Alexander Hamilton: Myth or Man?

Lesson Overview

In this lesson students consider the question of whether a historic figure’s private life should be judged when evaluating his or her legacy. The primary source on which the lesson is based is a letter from Alexander Hamilton to his fiancée, Elizabeth Schuyler, written two months before their marriage. Some of the content reveals the personal relationship between the two and provides insight into Hamilton’s private thoughts and feelings. Students will explore the question based on their own personal experience, secondary source commentary on past figures, and Hamilton’s personal letter. Their understanding of the documents will be assessed through written responses and class discussion.

Lesson Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Discuss differences between private and public knowledge and discourse
  • Read and understand primary sources
  • Annotate and analyze primary sources

Number of Class Periods

One to two 45-minute class periods

Grade Level

6th–12th grades

Common Core State Standards


Essential Question

To what extent should the private life of a public figure be considered when evaluating his or her legacy?

Historical Background

As one of George Washington’s aides-de-camp during the American Revolution, Alexander Hamilton met many military and political leaders throughout the war. One of these leaders was General Philip Schuyler. The Schuylers were a wealthy, eminent family in New York, while Hamilton was a poor, illegitimate orphan from the Caribbean. Hamilton met Elizabeth Schuyler, one of Philip’s five daughters, in February of 1780, and within a couple of months they had decided to marry. 



  1. Students will consider the following questions:
    • Have you ever sent an embarrassing text or email?
    • Would it upset you if everyone in school and in your community could read it? Explain your answer.
  2. Once the students have had a few minutes to think about their answers and write down some notes, engage them in a turn-and-talk activity with a partner sitting next to them. Then open the questions up for a class discussion.
  3. Distribute the student activity sheets.
  4. Students will read the two "situations" and answer the questions.
  5. Have the students pair up using a random-selection method. They will discuss their answers with their partners.
  6. Bring the whole class back together. Students will share out their partner’s answers during the class discussion.
  7. Distribute Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Elizabeth Schuyler, October 5, 1780. You may choose have the students read the letter silently to themselves or "share read" it with the class. This is done by having the students follow along silently while you begin reading aloud, modeling prosody, inflection, and punctuation. Ask the class to join in with the reading after a few sentences while you continue to serve as the model for the class. This technique will support struggling readers as well as English language learners (ELL).
  8. After the students have had time to close read the letter, lead a class discussion about the content of the letter. To conclude, focus on the question "Should we judge Alexander Hamilton by his private life when we evaluate his contributions to the United States?"
  9. Depending on the time available and the grade level of the students, you may choose to discuss Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds, the publication of the "Reynolds Pamphlet," and the personal and political fallout from that affair. You can read a synopsis of the events on Founders Online,

Assessment and Summary

Students will complete an exit card answering three questions:

  1. Is it fair for others to judge your personal life? Why or why not?
  2. How can the study of the private life of historical figures teach us more about their characters and how they lived?
  3. In your opinion, to what extent should the private life of a public figure be considered (judged) when evaluating his or her legacy?