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Creating compromise: A history lesson
December 05, 2012, 05:00 AM By Heather Murtagh Daily Journal Staff

Heather Murtagh/Daily Journal Eighth grader Taylor Dawley, portraying Luther Martin of Maryland on the left, tries to convince Kiran Rao, portraying William Paterson of New Jersey, that slaves should count as three-fifths of a person when determining population for representation during a mock constitutional convention at North Star Academy in Redwood City Tuesday morning.

One question was before the eighth grade students in Alastair Duncan’s class Tuesday morning: Should slaves count in a state’s population?

The North Star Academy class was in the midst of a five-week process to experience the Constitutional Convention. Students, donning homemade white wigs, previously researched an individual and the state they represented. In groups of two, representing different states, students took part in the convention to decide how the U.S. government would run. On Tuesday’s agenda: Deciding how the population would be tallied so the right number of representatives could be assigned to each state.

It wasn’t an easy question. Often Duncan, dressed as George Washington, reminded students that the modern point of view about slaves was not the attitude of those in 1787. Therefore, the modern ideology about equality had no place in the conversation.

Luther Martin of Maryland, portrayed by Taylor Dawley, made the first motion that slaves should count as three-fifths of a person — which was the compromise actually reached in 1787. It was seconded and debate ensued. Some worried about the complicated formula. Others thought it was unfair to count a person who was treated like livestock. Perhaps if slaves were to be counted so should livestock, one suggested. South Carolina wanted each slave to count as a full person.

Others spoke loudly to their neighbors commenting, "This is an outrage” or "Unbelievable.” New Jersey calls the proposal "offensive” before Duncan called for a caucus and the students attempted to make their case. But those supporting the three-fifths proposal weren’t able to persuade enough people to join. The motion failed.

Duncan inherited the practice from another teacher when he started at North Star. At first, he thought it would be too much work. But, he decided to give it a go for one year. The challenge now is folding multiple topics into the lesson so students learn all the required standards in the five weeks. Students learn about the history leading up to their mock convention and take notes during the sessions about how things go. After the mock convention is complete, students learn about the compromises that really came to pass.

Just this week, Duncan got an email from a parent who shared their son came home frustrated about the inability to get others to compromise. He explained how others were unreasonable and simply throwing around their weight rather than thinking about what was fair and best for everyone. The parent called the exercise a great lesson in real life and politics.

Compromise wasn’t easy to reach between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. At 8:41 a.m., students had their wigs on. By 9:05 a.m., there had been two failed votes to count slaves as different percentages of a person and South Carolina was threatening to leave.

Kiran Rao, who was portraying William Paterson of New Jersey, explained it was often difficult to keep her views separate from the arguments of the man she was representing. Also, Rao couldn’t find much about Paterson’s point of view. So, she was trying to do her best to represent him with what she knew.

Dawley, whose character supported slavery, paid more than one visit to Rao in hopes of gaining her support to count slaves in some way toward the population. He similarly found it difficult to play the role at times. Slavery, he said, isn’t something he actually supports. Despite that, Dawley argued loudly to have slaves counted.

Things seemed to have hit a standstill until Gillian Person, acting as George Read from Delaware, insisted that her idea be heard. Person suggested that slaves be counted as a full person in small states but half of one in large states. The compromise, she said, should appease all.

In years of teaching this unit, Duncan had never heard such an idea. He was happy to see the creativity. While it wasn’t a home run for all, the idea did pass with minimum required support — seven votes. South Carolina and Delaware each had a representative leave, but it was also the end of class.

Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.

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