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Hamilton contest explores historical icons

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The winners of the Hamilton Essay Contest, a contest sponsored by the St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, were announced on Oct. 11. According to the press release, the contest was “designed to generate insightful student perspectives on important political figures and controversies.”

The contest was open only to St. Olaf students from the class of 2020, and contestants were instructed to write on one of two prompts: “If the two candidates running for President this November were Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, whom would you vote for and why?” or “Who should be in your wallet? How should the recent controversy over faces on the fronts of the $10 and $20 bills have been resolved and why?” The 11 winners will go on an all-expenses-paid trip to Chicago on Dec. 3 to see the Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton” in the room where it happens, the PrivateBank Theatre.

The Institute for Freedom and Community was established at St. Olaf in 2015. According to its mission statement, the Institute strives to educate students interested in public affairs and searching for truth. It also “seeks to challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue.” The Institute sponsors several programs here at St. Olaf, including the Public Affairs Conversation program, faculty development, lectures and debates. In fact, the Hamilton Essay Contest was designed to preview a panel of visiting speakers on Oct. 20, titled “Who’s In Your Wallet?: Hamilton, Jackson, Tubman, and the Presidential Election.”

Meanwhile, the contest was first announced in the St. Olaf Class of 2020 Facebook group over the summer and through posters placed around campus during the fall. The 11 students making the Dec. 3 trip are George Arbanas ’20, Alyson Brinker ’20, Matthew Dufresne ’20, Madison Duran ’20, Callahan Gergen ’20, John Goodson ’20, Erik Lepisto ’20, Meredith Moore ’20, Molly Nakahara ’20, Devon Nielsen ’20 and William Randolph ’20. Writing the essay proved a challenge for some, but others enjoyed the prompts.

“I decided to enter because I have always liked Alexander Hamilton since third grade, and I like to think I was a trendsetter back in grade school now that everyone likes him because of the play,” Lepisto said. “But I really do believe that Hamilton doesn’t get the credit he deserves, so it is great to see people really take an interest in him.”

“I would vote for Hamilton. I justified this by stating that Hamilton was a candidate of conviction and stood true to his beliefs, yet Jefferson did not uphold many of his when he was in office, whether that be strict construction or equality. Hamilton knew he had to prove himself and had to demonstrate his political prowess therefore he stood true to his beliefs, yet still compromised when the interest of the new nation depended on it,” Lepisto said.

Randolph, on the other hand, decided to tackle the controversy of whether or not to keep Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with his essay.

“I decided that the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill was the right decision, based solely on the fact that Jackson despised paper money and should never have been put on there in the first place,” Randolph said. “And then of course there’s Tubman’s list of achievements, which is impressive all on its own, let alone compared to Jackson’s. All in all, I was satisfied with the decisions the public has made.”

Even though the winners will only have 24 hours in Chicago, they are very excited for the trip.

“I am ecstatic! I could not believe that I had won originally; I was kind of in a state of disbelief and happiness. I cannot wait until the show,” Nakahara said.

“I feel shocked, excited and extremely thankful,” Moore said. “When I first heard the news, I was so happy that I couldn’t stop smiling for the next few hours. Even now, I still get super excited when I think about it. I can’t believe that I really get to see “Hamilton” in person. I realize that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am so grateful for the chance to participate in this contest.”

“I’m still in shock over it, honestly,” Duran said. “I think I will be until Decemeber third is right on the horizon.”

walker1@stolaf.edu