Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 21 2018

Alexander Hamilton

Born January 11, 1755 or 1757 (Nevis, British West Indies)
Died July 12, 1804 (Weehawken, New Jersey)

Secretary of the U.S. treasury, political leader

As the nation's first secretary of the treasury under President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2), Alexander Hamilton mapped out an ambitious plan to place the United States on firm economic footing. Hamilton was a key member of President Washington's Cabinet (a president's closest advisors), and the president commonly adopted Hamilton's ideas instead of the recommendations of other officials. As a result, Hamilton would help shape the new nation more than any other individual, and his influences continued for decades later.

"If we are wise enough to preserve the Union we may for ages enjoy an advantage similar to that of an insulated situation. Europe is at a great distance from us."

Hamilton sought to reshape the American economy, which was primarily agricultural in the eighteenth century. He wanted the United States to have a market economy with robust international trade and growing industry. A market economy is commerce operating relatively free of government intervention, where demand and availability of goods and materials determines prices, distribution, and production levels. Hamilton believed that the new economy he proposed would create greater opportunities for citizens to improve their standing in society. Rather than inheriting land or wealth, they could apply their skills and hard work to earn higher status and financial security.

His ardent support of a strong central government and his economic plans placed Hamilton at the head of a growing political faction that grew into the Federalist Party. The Federalists favored a strong association between government and wealthy merchants, financiers, and manufacturers. Hamilton distrusted democracy (a government ruled through decisions by the majority of the people), believing that the common person was not sufficiently knowledgeable to vote in the best interests of the nation. Hamilton also sought to put limits on republicanism (governing a country by the consent of the people and for the benefit of the people through elected representatives). He wanted to establish national wealth and power and maintain political order in the young United States. However, his goals and ideas for the nation would come into sharp conflict with those of other political leaders in America.

A natural talent for economic trade

Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis, a British colony in the West Indies. There is uncertainty about whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. He grew up on the nearby island of Saint Croix. Alexander was the second of two sons born out of wedlock to James Hamilton, who came from a wealthy Scottish family, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, daughter of a French Huguenot physician (the Huguenots were French Protestants who faced religious persecution by the French Catholic government after 1685). Rachel had been unsuccessful in gaining a divorce from her first husband, but through time she became known socially as James Hamilton's wife. James abandoned the family in 1765, as financial problems mounted. Rachel opened a small store on Saint Croix to support the family. However, she died only a few years later, in 1768, leaving Alexander an orphan as a preteen.

Young Hamilton had received a limited education from his mother and a Presbyterian priest. After his mother's death, he began working for two international merchants from New York who had established a store on Saint Croix. Hamilton proved so skilled in commerce that the merchants gave him more and more responsibilities.

Off to school in America

Recognizing Hamilton's substantial ambition and intelligence, some of his relatives and the priest who had educated him offered to pay for Hamilton's college education. Hamilton left for New York in 1772. He first received additional schooling at a preparatory school and then entered King's College (later Columbia University) in the fall of 1773.

Hamilton was an avid reader and excelled in his studies. He also found time to make friends with a number of influential citizens who were promoting independence from Britain. He became increasingly involved in political activity, speaking at political rallies and attracting attention with his writing on political matters. He published two pamphlets in the winter of 1774–75, while still a teenager. One pamphlet rebutted criticisms by the Reverend Samuel Seabury (1729–1796) over actions taken by the First Continental Congress in 1774 to challenge British policies. Hamilton published the two pamphlets anonymously. They were so well written that many people thought they must be the work of a prominent political leader such as Massachusetts politician John Adams (1735–1826; see entry in volume 1).

A full war experience

When war broke out in 1775, Hamilton eagerly jumped into the action. He became an officer in command of an artillery company for the Continental Army. Impressed with Hamilton's leadership abilities, General Nathanael Greene (1742–1786) introduced him to General George Washington. Working under Washington's command, Hamilton demonstrated courage during battles fought in New York and New Jersey, including the Battle of Trenton. He saw considerable combat action through 1776. In March 1777, Hamilton became a lieutenant colonel and personal aide to General Washington. He showed great intellect and skill in his handling of Washington's heavy load of correspondence with Congress, the states, and others.

Hamilton was greatly influenced by what he observed during the war as General Washington's trusted adviser. For example, he noted that the Continental Congress had no taxing powers, so it was forced to finance the war with almost worthless paper money. The Congress held no stocks of gold or silver to back or support the value of the paper money it printed. Therefore, citizens could not take the currency to a bank and exchange it for the same value of gold or silver. Any stocks of gold or silver in America were held by the states to support their own paper money. While farmers and merchants profited from wartime demands for supplies and food, the soldiers went without pay and were often hungry and poorly clothed. In 1777 and 1778, Hamilton wrote several reports on improving the military, including a plan of reorganization and a set of military regulations.

In 1780, while the war continued, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of wealthy and influential New Yorker General Philip Schuyler (1733–1804). They had eight children.

During the war, Hamilton read extensively on European economic and political matters. Hamilton also became an avid supporter of a strong central government, believing it was necessary for the nation's survival. He believed that any government that made the conduct of business profitable for its citizens would appeal to wealthy business interests and could prosper with their investments and financial support. Businessmen profiting in a national economy would want that nation to survive and prosper as well. In April 1781, he sent a lengthy letter to Robert Morris (1734–1806), treasurer for the national government that was operating under the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution. The letter stressed the need for a highly centralized national financial system in place of the existing situation in which states competed over trade with each other while using different currencies.

Hamilton served General Washington until early 1781. He then left that position to seek more active combat duties. Later that year, Washington assigned him to command an infantry battalion. Hamilton again showed courage on the battlefield, leading his troops to victory at the Battle of Yorktown.

A life of law and politics

Following the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton left military service to begin a new stage in his life. He decided to become a lawyer, passing the New York bar (law test) in July 1782 after only a few months of study. A bok he wrote while studying law became an important law manual that was used for many years in New York. Hamilton became a member of the Continental Congress in November 1782. This experience further confirmed a belief he had formed while serving in the Continental Army for General Washington that the nation would not survive under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had created a very weak central government that had no power to raise money through taxes or to regulate trade among the states. Hamilton left his Congress seat in 1783 to open a private law practice on Wall Street in New York City.

Hamilton's interest in government reform persisted, and when a meeting of states was planned for September 1786, he was appointed as a delegate for New York. Hamilton was one of twelve delegates to attend the meeting, which took place in Annapolis, Maryland. Discussions at the meeting focused on America's economic plight. Failing to come up with any immediate solutions, the delegates recommended that a larger convention of states should take place in Philadelphia the following year. The purpose of the proposed convention would be to correct the severe problems of the national government. Hamilton drafted the proposal for the second meeting of states, a meeting that was destined to become the Constitutional Convention.

Adopting a new constitution

Serving in the New York legislature in 1787, Hamilton persuaded his fellow legislators to send delegates to the Philadelphia convention in May 1787. He was selected as one of three New York delegates. Hamilton was surprisingly quiet throughout much of the debates that summer as he had to tend at times to his law practice. He did give one lengthy speech on June 18, in which he proposed a radical idea for a new national government. He proposed that the federal government appoint state governors and that U.S. senators and the president be elected for life. These changes, if adopted, would nearly eliminate state governments and take much political power away from the people.

The constitution adopted that September did not include Hamilton's radical changes. However, it did provide for a much stronger central government than the Articles of Confederation had allowed. Hamilton fully supported the new constitution, but the other two New York delegates strongly disapproved and returned to New York without signing the document. Hamilton had no authority to sign the Constitution on behalf of New York, because he was essentially outvoted two to one in the New York delegation. Nonetheless, when the time came, he stepped forward and signed the Constitution as an individual, starting a battle in New York over ratification (acceptance).

Ratification attempts

Hamilton joined with fellow New Yorker John Jay (1745–1829; see entry in volume 1) and James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), the principal author of the Constitution, to write a series of eighty-five essays published in New York newspapers from October 1787 to May 1788. The essays promoted ratification of the new constitution by the states. Hamilton wrote at least fifty-one of the essays on his own and three with Madison. The essays were published in a book titled The Federalist, one of the most influential political books produced in U.S. history. In his essays, Hamilton interpreted the Constitution and explained the powers of the three branches of government. U.S. courts would use these essays for the next two centuries, whenever cases required interpretation of the Constitution. While he was still writing the essays, Hamilton returned to a seat in the Continental Congress in February 1788 and helped establish a time frame for creating a new government.

Hamilton displayed his great political skills at the New York ratifying convention in Poughkeepsie in June 1788. At the beginning of the convention, the delegates were heavily opposed to ratification. However, with determination and the help of John Jay and Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813), Hamilton was able to change their minds, persuading them to approve the Constitution. In the end, the delegates voted in favor of ratification by a narrow margin.

Secretary of the treasury

With the formation of the new national government under the U.S. Constitution, newly elected President Washington appointed Hamilton as the first secretary of the treasury in September 1789. Former Confederation treasurer Robert Morris had been the first choice for the post, but he declined the appointment. Hamilton was the obvious second choice, and he eagerly accepted. The treasury secretary was the most important position in government at that time because the nation had serious financial problems. Congress assigned Hamilton the task of developing a plan for national economic reform.

Hamilton quickly became a dominating influence in President Washington's administration. He was committed to making the United States a major economic power in the world. To do this, he needed to increase the economic importance of American manufacturing to balance out the influence of agriculture. Hamilton wanted to provide U.S. manufacturers with money for expansion and stimulate foreign trade. Strengthening the federal government and building the U.S. economy were his primary goals. He was much less concerned about protecting individual liberties.

Hamilton's plan

Having paid no interest on its foreign loans for years, the U.S. government had an exceptionally poor credit reputation among potential lenders, and the national debt was large. Hamilton estimated that the nation owed $11 million to foreign lenders and $42 million to individual American citizens and companies that had helped finance the American Revolution. In addition, the states owed their lenders $25 million, money used by the state militias during the war. To remedy the dire situation, Hamilton proposed a series of economic plans, which he unveiled in Congress between January 1790 and December 1791. Congress adopted many of Hamilton's recommended measures. They assumed the states' war debts, established a national bank and national mint (a place where bills and coins are manufactured), and funded payment of the national debt on an annual basis. Congress also established new taxes on imported goods and on domestic whiskey production to provide revenue for the government. Whiskey production by American farmers was widespread since they found it was the most efficient means of making profits with their corn crops. Corn itself was too difficult to transport over the nation's poor road system, so the corn was mashed and used in the whiskey-making process.

Debates over creation of the national bank led Madison and others to claim that the federal government had no constitutional powers to charter a private bank. Hamilton responded by invoking the "implied powers" clause of the Constitution for the first time. He asserted that the clause gave Congress authority to take whatever actions were necessary to carry out its enumerated (explicitly granted) powers. Although such actions were not specified in the Constitution, Hamilton thought they were intended and implied by those who drafted the document. Hamilton won this battle and the first national bank was established. Creation of the bank was necessary for the government to collect revenue and manage its finances. In 1789, only three banks existed in the nation. The new First Bank of the United States had a twenty-year charter and began with $10 million to loan to new or expanding businesses.

Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians

Hamilton participated in almost every key decision involving financial, domestic, or foreign policy issues during George Washington's presidency. Such a role conflicted with the assigned duties and responsibilities of others in the presidential administration, particularly Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; see entry in volume 1). Hamilton and Jefferson steadily developed a strong dislike for each other. Each one believed that the other was leading the nation to ultimate destruction. From their fundamentally different perspectives grew two political factions known as the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. These two unorganized factions grew into the nation's first two political parties, the Federalists, led by Hamilton, and the Republicans (later called the Democratic-Republicans), led by Jefferson. President Washington, caught in the middle of the conflict between two of his Cabinet members, was much distressed by the lack of unity among his advisors, the nation's leaders. However, his efforts to lessen the growing bitterness were unsuccessful.

