‘Do you know,” Thomas Jefferson wrote tantalizingly to John Adams in the summer of 1815, “that there exists in manuscript the ablest work of this kind ever yet executed, of the debates of the constitutional convention of Philadelphia?” Unfortunately for him, Adams never had occasion to read these notes, for they were taken by James Madison, who kept them from public view for the whole of his life. Jefferson, as Madison’s political confidant, got to sneak a peek, but otherwise the “labor and exactness beyond comprehension” that Madison dedicated to recording “the whole of everything said and done” at that momentous 1787 conclave was not publicly available until after he died in 1836.
Pity for Adams, but bully for us—because while Jefferson was often prone to rhetorical flights of fancy, he was not exaggerating in this instance. When Madison’s notes are combined with the other, partial accounts of the Constitutional Convention, what emerges is a complete picture of a profound moment in human history.
One reason Madison made such a diligent recording of the events was his conviction that future generations of citizens would benefit from a written record. This is, after all, a republic in which the people are supposed to rule, and if the people are to rule well, they have to know a thing or two about the origins of and intentions behind their institutions of government.
The Constitutional Convention is thus not simply a historical curiosity, the domain of ruffled academics combing through dusty university stacks, but an opportunity for civic engagement and education, especially among young adults.
Yet the surfeit of primary information creates a pedagogical problem. What is the best way to introduce these profound documents to students? For generations, educators have simply been putting Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 on their syllabi. That is all well and good; those notes, like the Federalist Papers, are still quite readable, despite the peculiarities of the 18th-century vernacular. Still, something important is lost in the translation of deed into word—the dynamism of the convention and the ratification debates, the high drama, the pathos, the contingency of the whole thing are often lost. It is easy to think that the whole debate was as dry as an ancient book and the conclusions a matter of inevitability.
Fortunately, Patrick Coby of Smith College has afforded us a new way to engage the founding in a much more immediate manner—through an immersive role-playing game, almost like Model United Nations. Coby’s Constitutional Convention of 1787 is part of a series of role-playing games for students entitled Reacting to the Past, developed under the auspices of Barnard College and published by W. W. Norton. Previous entries include games on the trial of Anne Hutchinson, the debate over secession in Kentucky in 1861, and the English Reformation.
What makes the Constitutional Convention so amenable to this kind of setup is that it really was like a multi-dimensional game. Coby likens it to a Rubik’s Cube, in which each shift in the puzzle creates a new puzzle to work out. This is an apt description.
From the looks of the finished product, the Constitution could seem like it was delivered from some unitary lawgiver, like Solon or Romulus. But that was not at all the case. The dozens of delegates to the Constitutional Convention arrived at Philadelphia with a number of different, often competing interests. There were ideological considerations, like the proper role of the people and the prudence of centralizing power. There were economic concerns, like the role of wealth in apportioning representation. There were small-state and large-state divides, free-state and slave-state divides. There were moments of high drama—like when Benjamin Franklin encouraged delegates to pray as a last recourse for breaking a deadlock and when the peg-legged Gouverneur Morris denounced slavery. There were even moments of comedy, of a sort, such as Luther Martin’s harangues against centralized power and Alexander Hamilton’s maladroit suggestion of an elective kingship.
Impressively, Coby has taken these many aspects of the Convention and refined them into a fun, educational challenge for students. Ideologically, he divides the delegates into “nationalists” (like Madison and Hamilton) who advocate a stronger central authority and “confederalists” (like William Patterson and John Lansing) who oppose it. Delegates are similarly apportioned based on their views of major issues like slavery and the large-state/small-state cleavage. There is, obviously, a lot of simplification in these categories, but the essence of the convention is no doubt distilled.
Students are then assigned a delegate (the game is played with as few as 12 but as many as 22 delegates) and provided a detailed background, offering cues for how he should generally behave at the convention. These include plenty of historical color that offers students an opportunity to breathe life into long-dead historical personages. For instance, Coby writes of Martin that “no delegate can rival [his] collective of personal oddities. . . . Delegates cringe when he stands to speak, since there is every chance that he will never sit down again.” Coby also provides a digest of important documents, ranging from selections of Aristotle’s Politics to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America to help students understand the bigger issues at stake.
With this basic information, and a relatively light structure of gameplay, it is up to the students to hammer out a Constitution of their own. They are to bargain, to argue, and ultimately to compromise—or perhaps not! Just as the Constitution need not have been adopted in Philadelphia, so too is there no guarantee that the game will yield a final result.
There are also a number of interesting twists and turns, such as the potential for “walkouts” from the convention, as student delegates abandon the project based on a belief that the end result will be inconsistent with their characters’ interests. Students also have a chance to leak information about the proceedings to the broader public, which thankfully did not occur in 1787 for it would have made the project all the more difficult. There are also side games that can become available, like Hamilton challenging Abraham Pierce Blunwin—a composite character—to a duel or Morris being summoned to court to answer a paternity suit.
The potential for individual initiative here is amazing. Students who take their roles seriously, who immerse themselves in the recommended readings and their character biographies, can really shape a governing document in the interests of their delegate. Bargaining and speechifying are at the center of gameplay, and the instructor’s job is simply to sit back and let events run their course. The final product need not be at all similar to the actual Constitution.
In his later years, Madison dismissed the notion that he was “the writer of the Constitution.” Instead, he averred that the Constitution was not “like the fabled Goddess of Wisdom, the offspring of a single brain. It ought to be regarded as the work of many heads and many hands.” Indeed, his notes—published a few years later—would attest to that. The Constitution was the product of compromise among competing interests, factions, and ideologies, one that could have gone in many different directions or not have happened at all. This is part of what makes our founding such a special event, and through his innovative, immersive role-playing game, Coby has captured this crucial aspect of the Constitution, which is so often overlooked.
Jay Cost is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to William Patterson as Robert Patterson.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard