Alexander Hamilton

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 7,288 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

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About this Person
Born: January 11, 1755? in Saint Kitts and Nevis
Died: July 12, 1804 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Statesman
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Hamilton, Alexander, 1757-1804 (Jan. 11, 1757 - July 12, 1804), statesman, was born in the British colony of Nevis, one of the Leeward Islands. His family was good, his father being a Scottish merchant of St. Christopher, the fourth son of Alexander Hamilton of Grange in Ayrshire, and his mother Rachel Fawcett (Faucette), the daughter of a French Huguenot physician and planter of Nevis. She had been carefully educated, had made an unhappy marriage with a Danish landholder of St. Croix named John Michael Levine, had separated from him, and after meeting James Hamilton had made unavailing efforts to obtain complete freedom from her husband. Her union with Hamilton, though legally irregular, was on an irreproachable moral foundation, and she was socially recognized as his wife. But the home was not prosperous. James Hamilton's affairs, as his son later wrote, soon "went to wreck," and Rachel was living apart from him and dependent upon relatives in St. Croix when she died in 1768. Alexander Hamilton was thus practically an orphan at eleven, though his father survived until 1799. After receiving some desultory education from his mother and a Presbyterian clergyman at St. Croix, and learning to speak French fluently, at twelve he had to go to work in the general store of Nicholas Cruger in Christianstadt. From this position he was rescued by his intense ambition for a college education, his brilliancy (particularly demonstrated by a newspaper letter descriptive of a hurricane which swept St. Croix in 1772), and the generosity of his aunts. They sent him to New York in the fall of 1772. After some preliminary training at Francis Barber's grammar school at Elizabethtown, N. J., he entered King's College (now Columbia University) in the autumn of 1773. Already he had formed habits of persistent study which he retained throughout life, while his letters of the time display astonishing maturity.

The preliminaries of the Revolution interrupted Hamilton's college work and gave him opportunities for distinction which he seized with characteristic dash and address. Little weight need be attached to his statement that he temporarily inclined toward the royal side; from the time that he was a guest of William Livingston's at Elizabethtown he accepted the patriot views, and Robert Troup's story that it required a trip to Boston in 1774 to confirm his Whig opinions appears improbable. At a mass meeting in "the Fields" (now City Hall Park) on July 6, 1774, he spoke against British measures, and at once began writing for Holt's New York Journal, or General Advertiser with a vigor which attracted attention. In December 1774, he contributed to the pamphlet war of the day A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress from the Calumnies of Their Enemies, in some 14,000 words, and when the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury replied, he continued the debate in The Farmer Refuted; or, a More Comprehensive and Impartial View of the Disputes Between Great Britain and the Colonies, this reaching 35,000 words. These anonymous pamphlets showed such grasp of the issues, so much knowledge of British and American government, and such argumentative power that they were attributed to John Jay, and Dr. Myles Cooper of King's College was incredulous that a lad of seventeen could have written them. Hamilton's position was that of a moderate who loyally defended the King's sovereignty and the British connection but rejected the pretensions of Parliament. His conduct was as restrained as his pen, and there is evidence that he several times acted to allay mob excitement, once (Nov. 26, 1775) protesting to John Jay when a party under Isaac Sears destroyed Rivington's press. But as the Revolutionary movement gained headway he was gladly borne into its full current. Robert Troup's statement that in 1775 Hamilton and he formed a volunteer company called "Hearts of Oak" is probably true; while early in 1776 he applied for the command of an artillery company authorized by the provincial Convention, was examined, and on Mar. 14 received his commission. His skill in drilling his company attracted attention, and Gen. Nathanael Greene is said to have been so impressed that he introduced Hamilton to Washington (G. W. P. Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 1859); it is certain that Lord Stirling made a fruitless effort to obtain him for his staff. During the summer and fall campaign he fought with Washington on Long Island, helped fortify Harlem Heights, commanded two guns at White Plains, and was in the New Jersey retreat, while that winter he shared in the descents upon Trenton and Princeton. Though he thirsted for military glory, promotion would have been slow. It was fortunate for him that Washington, doubtless impressed by the reputation of his pamphlets, made him a secretary, and (Mar. 1, 1777) aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. His true weapon was the pen.