In 1789, Hamilton had encouraged printer John Fenno (1751–1798) to publish pro-Federalist articles in the Gazette of the United States. The articles largely promoted Hamilton's vision of what the U.S. government should be. Two years later, in reaction to Fenno's newspaper, Jefferson recruited Philip Freneau (1752–1832; see entry in volume 1) to publish the National Gazette, a newspaper that would promote Jeffersonian perspectives. Each paper strongly criticized the opposing political faction and its leaders.

Hamilton continued taking part in foreign policy matters in 1793. He guided President Washington to a position of neutrality (not supporting either warring side) when France declared war on Britain. The Jeffersonians were clamoring to aid France. Hamilton argued that war against Britain would be disastrous for the United States. Hamilton's economic policies were largely funded by tax revenue on British importe dgoods. In addition, the nation had no money to raise an army. Hamilton's concerns convinced President Washington that it would be best to avoid entering the war. Washington issued the Neutrality Proclamation in April 1793.

The effects of Hamilton's actions

Thomas Jefferson was frustrated that President Washington consistently favored Hamilton's advice. Jefferson therefore resigned as secretary of state in December 1793. As tensions with the British continued to build, Hamilton encouraged the president to send New York politician John Jay to Britain in the summer of 1794 to seek peaceful resolutions. While Jay was proceeding openly with negotiations, he was unaware that Hamilton was working behind the scenes with the British to influence the outcome of the talks.

Hamilton's economic and foreign policies brought dramatic results, both positive and negative. On the positive side, the credit of the United States became very strong, the national bank brought about growth in business, America's wealthy and influential citizens became strong financial supporters of the government, and a uniform federal currency was established over potentially incompatible individual state currencies. The country prospered. The value of exports doubled, and business was expanding.

On the other hand, Hamilton's programs led to an armed rebellion in western Pennsylvania, carried out by farmers protesting the whiskey tax. The Whiskey Rebellion did, however, give Hamilton a chance to show the new government's strength. He and President Washington personally led a force of twenty thousand troops to quiet the rebellion. Hamilton's policies created a great deal of controversy. They inspired the formation of the nation's first two political parties, which were made up of people who either supported the policies or opposed them. His political enemies claimed that Hamilton was pro-British and undoing the gains of liberty brought by the Revolution.

Despite the criticism he endured, Hamilton remained a strong figure in early U.S. politics. However, as secretary of the treasury, he received only modest pay, and he began to feel the financial hardship of his position. Therefore, in January 1795, Hamilton left office. He had acted with great boldness and foresight in his role as secretary of the treasury. When he took office, the national government had been essentially broke; by the time he left, the United States enjoyed a higher credit rating than any European country. A high credit rating meant people trusted loaning money to the U.S. government and felt confident that the nation could pay the loan back on schedule.

Hamilton returned to a prosperous private law practice. He held no aspirations for the presidency. He was far too controversial a figure to have any real chance of election. However, his law practice was very successful. He was a favorite of the New York merchants.

A continuing influence

Hamilton continued to be a leading force in the Federalist Party and a close advisor to President Washington. He helped draft President Washington's famous Farewell Address, the announcement that Washington would retire from public office at the end of his second term. When Vice President John Adams succeeded Washington as president, Adams retained everyone who was in Washington's Cabinet when he completed his second term. These were all men who largely identified with the Federalist Party and personally knew well its leader Hamilton. As a result, Hamilton's influence remained strong until Adams purged the Cabinet membership of close Hamilton friends in 1800 to end Hamilton's strong influence on the presidential administration.

Hamilton's efforts to influence the Adams administration led to a major split in the Federalist Party. In 1798, as the United States edged toward war against France, President Adams asked George Washington if he would assume command of the military in the event that America did enter the war. Washington agreed to take on the job but demanded that Hamilton be made second in command. Much to Adams's dismay, Hamilton was given a rank of major general. Hamilton proceeded to build the army, anticipating military glory once again. However, Adams sent a successful peace mission to France in 1800, so the U.S. military never got involved. Hamilton was left very disappointed. In the fall election in 1800, Hamilton did not support the reelection campaign of Adams, his fellow Federalist. Instead, prior to the election, he made a grave political error by publishing a strong critique of Adams. The Federalist Party suffered from Hamilton's rash action and poor judgment; Adams, who lost to Democratic-Republican Jefferson, was the last Federalist to win a presidential election.

Dueling in America

In 1804, the year that Aaron Burr shot down Alexander Hamilton in a duel, dueling was a socially accepted way of settling a dispute and preserving a person's honor. Hamilton's nineteen-year-old son, Phillip, died in a duel only three years earlier at the same location where his father would die—Weehawken, New Jersey. Weehawken was a common place for duels because it was directly across the Hudson River from New York.

A duel is a formal fight between two people using weapons. Typically, a man would challenge another person to a duel after being insulted or offended by that person. If the person who received the challenge accepted the challenge, he would choose the place and time of the duel and the type of weapon to be used. Dueling had a long history in Europe, and the American colonists brought it with them to North America. The first duel recorded in America occurred in 1621, not long after the Pilgrim ship the Mayflower landed in New England.

At the time of the Hamilton-Burr duel, those who engaged in dueling followed a code developed in Ireland in 1777; the code consisted of twenty-six rules. For instance, both parties were required to have representatives who acted on their behalf to try to resolve the dispute before the date of the duel. An apology would immediately end the challenge. If a person refused to accept a challenge, the challenger could then post his grievances against the offender in a prominent public place. The rules directed how the duelers would choose the time of day and number of shots. The rules also dictated that the duelists had to fire within three seconds after taking aim. Death was not common, because between 1750 and 1850 most duels were fought with large-caliber pistols, which were not very accurate and often misfired.

Many prominent Americans took part in duels, including future U.S. president Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; see entry in volume 1), who gained a reputation for his excellent dueling skills. Other important American leaders, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790; see entry in volume 1), strongly opposed dueling. Despite laws against dueling in some states, it persisted as an accepted social practice until the time of the American Civil War (1861–65).

Political feud simmers, rages, and ends in tragedy

Aside from Jefferson and Adams, Hamilton had also established a long-running political and personal feud with fellow New Yorker Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1). In the 1800 presidential election, Burr tied with Jefferson for the most electoral votes for president. At that time, the presidential and vice presidential candidates were all listed on the same ballot. Electors of the states cast two votes for the two candidates they wished to be president and vice president; the top vote-getter was elected president, while the second-place winner became vice president. Jefferson and Burr represented the Democratic-Republican Party, and all electors who supported that party cast their two votes for them. As a result, both received the same number of votes.

When the House of Representatives cast votes in order to break the tie—as required by law—Hamilton made it clear that he supported Jefferson, and Jefferson ultimately won the presidency. It was no secret why Hamilton made this choice: Hamilton detested Burr, partly because Burr had defeated Hamilton's father-in-law in his 1794 campaign to become governor of New York.

After Jefferson took office as president, Hamilton helped found the New York Evening Post in 1801. He used the publication to promote his political views in opposition to the Jefferson administration. During this time Hamilton continued his profitable law practice. Hamilton built a large home for his family in New York City in 1802 and 1803; it was known as "The Grange."

Hamilton once again crossed paths with Burr in 1804. Burr, who had earlier left the Federalist Party to run as a Democratic-Republican candidate, now rejoined the Federalists to run for New York governor. Hamilton publicly ridiculed Burr's capabilities, and some of his comments about Burr were published in a New York newspaper. Hamilton supported Burr's Democratic-Republican opponent in the election, and Burr was ultimately defeated.

Burr realized that his political life was ruined. Having left the Democratic-Republican Party and having been severely criticized by Hamilton, the recognized leader of the Federalist Party, he had no political clout left. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, a formal fight between two people using weapons. At the time, duels were an accepted way for men to reclaim their honor if they had been insulted or wronged in some way. Hamilton's son had been killed in a duel only a few years before; nevertheless, Hamilton still felt obligated to accept Burr's challenge. They met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on the bank of the Hudson River, on the morning of July 11, 1804. As they drew their guns, Hamilton chose not to fire at Burr. However, Burr fired a shot that penetrated Hamilton's liver and spine. Hamilton died the following day. One of America's most dominating political figures had lost his life at the hands of the vice president of the United States.

For More Information


Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.

Hecht, Marie B. Odd Destiny: The Life of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Lycan, Gilbert L. Alexander Hamilton & American Foreign Policy: A Design for Greatness. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper, 1959. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Morris, Richard B., ed. Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation. New York: Dial Press, 1957. Reprint, New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Web Sites

"Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." New-York Historical Society.http://www.alexanderhamiltonexhibition.org/ (accessed on August 13, 2005).

"The Duel." The American Experience: Public Broadcasting Service.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/duel/index.html (accessed on August 13, 2005).

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 21 2018

Hamilton, Alexander 1755-1804


When Alexander Hamilton was born on the small Caribbean island of Nevis, probably in 1755, he seemed destined for obscurity. His parents never married. When Hamilton was ten his father abandoned Hamilton and his mother and brother, and his mother died two years later. Strong natural abilities and the patronage of well-to-do citizens made possible Hamiltons escape. He was sent to North America to receive a college education, which was cut short by the American Revolution. Hamilton took up arms on the American side. His abilities came to the attention of George Washington (17321799), who brought him into his personal staff. This began one of the most consequential partnerships in American history. Hamilton was always the junior partner, but the vigor of his character and intellect were critical for Washingtons success.

After the Revolution, Hamilton took up law as a profession and became active in local, state, and national politics. He served as member to the Continental Congress, agitated for a constitutional convention, and participated in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. It was after the convention that Hamiltons primary contributions to the new Republic began. Hamilton organized the writing of The Federalist Papers and contributed a little more than half the essays. He contributed mightily in the very difficult struggle to get the Constitution ratified in the critical state of New York. Washington, as the United States first president, appointed Hamilton his first secretary of the treasury, a role in which Hamilton distinguished himself as an original economic thinker and a model civil servant. He established the Treasury Department, dealt decisively with the nations financial crisis, put in place a financial system that remains in the early twenty-first century, and sketched out a plan and justification for the encouragement of manufactures. As treasury secretary, Hamilton also made a substantial contribution to the debates regarding the scope of the executive power and the proper way to interpret the Constitution.

Much was of enduring significance in Hamiltons political and economic thought. Hamilton believed the task facing Americans was to show that, despite its historical record of failure, republican government was compatible with liberty and the public interest. In a speech at the Constitutional Convention on June 18, 1787, Hamilton advocated the inclusion of institutions, as far as republican principles will admit, that would lend energy and stability to the republican form, which he defined as an equality of political rightsthat is, a system without any hereditary political privileges (Hamilton 2001). At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton proposed an elected president and senate to serve during good behavior. His suggestions about the presidency led to a charge of monarchism that followed him for the rest of his life. Although Hamilton favored a lower house that was democratic, he believed that republicanisms best chance for success lay in establishing institutions that could check the popular spirit and pursue a steady course of administration.

