The U.S. Constitution:“I Smelt a Rat”

Teacher Notes:

Introduction to Case:

When students learn about the Constitutional Convention, they may learn about the compromises that occurred, but may not understand how controversial the actions of the delegates were at the time. It could be argued that the delegates committed treason and literally created an entirely new form of government without the authority to do so. The lack of protections for personal liberty led members of the "Revolutionary generation" like Patrick Henry to voice strong opposition. In fact, the ratification of the Constitution by the states was certainly no sure thing. In this case, students will explore reasons that some people opposed the Constitution during the ratification process and consider the need for the Bill of Rights.



This case was developed with support from the Library of Congress' Teaching with Primary Sources Program, Eastern Region hosted at Waynesburg State University.


NCSS Theme II: Time, Continuity and Change
Focus on reading and reconstructing the past to:
1. include various perspectives on historical events;
2.draw upon historical knowledge during the examination of social issues;
3. develop the habits of mind that historians and scholars employ.

National Center for History in the Schools
Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
Standard 3: Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Standard 4: Historical Research Capabilities
Standard 5: Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making


Extension Ideas:

In addition to the core case offered here, the Library of Congress hosts an amazing collection of resources on the Constitutional Convention. Some of the collection's resources include a wonderful set of Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constituational Convention, 1774-1789, the papers of George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. The Creation of the United States Constitution exhibit provides a rich context of the times leading up to the convention, ratification, and legacy of the Constitution. Finally, a Primary Source Set has been created for the Constitution that brings together a variety of interesting documents related to the Constitution.

Word document of Case and documents


Becoming a Detective

The painting, “Signing of the Constitution,” hangs in the House wing of the east stairway at the United States Capitol. Most likely, this image is in your civics textbook. Indeed, it is this rendering that seems to define the creation of our country’s Constitution.

Signing of the Constitution
Digital ID: ppmsc 00181 Source: b&w film copy neg. LC-USA7-34630 Reproduction Number: LC-USA7-34630 (b&w film copy neg.) , LC-USA7-575 (b&w film copy neg.) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA Retrieve uncompressed archival TIFF version (6 megabytes)

Commissioned in 1939, Howard Chandler Christy was paid $30,000 to render an “accurate” depiction of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. Using techniques of light and shadow as well as centering prominent figures like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, this painting presents a picture of a unified vision from the delegates.

However, it is important to note that Howard Christy took some artistic liberties. For example, several delegates left the convention without signing, and three delegates (Edmund Randolph and George Mason from Virginia and Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts) declined to sign the document. Others refused to attend the convention altogether, including one of the leading figures of the American Revolution – Patrick Henry from Virginia. When asked why he chose not to attend, he commented, “I smelt a rat.”

As a historical detective, your job will be to explore the following documents to determine why so many influential patriots like Patrick Henry and George Mason did not support the Constitution initially. In other words, your task is to find out what did Patrick Henry mean by “I smelt a rat”?



Investigating the Evidence

Document A: Speech by Dickinson at the Constitutional Convention - June 15, 1787
Document B: Objections to the Constitution, George Mason
Document C: Letters between George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Harrison – September/October, 1787
Document D: Patrick Henry’s speech at Virginia Ratification Convention – June 4, 1788
Document E: Patrick Henry’s Speech at Virginia Ratification Convention, June 24, 1788
Document F: Letter from Madison to Jefferson, Oct. 17, 1788
Document G:

Madison’s speech before 1st Congress concerning the need for amendments, June 8, 1789


Searching for Clues

Please answer the following questions in the formatted case log (PDF Format, Word Format) about each primary source documents to help you understand their meaning.

Descriptive Questions:

For each document, please answer the following questions:

  1. Who wrote the document? Who was the intended audience?
  2. When was the document written?
  3. What objections to the Constitution are either stated and/or implied?

Analytical Questions:

Please answer the following questions referring back to your analysis of the documents.

  1. As a whole, what are the key objections to the Constitution?
  2. How would you assess the merits of these objections?
  3. Why do you think that the objections to the Constitution by such notable patriots are not emphasized more in your history textbook?



Cracking the Case

Based on your analysis of the documents and citing evidence to support your answer, please write a paragraph or two answering the following question: What did Patrick Henry mean when he said: “I smelt a rat”? To this end, why did so many influential patriots like Patrick Henry and George Mason not support the Constitution at the time of the signing on September 17, 1787? Within your analysis, please indicate whether you were satisfied with the evidence and list any additional questions that have been left unanswered through your investigation.