As secretary and aide, Hamilton held a position of great responsibility, and his duties were by no means confined to giving literary assistance to Washington. He became a trusted adviser. Since Washington was not only commanding general but virtually secretary of war, an enormous amount of business passed through his headquarters, which Hamilton did much to organize and systematize; while he inevitably came to take minor decisions into his own hands. He complained of the labor, writing that it was hard "to have the mind always upon the stretch, scarce ever unbent, and no hours for recreation." But though he was allowed to take part in a few skirmishing expeditions, and on one of these was the officer who warned Congress to remove from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Washington wisely kept him at his desk. Intercourse with the General, correspondence with Congress and the states, and occasional military missions gave him an unrivaled opportunity for learning the situation of the army and nation. It was a characteristic of Hamilton's genius that he should not only grasp a state of affairs with lightning speed, but be seized with a passionate desire to offer constructive remedies. Before he had been at headquarters a year he had drafted the first of a series of important reports on the defects of the military system and the best mode of improving it. Among these papers are the report of Jan. 28, 1778, on the reorganization of the army; the report of May 5, 1778, on the work of the inspector-general's office; and the plan for this office as adopted by Congress on Feb. 18, 1779. Hamilton also prepared a comprehensive set of military regulations which he laid before Washington. Meanwhile, he was giving attention not only to the management of the army but to the problem of invigorating the whole government, and in facing this his flair for bold political theorizing again awakened.

The growth of Hamilton's political ideas, and the extraordinary ripeness and incisiveness of his thought, are exhibited in his correspondence with a committee of the New York state convention (Gouverneur Morris, Robert Livingston, William Allison), and also with Robert Morris, James Sullivan, James Duane, and other leaders, the whole covering the years 1777-81. He was a staunch believer in representative government, then widely distrusted. In a letter of May 19, 1777, to Gouverneur Morris, he ascribed the supposed instability of democracies to the fact that most of them had really been "compound governments," with a partitioned authority, and declared that "a representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative, executive, and judiciary authorities is vested in select persons, chosen really and not nominally by the people, will, in my opinion, be most likely to be happy, regular, and durable" (Works, 1904, IX, 72). But he insisted from the first that his democracy should have a highly centralized authority, armed with powers for every exigency. He sent Robert Morris a 14,000-word letter (Apr. 30, 1781) embodying a systematic treatise on finance as part of this strongly centralized system, and containing a proposal for a national bank; its financial ideas were defective, but as William Graham Sumner said, its statesmanship was superb. Writing to Duane (Sept. 3, 1780), he vigorously exposed the defects of government under the Confederation, condemned the timidity, indecision, and dependence of Congress, and set forth a detailed plan for a revised form of government --a plan, it has been observed, almost exactly paralleled in the very successful Swiss government of later days (H. J. Ford, Alexander Hamilton, 1920, p. 92). In this letter he made the first proposal for a constitutional convention, suggesting that Congress should call a representation of all the states, and that this body should grant to Congress "complete sovereignty in all that relates to war, peace, trade, finance"--much more power than it enjoys, though Hamilton would have reserved all internal taxation to the states. This willingness to entrust to Congress vastly increased authority at a time of general disgust with its inefficiency, vacillation, and corruption is another proof of Hamilton's political discernment. One secret of his success was his belief in the possibility of a rapid renovation of political instruments.