The Constitution of course did not meet Hamiltons expectations, but he threw his prodigious energies into the fight for its ratification. During this debate and while serving as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton elaborated an argument for energetic government in general and energy in the executive in particular. Hamilton may have been the first to employ the term energy in a political sense, using it to mean activity, vigor, and decisiveness in government. Energy is, he reasoned, more likely to arise when power is placed in one set or a very few sets of hands. Hamilton argued for a prompt and generally strict execution of the law. He considered it his job as treasury secretary to provide guidance for the legislative branch in its deliberations on economic matters. More generally, Hamilton provided the classic argument for a broad construction of the executive power under the Constitution. During the controversy over Washingtons declaration of neutrality between revolutionary France and its enemies, Hamilton argued that Article II granted the president the executive power as a whole, including what the English philosopher and economist John Locke (16321704) had termed the federative power over foreign affairs, subject to the exceptions explicitly spelled out in the Constitution. Hamiltons position was consistent with his overall view that the Constitution should be construed liberally, or broadly, so that it might meet not just todays needs but the probable exigencies of ages, as he put it in essay No. 34 of The Federalist Papers (Hamilton 2001, p. 311).

Joseph A. Schumpeter described Hamiltons reports as treasury secretary as applied economics at its best (Schumpeter 1954, p. 199). The reports contain both sophisticated economic theorizing and an extraordinary attention to the details of administration. To correct the nations financial crisis, Hamilton proposed a funding system that dedicated revenues to meeting the nations debts, new taxes, an assumption of the state debts accumulated during the American Revolution, and the establishment of an independently operated national bank that would be both the governments banker and a facilitator of economic development. Believing that a capital shortage was the nations deepest economic problem, Hamilton attempted to modernize the financial system of the public and private sectors. He also proposed a plan to encourage manufacturing by providing government support for essential defense industries and for infant industries. In general, Hamilton supported free trade at home and abroad, but he was willing to make exceptions to compensate for the restrictions on trade established by other governments and to overcome the force of habit that attached Americans to agricultural employments. In this regard, Hamilton departed from the free-market prescriptions of the Scottish economist Adam Smith (17231790). In addition, unlike Thomas Jefferson (17431826) and James Madison (17511836), Hamilton did not see anything degrading or corrupting in manufacturing.

Hamilton struggled to find a political role for himself after he resigned from the Treasury in January 1795. His chief achievements of the period were the drafting of Washingtons Farewell Address and his argument in the Croswell case. In the 1804 Croswell case Hamilton argued before the New York Supreme Court that truth ought to be a defense in libel cases. Croswell had published claims that while he was vice president, Jefferson had paid for attacks on the characters of Washington and John Adams. Hamilton lost the case, but his position soon became the law in New York and in many other states. Other ventures did not go as well. His interference with the cabinet of the second U.S. president, John Adams (17351826), earned him Adamss intense hatred. His affair while treasury secretary with Maria Reynolds became the new Republics first great sex scandal when it was revealed in 1797. When recalled to serve as second in command of the army during the quasi-war, the significant but undeclared naval war with France (17981800), his ambitions for the army led to suspicions that he harbored imperial ambitions for himself.

Hamiltons remarkable life came to an end in his duel with Aaron Burr (17561836) in 1804. Hamilton had been working to thwart Burrs political ambitions for more than a decade, but his work to defeat Burrs gubernatorial hopes that year was probably the last straw. The challenge to a duel was an affair of honor that Hamilton could not, as a man of the world, decline. Hamilton seems to have decided to throw away his shot, but Burr shot to kill, taking the life of one of the most consequential men of the founding generation.

SEE ALSO American Revolution; Burr, Aaron; Caribbean, The; Central Banks; Constitution, U.S.; Federalism; Law; Liberty; Public Interest; Republicanism; Washington, George


Chernow, Ron. 2004. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.

Freeman, Joanne B. 2001. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hamilton, Alexander. 2001 Hamilton: Writings, ed. Joanne Freeman. New York: Library of America.

Knott, Stephen F. 2002. Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

McDonald, Forrest. 1979. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Norton.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1954. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walling, Karl-Friedrich. 1999. Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Peter McNamara

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated Jun 27 2018

Alexander Hamilton

Born January 11, 1755
Nevis, British West Indies
Died July 12, 1804
New York, New York

Secretary of the treasury, political leader, lawyer, soldier, journalist

Alexander Hamilton served as a trusted secretary to General George Washington see entry during the American Revolution (1775–83) and fought in the famous battle at Yorktown that ended the war. He is best known for his economic policies after the war, and for his role as the main author of the Federalist Papers. A brave soldier and talented writer and speaker, he seemed to have a solution for every problem he encountered.

Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755, in the town of Charleston on the island of Nevis (pronounced NEE-vus) in the West Indies, a group of islands that are located between the United States and South America. He was born to Rachel Fawcitt Lavien, daughter of a French doctor and planter, and James Hamilton, an unsuccessful Scottish businessman. At the time of Hamilton's birth, his mother was actually married to someone else, a man named John Lavien. She divorced Lavien in 1758, but the court that granted the divorce prohibited her from remarrying.

In 1765, shortly after the Hamiltons moved to the island of St. Croix (pronounced Saint-CROY), James Hamilton

lost all his money then abandoned his family. At age eleven, Alexander Hamilton had to take a job as a clerk at a local trading post, where he later worked as bookkeeper and briefly as a manager. His mother died in 1768.

Alexander Hamilton was a bright boy and it was his dream to go to college. In 1772 some townspeople raised the funds to send him away to school. He journeyed to America, briefly attended school in New Jersey, then went to New York City, where he entered what is now Columbia University in 1774.

Attends college, joins military

While a student in New York, Hamilton read the works of American patriots James Otis, John Adams , and John Dickinson (see entries), in which they defended the rights of Americans against oppressive British taxation policies. He was so moved by what he read that he decided to support the patriots' cause. Hamilton took part in his first public act of resistance against the British when he spoke out at a rally in a New York City park. His speech defended the Boston Tea Party (1773), in which citizens of Boston protested British taxation by throwing hundreds of cases of tea into Boston Harbor. He also spoke in favor of the upcoming First Continental Congress, which would bring together representatives from twelve of the thirteen colonies in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1774. They met to discuss ways of dealing with what they considered unfair treatment by the British.

During his college years, Hamilton wrote well-reasoned political pamphlets defending the rights of the colonists as English citizens. At first, Hamilton wrote in favor of binding the United States and England together as equal partners. But when England showed its unwillingness to share power, Hamilton and other patriots came to realize America would have to declare independence.

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, Hamilton quit college and joined a military unit in New York, where he was appointed a captain. It was a volunteer army and Hamilton had to gather together at least thirty men to serve under him. Hamilton's military company had to follow the same regulations as the Continental army, but members received lower pay. In a short time, Hamilton and his troops served at the battles of Long Island and White Plains, New York, and at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey.

In 1777, after two years in combat, Hamilton became the assistant and secretary to Commander in Chief George Washington, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel (pronounced loo-TEN-uhnt KER-nuhl). He wrote reports on the defects of the American military system and offered suggestions to correct them. While serving in the post, Hamilton earned the respect and admiration of Washington. He also met a number of other high-level soldiers and well-known people who would later help him advance his career. They came to respect him for his well-spoken manner, writing abilities, leadership skills, and first-hand knowledge of what was going on with the war.

Marries into wealthy family, splits with Washington

On December 14, 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler), daughter of the well-known General Philip John Schuyler, who was a member of a wealthy and important New York family. Richard Brookhiser, in his biography Alexander Hamilton, American, described Hamilton's appearance at about this time: "[He] had wavy chestnut brown hair, a classical [straight] nose, and deep-set violet eyes… He was five feet seven, not short by the standards of the day… But he was slim when many men … were stout. [There] was something youthful about him, younger even than his years; lively, open, [and impulsive]." The couple produced eight children during their long and happy marriage.

According to some historians, on February 16, 1781, Hamilton had an argument with General Washington that resulted in Hamilton's resignation. In July, after his replacement had been found, Hamilton took command of his own battalion (military unit). He played an important role in the Yorktown (Pennsylvania) Campaign, the last battle of the Revolutionary War. Hamilton was made colonel on September 30, 1783, but left military service at the end of the year.

Serves in Congress, attends Constitutional Convention

Hamilton was elected New York's representative to the Continental Congress (legislative body of the United States) for the 1782–83 term. He kept his hand in politics but also became one of the most-well known lawyers in New York City. In 1787 Hamilton was elected to the New York Legislature, the state's lawmaking body.

Hamilton had begun his career in national politics a year earlier in 1786, when he attended a convention in Maryland to discuss national governmental issues that were not covered by the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had served as the basis of America's government since 1777, but they were no longer adequate in a growing and developing nation. At the Maryland convention, Hamilton suggested that a Constitutional Convention be held the following year in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation and discuss major issues relating to the government of the United States.

Supports strong central government

Hamilton did not have a good opinion of human nature, and his ideas about government reflected that view. He believed that most people looked out only for themselves, and that there were few men who had the wisdom and foresight to govern a nation—he called them "the wise and good and rich."

In 1787 Hamilton attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He spoke out for a strong central government for the country, instead of a system in which individual states held equal power. Historian Brookhiser explained the core of the plan proposed by Hamilton in his biography. Brookhiser wrote, "The power … in Hamilton's plan would be wielded by a Senate [an upper house], elected from special election districts" by the citizens. The senators could serve for life if they behaved properly. The citizens would also elect representatives to a lower house, an Assembly whose members would serve for three years. Brookhiser explained, "The balance wheel between [the Senate and Assembly] would be a governor, chosen by special electors [voters] from the senatorial election districts. Like the senators, the national governor would serve [on the basis of] good behavior; he would also appoint the governors of the states."

Hamilton proposed that the federal government should act boldly in economic and military affairs and should have the power to overturn the decisions of state governments. Some of his ideas disturbed his fellow delegates, who feared the loss of state-held powers.

The Federalist Papers

To support their version of a proposed new U.S. Constitution, Hamilton, John Jay , and James Madison (see entries) wrote a series of essays called the Federalist Papers. Historians believe Hamilton wrote at least fifty-one of the eighty-five essays, which provided arguments that supporters of a Constitution could use in debating the issue. The Federalist Papers also provided explanations of how a proposed new government could operate.

After much debate by representatives at the Continental Congress, a proposed constitution for the United States was drawn up. It reflected many of Hamilton's views about government, particularly that of making the federal government more powerful than the state governments. The proposed work was sent to the legislatures of each state for a vote for or against passage. Hamilton was present at the New York Convention in 1787, where state representatives met to decide whether or not New York would ratify (pass) the proposed constitution. There, Hamilton made speeches, talked with individuals, and helped get the document passed.

The U.S. Constitution, which was adopted by the whole country in 1789, did not create a federal government as powerful as Hamilton would have liked. Still, he supported the Constitution because he believed it provided the country with its best hope for an effective union.

Serves as secretary of the Treasury

With the new U.S. Constitution in place, George Washington was elected the first U.S. president in 1789. When the new Congress established the Treasury Department to oversee the nation's financial affairs, Washington appointed Hamilton, his former military aide, as secretary of the Treasury.

Despite their earlier differences, Washington had always retained affection and respect for the younger man. Robert Hendrickson explained in his book on Hamilton that once Hamilton had stopped serving as Washington's aide, "he and Washington were free to form a new relationship… The old relationship of master to servant … changed to that of senior to junior partner, but partners nevertheless in public service to the nation in war and peace."

Hamilton served at the helm of the Treasury Department from 1789 to 1795. During that time he proposed many innovative measures that contributed to the security of the new nation. For example, during his first month in office, Hamilton proposed the establishment of a seagoing branch of the military. Hamilton's proposal led to the establishment of the U.S. Navy, and to the creation of the U.S. Naval Academy to train young officers.

Perhaps Hamilton's greatest contribution as Treasury secretary was the "Hamiltonian System." It was developed after Congress asked him to find a way to deal with the huge debts left over from the Revolutionary War. Hamilton published his solution in the 1790 "Report on the Public Credit." It described a model for a stable but flexible money system for the country that has survived to the present day. Hamilton proposed that the federal government assume the responsibility of paying the states' war debts.

