In this lesson, students will learn about the humble beginnings, prolific writing, and remarkable accomplishments of Alexander Hamilton. After watching a biographical video, they will examine a memorial portrait of Hamilton and read excerpts from his best-known work, The Federalist Papers. Using their newfound knowledge of Hamilton, they will brainstorm ideas for their own version of a Broadway show based on his life.
20 - 40 minutes
- Delegate - A chosen representative
- Checks and balances - Policies that prevent one branch of government from dominating another
- Ratification - Formal approval of a document, law, or treaty
- Gubernatorial - Related to the position of governor of a state
- Succumb - To give into
- Tenure - Amount of time in a position
Articles of Confederation - The loose form of government that bound the original thirteen American colonies together before the adoption of the current United States Constitution. Written in 1777 and ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation held the colonies together through the Revolutionary War and functioned as the first constitution. Considered too weak to endure, however, they were replaced in 1789 with the federal system of government that still exists today. To understand the groundbreaking nature of Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a strong central government, it is important to be familiar with the Articles of Confederation.
For more information on the Articles of Confederation:
- Articles of Confederation (1777) and Resource Materials, PBS LearningMedia
- The Constitution, the Articles, and Federalism | Crash Course US History #8, PBS LearningMedia
- The Duel - Hamilton and the U.S. Constitution, PBS LearningMedia
Background on Alexander Hamilton | Lawyer, Writer, and Founding Father
Alexander Hamilton was born in 1755 in the British West Indies of the Caribbean to James Hamilton and Rachel Fawcett Lavine. He was orphaned at a young age, after his father abandoned him and his mother died when he was twelve. He was put under his cousin Peter Lytton’s care, but Lytton committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Education was the clearest path to rising out of his circumstances. He studied the family’s library of 34 books and worked as a clerk at an import-export firm until his great intelligence was recognized and a collection was taken up to send him to America. He immigrated to New York City in 1773 to pursue his education. He briefly attended King’s College, now known as Columbia University. But as he studied, the revolution of the colonies was brewing.
Hamilton left school in 1775 to join the Patriots and fight against British-imposed taxes. He aided the rebellion by stealing cannons from Britain in the harbor ports of New York. He played an important role in the Battles of White Plains and Trenton as captain of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery. His smarts and bravery got noticed. General George Washington was looking for an aide, and he hired Hamilton upon their first meeting.
Hamilton was tasked with all of the general’s correspondence, writing letters to Congress, generals, and governors; he drafted and eventually issued orders on Washington’s behalf during his four-year tenure. The urge to prove himself was strong within Hamilton. He wanted to fight in the war. “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything,” Hamilton said.
During the American Revolution, Hamilton was introduced to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of well-known military officer and politician Philip Schuyler. The two wed in 1780, and although the marriage was plagued by his infidelity, they never divorced. Together they had eight children.
In 1781, after months of retreats and grim hopes, Hamilton was given command of his own troops. Along with John Laurens and Marquis de Lafayette, he was able to formulate strategies to change the tide of the revolution. During the battle of Yorktown, which lasted from September 28 to October 19, Hamilton and his three battalions cornered British General Lord Charles Cornwallis. The British surrendered to General Washington. The War for Independence was over, and the United States was born.
This victory was not the finish line for Hamilton or the new country. The Articles of Confederation were not working, and needed amending. Hamilton thought the Articles gave too much power to the states, and that it was problematic that the government had no power to demand money from the states to pay for the war’s debts. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Hamilton spent hours on the floor proposing a new form of government that called for a stronger, centralized union. He was still relatively unknown in the political scene, and his ideas weren’t enthusiastically adopted.
Hamilton practiced law after the war, but he still wanted to get his thoughts out to the public. Along with John Jay and James Madison, Alexander Hamilton published The Federalist Papers in 1787 and 1788. The papers consisted of 85 articles detailing their ideas for the new country; they proposed a larger role for government, saying, “Vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty.”
There were many critics of the papers, but the tide was beginning to shift toward a stronger central government in America. In 1789, George Washington called on Alexander Hamilton again, asking him to run the Treasury Department. The country was in debt after fighting the Revolution, so Hamilton proposed splitting debts into national, state, and foreign categories to make a payment strategy for each. As Secretary, Hamilton created the National Bank of the United States and established the U.S. Mint.
Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795. He returned to his law practice, but continued to write and comment about the political climate in the United States, establishing the daily newspaper, the New York Evening Post in 1801. Over the years, Hamilton butted heads with Thomas Jefferson, which helped lead to the creation of the two-party system. Hamilton and his allies became the Federalists, and Jefferson and other opponents became Democratic-Republicans.
In a move that shocked many, Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson for President in 1800. The endorsement caused Jefferson to win in a landslide over opponent Aaron Burr. Hamilton again criticized Burr in 1804 during his campaign for Governor, and Morgan Lewis defeated him.
In retaliation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton chose to raise his gun and fire into the air, instead of at Burr. Burr’s bullet struck Hamilton in the stomach. He died the next day, on July 12, 1804.
After his death, his wife Elizabeth carried on Alexander’s work: preserving his writings for future biographies and speaking out against slavery. In honor of her husband’s roots as an orphan, she opened the first private orphanage in New York City to help kids in need. Today, Hamilton is commemorated on the ten-dollar bill. His story returned to the headlines in 2015 with the popularity of the Broadway musical based on his life.
- Ask students: Do you think it is possible for a person who begins life with many disadvantages to succeed in our country? Can you think of any examples of people who fit this description?
- Introduce Alexander Hamilton:
Alexander Hamilton came to America at the age of 19 as an impoverished orphan, an immigrant, and lacking formal education. In spite of this, he became an important military and political leader during and after the Revolutionary War.
Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)
Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.
Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]
Discussion questions after viewing:
1. What challenges did Alexander Hamilton have to overcome in his early life?
2. What were Hamilton’s most notable achievements?
3. Although Hamilton was never a president of the United States, his face is on the $10 bill. Why do you think he was chosen for such a significant honor?
Examining Primary Sources
Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes)
Project or make copies of the image to the right. This print of Alexander Hamilton was published in New York on September 1, 1804, two months after his death from injuries sustained in a duel with Aaron Burr. William Rollinson, an engraver, based the image on a miniature portrait by Archibald Robinson. Thus under the portrait in small script are the words, “Painted by Archd Robinson 79 Liberty Street” and “Engraved by Wm Rollinson 27 Pine Street.” Rollinson used a technique called stipple engraving in which an image is etched onto a metal plate using dots in various sizes and intensities. Under Alexander Hamilton’s name it says “Major General of the Armies of the United States of America, Secretary of the Treasury &c &c”. This print is currently in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.
- What aspects of Hamilton’s varied career are symbolized by the objects surrounding him in the engraving?
- If the engraver had wanted to use specific words rather than “&c &c” under Hamilton’s name, what else could he have added? (NOTE: “&c” was a common abbreviation for etcetera.)
- Examine Hamilton’s image closely. What adjectives can you use to describe his facial expression, his clothing, and/or his body language?
Written Primary Source Activity (20 minutes)
The Federalist Papers of 1787 and 1788 are a series of essays promoting ratification of the United States Constitution directed toward the people of New York, one of the most populous states and also a state less inclined to give up power to the federal government. Written mostly by Alexander Hamilton, with contributions by James Madison and John Jay, they are considered Hamilton’s most important written work and also influential in persuading Americans to accept the federal system of government set up by the Constitution.
This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.
To be completed using the Graphic Organizer [PDF].
The Broadway show Hamilton, is achieving unprecedented acclaim and attention. The title, poster, and tag-line (An American Musical) for the show are all quite simple and straightforward. The plot of the show emphasizes Hamilton’s romantic relationships, his friendships, and his rivalries with Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson. Have students rename and repackage the show that they would write about Hamilton’s life. Hamilton features hip hop music, a diverse cast, and contemporary language (including slang) as a way to compel audiences to see the Founding Fathers from a different perspective. Current day issues such as racism, sexism, and immigration are addressed through this reinterpretation of Alexander Hamilton’s life story. You may require students to do any of the following:
- Create a new title
- Develop a new tagline
- Design a new poster, Playbill cover, t-shirt, etc.
- List the key scenes needed to convey Hamilton’s biography
- Write a song or rap to be part of the show
- Imagine the ideal cast to play Hamilton and his closest associates
- Determine which contemporary social and political issues can best be addressed through a retelling of Alexander Hamilton’s life story.
Here is a link to the show’s current poster: