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The challenges facing America after independence resonate with those facing many governments today. Beset by unpaid debt, a crippled economy, and growing popular discontent, the national government under the Articles of Confederation had proven inadequate to chart a road to recovery.
The new federal Constitution, adopted in 1787, brought fresh hope as well as bitter disagreement among political leaders. Two of George Washington’s first-term cabinet members, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, came to vigorously dislike each other as they clashed on questions of politics and policy, and no issue proved more divisive than the role of the federal government in the fledgling nation’s economy.
A Smithsonian Debate brings these men and their conflicting political philosophies to life in a lively, interactive event—in which the audience plays a key role.
Embracing an expansive view of the powers of the new Constitution, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton proposed innovative programs to stimulate economic recovery and to create an “energetic” national government. Secretary of State Jefferson pushed in a different direction, searching for a sustainable balance of power between the central government and the states.
Their debates and disputes highlight differences over policy, the meaning of the Constitution, and the nature of federalism itself—arguments that continue in earnest to this day.
6:45 to 7:45 p.m. Debate
7:45 to 8:15 p.m. Deliberation
Enjoy a glass of wine while developing questions to pose to the debaters.
8:15 to 9 p.m. Decision
Debaters respond to audience questions; a show-of-hands vote selects the winner.
Richard Bell (who portrays Hamilton) and Whitman Ridgway (Jefferson) are both members of the faculty of the University of Maryland’s history department. Rosemarie Zagarri, a professor of U.S. history at George Mason University, moderates.
Learn more about Thomas Jefferson, listen to clips from Smithsonian Folkways recordings>>