Republican opposition

Hamilton's views were controversial and often faced opposition. His chief critics were Thomas Jefferson see entry and his Republican Party. The Republicans criticized Hamilton for being arrogant and favoring the interests of the wealthy over those of farm workers and other ordinary people. Many Republicans feared that Hamilton sought the destruction of the federal form of government and all state governments, and that he was leading the country toward rule by kings and queens.

To this charge Hamilton replied, "To this there is no other answer than a flat denial, except this: that the [notion], from its absurdity, refutes [disproves] itself." The Republicans also accused him of using his office to add to his own wealth (a charge for which there was no proof).

When Republicans opposed Hamilton's 1790 financial recommendations, the parties ironed out their differences at a private meeting. At the meeting, Hamilton agreed to support Jefferson's proposal to place the new capitol of the United States on Virginia's Potomac River in exchange for Jefferson's support of Hamilton's measures (Jefferson was from Virginia). When put to a vote, Hamilton's plan passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. Congress.

Other contributions to a strong, new nation

Hamilton had a very active and creative mind, and during his term as Treasury secretary, he offered many proposals to the new Congress. For example, Hamilton developed a plan to establish the first Bank of the United States. Government funds would be deposited in the bank, and the bank would encourage American manufacturing by paying cash rewards for productivity. He also suggested charging taxes on American imports and exports (goods shipped into and out of the country) to provide new sources of funds to run the government.

The always confident Hamilton grew so powerful that eventually he managed more than one thousand federal employees. He was an excellent financial planner. He prepared long, detailed financial reports for Congress, and he spoke out on nearly all major political issues, especially those regarding finance.

Hamilton's financial methods faced new opposition in 1794, when a group of whiskey makers rebelled against his efforts to collect taxes on liquor produced in the United States. Their protest resulted in outbreaks of violence in western Pennsylvania and Virginia, called the "Whiskey Rebellion." Hamilton was a great believer in the rule of law. He responded to the rebellion by joining General Henry Lee and his soldiers as an adviser when they were sent by President Washington to put down the rebellion.

Resumes private life; alienates John Adams

In 1795, Hamilton resigned from his office as Treasury secretary, mostly because he could not live on the salary it paid. He resumed the practice of law, which nearly tripled his salary to $12,000 a year. He worked mainly on cases involving business and insurance. But Hamilton's resignation did not mark the end of his public life. He stayed close to President George Washington, as both a friend and an adviser, and even helped to write his old friend's well-known Farewell Address at the end of his presidency.

Hamilton also assumed a leadership role at the Federalist Party convention of 1796 (see John Adams entry). Hamilton's dealings there led to bad feelings between him and party leader John Adams. Hamilton hoped to get Thomas Pinckney elected president, a job Adams wanted for himself. Hamilton's plan backfired, and Adams became the second president of the United States.

John Adams resented Hamilton's interference in the convention proceedings. But at the insistence of George Washington, in 1798 Adams reluctantly appointed Hamilton inspector general of the U.S. Army when war threatened to break out between France and the United States. Hamilton served for two years, then published an attack on Adams's presidency.

Some years later, Adams showed his great dislike of Hamilton and the people who held him in extremely high esteem. In a January 25, 1806, letter to his friend Benjamin Rush see entry, Adams wrote of Hamilton, "He was in an [excited madness] of ambition: he … had fixed his eye on the [presidency] and he hated every man young or old who stood in his way." The feud between Hamilton and Adams finally split their Federalist Party and contributed to its defeat in the presidential election of 1800.

Despite Hamilton's objections, Burr becomes vice-president

When Republicans Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied that year for the office of president, Hamilton used all of his influence to get his long-time enemy Jefferson elected, although he deeply disliked him. Hamilton trusted Jefferson far more than he did Burr, who was a successful New York lawyer, like Hamilton himself, and had served as a U.S. senator from New York.

In a series of letters he wrote to other Federalist Party members, Hamilton said "Burr has no principle, public or private" and "will listen to no monitor but his own ambition…He is cold-blooded enough to hope everything, daring enough to attempt everything, wicked enough [never to have his conscience bother him about anything]." Hamilton also voiced his fear that Burr would sell out to foreigners for his own financial advantage.

When the votes were counted, Jefferson became president and Burr vice-president. Elections at that time were determined by representatives of the different areas of the country. Hamilton's fears that Burr would behave unfairly as vice president proved unfounded, and Burr was praised by both parties for how well he presided over the Senate. Still, Hamilton never got over his deep distaste for Burr. In 1804, Hamilton succeeded in getting Burr defeated when Burr ran for governor of New York.

Hamilton and Burr duel

Burr was angry at Hamilton's efforts to keep him out of public office. When Burr read in a New York newspaper that Hamilton had called him "a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reigns of government," it was the last straw for Burr. He challenged Hamilton to a duel. A duel is a formal fight between two people armed with deadly weapons.

On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met in the countryside of Weehawken, New Jersey (dueling was illegal in the state of New York). Hamilton had recently experienced a religious awakening. Some historians claim that he decided to meet Burr for the duel but withhold his gunfire, so that Burr would have time to pause and reflect before acting. But Burr did not hesitate to fire. He hit Hamilton in the abdomen, with a bullet that finally lodged in his spine. Hamilton was rushed to the home of a friend in New York City, where he died thirty-one hours later in extreme pain. He was forty-seven years old. As for Burr, he fled shortly after the shooting, but soon returned to Washington and resumed his vice presidential duties.

The night before the duel, Hamilton wrote in a letter to his wife, "If it had been possible for me to have avoided the [duel], my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem."

Hamilton widely mourned

Hamilton's death shocked the nation. The Common Council of New York City voted to hold a public funeral at city expense, and citizens were asked to wear black armbands for thirty days in his honor. Merchants in his hometown of New York City voted to shut down their shops to march in the funeral procession, and flags were hung at half-mast. Hamilton was buried the next day in Manhattan's Trinity Churchyard.

Governor William Morris of New Jersey, his friend of thirty years, spoke at Hamilton's funeral. He recalled how George Washington had sought out Hamilton for his "splendid talents, extensive information and incorruptible integrity." Morris pointed out that Hamilton's policies resulted in "a rapid advance in power and prosperity, of which there is no example in any other age or nation. The part which Hamilton bore is universally known."

Strangely enough, Alexander Hamilton had lost his nineteen-year-old son, Philip, in a duel three years earlier. Overcome by grief at Philip's death, Hamilton's daughter, Angelica, became mentally ill. In time, his five other sons became lawyers and his daughter, Eliza, married and had a family. She also took care of her mother, Elizabeth, who lived to be ninety-five years old.

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M. "Hamilton, Alexander" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 477–81.

Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton: American. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Hendrickson, Robert A. The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1981.

McDonald, Forrest. "Hamilton, Alexander" in Encyclopedia of American Biography, 2nd ed. John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, eds. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, pp. 490–92.

Web Sites

"Biographical Sketch of Alexander Hamilton." Department of the Treasury: The Learning Vault. [Online] Available http://www.treas.gov/opc/opc0010.html (accessed on August 16, 1999).

Finseth, Ian. "The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton." [Online] Available http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/ham/hamilton.html (accessed on August 16, 1999).

"Who Served Here?: Major General Alexander Hamilton." Independence Hall Association. [Online] Available http://www.libertynet.org/iha/valleyforge/served/hamilton.html (accessed on August 16, 1999).

Alexander Hamilton

views updated May 21 2018

Alexander Hamilton

The first U.S. secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was instrumental in developing the nation's first political party, the Federalists.

Alexander Hamilton's birth date is disputed, but he probably was born on Jan. 11, 1755, on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, a Scotsman, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, daughter of a French Huguenot physician.

Hamilton's education was brief. He began working sometime between the ages of 11 and 13 as a clerk in a trading firm in St. Croix. In 1772 he left—perhaps encouraged and financed by his employers—to attend school in the American colonies. After a few months at an academy in New Jersey, he enrolled in King's College, New York City. Precocious enough to master most subjects without formal instruction and eager to win success and fame early in life, he left college in 1776 without graduating.

American Revolution

The outbreak of the American Revolution offered Hamilton the opportunity he craved. In March 1776 he became captain of a company of artillery and, a year later, a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and aide-de-camp to commanding general George Washington. Hamilton's ability was apparent, and he became one of Washington's most trusted advisers. Although he played no role in major military decisions, Hamilton's position was one of great responsibility. He drafted many of Washington's letters to high-ranking Army officers, the Continental Congress, and the states. He also was sent on important military missions and drafted major reports on the reorganization and reform of the Army. Despite the demands of his position, he found time for reading and reflection and expressed his ideas on economic policy and governmental debility in newspaper articles and in letters to influential public figures.

In February 1781, in a display of pique at a minor reprimand by Gen. Washington, Hamilton resigned his position. Earlier, on Dec. 14, 1780, he had married the daughter of Philip Schuyler, a member of one of New York's most distinguished families. In July 1781 Hamilton's persistent search for active military service was rewarded when Washington gave him command of a battalion of light infantry in the Marquis de Lafayette's corps. After the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton returned to New York. In 1782, following a hasty apprenticeship, he was admitted to the bar.

During the Revolution, Hamilton's ideas on government, society, and economic matured. These were conditioned by his foreign birth, which obviated a strong attachment to a particular state or locality, and by his presence at Washington's headquarters, where he could see the war as a whole. Like the general himself, Hamilton was deeply disturbed that the conduct of the war was impeded by the weakness of Congress and by state and local jealousies. It was this experience rather than any theoretical commitment to a particular form of government that structured Hamilton's later advocacy of a strong central government.

Confederation Era

From the end of the Revolution to the inauguration of the first government under the Constitution, Hamilton tirelessly opposed what he described as the "dangerous prejudices in the particular states opposed to those measures which alone can give stability and prosperity to the Union." Though his extensive law practice won him recognition as one of New York's most distinguished attorneys, public affairs were his major concern.

Attending the Continental Congress as a New York delegate from November 1782 through July 1783, he unsuccessfully labored, along with James Madison and other nationalists, to invest the Confederation with powers equal to the needs of postrevolutionary America. Convinced that the pervasive commitment to states' rights obviated reform of the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton began to advocate a stronger and more efficient central government. As one of the 12 delegates to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, he drafted its resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention "to devise such further provisions as shall appear … necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union. … " Similarly, as a member of the New York Legislature in 1787, he was the eloquent spokesman for continental interests as opposed to state and local ones.

Ratification of the Constitution

Hamilton was one of the New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention, which sat in Philadelphia from May to September 1787. Although he served on several important committees, his performance was disappointing, particularly when measured against his previous (and subsequent) accomplishments. His most important speech called for a government close to the English model, one so high-toned that it was unacceptable to most of the delegates.

Hamilton's contribution to the ratification of the Constitution was far more important. In October 1787 he determined to write a series of essays on behalf of the proposed Constitution. First published in New York City newspapers under the pseudonym "Publius" and collectively designated The Federalist, these essays were designed to persuade the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. Though The Federalist was written in collaboration with John Jay and James Madison, Hamilton wrote 51 of the 85 essays. First published in book form in 1788, the Federalist essays have been republished in many editions and languages. They constitute one of America's most original and important contributions to political philosophy and remain today the authoritative contemporary exposition of the meaning of the cryptic clauses of the U.S. Constitution. At the New York ratifying convention in 1788, Hamilton led in defending the proposed Constitution, which, owing measurably to Hamilton's labors, New York ratified.

Secretary of the Treasury

On Sept. 11, 1789, some 6 months after the new government was inaugurated, Hamilton was commissioned the nation's first secretary of the Treasury. This was the most important of the executive departments because the new government's most pressing problem was to devise ways of paying the national debt—domestic and foreign—incurred during the Revolution.