Meanwhile, Hamilton had allied himself with one of the richest and most influential families of New York by his marriage late in 1780 to Elizabeth, second daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler. "It is impossible to be happier than I am in a wife," he wrote in 1797, and he was always tenderly devoted to her (Works, 1904, X, 260; A. M. Hamilton, post, pp. 95 ff.). They had eight children, one of whom was James Alexander Hamilton [q.v.]; the first child, Philip, was born Jan. 22, 1782. Hamilton had also detached himself from Washington's staff in a last attempt to gain military distinction. The excuse for this he found in a quarrel in February 1781, when Washington administered a reprimand to his aide because the latter kept him waiting for a few minutes. The manner in which Hamilton resented this entirely proper rebuke, his rejection of Washington's subsequent advances, and his private slurs upon Washington's abilities do him grave discredit. Unfortunately it was far from the last example of his hastiness and irascibility. Through Washington's magnanimity he was appointed to head an infantry regiment in Lafayette's corps, and at the siege of Yorktown commanded a brilliant attack upon one of the two principal British redoubts. Returning to Albany as hostilities ended, he rented a house, took Robert Troup to live with him, and after less than five months' study was admitted to the bar. His intention, he wrote Lafayette, was "to throw away a few months more in public life, and then retire a simple citizen and good paterfamilias." The public service of which he spoke was a term in the Continental Congress, which he entered in November 1782, finding it the weak flywheel of a deplorably ramshackle government. Chafing at the feebleness he saw all about him, he did what little he could to arouse a greater vigor. His efforts included the composition of the spirited but impotent reply of Congress to the refusal of Rhode Island to consent to the five percent impost plan (Dec. 16, 1782; Works, 1904, II, 179-223); the introduction that same winter of a resolution asserting the absolute necessity of "the establishment of permanent and adequate funds to operate generally throughout the United States, to be collected by Congress"; and letters to Washington somewhat officiously but shrewdly urging him to preserve the confidence of the army for use in a possible crisis. He would have introduced resolutions calling for a constitutional convention if he had not foreseen their total failure.

Though Hamilton retired from Congress in 1783 to devote himself to the law, opening an office in New York at 58 Wall St., he continued to throw his energies into the movement for a stronger federal government. Part of his legal work involved a defense of federal authority against the excesses of state law. In the noted case of Rutgers vs. Waddington he maintained that the peace treaty between the United States and Great Britain overrode the laws of New York, and particularly the Trespass Act, under which the widow Rutgers had claimed arrears of rent from a Loyalist who had occupied her property during the Revolution; his masterly argument, of which only the long brief remains, carried the case in the mayor's court, though the legislature formally reaffirmed its authority. He was an alert spectator of the growing confusion of 1784-86, and eager for an opportunity to act. The commercial negotiations of Virginia and Maryland, and the call for a general commercial convention to meet at Annapolis in September 1786, furnished the opening he desired. He secured appointment as one of the two New York delegates to the Annapolis meeting; when it failed to reach an agreement, he saw the possibility of driving home the lesson that commercial harmony was impossible without political unity; and he secured the unanimous adoption of an address recommending that the states appoint commissioners to meet in Philadelphia the following May "to take into consideration the situation of the United States, to devise such further provisions as shall seem to them necessary to render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union, and to report an act for that purpose to the United States in Congress assembled." It was one of the most adroit and timely of all his strokes. The timidity of the other delegates made the terms of the call vague, but Hamilton unquestionably looked forward to the adoption of an entirely new Constitution.

In the legislature of 1787, in which the support of the New York business community gave him a seat, he led a spirited but mainly unsuccessful fight against the state laws which contravened the treaty with Great Britain. Late in the session, the bill for New York's complete adherence to the impost measure asked by Congress was brought up, and in its behalf Hamilton made one of his greatest speeches. "I well remember," Chancellor Kent later wrote of the address, "how much it was admired, for the comprehensive views which it took of the state of the nation, the warm appeals which it made to the public patriotism, the imminent perils which it pointed out, and the absolute necessity which it showed of some such financial measure" (William Kent, Memoirs and Letters of James Kent, 1898, p. 297). He met defeat in the Assembly, 36 to 21, but he had aroused public sentiment. Seizing the day after the impost vote, he introduced a motion instructing the New York delegates in the Continental Congress to support a constitutional convention, and despite the efforts of Gov. George Clinton's followers to weaken it, carried it in both houses. When the legislature named three delegates to the proposed convention, Hamilton as Federalist was offset by two Anti-Federalists, Robert Yates and John Lansing. Clinton and his powerful state-rights group took the most hostile attitude toward his labors, declaring that the Articles of Confederation required only slight amendment. But, as Hamilton gained the support of a solid body of merchants and other capitalists, he was able in increasing degree to place the Anti-Federalists upon the defensive.

Hamilton's rôle in the Constitutional Convention was not of the first importance; his rôle at home in New York was. Because of legal work his attendance in Philadelphia was irregular, his longest stay being from May 27 to June 29; his influence was lessened by the fact that Yates and Lansing could carry the state's vote against him; and his theories of centralization made him an object of distrust to many delegates. On June 18 he introduced his "propositions" for a Constitution, proposing that the senators and the chief executive serve during good behavior, that the governors of each state be appointed by the federal government, and that all state laws be strictly subordinate to national laws (Works, 1904, I, 347-69). Naturally they had little influence. During the debates he argued strongly in favor of the popular election of members of the House of Representatives, and in the contest between the small and large states supported the latter, though ready to compromise. At the close of the sessions he made a moving plea for unanimity in signing the Constitution, declaring that no true patriot could hesitate between it and the grave probability of anarchy and convulsion. Since Lansing and Yates had quit the convention, he signed alone for New York. Already (July 24) he had fired the first shot in a fierce war of newspaper essays over the Constitution, attacking Clinton for his hostility. The rejoinders were instant, and he exposed himself to misunderstanding when he signed several of his early articles "Caesar." But rising with characteristic ardor to the occasion, he carried the war into the enemy's camp by planning the "Federalist" series, the memorable first number of which he wrote in the cabin of a sloop while returning from legal work in Albany. Of this truly magnificent sequence of eighty-five expository and argumentative articles, publication of which began Oct. 27, 1787, in the Independent Journal and continued for seven months, he wrote at least fifty-one alone, and three more in conjunction with Madison (E. G. Bourne and P. L. Ford, in American Historical Review, April, July 1897). By the printing of these papers he accomplished his first preëminent service in the adoption of the Constitution; the second lay in securing the adherence of New York. The state convention which met at Poughkeepsie in June 1788 was found to contain at first forty-six Anti-Federalists or doubtful men to only nineteen assured Federalists. "Two thirds of the convention and four sevenths of the people are against us," wrote Hamilton. But with Jay and Robert Livingston as lieutenants, he led a spectacularly effective fight on the floor of the convention. His opponents argued first for postponement, then for rejection, and then for conditional ratification, but Hamilton overthrew everyone of their contentions. Fortunately for history, his irresistible speeches were reported with considerable fulness (Works, 1904, II, 3-99). The turning point came with his conversion of Melancthon Smith, and on July 26 the final vote showed a majority of three for the Constitution. This convention offers one of the few outstanding instances in American history of the decision of a deliberate body being changed by sheer power of sustained argument. In political management and general political contests Hamilton was one among several able leaders of his day, and was likely to err through passion or prejudice; but in parliamentary battle he was to have no real equal until the senatorial giants of the generation of Webster and Clay appeared.

The next task was to secure able and loyal officers for the new government, and Hamilton doubtless realized from the outset that he would be one of these. He sat again in the Continental Congress in February 1788, and introduced the ordinance fixing the dates and place for giving effect to the new government. By hard work in the state elections he also carried both branches of the legislature, and thus made it possible to send two Federalists, Philip Schuyler and Rufus King, to the United States Senate. Nervous lest Washington refuse to become the first president, he wrote him an insistent letter. He was thus much in the foreground till the new government was organized in April 1789, and when Robert Morris proved unavailable for the Treasury Department, his selection for that post was universally expected. Commissioned on Sept. 11, 1789, he spent the following year at work in New York, removing to Philadelphia in the fall of 1790.

