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In the years immediately following the American Revolution, many citizens still felt ill-at-ease with the state of the union. Patriots felt the right to assert their victory over the land, and Loyalists felt oppressed and belittled over their defeat.
This activity allows students to explore these tensions through one of Alexander Hamilton’s most famous and influential court cases from his time as a lawyer in New York City. Rutgers v. Waddington, in which Hamilton defended a Tory merchant, looked at several major issues of the time, such as relationships between Patriots and Loyalists, post-war legislation, and the burgeoning concept of judicial review. Students will re-enact the case in a “mock trial” setting, and learn more about the outcome and historical significance of the case using video segments from the PBS program Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton. As an optional extension activity, students can explore the modern implications of Hamilton’s Federalist Papers.
This lesson is best used with students following a unit on the American Revolution.
Two 45 minute class periods
The Case of Elizabeth Rutgers versus Joshua Waddington
An excellent primary source document, this book published by Bradstreet Press in 1866, details the particulars of the Rutgers v. Waddington trial. Available to read free online at OpenLibrary.org, this is a valuable resource for students looking for more background information on the case. Please note that the original typesetting used may be difficult for students to read.
Make copies of the Rutgers v. Waddington Case Dossier Handout for all students, except those acting as court recorder(s) or jury members.
For more information on the case, you may wish to consult or have your students read The Case of Elizabeth Rutgers versus Joshua Waddington. This case for determined in the Mayor's Court in the City of New York, August 6, 1786.
Before the “mock trial” begins, arrange the desks or seats in the classroom in the style of the Mayor’s Court, with desks at the front for the Mayor and the five Aldermen, a desk (or desks) at the side of the room for the court recorder(s), desks in the center of the room for the plaintiff, defendant, and their attorneys, and desks in the back of the room for the jury members or observers.
1. The case of Rutgers v. Waddington was important not just for the establishment of judicial review, and advancement of Alexander Hamilton’s legal career, but for changing the attitudes of Patriots and Loyalists in the aftermath of the Revolution. Explain to students that during the American Revolution, British soldiers and Loyalists would commonly live and work in properties abandoned by Patriots in areas that were occupied by the British army. Ask students if they think this practice was fair. Why or why not? Remind students that the British government and many Loyalists still perceived the colonies as being under British rule. Ask students to think about how they would feel if this practice continued today, and soldiers – or even just citizens with opposing viewpoints – were allowed to live in their homes or work in their offices without their permission. Is that fair? What if it is during wartime, and the soldiers and citizens would face severe penalties if they disobeyed the orders to occupy your home? Encourage discussion among students.
2. Tell students that you would like them to reenact the case of Rutgers v. Waddington in class. Students will portray the roles of the major figures in the case, including the defendant Joshua Waddington, defense attorney Alexander Hamilton, plaintiff Elizabeth Rutgers, New York Attorney General Egbert Benson, Mayor James Duane, the court recorder, the bailiff, additional defense and prosecution attorneys, and five city aldermen. (Note to educator: In order to include all students in the class, you may wish to stage more than onetrial, or create more roles for the students to fill, such as attorneys’ aides, jury members, community members, or extra court recorders. These roles are not necessarily historically accurate, but the will allow more of your students to participate in the mock trial experience.) Ask for student volunteers or assign students to act in each of the roles.
3. Distribute the Rutgers v. Waddington Case Dossier handout to all students, except those acting as court recorder(s) or jury members. Explain to students that the court recorder(s) or jury members would not want to have any bias or background information going into the case. Give students class time to review the information in the Dossier and prepare statements and arguments as necessary, or ask them to review for homework. Students may research their roles or the particulars of the case further if they wish. Set up the classroom for the “mock trial” (see Prep for Teachers section).
4. Have students, in their assigned roles, act out the Rutgers v. Waddington court case, following the steps outlined below:
5. Ask the students why they made the decision they did, based on the facts and arguments of the case. Do they think their decision is the same as the historical verdict. Is it the same as another modern judge would have ruled? For homework, ask each student to write a one-page essay on their interpretation of the case and class verdict, from the perspective of the role they played in the trial.
1. Tell students that they are going to see a video of another “mock trial” of the Rutgers v. Waddington case, argued in a modern courtroom by historical re-enactors. As students watch the video, ask them to observe and write in their notebooks the similarities and differences to the arguments put forth in their own classroom mock trial. Play An 18th Century Court Today. When the video is over, review students’ observations with the class. How similar or different was their trial from the trial in The People’s Court? How close was their verdict to Judge Milian’s?
2. Explain to students, as mentioned in the video, that in the actual trial in 1784, Mayor James Duane ruled that Elizabeth Rutgers would only be reimbursed £791, for rents lost during Joshua Waddington’s claimed civilian occupation of the property, rather than the original £8,000 sum asked for. One of, if not the, major reasons for this verdict was Hamilton’s compelling argument that New York’s Trespass Act of 1783 was, in fact, unlawful – that it went against the conditions of the Treaty of Paris signed to end the American Revolutionary War. This not only established that Alexander Hamilton was skilled at making legal arguments and interpreting important political documents – a talent that would come in handy when writing the Federalist Papers just a couple years later – but it helped to launch the process of judicial review, wherein a previously established law could be declared unlawful.
1. If students are interested in learning more about Hamilton’s talent for interpreting the word of the law, you may want to teach them about the Federalist Papers. Explain that the Federalist Papers were a series of 85 essays, published in 1787 and 1788 supporting the ratification of the Constitution. While authorship of the Federalist Papers was officially anonymous at the time of publication, it was speculated (and confirmed, after his death) that just about two-thirds of the essays were written by Alexander Hamilton. The others were written by James Madison and John Jay.
2. Explain to students that although the Federalist Papers were written over 200 years ago, they remain important documents in the interpretation of United States law to this day. Tell students that you are going to show them a video of a “moot court” – similar to the one they staged in class – in which lawyers invoke Hamilton’s Federalist essays to decide on a verdict. As students watch the video, ask them to observe what the lawyers and judges are specifically citing from the Federalist papers, and how it applies to their modern legal decision. Have students write observations down in their notebooks. Play The Federalists Today. When video is finished, ask students to share their observations with the class.
3. Ask students if they think that Hamilton’s arguments regarding the Constitution should be used in modern courtrooms and legal arguments today. Why or why not? Encourage discussion among students.