Hamilton's program, his single most brilliant achievement, also created the most bitter controversy of the first decade of American national history. It was spelled out between January 1790 and December 1791 in three major reports on the American economy: "Report on the Public Credit"; "Report on a National Bank"; and "Report on Manufactures."

In the first report Hamilton recommended payment of both the principal and interest of the public debt at par and the assumption of state debts incurred during the American Revolution. The assumption bill was defeated initially, but Hamilton rescued it by an alleged bargain with Thomas Jefferson and Madison for the locale of the national capital. Both the funding and assumption measures became law in 1791 substantially as Hamilton had proposed them.

Hamilton's "Report on a National Bank" was designed to facilitate the establishment of public credit and to enhance the powers of the new national government. Although some members of Congress doubted this body's power to charter such a great quasi-public institution, the majority accepted Hamilton's argument and passed legislation establishing the First Bank of the United States. Before signing the measure, President Washington requested his principal Cabinet officers, Jefferson and Hamilton, to submit opinions on its constitutionality. Arguing that Congress had exceeded its powers, Jefferson submitted a classic defense of a strict construction of the Constitution; affirming the Bank's constitutionality, Hamilton submitted the best argument in American political literature for a broad interpretation of the Constitution.

The "Report on Manufactures, " his only major report which Congress rejected, was perhaps Hamilton's most important state paper. The culmination of his economic program, it is the clearest statement of his economic philosophy. The protection and encouragement of infant industries, he argued, would produce a better balance between agriculture and manufacturing, promote national self-sufficiency, and enhance the nation's wealth and power.

Hamilton also submitted other significant reports which Congress accepted, including a plan for an excise on spirits and a report on the establishment of a Mint. Hamilton's economic program was not original (it drew heavily, for example, upon British practice), but it was an innovative and creative application of European precedent and American experience to the practical needs of the new country.

First Political Party

Hamilton's importance during this period was not confined to his work as finance minister. As the virtual "prime minister" of Washington's administration, he was consulted on a wide range of problems, foreign and domestic. He deserves to be ranked, moreover, as the leader of the country's first political party, the Federalist party. Hamilton himself, like most of his contemporaries, railed against parties and "factions, " but when the debate over his fiscal policies revealed a deep political division among the members of Congress, Hamilton boldly assumed leadership of the proadministration group, the Federalists, just as Jefferson provided leadership for the Democratic Republicans.

Prominent Lawyer and Army General

Because of the pressing financial demands of his growing family, Hamilton retired from office in January 1795. Resuming his law practice, he soon became the most distinguished member of the New York City bar. His major preoccupation remained public affairs, however, and he continued as President Washington's adviser. The latter's famous "Farewell Address" (1796), for example, was largely based on Hamilton's draft. Nor could Hamilton remain aloof from politics. In the election of 1796 he attempted to persuade the Federalist electors to cast a unanimous vote for John Adam's running mate, Thomas Pinckney.

The high regard in which most of the country's leading Federalists held Hamilton was matched by the dislike and distrust with which many others—notably the Republicans—viewed him. He was ambitious, arrogant, and opinionated. He was also indiscreet. For example, to refute a baseless charge by James Reynolds and others that as secretary of the Treasury he was guilty of corruption, he needlessly published a defense which included a confession of adultery with Mrs. Reynolds. Such an admission undoubtedly diminished the possibility of political preferment.

During the presidency of John Adams, however, Hamilton continued to wield considerable national influence, for members of Adams's Cabinet often sought and followed his advice. In 1798 they cooperated with George Washington to secure Hamilton's appointment—over Adams's strong opposition—as inspector general and second in command of the newly augmented U.S. Army, which was preparing for a possible war against France. Since Washington declined active command, organizing and recruiting the "Provisional Army" fell to Hamilton. His military career abruptly came to an end in 1800 after John Adams, in the face of the opposition of his Cabinet and other Federalist leaders (Hamilton among them), sent a peace mission to France that negotiated a settlement of the major issues.

Retirement and the Fatal Duel

Hamilton's role in the presidential campaign of 1800 not only was a disservice to his otherwise distinguished career but also seriously wounded the Federalist party. Convinced of John Adam's ineptitude, Hamilton rashly published a long Philippic which characterized the President as a man possessed by "vanity without bounds, and a jealousy capable of discoloring every object, " with a "disgusting egotism" and an "ungovernable discretion of … temper." Instead of discrediting Adams, the pamphlet promoted election of the Republican candidates, Jefferson and Aaron Burr. When the Jefferson-Burr tie went for decision to the House of Representatives, however, Hamilton regained his balance. Convinced that Jefferson would not undermine executive authority, Hamilton also believed that Burr was "the most unfit and dangerous man of the community." He accordingly used his considerable influence to persuade congressional leaders to select Jefferson.

Although his interest in national policies and politics was unabated, Hamilton's role in national affairs after 1801 diminished. He remained a prominent figure in the Federalist party, however, and published his opinions on public affairs in the New York Evening Post. He was still an ardent nationalist and in 1804 severely condemned the rumored plot of New England and New York Federalists to dismember the Union by forming a Northern confederacy. Believing Aaron Burr to be a party to this scheme, Hamilton actively opposed the Vice President's bid for the New York governorship. He was successful, and Burr, now out of favor with the Jefferson administration and discredited in his own state, charged that Hamilton's remarks had impugned his honor. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Although Hamilton was reluctant, he believed that his "ability to be in future useful" demanded his acceptance. After putting his personal affairs in order, he met Burr at dawn on July 11, 1804, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The two exchanged shots, and Hamilton fell, mortally wounded. Tradition has it that he deliberately misdirected his fire, leaving himself an open target for Burr's bullet. Hamilton was carried back to New York City, where he died the next afternoon.

Further Reading

Henry Cabot Lodge, ed., The Works of Alexander Hamilton (2d ed., 12 vols., 1903), will be replaced by Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, eds., Papers, 15 volumes of which have been published (1961-1969). Hamilton's definitive biography is Broadus Mitchell's meticulous Alexander Hamilton (2 vols., 1957-1962). John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton (1959), is an excellent one-volume life. Useful biographies are David Loth, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait of a Prodigy (1939), and Nathan Schachner, Alexander Hamilton (1946). Also recommended are Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America (1925), and Richard B. Morris, Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation (1957). □

Hamilton, Alexander (1755-1804)

views updated May 23 2018

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)


Member of congress, delegate to the constitutional convention, secretary of the treasury

American Nationalism. As the first secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton formulated fiscal policies and a philosophy of American nationalism that placed him at the center of decision making in the Washington administration. Hamilton improved the financial stability of the United States, but his belief that American nationalism should be based on a union of interests between the U.S. government and wealthy merchants, manufacturers, and speculators divided the country politically.

Early Years. Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies on 11 January 1755 and grew up on the neighboring Danish island of Saint Croix. He was the younger of two illegitimate sons of James Hamilton, the fourth son of an aristocratic Scottish family, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien. After James Hamilton abandoned the family in 1765, Rachel opened a small store to support her sons, but she died in 1768. For the next four years the orphaned Hamilton worked for the mercantile firm of Beekman and Cruger. His intelligence, ambition, remarkably mature business judgment, and dramatic newspaper description of a hurricane that hit Saint Croix in 1772 persuaded several prominent citizens of the island to pay for Hamiltons college education at Kings College (now Columbia University) in New York. While a student, Hamiltons extensive reading and his friendship with William Livingston and other New York patriots introduced him to the ideas of the American Revolution. In 1774 and 1775, after the Reverend Samuel Seabury condemned the First Continental Congress for supporting nonimportation of British goods until Parliament repealed the Intolerable Acts, the nineteen-year-old Hamilton forcefully refuted Sea-bury in two pamphlets supporting colonial union as the only way to defend liberty. As a Continental Army officer Hamilton demonstrated military leadership and courage during the New Jersey campaign in 1776 and 1777 and at Yorktown in 1781. As aide-de-camp to Gen. George Washington, Hamilton impressed his superior and other important men with his intellect, organizational skills, and executive ability. He also improved his social position in 1780 by marrying Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler, a wealthy and influential New Yorker. Hamilton was admitted to the New York bar in July 1782 after only a few months study, but his real interest was politics and the creation of a strong national government.

Political Outlook. As a native of the West Indies, Hamilton had no attachment to any American state. His first loyalty was to the idea of national union, and his wartime experiences deepened that commitment. The states refusal to give Congress any taxation power forced Congress and the states to finance the war with paper currency. Farmers and merchants profited from wartime inflation by raising the prices they charged to supply the American army while the army went without pay and supplies. Hamilton, influenced by Scottish philosopher David Humes Political Discourses (1752), concluded that Americans could not win the war or protect their independence unless they established a national government with complete control over the economy and the states. Hamilton also accepted Humes conclusion that men are motivated by their passions, and the strongest passion is greed. A government that could use mens greed to motivate them to support the government would become rich and powerful. Hamiltons eight months as a member of Congress in 1782 and 1783 intensified his conviction that the Confederation lacked the political and financial power to maintain national union. Shayss Rebellion in 1786 and 1787 strengthened his fear of democracy and his belief in the necessity of an effective national government to protect the property of wealthy men who would, in turn, support that government. As one of New Yorks delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Hamilton proposed an extraordinarily powerful national government that would have essentially abolished the states. In order to create a national government capable of providing social stability and protecting private property Hamilton recommended a senate and president elected for life and a lower house of representatives to control democracy. The final version of the Constitution provided for a weaker national government than the one Hamilton wanted, but he enthusiastically supported it as one of the authors of The Federalist (1788) and as a delegate to New Yorks Constitutional Convention.

American Prime Minister. Congress granted the secretary of the Treasury power to digest and prepare plans for the improvement and management of the revenue, and the support of the public credit. As the first secretary of the Treasury in 1789, Alexander Hamilton took full advantage of his policy-making role in financial affairs. Hamiltons belief in the connection between national power and commerce meant that he did not limit himself to suggesting policies to stabilize the nations credit. Instead, he injected himself into every major decision on financial, domestic, and foreign policy connected to his plan to make the United States a commercial empire. President George Washingtons conception of the presidency, emphasizing independence from party politics and the legislative process, encouraged Hamiltons view of himself as an American prime minister. Hamilton acted as the chief executive of Washingtons cabinet and the head of the Federalist Party, formulating policies and supervising the passage of legislation in Congress. His meetings with British diplomats to advance his agenda for Americas commercial future compromised Secretary of State Thomas Jeffersons control of foreign policy and created serious divisions within the administration. By the time Hamilton retired from office in January 1795 the United States had the highest credit rating in Europe, the value of American exports had doubled, and his policies on the national debt and banking had vastly expanded American capitalistic enterprises. His policies also created vocal political opposition. Republicans attacked Federalists as pro-British monarchists and aristocrats who cared only about the rich and offered themselves as the party that would protect the interests of the common people.

Political Influence. Hamilton retired from political office in 1795, but he did not retire from politics. He remained an important party leader who advised President Washington, President John Adamss cabinet, and Federalist members of Congress on policies and presidential candidates. His influence undermined President Adamss authority and created a serious split in the Federalist Party. As the nation prepared for the possibility of war with France in 1798 Hamilton, appointed second in command of the enlarged army under George Washington, saw the conflict as an opportunity to gain military glory for himself and to expand the American empire by annexing Louisiana, Florida, and perhaps all of Spanish America, possibly through an alliance with Britain. Hamilton also contemplated the possibility of using the army to put down political opposition to Federalist policies such as the Alien and Sedition Acts. President Adams would not tolerate Hamiltons grandiose visions of military glory, a subservient alliance with Britain, the high taxes necessary to maintain the army, or the danger of using the army to suppress political dissent. His peace mission to France in 1799 destroyed Hamiltons plans. Hamilton had the satisfaction of seeing Adams defeated in 1800 only to have the election come down to a choice between two men he despised: Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. As much as he disagreed with Jeffersons principles, Hamilton felt that the country was safer under him than under Burr, whom he denounced to his fellow Federalists as a thoroughly unprincipled man motivated only by personal and political ambition.

