Founding Fathers And Slavery Essay Prompts

  • 1

    As a group, why are the Founding Fathers historically unique?

    The Founding Fathers were the first of their kind to hold political office within a republic. Unlike the aristocracy of England and Europe, the Founding Fathers had little title or family connections to rely on. They were instead a motley crew of lawyers, farmers, intellectuals, and soldiers. Some, like Benjamin Franklin, had little formal education but accomplished memorable deeds nevertheless. Alexander Hamilton was of poor and illegitimate origins, but worked his way through the ranks of the Continental Army to become George Washington’s protégé. The determination of the Founding Fathers, despite their personal and regional differences, united them against a common enemy for the express purpose of winning their independence and establishing history's first standing republic since Rome.

  • 2

    Compose a short response in defense of Alexander Hamilton’s actions during the duel with Burr.

    Hamilton went to the “interview at Weehawken” prepared to defend his honor by acting in accordance with the rules of code duello. If he fired a shot and missed, then his gentlemanly honor would remain intact. Hamilton’s intention to miss Burr was clearly expressed in his last will and testament, which he had updated the night before the duel. Hamilton’s behavior at the duel was, however, contradictory. He did not share knowledge of the pistol’s hair-trigger with Burr, nor was the Vice President aware that the same pistols had been used to kill Hamilton’s son. Hamilton took imaginary aim at objects, and donned his eyeglasses before declaring himself ready. No one present could give an accurate account of what happened next, because the witnesses had their backs to the proceedings in accordance with code duello. Ellis concludes that more than one shot was fired, and believes Hamilton deliberately fired away from Burr. Unfortunately for Hamilton, Burr’s aim was true, and whether intentionally or otherwise, Hamilton was killed.

  • 3

    Discuss the South’s core arguments concerning the emancipation of slaves in 1790. Weigh the logic behind them.

    During the 1790 slavery debate in the House of Representatives, Southern delegates presented three key arguments to support the continuation of slavery. First, the financial implication of emancipation was enormous. Who would reimburse the slave owners for the loss of their workers, and how could the economic structure of the South survive a sudden upheaval? Second, where would the slaves go once they were free? The cost of relocation also had to be considered. Would they go West? Return to Africa? Third, the Southern delegates truly feared “the mulatto,” a person of mixed racial heritage. While one's response to each argument is certainly personal, the first two have in common an economic concern. The North did in fact have less to lose economically by emancipation, which arguably gave it more freedom to consider the moral question. The third argument, however, belies such a dispassionate approach by relieving the innate prejudices behind the Southern opposition.

  • 4

    In terms of the theme of “collaboration,” provide an example of how two conflicting Founding Fathers arrived at a compromise.

    There are many examples of compromises reached between political adversaries in Founding Brothers, but perhaps the most intense one is covered by the chapter "The Dinner." During the Constitutional Convention, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton shared a desire for a more powerful federal government. In 1787-1788, they coauthored the Federalist Papers with John Jay to support the ratification of the Constitution. However, after its ratification and the formation of the new federal government, Madison began to distrust Hamilton and his pro-banking Federalists. He reestablished connections with Jefferson, and later helped found the Republican Party. In 1790, Hamilton’s Assumption Bill was at a Congressional stalemate. Madison opposed the assumption of state debts by the federal government, but came to a compromise when he and Hamilton met with Jefferson during a secret dinner party. Their collaboration enabled the passing of Hamilton’s Assumption Bill, while also favoring Madison’s plan for the location of the new capital. This is an indication of how the relationships forged during the Revolution were able to facilitate progress even once political differences began to strain those relationships.

  • 5

    Why was Jay’s Treaty so unpopular?

