Closer Readings Commentary

Taking a Stand in History with Alexander Hamilton

[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. Alexander Hamilton writing as “Publius” in Federalist No.1

The world has rediscovered Alexander Hamilton thanks to the commercial and critical success of the hip-hop musical Hamilton, which recounts the personal and political drama of the man whose face we see stamped on ten dollar bills. As a result, many students will be heading back to school this fall primed with questions about the man and his ideas. This is a great opportunity for teachers to show their classes how Alexander Hamilton provides a lens through which one can understand our nation’s founding and its dynamic development.

Hamilton's collaborations with Washington and James Madison and his face offs with many of the other leading founders such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, make him a perfect choice for a project on “Taking a Stand in History,” this year’s National History Day theme. So we thought we’d make a few suggestions for teachers and students to make a deep dive into primary sources and engage in a serious investigation of the man, his times, and the ideas he championed.

One of the themes of the Hamilton is this founding father's idea of America as a place in which a young person possessing only talent and grit can rise to prominence. This vision of America as a meritocracy (a society in which merit, rather than birth or class, is the ruling principle of advancement) underlies his story.

Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant, prolific, and outspoken man of action: lieutenant colonel in the Revolutionary War; confidant to George Washington; critical mover for scraping the weak Articles of Confederation; tireless advocate for ratification of the Constitution through the Federalist Papers; and the founder of our financial system as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Viewed as an upstart outsider by the Virginia oligarchy that led the American Revolution and founded our political system, his vision of America as a dynamic commercial republic is the one that has prevailed up to the present.

For those looking to understand the tumultuous decades of Hamilton’s adult life, the ideas and arguments he expounded, and his titanic ambition—all alluded to in the deft rhymes of the billboard-ranked songs of Miranda’s musical—EDSITEment offers a selection of NEH-funded websites, Humanities magazine articles, lesson plans, and multimedia sources

Primary Sources

Papers of Alexander Hamilton

General Overviews

American Experience: Alexander Hamilton

*Note: this film features interviews with Ron Chernow, the Hamilton biographer whose book inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create his hit musical.

"Timeline: Alexander Hamilton"

Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America

"Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Modernized Money."

"Honor Above All."

American Revolution: “The world turned upside down”

Hamilton was scarcely out of his teens at the time of the Revolutionary War, but he served in the military and assisted General George Washington. Find out more about the ideals he fought for, his pre-war life in St. Croix, and the historical context of the Revolutionary War with the following EDSITEment resources and affiliates.

American War for Independence

What Made George Washington a Good Military Leader?

The Defense of the Constitution: “How do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Alexander Hamilton worked with James Madison to push for a constitutional convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. While he attended the Convention, he was generally sidelined by the other New York state delegates. However, in collaboration with Madison, he wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers in defense of the Constitution including very important papers on the role of political science in overcoming the defects of republican government, the role of a strong executive and the doctrine of judicial review.

Before and Beyond the Constitution: What Should a President Do?

The Federalist and Anti-federalist Debates on Diversity and the Extended Republic

John Marshall, Marbury v Madison and Judicial Review

Signing of the Constitution

George Washington’s Administration: “No one else was in the room where it happened”

In order to get his financial plan for the States through a divided Cabinet, Hamilton reached a compromise with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison over dinner. While historical accounts of the negotiations are scarce, the final agreement relocated the capitol from New York to what would become the District of the Columbia.

"The Dinner Table Bargain"

George Washington’s Administration: “Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reactions/Thanks to Hamilton, our cab’net’s fractured into factions”

While Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison served on George Washington’s cabinet, their clashing visions of what kind of nation the United States should become resulted in the creation of the modern two-party system. Discover more here:

The First American Party System

The Battle over the Establishment of a National Bank

The Duel: “But when all is said and all is done/Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”

Read more about the contentious election of 1800, during which Hamilton’s persuasive powers swayed a tiebreaker in Jefferson’s favor and spurred his deadly duel with the runner-up, Aaron Burr.

The Problem of Slavery in a Democratic Republic

Slavery and the Founding: Inconsistency Not to be Excused

What were the positions of Hamilton and the other founders on the questions of slavery?