The Duel. Hamilton advised Federalists to respond to Jeffersonian democracy by spreading their principles to the common people he had long ignored through political organization and newspapers such as the New-York Evening Post, which he helped found in 1801. He was appalled when the Federalists contemplated an alliance with Aaron Burr, a long-standing political and personal rival and a man he condemned as the most unfit and dangerous man in the community. In 1791 Burr, who had abandoned the Federalists to run as a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in New York, defeated Hamiltons father-in-law. In 1792 Burr offered to rejoin the Federalists and run against Gov. George Clinton, but Hamiltons opposition ended his candidacy. Hamilton also opposed Burrs attempt to be the Federalist vice-presidential candidate in 1792. In 1804 he denounced a Federalist plan to support Burr for governor of New York in exchange for New Yorks support for a northern confederacy. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel after Hamilton refused to deny or retract derogatory statements about Burr that appeared in a New York newspaper. The death of his oldest son in a duel in 1801 had intensified Hamiltons hatred of dueling, but his honor and his principles would not allow him to step aside and allow a man like Burr to gain public office. On 11 July 1804 Hamilton and Burr met at Weehawken, New Jersey. Like his son, Hamilton had decided not to fire at his adversary, with equally fatal results. Burr shot Hamilton, and he died the next day. Hamiltons scorn for democracy made him unpopular in his day, but his support for an energetic national government that encouraged economic growth influenced later generations.


Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 17881800 New York: Oxford University Press, 1993);

John C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (New York: Harper, 1959).

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 23 2018


Alexander Hamilton, as a lawyer, politician, and statesman, left an enduring impression on U.S. government. His birth was humble, his death tragic. His professional life was spent forming basic political and economic institutions for a stronger nation. As a New York delegate at the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton advocated certain powers for the central government. His principles led to his rise as chief spokesperson for the federalist party. The party had a short life span, but Hamilton's beliefs carried on through his famous federalist papers. In these documents he advocated broad constitutional powers for the federal government, including national defense and finance. According to Hamilton, a lesser degree of individual human liberties and civil rights would follow federal powers. His deemphasis of freedom put him at odds with other Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson's Democrats. However, he backed his beliefs with a strong record of public service from the Revolution onward. Through his contributions in the U.S. Army, in the treasury department, and as a lawyer, many still recognize him as a commanding architect of the United States government.

Hamilton was born January 11, 1757, on Nevis Island, in the West Indies. His parents never married. His father, the son of a minor Scottish noble, drifted to the West Indies early in his life and worked odd jobs throughout the Caribbean. His mother died in the Indies when he was eleven. Hamilton spent his early years in poverty, traveling to different islands with his father. At the age of fourteen, while visiting the island of St. Croix, he met a New York trader who recognized his natural intelligence and feisty spirit. The trader made it possible for Hamilton to go to New York in pursuit of an education.

Hamilton attended a preparatory school in New Jersey and developed contacts with men who had created a movement seeking colonial independence. When he later entered King's College (now Columbia University), he became active in the local patriot movement. The American Revolution had been brewing in the background, and Hamilton took a keen interest in the battles that flared between the colonists and the British around Boston in 1775. Instead of graduating from college, he opted to join a volunteer militia company.

He reported for orders to General george washington's chief of artillery, Colonel Henry Knox. In his duties, Hamilton assisted in the famous crossing of the ice-jammed Delaware River on Christmas Night, 1776. Knox called Hamilton to Washington's attention. In March 1777, Hamilton was appointed aide to the commander in chief. With Washington, Hamilton learned his first lessons on the need for central administration in dealing with crises.

He also took advantage of his contacts with General Philip Schuyler, a wealthy and influential man within the military. In March 1780, Schuyler's young daughter, Elizabeth Schuyler, agreed to marry Hamilton. The relationship provided Hamilton with both additional contacts inside U.S. politics and generous financial gifts from his father-in-law.

"Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments."
Alexander Hamilton

Hamilton came to resent the limits of his position as aide to Washington and aspired to greater challenges. A minor reprimand afforded him the opportunity to resign from his services in April 1781. Hamilton had already received an education beyond anything that King's or any other college could have offered. However, he

went to New York with his wife and took up the study of law in early 1782. In July of that year, he was admitted to the bar.

As a lawyer and as an intellectual who commanded growing respect, Hamilton represented New York in the continental congress of 1782, in Philadelphia. Here, he spoke with an ally, a young Virginian, james madison.The two expounded on the merits of strong central administration. Most of the other delegates represented the common fears of citizens in the United States—apprehensions about the abusive tendencies of strong central powers and, more important, the possibility of oppression in the future. Hamilton and Madison failed to sway a majority of the delegates to vote for their ideas. In the end, the Congress adopted the articles of confederation, a body of principles intended to knit the new states into a union that was only loosely defined.

Hamilton left Philadelphia frustrated. He returned to New York, built a thriving law practice, and gained fame as a legal theorist. In 1787, he spent a term in the New York Legislature and joined the movement designed to create a new Constitution. During this time, Madison and john jay—a future chief justice on the U.S. Supreme Court—helped Hamilton draft a series of essays called The Federalist Papers. The essays stand as fundamental statements of U.S. political philosophy.

The Articles of Confederation had already begun to show inadequacies, as the federal government had no real power to collect the money necessary for its own defense. The authors of The Federalist Papers argued that a strong federal government would constitute not a tyranny but an improvement over the current system of relatively weak rule. Their arguments helped allay the commonly held fears about central power.

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Hamilton again served as a delegate from New York. This time, his ideas were received with more favor. In the drafting of the new Constitution, and the creation of a more effective government, many of Hamilton's Federalist beliefs came into play. In the area of defense, for example, Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution read, "The Congress shall have Power … To raise and support Armies … To provide and maintain a Navy … To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia." The role of the government in raising

finances to do these things would put Hamilton's ideas to the test.

Hamilton took on the test personally. In 1789, when President Washington began to assemble the new federal government, he asked Hamilton to become the nation's first secretary of the treasury. For the following six years, Hamilton developed a fiscal and economic system based on a national coinage, a national banking system, a revenue program to provide for the repayment of the national debt, and measures to encourage industrial and commercial development. He sought a vigorous, diversified economy that would also provide the nation with the means to defend itself. He stirred a considerable amount of controversy with certain proposals, such as the need for tariffs on imports, several kinds of excise taxes, the development of natural resources, a friendship with England, and opposition to France during the French Revolution. However, without such a concrete agenda, many historians have argued, the United States could not have survived its years of initial development.

Because of Hamilton's decisive stance on some issues, a split occurred between, and even within, political parties. Hamilton and john adams spoke the ideas of the Federalists. Madison joined Jefferson in the democratic-republican party. Even though Hamilton had previously worked alongside Secretary of State Jefferson, the two were now, as Washington noted, "daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks." Hamilton stressed the need for a strong central government, while Jefferson emphasized individuals' rights. Their rivalry, among the most famous political clashes in U.S. history, led to a significant and ongoing level of frustration for both sides. Because of the deadlock, Hamilton retired from his secretarial position in 1795 and returned to the practice of law.

Through his service in government and his connections with the Schuyler family, Hamilton became a prominent and prosperous lawyer. His practice extended to wealthy clients in New York and in other states, both individuals and partnerships. It resembled the practices of modern corporate lawyers, since he also represented banks and companies.

The bulk of his civil practice took place in maritime litigation, which boomed with European interests in the U.S. market. His most important admiralty case involved the sale and export to Europe of large quantities of cotton and indigo. Defendants Gouveneur and Kemble had incurred damages to the head merchant in their trade, Le Guen. Hamilton took on the case as attorney for Le Guen. He was assisted by aaron burr, with whom he had worked in New York.

In Le Guen v. Gouveneur, Hamilton helped the merchant successfully sue his agents for $120,000—at the time, one of the largest awards in a personal damage suit. james kent, chancellor of the New York bar, remembered Hamilton's performance in the trial as displaying "his reasoning powers … his piercing criticism, his masterly analysis, and … his appeals to the judgment and conscience of the tribunal." A grateful Le Guen wanted to pay Hamilton a fee commensurate with the size of the judgment. Hamilton refused anything more than $1,500. Burr took a much larger fee at his own discretion. This was the beginning of strained developments between Hamilton and Burr that would result in a future, climactic confrontation.

As a private citizen, Hamilton had amassed considerable power. In letters to politicians and newspapers, he continued to make a number of government-related proposals. At least four of them figured into future developments in the U.S. political structure. First, he suggested dividing each state into judicial districts as subdivisions of the federal government's judicial branch. Second, he proposed consolidating the federal government's revenues, ships, troops, officers, and supplies as assets under its control. Third, he pushed for the enlargement of the legal powers of the government by making certain already existing laws permanent, particularly the law authorizing the government to summon militias to counteract subversive activities and insurrections. Finally, he proposed the addition of laws that would give the courts power to punish sedition. Through letters to leaders and citizens, as through his Federalist Papers, Hamilton's ideas were received, although not always easily, into the political mainstream.

In 1798 the United States prepared for war with France. Hamilton decided to rejoin the Army as a major general. He was assigned the additional duties of inspector general until 1800. In 1800, Jefferson campaigned for president with Hamilton's former partner in the Le Guen settlement, Burr, as his running mate. The two received identical numbers of electoral votes for the 1800 presidential election. At that time all candidates ran for the presidency. The winner became president and the individual in second place became vice president. Hamilton, an elector for New York, refused to go along with the Federalists' plans to deny Jefferson the presidency. Hamilton voted for Jefferson instead of Burr, partly because he could stand Burr even less than his ideological rival. Jefferson won the election.

In 1804, Burr ran for governor of New York and became embittered by more of Hamilton's insults during the campaign. When Burr lost again, he challenged Hamilton to a duel. On July 11, 1804, the two men met at Weehawken Heights, New Jersey. Hamilton received a mortal wound from Burr's pistol shot, and died in New York City the next day.

As the United States evolved in political, legal, and economic dimensions, Hamilton's contributions remained part of its basic structure. His legacy went on to affect the way the rest of the world interpreted the proper role of government. Numerous political experiments took place in the following centuries, but still, Hamilton's notions of a strong central government made other systems appear weak in comparison. In a letter to the Washington Post on January 28, 1991, biographer Robert A. Hendrickson asserted that Hamilton's doctrine lives up to its model status as "a beacon of freedom and financial success in the modern world. It has peacefully discredited agrarianism, communism,and totalitarianism."

further readings

Brookhiser, Richard. 1999. Alexander Hamilton, American. New York: Free Press.

Chernow, Ron. 2004. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press.

Cooke, Jacob Ernest. 1982. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Scribner.

Emery, Noemie. 1982. Alexander Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Putnam.

Epstein, David F. 1984. The Political Theory of the Federalist. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Flaumenhaft, Harvey. 1992. The Effective Republic, Administration and Constitution in the Thought of Alexander Hamilton. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Randall, Willard Sterne. 2003. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. New York: HarperCollins.


Constitution of the United States; "Federalist, Number 10" and "Federalist, Number 78" (Appendix, Primary Documents).