    In short, Jay's Treaty was so unpopular not because of what it contained, but because it provided fuel for the growing political divide in the nascent U.S. Washington believed Britain would be the dominant European force after its war with France, and he wanted to establish a trade agreement that would help boost U.S. commerce. Jay’s Treaty protected American merchant ships from privateers, and endorsed an almost exclusive trade agreement between the two nations. Washington’s primary goal, however, was ensuring U.S. neutrality. However, Jefferson and his associates saw in the treaty an opportunity to smear the Federalists for favoring England's monarchy over the new government's independence. Even though history would soon enough prove the wisdom of Washington's decision, the growing division between the factions meant that anything capable of being distorted for political gain would become a contentious issue. The country was in the first phase of its division.

  • 6

    What were the fundamental differences between the Federalists and the Republicans?

    The Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton, favored a powerful, centralized federal government. Comprised of the wealthy American elite, they supported British foreign affairs (Jay’s Treaty) and supported the national bank (similar to Britain’s banking system). They were also in favor of maintaining a standing army. The Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, advocated the primacy of state governments, and were comprised of 'the everyman,' mainly Virginian farmers and the merchant class. They opposed a large army and any interference of the federal government into state laws and legislature. The Republicans were also pro-French, and supported the principles of the French Revolution.

  • 7

    The author states that history has made demi-gods of the Founding Fathers. Provide instances that illustrate that they were in fact men, prone to error and vice.

    Despite their legendary status, the Founding Fathers were merely men, talented and intelligent, but nevertheless prone to human error. The examples of this are plentiful. Hamilton frequently used his political pull to support his own interest, opposing Adams when it suited him and opposing Burr on several occasions. Burr killed Hamilton for his years of criticism and opposition. Jefferson was notoriously underhanded when it came to his political enemies, and even to his friends. He spread false reports about Adams, despite their long-standing relationship. As an ambassador to France, James Monroe bad-mouthed George Washington at Jefferson's behest, even though this bordered on treason. James Madison used his Congressional pull to ensure the silence in the slavery debate of 1790. No matter which Founding Father one chooses, one can find evidence to prove that their accomplishments do not hide the truth of their all too human personalities.

  • 8

    Adams was severely criticized for the Alien and Sedition Acts during and after his presidency. What prompted him to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts, and were they unconstitutional?

    Ultimately, the Alien and Sedition Acts were less an expression of Adams's political stance, and more a reflection of the pressures he confronted as President. Caught with enemies both in the opposing Republic party and in his cabinet (which remained loyal to Hamilton over him), Adams could turn only to wife for counsel. Ellis theorizes that Abigail urged him to pass these acts, perhaps to silence the press that was treating him with such vitriol. The acts were certainly unconstitutional by negating the First Amendment, even if they did help Adams silence his critics for a short while. The unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts were dismissed after Adams left the presidency in 1801.

  • 9

    The theme of posterity is important to the text. Who amongst the Founding Fathers was most concerned with the concept of preserving himself for posterity?

    According to Ellis, many of the Founding Fathers were preoccupied with posterity. They wanted to construct and preserve images that served both their egos and the survival of the nation they had created. Arguably, Thomas Jefferson was the most deliberate in his construction of a romanticized image of himself and the Revolution. Yet it is ironically John Adams who was the most frequently concerned with how history would view him (especially in the correspondence throughout the final years of his life). The irony comes from the fact that he was not terribly effective at controlling his temper to deliver a cohesive picture of his role in the historic events. Both of these men worked in different ways to ensure their legacies, and both have ultimately been remembered differently because of the way they approached that goal.

  • 10

    Letters, or correspondence, play an intricate role in Founding Brothers. Provide an example of how letters changed the course of history.

    The best example is the way that the 'Quasi-War' with France was avoided because of Adams's correspondence with Elbridge Gerry and John Quincy Adams. During Adams's presidency, peace negotiations were ceded because the French government was in ruins after its own revolution. Many in the U.S. wanted war with France, but Adams was hesitant. He knew the United States was not ready for war, and he wanted to prevent the expansion of the army, especially because it would be led by Alexander Hamilton. In letters from Gerry (who was serving in France) and his son (who was serving in Prussia), Adams was told to hold off on any course of action. They counseled patience, since the political atmosphere in France was changing. Eventually, Adams sent over more delegates, and peace was brokered between the two nations in 1800. War was avoided, and the U.S. entered a period of peace.

