Living History: The U.S. Constitution Redux

In a Colgate hallway, Susan Sam-Mensah '18 wraps her left calf in cardboard, getting into the costume of a one-legged lawyer from Pennsylvania. Next to her, Jane Martina '17 looks over her lines. They aren’t actors in the traditional sense but students in Associate Professor of Social Sciences & Education Professor Eric Boyer’s class POL 301: The U.S. Constitution.

For the first eight weeks of the class, students plunge into a simulation of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Their task is to design an effective system of government that balances competing interests and satisfies the budding nation’s entire population.

Simulations are elaborate role-playing activities that assign students roles to perform within the context of a specific scenario. Several disciplines at Colby-Sawyer use them, but especially the history and political studies (HPS) major.

Resources from Barnard College’s Reacting to the Past Series, which provides character biographies and objectives, help turn the classroom into a theater. Many objectives are practical matters, such as obtaining the “adoption of popular election for the lower house.” Others relate to delegates’ personal matters. For example, Gouverneur Morris, the one-legged lawyer from Pennsylvania, must dispose of a paternity suit while Ben Franklin scores points for hosting a dinner party. Wise students keep their objectives secret, lest other characters’ objectives oppose theirs.

Students often refer to the simulation as a game, but the play demands rigor: Students must read Aristotle, Locke and Montesquieu before the first class, and they’re graded on the content and delivery of weekly speeches as well as on participation in parliamentary debate.

“Simulations are useful because they force students to stand up and take initiative and practice what they have learned,” said Christopher Gagne '17, an HPS major who played Alexander Hamilton. "Simulations bridge the gap between theory and practice by directly demonstrating how a congress or parliament functioned and why."

The simulation reminds students that flawed and factious men of many appetites wrote the Constitution, and many contemporary disagreements over the document can be traced back to the complicated political compromises that occurred in Independence Hall.

“None of the delegates got everything they wanted,” said Professor Boyer. “The process of redoing the document from the ground up reveals to students how small changes could have drastic impacts.”

Professor Boyer has used simulations for more than seven years and, along with colleagues from Elon University and Lesley University, is designing another that focuses on the First Federal Congress and the Bill of Rights.

His U.S. Constitution class continues to deepen students’ knowledge about the most important legal event in America’s history not just by reading about the document’s origins but by living anew its creation by conjuring the people who shaped it.