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Detail from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, August 26, 1792

Primary Sources and Political Parties: Reading Complex Texts

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Primary sources naturally offer students practice reading complex texts. Depending on the time period from which a source originates, students will likely encounter words and phrases that are new or unfamiliar. While students may grumble at deciphering language used at a different time and place, spending time on that task helps students build vocabulary, construct meaning, and often form new questions that spark additional inquiry.

Complex texts from the Library’s Political Parties primary source set are topical and may be of interest to your students. Each of these sources offers a chance to build particular skills:

This letter from George Washington to Alexander Hamilton (transcription) works well to help students to practice determining the central idea and how an idea develops over the course of a text.

George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, August 26, 1792


Before students get started, you might give them just a taste of historical context:

It’s August 1792, the summer before the United States’ first presidential election. While George Washington is popular, there is growing dissatisfaction among some with current government. Washington is responding to a letter that he recently received from the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Note: The letter in full is about 700 words. One modification could be to assign students three key paragraphs, starting with “Differences in political opinion . . .” and concluding with “discordant members of the Union, and the Governing powers of it.” 

Once students have the letter, either printed or displayed on a device, encourage them to make observations.

  • What do they notice first?
  • How is the letter organized?
  • What do you they see that looks strange or unfamiliar? Note: Students may record words and phrases that they do not know. They may need to do some definition work as they examine the text more closely and reflect on the key ideas. 

Next, students can start a close read of the letter. They might first read or skim the text without recording any reflections, and then more slowly read the text again, giving attention to the following:

  • What is the central point or idea that Washington makes?
  • How does he develop his point or idea/s over the course of the letter? What details does Washington give that shape or refine his point?

Encourage students to note any new questions they have after reading the text: What do they want to know more about?

Add this historical context after students complete the activity, if needed:

Washington wrote this letter at a time of great uncertainty and growing division in the country. Factions within the government and among the people persisted from earlier debates about the scope of the federal government. These divisions coincided with regional differences and competing ideas about priorities for the new nation.

Ask students how the additional context affects their understanding of the ideas Washington expressed.

Consider closing by giving time for students to make connections about the feelings of uncertainty and division in the past and today. Rather than through letters, what platform or mediums are used today? Why does that matter?

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