Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America

Programming Ideas

PROGRAMMING REQUIREMENTS: An opening reception for Alexander Hamilton and two humanities-oriented public programs related to exhibition themes are the minimum requirement for host libraries. The reception may be combined with one of the programs. Humanities programs must involve scholars with knowledge of the period and Hamilton, and may include discussions, debates, lectures, film series with discussion led by scholars, and seminars.

Your state humanities council has a list of scholars who have experience with public programs related to U.S. History. The Organization of American Historians also offers lecturers (for a fee) who specialize in this period.

For Adults and Young Adults

Key dates: January 11, 1757: Hamilton born on the island of Nevis, British West Indies; July 12, 1804: Hamilton dies from wound suffered in duel with Burr on July 11; September 17, 1787: Constitution signed; September 17 now annual U.S.Constitution Day

  • Sponsor a One Book, One Community program before and/or during the exhibit using a popular biography of Hamilton or another book from the bibliographies in this notebook. You could also choose a title for young adults and a title for children.

  • Hal Bidlack, Ph.D. in Political Science, University of Michigan, and now an associate professor of Political Science at the Air Force Academy, portrays Hamilton in a highly praised Chautauqua style presentation which he has done for various state humanities councils and other organizations. He strongly believes Hamilton to have been second only to Washington as the most important Founders of the country. See his informative web site at www.hamiltonlives.com for details. Bidlack has also portrayed Hamilton on the NPR program, The Thomas Jefferson Hour. He also has portrayed Hamilton in debates with Thomas Jefferson impersonator Clay Jenkinson.

  • Trace one or more of the financial, political and legal institutions and policies Hamilton supported and what role they play in modern America. Have they changed? Have they evolved in the way Hamilton envisioned them?

  • Focus on Hamilton's attitudes toward slavery. He himself helped found the first Abolitionist society in New York -- the New York Manumission Society. How did his attitudes differ from those of other prominent figures in the U.S. at the time? How did his childhood in the Caribbean affect his attitudes toward slavery?

  • Hamilton's wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, is a fascinating person. She lived to the age of 97 and was also fervently anti-slavery and a supporter of education for all. Have a program about her life and how she tried to preserve her husband's legacy after his death. What sort of relationship did they have?

  • The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia sponsored a program earlier this year, "Who's Your Favorite Founding Father?" -- in which a panel of biographers of Washington, Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin defended their opinions about who was the foremost Founder. Perhaps libraries could find historians, or patrons themselves, to do the same thing (but someone has to represent Hamilton!)

  • What would the U.S. be like today if Thomas Jefferson's ideal of an agrarian America and preeminent states' rights had prevailed over Hamilton's vision of a diverse economy including manufacturing and strong central government?

  • Why do Americans know so little about Hamilton, other than about his death in a duel? How has his reputation fared in the centuries after his death? Why? (See Stephen Knott's book, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, University Press of Kansas, 2002.) Why are there cycles of popularity among famous politicians, e.g., Thomas Jefferson's reputation has suffered in the past decade because of his attitudes toward slavery.

  • Hamilton founded The New York Evening Post newspaper. Use this as a jumping off point for considering what role newspapers played in the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary era, and comparing how people got their news then with how they get it today.

  • Sponsor a community debate based upon the debate that occurred between Hamilton and Jefferson about a federal government versus sovereign state governments.

  • Hamilton is the only non-President besides Benjamin Franklin to appear on U.S. currency. How was Hamilton's portrait chosen for the $10 bill? Should it remain? Have a community poll after educating the community about Hamilton.

  • If you sponsor a film series, arrange for a scholar or someone with a history background to interpret film content to audiences and lead discussions. Compare how Hamilton is presented in each film in the series.

  • Trace the history of dueling during the early history of the U.S. Was it popular? Why? What other prominent figures took part in duels? What were the ground rules, the code duello, for dueling, and did the duel Hamilton died in go according to the rules?

  • Program about your local history and how it relates to the Revolutionary War and Founding period of U.S. history. Did Hamilton ever visit your area? What other founders came to your area or are connected with it in some way? What was the reaction of your region to the Constitution? To the debate about how American government should be organized?

  • Someone said Hamilton lived "a life fit for the tabloids." Were people interested in the details of personal lives during his lifetime? How did they get this information -- early gossip columnists? What factors entered into how Hamilton was portrayed during his life and after?

  • Organize programs around the biographies and works of the men and women Hamilton knew who are mentioned in the exhibit, and about their relationship with Hamilton. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are obvious examples.

  • Ask good public speakers to read one or more of Hamilton's Federalist Papers during the period of the exhibit. Have a historian on hand to interpret them and put them in context.

  • Sponsor a four- or five-book discussion series while the exhibit is on display, using books from the lists in the resources section or others you think will be well received.

  • Have a program featuring music and dance of the Revolutionary era, with costumes and dance lessons.

  • Are there any Hamilton descendants in your community? Find others who have family stories, diaries, artifacts from the Founding era of the U.S. Create related exhibits or ask them to speak at a program. Tape their stories.

  • Would Hamilton have survived his wound from the duel if he had lived in the 21st century? How was he treated? What was the state of medical knowledge at the end of the 18th century?

  • Consider Hamilton as a soldier and a military leader -- he was involved in several major battles and acquitted himself well, and was an aide-de-camp to General George Washington.

  • Create displays or complementary exhibits based upon the following:

    • Local historical personages from Revolutionary and post Revolutionary period

    • Popular literature, art, and music from the period

    • Dueling

    • The Constitution, the courts, or the banking system