Library of Congress:

Begin the lesson with an overview of this collection (follow the links provided). As a class, read the “About the Collection” section. Discuss the types of resources found in these collections.

Scavenger Hunt

NOTE: See the How–to Guide for Instruction Projects Using Digital Resources for instructions on creating Scavenger Hunts at the LIBRARY/AAM student workspace.

Digital Resources for Creating a Scavenger Hunt

Link to these LIBRARY Documents and Features
  • Annals of Congress, 1st Cong. 1st sess., 331.
  • Annals of Congress, 1st Cong. 1st sess, 691
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Pages 473 through 474, Department of Foreign Affairs
  • Statutes at Large, 1st Congress, 1st Session page 28
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session , Pages 613 and 614
  • Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1789–1793: Monday, June 22, 1789
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Pages 615 and 616
  • Journal of the executive proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, 1789–1805 FRIDAY,September 11, 1789.
  • Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791–CHAPTER III. THE JUDICIARY BILL
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Pages 921 through 922, Judiciary
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Pages 925 through 926, Judiciary
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Page 811
  • American State Papers, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 3rd Session: Miscellaneous: Volume 1, Pages 21 through 35, No. 17. Judiciary system.
  • Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 1st Congress, 1st Session, Pages 825 through 866, Judiciary
  • Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room: Official U.S. Executive Branch Web sites
 
Link to these documents from the National Archives
  • The U.S. Constitution, Articles II and III
Other Internet Resources
  • From whitehouse.gov: President [George W.] Bush's Cabinet
  • From uscourts.gov: U.S. Courts: The Federal Judiciary
 
 

  1. Place links to all the documents in the materials list above into the Scavenger Hunt area of the student workspace.
    • Instruct students to examine all the documents to find answers to the Scavenger Hunt questions.
    • Make sure students understand that some of the questions will require combining or comparing information in more than one document.
    • Require students to cite which item provided the information for each of the questions.
  2. Information to locate in the Scavenger Hunt:
    1. Some Members of the First Federal Congress suggested that the president should be addressed as "His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties." Why did Congress decide against this?
    2. Does the Constitution establish a specific number of executive agencies?
    3. Name the three executive departments created by the First Federal Congress.
    4. Describe the responsibilities of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Treasury, and Department of War.
    5. Some Members of the First Federal Congress argued that a fourth executive department was needed. What was the name of this department? What were the arguments supporting this department? What were the arguments against this department?
    6. Why was the Department of Foreign Affairs renamed the Department of State?
    7. Who has the power to create and organize the lower federal courts?
    8. How many justices served on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1789?
    9. What is the Attorney General responsible for?
    10. How many judicial districts did the Members of the First Federal Congress create?
    11. How many circuits did the Members of the First Federal Congress create?
    12. How many Associate Judges initially served on the Supreme Court?
    13. How many executive departments are there today? What are their responsibilities?
    14. How many justices serve on the U.S. Supreme Court today?
    15. How many judicial districts do we currently have?
    16. Group Projects: Use online tools in the AAM student workspace to create an Organizational Chart. Divide the class into four groups. Assign each group — or allow students to select — one topic from this list:
      • The executive branch in 1789. List the executive departments and describe the responsibilities of each department.
      • The U.S. court system in 1789. Show the number of Supreme Court justices and the structure of the court system.
      • The executive branch today. List the executive departments and describe the responsibilities of each department.
      • The U.S. court system today. Show the number of Supreme Court justices and the structure of the court system.

Assessment

Use any or all of the following prompts to assess student learning.

  1. Individual Student Projects: Venn Diagram Use the Venn Diagram feature found at the AAM Web site to compare and contrast the executive and judicial branches in 1789 to the executive and judicial branches today.
  2. Ask the following questions to cement understanding of important information.
    1. What are the three branches of the U.S. Government?
    2. What executive departments were created by the First Federal Congress? What responsibilities did each department have?
    3. How did the First Federal Congress organize the federal court system?
    4. How have the executive and judicial branches changed?
    5. What role did the First Federal Congress play in mapping out the future of the nation?

Closure

In–depth Class Discussion
Lead students in an extensive debriefing of the information and skills they gained from this lesson. Questioning strategies should be used to prompt reflective thinking, specifically getting students to respond to why, how, and what. Include questions that require students to apply their knowledge to real–world or current–event situations. Some examples are given here to help you begin your classroom discussion.

Lesson Content Discussion Starters

  1. What departments did the First Federal Congress create to carry on the work of the executive branch? What were their responsibilities? Do these executive branches still have relevance to your life today?
  2. How has the executive branch changed?
  3. Why do you think the executive branch has grown larger than originally envisioned by the framers of the Constitution?
  4. How did the Judiciary Act of 1789 organize the system of federal courts?
  5. How has the judicial branch changed?
  6. How does the national government impact your daily activities?

Information Literacy Discussion Starters

  1. 1. What types of resources are available at the Library of Congress?
  2. How did each type of resource help you understand key events, motivations, and issues surrounding the formation of the executive and judicial branches of the national government?
  3. What information did you find difficult to locate in your inquiry?
  4. Which section of LIBRARY was most helpful or contained the most information for your inquiry?
  5. What other areas on the Internet did you access to locate information?
  6. How did you find that other information?
  7. How can you determine if the information you found outside the Library of Congress or the Center on Congress at Indiana University was correct?

Reflecting on Class Presentations

Ask each group to reflect on the projects created in the AAM Student Workspace, using the following questions as springboards.