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The First Census: America in 1790

Students examine secondary sources and analyze digital maps of census data from 1790 to explore the politics behind the Great Compromise and the Three Fifths Compromise at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.


During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, major political debates broke out about how to best represent each state’s population in Congress. This lesson examines the underlying tensions that existed between states with large and small overall populations, and those with greater and smaller enslaved populations.

This lesson has a strong emphasis on analytic thinking and historical causation. Students engage with online maps, analyze census data from 1790, and read secondary sources (select either Map Tab or Documents Tab) to make evidence-based claims about why various states’ representatives held the positions they did on the Great Compromise and the Three Fifths Compromise. Students examine the impact of these two major political compromises on states’ political power, congressional representation, and representation of the enslaved population.

Optimally, this lesson requires at least one computer per two students in order for students to engage with maps and census data. It could be taught with far fewer computers, or just one teacher computer, although the lesson would become slower and more teacher-centered. In any case, while most documents can be printed, the map is best viewed online.


While maps and documents are available online to both teachers and students, worksheets and other materials are only available from the Teacher View option. Teachers should demonstrate how to navigate the digital maps to find the information needed (Users must select a population category under the Label tab and then click on an outlined state.). Results will show in a table on the right side.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?


Includes historical background?

The main readings include the primary source, along with the secondary source “annotations,” which provide additional contextual information.

Requires students to read and write?

Students read about the Great Compromise and the Three Fifths Compromise, and answer comprehension and analysis questions in Activity 1 and Activity 2.
Lesson also includes an optional essay for homework or assessment.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence

This is a major strength of the lesson.

Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Both activities require close readings of the texts.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

This lesson would work particularly well in an 11th or 12th grade classroom.

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

Worksheets guide students to gather the information required to prepare the final analytical essay and there is some vocabulary support. But teachers may want to create a graphic organizer for students to record the total and enslaved populations of every state, to avoid constantly clicking back through the maps.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

The lesson includes a multiple-choice quiz on historical facts, as well as an essay. Answer key and assessment criteria are not included. Teachers might want to re-word part II of the essay question to elicit more focused, analytical essays.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

Directions need clarification. This lesson requires that teachers model use of the census maps using a digital projector, as display of data is somewhat awkward. Teachers may also need to model how to do the calculations on the data entry forms of Activity 2.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?

Lesson includes clearly stated objectives and flows naturally. However, the anticipatory image and accompanying activity seem somewhat out of place as the questions and content do not relate directly to the debates and analysis in the rest of the lesson.

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