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 23 2018

Hamilton, Alexander



Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804) was born on the West Indian island of Nevis and therefore lacked the attachment to state or region which characterized many eighteenth–century Americans. His experiences during the American Revolution and the decade of government under the Articles of Confederation reinforced his belief that American greatness must be based on a strong and energetic central government.

In 1777, five years after his arrival in the United States, he was appointed aide–de–camp to General George Washington. Viewing the Revolution from the vantage point of Washington’s headquarters, he was deeply concerned about the state rivalries, the weakness of the Continental Congress, and the absence of national sentiment that impeded the American war effort. In the years that followed independence, Hamilton worked steadily to breathe life into the moribund Confederation government. As a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1782–1783, he worked closely with such like–minded nationalists as James Madison to invest the Con federation with powers, in his phrase, “adequate to the exigencies of the Union” (Papers, vol. 3, p. 689). Despairing of this effort, he became one of the prime promoters of the Constitutional Convention and served as a delegate from the state of New York.

Political ideas. Hamilton’s proposals for a gov ernment modeled closely on the British system were unacceptable to most members of the convention, but he labored industriously to have them “tone their Government as high as possible” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 218). Although ultimately “no man’s ideas were more remote from the plan” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 253), Hamilton signed the constitution and was one of its most eloquent and persuasive de fenders. At the New York State ratifying convention, which met in June 1788, Hamilton combined the gifts of political theorist and practical politician to lead a reluctant New York into the federal fold.

Hamilton’s greatest contribution to American political thought was The Federalist (1788), a brilliant defense of the convention’s work, which he, John Jay, and James Madison wrote to persuade the people of New York to adopt the proposed con stitution. Hamilton wrote more than half of the 85 essays. Some of the issues he discussed at length are no longer important (the dangers of a standing army, for example), but his analysis of a viable federalism as a system in which laws operate di rectly upon individuals rather than upon states, his exposition of the powers of the presidency, and his arguments for the necessity of judicial review in a federal system remain among the most astute com ments on American government.

Hamilton was not an original political thinker of the stature of Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rous seau, or Hegel. His particular genius lay in the bold and imaginative way in which he adapted and ap plied the ideas of others to the needs of an infant republic. He had read many of the political philos ophers of the eighteenth century, among them Adam Smith, David Hume, and Sir William Blackstone, and he was familiar with the work of such European statesmen as William Pitt and Jacques Necker. But he learned the most from his experience in the American Revolution, the Continental Congress, and the New York legislature, namely, that a strong government is necessary to promote national prosperity and safeguard personal liberty. Like other Federalists, Hamilton believed that liberty must be predicated on order and that a just and enduring government must be one of laws and not of men. Far from subscribing to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that that government is best which governs least, he believed that government to be best which, possessing ample powers, uses them energetically to achieve national goals. In any discussion of the state, his favorite word was “energy.” As Clinton Rossiter has remarked, to Hamilton “energy was the essence of good government, im potence the sign of bad: here was one obsessive principle of his political science that set him off sharply from the progressives of his time” (1964, p. 163).

The belief that Hamilton favored a government of the rich, the well–born, and the able, and that he despised democracy, has long been a commonplace of American history. That he wished to win over the wealthy to the support of the Union is indisputable; that the purpose of his policies was to en rich any particular class is debatable. The object of his statecraft, as he said, was “. . .a great Federal Republic, closely linked in the pursuit of a common interest, tranquil and prosperous at home, respectable abroad . . .” (Papers, vol. 3, p. 106). That he distrusted democracy is also certain. But by democracy he meant a government that is directly responsive to the peoples’ whims or moods, as in ancient Athens or in eighteenth–century New England towns. He was, on the other hand, “affectionately attached to the republican theory” (Works, vol. 9, p. 533), by which he meant democracy modified by a system of checks and balances such as those imposed by the U.S. constitution.

Economic ideas. By common consent Hamilton is ranked as the most forceful and influential secre tary of the treasury in U.S. history. He was appointed to that post on September 11, 1789, and within the brief span of two and a half years (1790–1792) submitted to Congress a number of reports that are among the greatest state papers in U.S. history. The first and most controversial of these papers was the “First Report on the Public Credit” ([1790], 1934, pp. 1-50), in which he called for the payment in full of the foreign and domestic debt contracted by the Confederation gov ernment; for the assumption of the debts incurred by the separate states in the prosecution of the War of Independence; and for a system of finance and taxation adequate to meet these new national obligations. Hamilton’s report was based on the assumption that national honor, strength, and pros perity are inseparably connected with the establishment of sound national credit. After six months of acrimonious debate and a famous compromise in which Hamilton gave his support to a site on the Potomac River as the national capital in exchange for the support of his plan by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Hamilton’s proposals were adopted in only slightly modified form.

In December 1790, six months after the funding and assumption measures became law, Hamilton submitted to Congress a “Report … on a National Bank…” ([1790] 1934, pp. 51–95), calling for a great quasi–public institution that would provide a uniform circulating medium for the country, in crease its “active wealth,” and furnish a safe de pository for government funds and a source of government loans in time of national need.

The “Report on Manufactures” ([1791] 1934, pp. 175–276), Hamilton’s only major report re jected by Congress, was perhaps his most impor tant state paper and certainly the clearest statement of his economic philosophy. Rejecting the laissez–faire economics of Adam Smith as well as the agrarian philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, he called on the federal government to foster and encourage manufactures. The report was based on Hamilton’s interpretation of the stage of economic development which the United States had reached and the meas ures necessary for further economic growth.

Administrative activity. Hamilton’s work as sec retary of the treasury was not confined to recom mendations for the country’s financial and indus trial growth. His organization and management of the Treasury Department was a model of efficiency and his administrative theory was, in the words of the leading student of the history of public admin istration in the United States, “the first systematic exposition of public administration, a contribution which stood alone for generations” (White [1948] 1959, p. 127).

Hamilton’s role in the Washington administration was not restricted to fiscal policy. He provided congressional leadership, preparing detailed reports for congressional guidance, drafting legislation, de fending his conduct of the treasury, and occasionally preparing speeches for political allies. Nor did he refrain from interfering in the management of other departments. His help was welcomed by his friend Henry Knox, the phlegmatic secretary of war, but resented by his political opponent Thomas Jefferson, the secretary of state. Hamilton, in brief, was the chief policy maker as well as the storm center of the administrations of George Washington.

In the perspective of a century and a half, it may well be that Hamilton’s most important contribution to American history was his interpretation of the constitution. To him it was not a mere compact among states but a grant of power to the central government. The powers conferred on the federal government were not to be construed narrowly but interpreted so broadly as to allow the exercise of powers adequate to its needs. That the constitution has been sufficiently flexible to endure for so long is due in no small part to Hamilton’s role in making it the charter for a strong national state.

Jacob E. Cooke

[See also the biographies ofJeffersonandMadison.]


(1788) 1961 Hamilton, Alexander; Madison, James; and jay, johnThe Federalist. Edited with introduction and notes by Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, Conn.; Wesleyan Univ. Press.

(1790–1792) 1934 Papers on Public Credit, Commerce and Finance. Edited by Samuel McKee, with an introduction by Harvey Williams. New York: Columbia Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Liberal Arts Press. See especially pages 1–50, “First Report on Public Credit,” pages 51–95, “Report on a National Bank,” and pages 175–276, “Report on Manufactures.”

The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by H. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke. Vols. 1–11. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1961–1966.

The Works of Alexander Hamilton. 2d ed., 12 vols. Edited by Henry Cabot Lodge. New York and London: Putnam, 1904. → The standard edition of Hamilton’s writings.


Hamilton, JohnC. (1857–1864) 1879 The Life of Alexander Hamilton: A History of the Republic of the United States as Traced in His Writings and Those of His Contemporaries. 7 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → Marred by J. C. Hamilton’s reverence for his father’s memory, but a storehouse of facts relating to Alexan der Hamilton’s life and times.

Miller, John C. 1959 Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper. → The best one–volume work on Hamilton’s life. A paperback edition was published in 1964 as Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of a New Nation.

Mitchell, Broadus 1957–1962 Alexander Hamilton. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan. → Volume 1: Youth to Maturity: 1755–1788. Volume 2: The National Adventure: 1788–1804. The definitive biography.

Rossiter, Clinton L. 1964 Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. New York: Harcourt. → An excellent study of Hamilton’s political philosophy.

White, Leonard Dupee (1948) 1959 The Federalists: A Study in Administrative History. New York: Mac millan. → An account of Hamilton’s contributions to administrative theory and practice.

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 18 2018


Alexander Hamilton (17551804) was the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States and a primary contributor to The Federalist Papers. Among the founding fathers, he was the man whose vision was largely responsible for the creation of the American nation as it is today. Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in The Oxford History of the American People that it was Hamilton's genius that enabled the new government to function successfully.

Born in 1755, Hamilton was an illegitimate child. He had a difficult upbringing in the West Indies. His father, an aristocratic but unsuccessful Scottish trader, abandoned the family when the boy was about 10 years old. At age 11 Hamilton began work in the West Indies office of a New York mercantile firm. When his mother died in 1768, he was taken under the wing of her relatives. They and other sponsors recognized the boy's exceptional intelligence and energy and arranged for him to attend preparatory school in New Jersey; he was then enrolled at King's College (now Columbia University) in 1773.

As a student Hamilton wrote and published three brilliant pamphlets. He defended the colonists' cause in protesting the actions of the British government which brought on the War of Independence and he upheld recent decisions of the Continental Congress. These very influential writings brought the young man to the attention of General George Washington (17321799). At only age 22 Hamilton joined the general's military staff as aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Remaining on the staff for four years, he became indispensable to Washington. Hamilton was entrusted with his general's correspondence, sent on many sensitive missions, and eventually made Washington's liaison with French military commanders who supported the Revolutionary army. At Yorktown, in the final battle of the war, Hamilton led a successful assault on a key British position.

Following the war, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of one of New York's wealthiest and most distinguished families, and he settled down to practice law in New York City. He was soon, however, caught up in national politics. He recognized almost immediately that the Articles of Confederation, which defined the relationships among the states, were weak and unenforceable. As a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia meeting of the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton argued for a strong national government with almost unlimited power over the states. His views were in the minority and were particularly unpopular in New York, where the prevailing sentiment was in favor of political power remaining with the individual states.

With James Madison (17511836), a delegate from Virginia, and John Jay (17451829), the secretary for foreign affairs, Hamilton wrote a series of essays which were published in a New York newspaper between October 1787 and May 1788. These essays, comprising The Federalist Papers, effectively argued the case for a strong national government. They were enormously influential among the framers of the Constitution and they remain relevant more than 200 years later. Hamilton is credited with two-thirds of the 85 essays. In his essays he described the proposed powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. He also explained how, as a final check on legislative powers, the Supreme Court would be able to declare unconstitutional even those laws passed by Congress and signed by the executive.

Named by President George Washington (17891797) to be the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton acted swiftly to establish a strong economy. The country's foreign debt was repaid by the end of 1795; the national domestic debt was paid off by 1835. The Bank of the United States was chartered and funded under Hamilton's watch. By August 1791, U.S. currency was strong on domestic and world markets.

Hamilton's three great reports to Congress (the Report on the Public Credit of 1790, the Report on the Bank of the United States of 1790, and the Report on Manufactures of 1791) laid down the basic economic principles on which the U.S. government has, in general, operated ever since. Hamilton believed that the states should be subordinate to the federal government. The federal government, in turn, should protect the states from foreign intervention and from each other through a single military force.

An important duty of the federal government, Hamilton argued, was to promote a strong capitalist economy through a strong currency and public investment in infrastructure. He encouraged new industry in both the South and the North by protecting infant U.S. industries until they were able to compete on an equal basis with imports.

Hamilton was the opposite of a populist. The government, in his opinion, should not be run by amateurs but by a trained and educated elite. In many of his views he was strongly opposed by Thomas Jefferson (17431826), the author of the Declaration of Independence and future president, who believed that the American republic rested firmly on an agrarian democracy.

Hamilton's last years were spent in the midst of political turmoil. Through various political intrigues he managed to sow dissension in his own Federalist party and to incur the enmity of several important political leaders in both the Federalist and Republican parties. Along with Jefferson, these included John Adams (17351826), a Federalist and the second president of the United States, and Aaron Burr (17561836), a Republican and Jefferson's Vice President. In 1804 Hamilton opposed Burr's unsuccessful bid to be governor of New York. On the grounds of some insulting remarks Hamilton had allegedly made about him, Burr challenged his old rival to a duel following the election. Hamilton died in the duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804.

See also: Bank of the United States (First National Bank), Thomas Jefferson, Report on Manufactures


Cooke, Jacob E. Alexander Hamilton, a Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1982.

Hendrickson, Robert. Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.

Lind, Michael. "Hamilton's Legacy." The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1994.

Mcdonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: a Biography. New York: Norton, 1979.

Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper, 1959.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. "Alexander Hamilton." The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Rossiter, Clinton. Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1965.

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 23 2018

Alexander Hamilton

Born: January 11, 1755
Nevis, British West Indies
Died: July 12, 1804
Weehawken, New Jersey

American statesman

The first U.S. secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton was one of the leaders of the nation's first political party, the Federalists (a group who supported a strong central government). Hamilton remains a well-known figure in U.S. history. He is known not only for the great contributions that he made to the early United States but also for his famous duel with Aaron Burr (17561836) in 1804, which resulted in his death.

Birth and early life

Alexander Hamilton's birth date is disputed, but it is often listed as January 11, 1755. He was born on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies, the illegitimate son (his parents were not married to each other) of James Hamilton, a Scotsman, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, the daughter of a French physician.

Hamilton's education was brief. He began working between the ages of eleven and thirteen for a trading company in St. Croix, an island in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1772 he left to attend school in the American colonies. After a few months at an academy in New Jersey, he enrolled in King's College in New York City. Intelligent enough to master most subjects without formal instruction and eager to win success and fame early in life, he left college in 1776 without graduating.

American Revolution

The outbreak of the American Revolution (177583), when the thirteen British colonies in North America fought for their freedom, offered Hamilton the opportunity he craved. In 1777 he became a lieutenant colonel (an army officer who is above a colonel) in the Continental Army (the national army fighting for American independence) and assistant to commanding general George Washington (17321799). Hamilton became one of Washington's most trusted advisers. Although he played no role in major military decisions, Hamilton's position was one of great responsibility. He drafted many of Washington's important letters, he was sent on important military missions, and he wrote several reports on the reorganization and reform of the army. In December 1780 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Philip Schuyler (17331804), a member of one of New York's most distinguished families. Hamilton eventually returned to New York. In 1782 he became a lawyer following a short period of apprenticeship (studying and learning a job from someone already in that position).

Hamilton's ideas on government and society had changed during the Revolution. Having been born in a foreign country gave him a different viewpoint from most people. Working for Washington had allowed him to observe how the weakness of Congress and how state and local jealousies were hurting the war effort. From this point on Hamilton believed in, and tried to work to bring about, a strong central government.

Confederation era

Attending the Continental Congress as a representative from New York from November 1782 through July 1783, Hamilton tried to make sure that the new government would have the powers it needed to deal with the problems it faced after it won independence from Britain. As one of the twelve delegates to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, he drafted its resolution (final decision or opinion) calling for a constitutional convention to make sure that interests of the union as a whole were placed over individual state and local concerns.

Hamilton was one of the representatives from New York to the Constitutional Convention, which was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from May to September 1787. In October 1787 he wrote a series of essays on behalf of the planned Constitution. First published in New York City newspapers as having been written by "Publius" and collectively titled The Federalist, these essays were designed to persuade the people of New York to ratify, or approve, the Constitution. Although others wrote for The Federalist, Hamilton wrote fifty-one of the eighty-five essays. They contain some of America's most original and important writing on politics and help explain some of the wording of the Constitution. At the New York convention in 1788, as a result of Hamilton's efforts, the Constitution was ratified.

Secretary of the treasury

In September 1789, some six months after the new government was established, Hamilton was named the nation's first secretary of the treasury. This was the most important of the executive departments because the new government's most urgent problem was to find ways to pay the national debtdomestic and foreignthat had grown during the Revolution. Hamilton wrote many reports on the American economy, and many of his suggestions became law. Hamilton's ideas were not exactly original (they were similar to British policies), but they were sensible and took into account the needs of the new country.

Hamilton's importance during this period was not confined to his work as treasury secretary. As the "prime minister" of Washington's administration, he was consulted on a wide range of problems, foreign and domestic. In addition, he is considered the leader of the country's first political party. Hamilton himself disliked the idea of political parties. However, when the debate over his policies revealed disagreement among the members of Congress, Hamilton assumed leadership of the pro-administration group, known as the Federalists.

Well-known lawyer and army general

Hamilton retired from office in January 1795. He returned to his law practice to make money to support his growing family and soon became the most distinguished lawyer in New York City. His interest in public affairs continued, however, and he served as President Washington's adviser. He helped Washington write his famous "Farewell Address" (1796), in which Washington turned down a third term as president. Hamilton remained active in politics as well, speaking out in favor of candidates he liked and criticizing those he opposed.

While many held Hamilton in high regard, others neither liked nor trusted him. During the presidency of John Adams (17351826), however, Hamilton continued to have considerable national influence; members of Adams's cabinet often sought and followed his advice. In 1798 they cooperated with George Washington to secure Hamilton's appointmentover Adams's strong oppositionas inspector general and second in command of the U.S. Army, which was preparing for a possible war against France. Since Washington chose not to assume active command, organizing and recruiting these troops fell to Hamilton. His military career came to an abrupt end in 1800 after President Adams sent a peace mission to France that achieved a settlement of the major issues.

Retirement and the fatal duel

Although his interest in national policies and politics was still strong, Hamilton's role in national affairs after 1801 became smaller. He continued to publish his opinions on public affairs in the New York Evening Post. In 1804 he took a stand against a rumored plot by New England and New York Federalists to break up the Union by forming a northern confederacy (a separate union). Hamilton believed that Vice President Aaron Burr (17561836), whom he referred to as "the most unfit and dangerous man of the community," was involved with this plan. Hamilton also actively stood against Burr's bid for the New York governorship. After Burr lost the race, he angrily challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton believed that his "ability to be in [the] future useful" demanded that he meet the challenge.

After putting his personal affairs in order, Alexander Hamilton met Burr at dawn on July 11, 1804, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The two men exchanged gunshots, and Hamilton fell, mortally wounded. Many believe that he missed Burr on purpose, leaving himself an open target for Burr's bullet. Hamilton was carried back to New York City, where he died the next afternoon.

For More Information

Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Flexer, James Thomas. The Young Hamilton: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978. Reprint, New York: Fordham University Press, 1997.

Knott, Stephen F. Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1979.

Hamilton, Alexander

views updated May 21 2018


(b. January 11, ca. 1755; d. July 11, 1804) Key aide to General Washington during Revolutionary War; first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

As a penniless boy in the British West Indies, Alexander Hamilton dreamed of war and winning fame as a general. Older men saw promise in Hamilton, who had a genius for business facts and figures, and sent him to Britain's North American colonies for an education. He became one of General George Washington's key aides in the American Revolution and played an even more prominent role in the new nation.

Arriving in 1772, Hamilton enrolled in King's College (now Columbia University) in New York. By 1774 his wished-for war loomed on the horizon. The thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard were quarreling with the British parliament about taxation and the right to self-government by their local legislatures. Hamilton sided with the Americans, writing rebellious essays and giving defiant speeches. When war broke out, he became captain of the New York Provincial Artillery. They were among the few units who kept their esprit de corps during the near-ruinous defeats the American army suffered in the latter half of 1776.

In 1777 General Washington invited Hamilton to become a member of his staff with the rank of lieutenant colonel. War had catapulted Hamilton to the summit of the new nation's power structure. He drafted letters for Washington's signature, dealt with generals and visiting congressmen, and soon acquired strong opinions about what was wrong with the revolutionary American government. The Continental Congress lacked power—above all the power to tax. That was why soldiers starved at Valley Forge and other winter camps and went for months without pay.

In 1780 Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, owner of thousands of acres in the Hudson River Valley. The marriage made him a member of upper-class American society. When the Revolutionary War ended in American independence in 1783, Hamilton became a leading spokesman for the reform of the American constitution. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he revealed an elitist view of politics, recommending, among other things, a presidency for life.

In 1789 President Washington invited Hamilton to become his secretary of the treasury. The United States was sinking under an $80 million war debt. Its currency was worthless, and there was an alarming shortage of

circulating money. In a series of brilliant state papers, Hamilton persuaded Congress to turn the debt into bonds backed by the full credit of the federal government, which now had the power to raise money by taxes and tariffs. When Hamilton left office in 1795 to practice law in New York, the new republic's credit rating was the highest in the world, and a reliable money supply was fueling prosperity from Boston to Savannah.

In 1794 farmers in western Pennsylvania threatened to revolt over a tax on whiskey. Hamilton persuaded President Washington to raise an army of 15,000 men and crush the Whiskey Rebellion. Hamilton also persuaded Washington to declare America neutral in the war that had broken out between Great Britain and revolutionary France. The neutrality had a distinct tilt toward the English, whose trade was supplying most of the money for Hamilton's financial system. A great many Americans, led by Thomas Jefferson, disagreed with these policies. They already disliked Hamilton's monetary reforms, which seemed to favor the rich. The dissidents formed the Democratic-Republican Party, which contested the Hamilton-led Federalists after Washington left office in 1796.

In 1798 relations with revolutionary France deteriorated into undeclared war. President John Adams expanded the Navy and appointed George Washington head of a 10,000-man army. Washington selected Hamilton as his second in command, with the rank of major general. The army fought no battles, but Hamilton henceforth styled himself as "General Hamilton."

When Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 race for the presidency, Federalist party leaders blamed Hamilton. By 1804 he was virtually out of politics and could do little but snipe from the sidelines when Aaron Burr, a colonel in the Revolution, ran for governor of New York with the backing of most of the state's Federalists. Burr had been elected vice president in 1800, but had fallen out with Jefferson. New England Federalists, fearing Jefferson's 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory would make them an impotent minority, were considering secession. Burr promised to take New York into this new confederacy.

When Burr lost the election, he decided that only a triumph over General Hamilton would enable him to become the military leader of the secessionists if New England left the union and a civil war broke out. Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, claiming to be insulted by Hamilton's relatively trivial attack on him when he launched his race for governor.

General Hamilton accepted the challenge in order to stay in the running for the same military role. He too thought a civil war was likely. On July 11, 1804, Burr mortally wounded Hamilton with his first shot, ending a career that had been made—and finally unmade—by war.


Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and the Future of America. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Flexner, James Thomas. The Young Hamilton. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.

Gordon, John Steele. Hamilton's Blessing. New York: Walker, 1997.

Hamilton, Alan McClane. The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton. New York: Scribners, 1910.

Hendrickson, Robert. Hamilton. 2 vols. New York: Mason/Charter, 1976.

Kline, Mary-Jo, ed. Alexander Hamilton: A Life in His Own Words. New York: Newsweek Books, 1973; distributed by Harper and Row.

McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Norton, 1979.

Thomas Fleming

See also:Hamilton's Reports; Jefferson, Thomas; Valley Forge; Washington, George.

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