  • Cross That Line

    Before watching the video, encourage students to express their opinions about character and leadership by participating in the activity “Cross That Line.” Place a piece of masking tape or string down the middle of the room and then explain to students that one side represents “I agree” and the other side “I disagree.” Read some or all of the following statements aloud and have students move to their chosen side of the line. Once students choose their side, ask a few to share their reason(s) for agreeing or disagreeing. Students are free to move from one side to the other if their opinion is swayed by a classmate.

    • A great individual—a hero—is someone with no flaws.
    • Morality—what is considered right and wrong—is something that changes over time.
    • A person should not be defined by their mistakes.
    • A great leader should never make compromises.
    • There are some mistakes that cannot be forgiven.
    • You can respect someone and disagree with them at the same time.
    • If the leader of our country makes a mistake, it’s ok if it’s for a good reason.
    • It’s not ok to judge a historical figure by our current standards.
    • We should reconsider who we think is a great person in history, especially if they did something we consider terribly wrong today.

    Reconciling History

    After watching the video, ask students to complete the handout Reconciling History: The Founding Fathers. Students can then write an essay about how they think the lens of history should judge George Washington and/or Thomas Jefferson. The essay can be based on the handout alone or students can conduct further research about the contributions and flaws of America’s Founding Fathers to support their opinion. Encourage students to consider other flaws of Jefferson and Washington beyond slavery, like their lack of inclusion of women and other minorities in their definitions of freedom and liberty.

    Writing History

    After watching the video, ask students to complete the handout Writing History: The Founding Fathers to analyze and rewrite the words of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington to better understand their thinking at the time about their legacy as leaders, and also specifically their complicated thoughts about slavery. Thomas Jefferson was of two minds about slavery. He viewed the institution as a crime, an abomination, and a wasteful, dangerous, and immoral system of labor. Yet at the same time, he feared that emancipation, in the absence of colonization, would result in a race war.

    Making Connections

    Activity 1: Lin-Manuel Miranda found inspiration for the song One Last Time from the Yes We Can video from 2008 by The song blends a famous presidential address by Barack Obama with music, something Miranda does in One Last Time when he incorporates passages from George Washington’s Farewell Address. Show students the video, available on YouTube and other online sites, and ask them to compare the two songs. Students can write a response explaining why they think Miranda modeled the song after’s and whether or not they think incorporating the words of each President adds something to the significance of the songs.

    Activity 2: Ask students to think of examples of politicians in recent history who have done great things but also made mistakes, especially in their personal lives. Ask students to consider whether or not the figure’s mistakes changed their reputation or place in history. Student can also think about how we view the “flaws” of present day politicians and to think about what are considered mistakes or flaws in candidates today.

    5th Grade Activities

    Ask students to write a journal entry about how they feel about Thomas Jefferson or George Washington after watching the clip. Has their opinion of them changed? Why or why not? Students can also complete Part One of the handout Rewriting History: The Founding Fathers just focusing on rewriting the most famous line from The Declaration of Independence.


    myth—an idea or story that is believed by many people but is not true or only party true.

    hypocritical—when someone’s behavior does not agree with what they claim to believe or feel.

    yeomen—a farmer in the past who owned a small amount of land.

    pedestal—used to describe the position of someone who is admired or successful.

    reconcile—to find a way of making two different ideas or facts exist or be true at the same time.

    principles—moral beliefs that help you know what is right and wrong and influence your actions.


    Permission to post the "One Last Time" video is provided generously by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

    Miranda, Lin-Manuel, Christopher Jackson, James Harcourt, and Ian Weinberger. “One Last Time.” Video. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016. <!250202>


    One thought on “Founding Fathers And Slavery Essay Prompts

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *