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Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)

60 min

Students will:

  • 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.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. 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.

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.

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?

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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. <>.

  3. Have students research the details of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and report to the class about the Code Duelo.

Student Handouts

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