Though he had no practical experience with the management of finances, his labors were marked by his usual rapidity. The organization of a collecting and disbursing force throughout the country had to be carried on simultaneously with the preparation of a plan for placing the public credit upon an adequate basis. No interest had been paid for years on the foreign loans, the domestic debt was heavily and generally regarded as of dubious validity, and paper emissions and partial repudiation had demoralized public opinion. Hamilton's report was ready when Congress met on Jan. 4, 1790, but its delivery was delayed. He had hoped that he would be permitted to present his comprehensive and energetic scheme on the floor of the House, and labor there for its enactment, and he was deeply disappointed when, at the instance of Madison and others who feared his forensic talents, the representatives insisted that he report only in writing. He had to convert his brief for the speech into a written argument which he laid before the House on Jan. 14 (Works, 1904, II, 227-89). Unquestionably this famous document is one of the greatest of his state papers, but its originality has often been exaggerated; he drew heavily upon features of the British financial system as it had been developed up to the time of Pitt (C. F. Dunbar, "Some Precedents Followed by Alexander Hamilton," Quarterly Journal of Economics, October 1888). Yet in its boldness, grasp, and courage the plan was admirable. Hamilton based his proposals upon the assumption that the government would completely and punctually meet its engagements. It is the opinion of an expert student that nine congressmen in ten had come to the capital with the expectation of scaling down the debt (Edward Channing, A History of the United States, IV, 1917, p. 69). But Hamilton argued at length against the general view that a discrimination should be made between the original holders of public securities and actual holders by purchase, many of the latter being speculators who had paid a small fraction of the face value; and he proved the impolicy as well as impracticability of such action. He also argued that the federal government should assume the debts contracted by the states during the war, these having been shouldered for the common cause of independence. His tabulation placed the foreign debt at slightly over $11,700,000, the domestic debt at slightly more than $42,000,000, and the state debts at approximately $25,000,000. Since the interest on these sums would be excessive, he proposed several alternative schemes for funding the debt on a basis that would postpone full interest charges, offering the creditors various options, including part payment in lands and in annuities. To provide the annual revenue of $2,240,000 that he estimated was required by the government, he proposed to levy both import duties and an excise.

Hamilton's plans met fierce opposition, Maclay of Pennsylvania characterizing them as "a monument of political absurdity"; it was argued that they played into the hands of a "corrupt squadron" of "gladiators" and "speculators." Madison argued stubbornly in favor of discrimination between the first holders and the later purchasers of public securities, but was defeated by a vote of 36 to 13. After a sharp debate the bill for the assumption of the state debts was temporarily beaten, but Hamilton finally carried it to success through his famous bargain with Jefferson and Madison for the location of the national capital. The funding and assumption measures, combined in one bill of a more rigid type than Hamilton's original proposals, became law on Aug. 4, 1791. He immediately made use of these achievements to undertake further steps. On Dec. 13, 1790, he presented to the House his plan for an excise on spirits; the next day he offered his elaborate plan for a national bank; and on Jan. 28, 1791, he reported on the establishment of a mint (Works, 1904, II, 337-51; III, 388-443; IV, 3-58). All three proposals were accepted. The palpable need for revenue carried the excise bill past bitter opposition; and the bank was established by a law of 1792, though not until Hamilton had clashed with Madison, Edmund Randolph, and Jefferson on the constitutionality of the measure, and had given the first exposition of the doctrine of implied powers to justify his position. As a capstone for his financial and economic structure, he presented to Congress at the winter session of 1791-92 his report on manufactures, a cardinal feature of which was the proposal that protection be given to infant industries by either import duties or bounties. As the successive reports of the Secretary were studied, the scale of his ideas gradually became evident. He was not merely planning a fiscal system, but doing it in such a way as to strengthen the central government and develop the resources of the country, to stimulate trade and capitalistic enterprises, and to bring about a more symmetrical balance between agriculture and industry.

