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The National Bank Debate

65 min
  • Students will be able to explain the economic problems affecting the United States in the early years of the republic.
  • Students will be able to analyze the financial and constitutional justifications for the Bank of the United States.
  • Students will be able to express their support or rejection of the bank bill by reenacting the bank debate as it took shape between the Jeffersonian-Republicans and the Federalists.

This activity is adapted from the Federalism unit in the Bill of Rights Institute’s Supreme Court Document Based Questions, Vol. 2. You may want to have students make their own name tags when they get to the Application activities, or provide students in each of the groups of four with laminated name tags for Student 1: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; Student 2: Attorney General Edmund Randolph; Student 3: Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton; Student 4: President George Washington. However, do not hand out the name tags until the Application activity, just before students present their constitutional arguments.

1. Students will read Handout A: Background of the National Bank Debate, describing the historical context of the bank debate. Then, students should answer the warm-up question, “If you were President Washington, what kinds of evidence would you be looking for in the reports to be provided by your cabinet officers?”

2. Allow a few moments for discussion. Then, use the Review Questions on Handout A: Background of the National Bank Debate to check for understanding of the background and context of the national bank controversy.

1. Divide the class into working groups of four. Within each group, have students read and discuss Handout B: Cabinet Member Reports in its entirety, addressing both the Sourcing questions and the Review questions for each document. Clarify that their goal is to understand the pros and cons of all arguments, not to decide which approach they prefer. Do not assign specific identities to students in each group until after they have read and discussed Handout B in its entirety.

2. Students should discuss these sourcing questions for each of the primary source excerpts:

  1. Who wrote the document?
  2. What is the purpose of the document?
  3. Who is the intended audience of the document?
  4. What is the continuing significance of the document?

3. After groups have discussed the main ideas and addressed the sourcing questions and the review questions in each of the memos, tell students to number off 14 within their groups. Then, have students continue their discussion for another 1015 minutes with a new identity. Each will present in his or her own words the constitutional arguments to Student 4, President Washington, as shown. During this stage of the lesson, Washington is allowed to ask clarifying questions but not to indicate which side he takes on the question of the constitutionality of the bank.

  • Student 1. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson
  • Student 2. Attorney General Edmund Randolph
  • Student 3. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton
  • Student 4. President George Washington

1. Ask all the Washingtons to line up on the “Sign” and “Veto” sides of the room. Ask each to explain why they signed or vetoed the bill.

2. After all Washingtons have reported their own conclusions regarding the constitutionality of Hamilton’s bank bill, disclose that in 1791, Hamilton’s argument was most persuasive to Washington, and he signed the bank bill. Then, as an assessment of the lesson, students should complete the Reflection questions on Handout C: Reflection Questions.

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