Founders and the Constitution
Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Alexander Hamilton. Students will learn about his reasoning in supporting a single and powerful executive leader, his role at the Constitutional Convention, and the role he played in shaping the new United States government.
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
In a government framed for durable liberty, no less regard must be paid to giving the magistrate a proper degree of authority, to make and execute the laws with vigour than to guarding against encroachments upon the rights of the community. As too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both eventually to the ruin of the people. - Alexander Hamilton (1781)
Alexander Hamilton is perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated of the Founders. A proponent of a strong national government with an “energetic executive,” he is sometimes described as the godfather of modern big government. But Hamilton was no less a champion of human liberty than his more famous political rival and American icon, Thomas Jefferson. And his personal story is impressive.
Born in the West Indies, the illegitimate son of a Scottish merchant, young Hamilton seemed condemned to a life of hardship on the lowest rung of society. But his intellectual talents won him passage to the American colonies on the eve of the Revolution. Though still a teenager in 1775, Hamilton made a name for himself as a spokesman for the Patriot cause. After American independence, Hamilton worked to strengthen the national government as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later in The Federalist Papers. As secretary of the treasury in the Washington Administration, Hamilton endeavored to promote an industrial, market economy throughout the United States of America. Though his plan was not fully implemented in his lifetime, Hamilton’s ideas became the foundation of the American financial and economic system that would take shape during the mid- and late-nineteenth century.
While acting as the defense lawyer in a New York trial of 1803, Hamilton expanded the idea of freedom of the press by arguing that truth could be used as a defense in criminal libel cases. Though he lost the case, New York subsequently changed its libel laws, accepting Hamilton’s argument. A year after the trial, Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel, cutting short the life of a significant Founder.
In this lesson, students will learn about Alexander Hamilton. They should first read as homework Handout A—Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers in class, the teacher should have students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution in which Hamilton argues for an energetic executive. As a preface, there is Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document. Then, working in pairs or trios, they will complete Handout D—Outline of Federalist No. 70 by paraphrasing the main ideas and supports of Hamilton’s argument.
There is a Follow-Up Homework Option, which asks students to create a dialogue between Hamilton and someone who disagrees with him about a strong executive branch. Extensions asks students to explain how they believe Hamilton would view modern additions to the executive branch such as the FBI or the Department of Education, or to read and analyze one of Hamilton’s letters to his wife about his upcoming duel with Aaron Burr.
- explain Hamilton’s reasoning in support of a single and powerful executive leader.
- understand Hamilton’s role at the Constitutional Convention.
- understand the historical context and purpose of The Federalist Papers.
- analyze Federalist and Anti-Federalist views about the nature of the executive branch.
- evaluate the effectiveness of Hamilton’s arguments in excerpts from Federalist No. 70.
- appreciate the role Hamilton played in shaping the new United States government.
- Handout A—Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
- Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution
- Handout D—Outline of Federalist No. 70
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IC1, IC3, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B, 3D
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a Federalist leader and co-author of The Federalist Papers. He served as secretary of the treasury under President George Washington and worked to establish a national economic system for America. Hamilton died at age forty-seven in a duel with his political rival, Aaron Burr.
Context 5 min.
Briefly review with students the debate among Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding the ratification of the Constitution. Federalists wanted a strong central government, while Anti-Federalists were concerned that the Constitution would create a president who was too powerful. Additionally, discuss the historical meaning of the word “energy” which was commonly used as a synonym for “strength” or “power.”
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Begin by asking the class to consider how having a national executive council could be different from having one president. They may also consider: How would school be different if they had two principals? How do families with one parent differ from those with two? How could their home life be different if they had a council of parents?
Students may suggest that having a council of leaders or parents decreases accountability, and that if no one person is responsible, there may be less efficiency. Some may point out that a team of executives may be better able to consider issues from broader perspectives. Others may say that having two or more executives may contribute to people taking sides, and the result being a divided nation.
- Distribute Handout B—Vocabulary and Context Questions and Handout C—In His Own Words: Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution.
- Ask students to read silently the excerpts from Federalist No. 70 and pay close attention to the main ideas of each paragraph in bold.
- Divide students into pairs or trios to complete Handout B and the outline on Handout D—Outline of Federalist No. 70. They should begin by filling in the main idea of each paragraph by paraphrasing it into their own words.
- Next, have each group paraphrase and fill in each of Hamilton’s supporting points for each paragraph.
- Fill in the outline as a class with an overhead of Handout D.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Ask students to evaluate the effectiveness of Hamilton’s argument in favor of a single executive. Did he argue persuasively? What were his strongest points? What were the shortcomings of his argument?
Follow-Up Homework Options
Have students write a dialogue between Hamilton and someone who disagrees with him. The two should discuss the question of which type of executive branch would better protect liberty: a single executive or an executive council.
- Have students examine the executive branch as it exists today. Have students write a two- to three-paragraph essay explaining how they believe Hamilton would view adding to the executive branch, for example, the FDA, the FBI, the Department of Education, or the Department of Homeland Security. Do these departments bolster or drain the energy of the executive?
- On July 4, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wrote to his wife about the upcoming duel with Aaron Burr. How does Hamilton feel about the “interview”? Why do you think he went ahead with the duel?
“This letter, my very dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career; to begin, as I humbly hope from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality…. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decise motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem….”
Source: “To Elizabeth Hamilton.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/ham/LTRELIZA.HTML>.
- Have students research the details of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and report to the class about the Code Duelo.
Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. New York: Free Press, 2000.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.
Ellis, Joseph. Founding Brothers. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000.
Freeman, Joanne B., ed. Hamilton: Writings. New York: Library of America, 2001.
McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
“Alexander Hamilton.” National Archives and Records Administration: The Founding Fathers. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/charters_of_freedom/constitution/new_york.html>.
“Alexander Hamilton, New York.” The United States Army. <http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/RevWar/ss/hamilton.htm>.
“Alexander Hamilton on the Web.” <http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/hamilton/>.
“The American Experience: The Duel.” PBS: The American Experience. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/>.
“A Biography of Alexander Hamilton.” From Revolution to Reconstruction. <http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/B/hamilton/hamilxx.htm>.
“The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” <http://www.gilderlehrman.org/>.
By Alexander Hamilton
- The Farmer Refuted (1775)
- Continentalist Essays (1781)
- The Federalist Papers [with James Madison and John Jay] (1787–1788)
- Report on Public Credit (1790)
- Report on Manufacturers (1791)
- Handout A: Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804)
- Handout B: Vocabulary and Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: Alexander Hamilton on the Constitution
- Handout D: Analysis: Alexander Hamilton and Federalist No. 70
- Thematic Essays