Civic Literacy Curriculum
This curriculum guide is intended to cover question 89.
Q89. Which of the following is not something Alexander Hamilton did?
A. Serve as president of the United States
B. Serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury
C. Co-author the Federalist Papers
D. Serve as an aide to General George Washington
A young Alexander Hamilton quickly became a trusted aide to General George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Hamilton later participated in the Constitutional Convention, as a delegate from New York, but he won few debates there, as most delegates preferred a more decentralized government than Hamilton sought. Nonetheless, Hamilton vigorously defended the proposed Constitution as the most prolific co-author of the Federalist Papers and as a member of the New York ratifying convention. Hamilton remained one of Washington’s closest allies and became the first Secretary of the Treasury, where he convinced Congress to establish the first Bank of the United States.
Hamilton consistently argued for a more expansive interpretation of federal power, not only with the Bank but also in Hamilton’s failed attempt to provide federal subsidies for certain industries. By way of contrast, Hamilton’s former ally James Madison charged that this expansive interpretation was unfaithful to the compromise struck by those who ratified the Constitution and its limits. As such, Hamilton, who was helping to form the Federalist Party on behalf of his vision, came into conflict with Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who had formed the Democratic-Republican Party to stop what they viewed as the unconstitutional consolidation of federal power.
Even after leaving government service, Hamilton remained a central political actor, for example, revising James Madison’s draft of Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, being appointed a general by John Adams, and helping other candidates’ political campaigns. Hamilton famously died in an 1804 duel at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr. Hamilton had sharply criticized Burr and declared him unfit for presidential office, going so far as to favor his political nemesis Thomas Jefferson as president instead, in the complicated election of 1800. Hamilton also contributed to Burr’s subsequent defeat for Governor of New York in 1804 prior to their duel.
President Washington selected Hamilton to be the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, an office he would hold until the beginning of 1795. In this office, he is known for proposing and successfully advocating that Congress create a national bank. But Hamilton did not limit himself to engaging in debates on primarily economic issues. For instance, he also notably weighed in on matters of foreign policy and executive power.
In 1793, President Washington issued a Neutrality Proclamation declaring that the United States would maintain neutrality with respect to the ongoing conflict in Europe between France, on the one side, and England and other European nations on the other. The Proclamation was controversial because many Americans supported France and believed that the United States was obligated to support the French people in their conflict.
Hamilton decided to publish a defense of Washington’s Proclamation through a series of essays written under the pen name Pacificus. In his first essay, Hamilton made the case for his understanding of the executive’s power under the Constitution and how it related to matters of foreign policy. Hamilton’s understanding of the scope of executive power angered Jefferson, who asked Madison to author a response. Madison obliged with a series of essays published under the pen name Helvidius.
For this activity, students will consider the benefits and drawbacks of adopting either Hamilton’s or Madison’s position with respect to the Neutrality Proclamation and the scope of the executive power under the Constitution.
- Provide each pair/group with Pacificus No. 1 (1793)
- Provide each pair/group with Helvidius No. 1 (1793)
- Provide each pair/group with the Pro-Con Worksheet: Debate over the Neutrality Proclamation and Executive Power
- Divide the class into pairs (or groups of 3-4) based on the students’ individual levels. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group that has mastered the material; Group C students are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Provide the students with the necessary materials: a copy of Pacificus No. 1 (1793), Helvidius No. 1 (1793), and the Pro-Con worksheet.
- Explain to the students that they will read Hamilton’s and Madison’s respective arguments on the question of whether the President of the United States has the constitutional authority to issue a neutrality proclamation. Students will consider the pros and cons of adopting one of their positions. Emphasize that they should consider not only the practical advantages or disadvantages of giving the executive more or less power, but also what seems to be the true meaning of the Constitution.
- For the purposes of filling out the worksheet, each pair/group should only list the pros and cons of either Hamilton’s or Madison’s position. You may wish to assign pairs/groups of students to read only one figure or the other in order to promote a balanced discussion of their arguments, and to reserve sufficient time for discussion. However, students should keep in mind that each thinker points to arguable shortcomings of the other’s position.
- Note to students that the “pros” and “cons” that they list will be matters of interpretation and judgment and thus open to discussion. (In the same way, the sample answers provided for your reference should not be seen as simple factual statements, but evaluative/interpretive ones that students might offer).
- Allow time for the pairs/groups to fill out their worksheets as they read through Hamilton’s and Madison’s arguments.
- Circulate throughout the room as the students complete their worksheets to check for understanding and help as needed.
- Once the students have completed the worksheet, use it as a springboard for discussion. Ask students to make the case for either Hamilton’s or Madison’s position. Try to foster an informal “debate” in this way. Through the course of the discussion, make sure to push students to explain their reasoning as much as they can, and to point to evidence from the Constitution or the readings when possible.
- If you are in need of some additional discussion prompts for this conversation, consider raising some of the sample answers from the Pro-Con Worksheet.
- You may wish to encourage students to continue to jot down thoughts on their worksheets during this discussion.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Alexander Hamilton, due in no small part to a bestselling biography and a hit Broadway musical based on his life. Those contemporary works have drawn attention to the range of Hamilton’s influence on the founding of the United States, which include his role alongside Washington in the Revolutionary War, his participation in the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, and his influence on the Treasury Department and policies of the United States in the 1790s.
Along with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton is among the most famous of the founders who never served as President. But, like Franklin, Hamilton was influential in various other ways. What is one thing that he is well known for? Can you name others?
Several years ago, Alexander Hamilton’s portrait was almost removed from its place on the $10 bill, but it was ultimately retained. What criteria should we use to determine who should be placed on our currency? Do you think that Hamilton meets the criteria that we should use? What do you think are the most significant reasons for his presence on our currency?