Introduction to "The Reconstruction Convention Simulation".

The cast of characters attending the convention.

The readings for your paper listed by belief.

The Simulation - What you have to do!

Use the links above to navigate this simulation.

To the Teacher
1865 marked the end of America’s most terrible war and a year in which decisions involving government and race still echo today. The simulation your class will play focuses on the early choices that began Reconstruction. I have posited a totally fictional convention held New Year’s Eve 1865, in which people, both black and white, Northern and Southern participate. The goal of the convention is to reach agreement on a set of issues bedeviling Americans at that time.
They are:
A. Under what conditions should the South be allowed back into the Union?  Who in the former Confederate States of America should be pardoned?
B. What political, economic and social rights should Free Blacks and Freedmen acquire?
C. Who should control the process of Reconstruction—Congress or the President?
D. Should Reconstruction be implemented on a national or state level?
As you know, in 1865 the victorious North turned to one set of solutions after a tense struggle over the nature of reconstruction that can be traced back to 1863. As you also know, the Presidential plan was relatively short-lived, followed by Congressional reconstruction, which in turn came and, after 1877, went. Your students will know none of this as they begin their convention. They are free, indeed they should be encouraged, to produce their own, totally different plan than the one attempted in 1865.
Sixteen totally fictional characters attend this convention. (Don’t worry, if you have more students, they can double-up playing these roles.) I have designed the game so that most issues will be deadlocked eight to eight. That feature will force the students to try to reach compromise solutions.
You should assign the specific roles to your students, although, except for the amount of material available in a few cases, there is no role that by its nature is more demanding than any other. If you have a student or two who are particularly forceful, you can assign them the roles of Chairpersons of the convention.
Before the simulation begins, your students will have to read the material in Harper’s Weekly. I have arbitrarily broken the readings into eight separate categories, representing positions on either side of the four issues noted above. Students playing positions sympathetic to the South may often have to extrapolate that position from articles or editorials in Harper’s Weekly critical of the South or of Presidential Reconstruction. Of course, if you wish, you may require your students to read other primary or secondary source materials either to reduce bias or to enrich the assignment. After completing the reading, each of your students will have to write a 500 word essay from the point of view of his or her character, which outlines the arguments he or she will make at the convention. If you have a Chairperson, the student’s required paper should outline his or her best hopes for the convention. However you design the readings, I recommend that you give the students about a week and a half for the readings and their initial paper. It is very important for you to read these papers closely to ensure that the students understand fully the positions they will be taking at the convention. (If a student wildly misunderstands his position, the eight to eight balance which energizes the simulation will be lost.)
After the papers have been returned and the students have had a chance to correct their errors, the convention begins. It should take anywhere from two to four days. All students should be expected to participate. The instructions on the next page for the simulation underscore that the students will be evaluated on the quantity and quality of their presentations and arguments in class as well as the papers they will be expected to write. At the end of each day (or perhaps half-day) students will be asked to vote on the specific proposals which have been advanced during the convention. You may decide to create a voting record form to keep track of your students’ positions.
Each evening, students will be asked to write a one-page essay from the point of view of the character they are playing which explains his or her vote in class. Again, these papers need to be reviewed quickly and returned to the students. Doing so ensures that the students are playing their roles effectively.
Finally, a week after the simulation ends, each student, including those playing Chairpersons, should write a three page paper from the perspective of a scholar of Reconstruction, not the part he or she had played, which contrasts the conclusions reached by their convention with "real history" as it played out in 1865 and evaluates which approach they believe made the most sense. This extra paper is important because it forces the students to look closely at the events of 1865. Without doing so, for example, a student whose class adopted the fourteenth amendment in their convention in 1865, might have had a marvelous experience, might even understand well the divisions that marked the country at the end of the Civil War, but would take a bath on any serious exam covering Reconstruction.
As with any simulation, you are encouraged to change or adapt this activity to your own circumstances. Maybe the papers are too long. I may have provided too much material from Harper’s Weekly. (I did, but that was to give you a choice.) You may decide to use the material in a totally different way, for example asking the students to use the Harper’s Weekly pages to write a section of a textbook. Or you may decide to have your students broken into only two groups, representing the Radicals and the Moderates. Here each group would subsume four of the eight categories provided earlier. Whatever you do, if you have given your students a chance to work intelligently with primary source material, you will have done the right thing.
Good luck,
Eric Rothschild

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