Unquestionably the secretaryship of the treasury represented the climax of Hamilton's career. Dealing with a field so complex and novel, he could not hope to avoid errors and his opponents have since made the most of some of them. Speculation in federal and state certificates of debt became a veritable mania, with general over-expansion, and ended in a panic and business depression. Hamilton miscalculated future interest rates, expecting them to fall though national growth caused them to rise. Not seeing how rapidly wealth would accumulate, he gave the debt too long a tenure. He has also been criticized for instituting a financial system that was too drastic and firm for the day and that placed an unwise strain upon the new government; even though disaster was avoided, he dangerously stimulated political passions, aroused an armed rebellion against the excise, and founded a protective system which grew to exaggerated proportions. But the best vindication of his measures lies in their results. He created as from a void a firm public credit; he strengthened the government by not merely placing it on a sure financial foundation, but also uniting great propertied interests behind it; and he gave the country a stable circulating medium, more adequate banking facilities, and important new industries. He saw the importance of what he called "energy in the administration" (Works, 1904, II, 57), and if only because he went further than any other member of the government in exercising the powers of the Constitution, he must rank as one of the boldest and most farsighted of the founders of the nation.

Hamilton's natural aggressiveness, his belief that he was the virtual premier of Washington's administration, which led to improper interferences with other departments, and his unnecessary offenses to the susceptibilities of Jefferson, Madison, and others accentuated the party divisions which sprang naturally from differences in principles. Both he and Jefferson honestly believed that the policy of the other would tend to the destruction of the government and Constitution. They formed also a personal dislike; Hamilton wrote of Jefferson in 1792 that he was a man of "profound ambition and violent passions" (Ibid., IX, 535), while Jefferson assailed Hamilton in private and protested to Washington against the "corrupt squadron" of the Treasury Department (P. L. Ford, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, VI, 1895, pp. 101-09). The struggle between the federalists and anti-federalists, between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians, was carried on by letters circulated among public men, by efforts on both sides to influence Washington, greatly distressing the latter, by congressional oratory, and by newspaper broadsides. It shortly reached a point of great bitterness, and perhaps proved the unwisdom of Washington's attempt to set up an amalgamation cabinet, representing opposite points of view. The President wrote both secretaries in an effort to moderate their feelings, but without success. Hamilton had encouraged John Fenno [q.v.] to establish the Gazette of the United States in New York in 1789, and to transfer it a year later to Philadelphia, while in October 1791 the National Gazette of Philip Freneau [q.v.] appeared under the patronage of Jefferson. Both were soon full of severe articles, with not a few personalities. The assaults on Hamilton culminated in a demand, planned by Jefferson and Madison but presented in the House by William Branch Giles, that he furnish full information concerning the loans which had been effected, their terms, and the application of the proceeds. The scarcely veiled charge of the Republicans was that Hamilton had taken funds raised in Europe, which should have been used to pay debts there, and deposited them in the Bank of the United States in order to extend its "special items" and increase its profits. Giles was indiscreet enough to make still more serious charges. In a series of replies early in 1793, Hamilton completely vindicated himself and routed his accusers, and Giles's nine resolutions of censure were overwhelmingly defeated.

When the French revolutionary wars and the arrival of Genet (Apr. 8, 1793) added fuel to the party flames, Hamilton succeeded in winning Washington to his stand that the administration should show a stricter neutrality between France and Great Britain than most of his party opponents desired. Genet, as Jefferson wished, was received without reservations, and Jefferson's view that the treaty of alliance with France was merely suspended instead of dead was also adopted; but Washington issued what amounted to a proclamation of neutrality and Hamilton followed it with strict instructions to the collectors of customs for enforcement. When the British minister demanded restitution of the British vessels captured by privateers which Genet had illegally fitted out in America, Hamilton's opinion that restitution should be made was adopted by Washington over Jefferson's protests. In this troubled period Hamilton maintained close relations with the British envoy. He succeeded also in having John Jay sent to London to negotiate a treaty covering the commercial and other disputes between Great Britain and the United States, and he carefully controlled Jay's work in the interests of his financial policy at home (S. F. Bemis, Jay's Treaty, 1923; for Hamilton's instructions to Jay, see Works, 1904, V, 121-31). The breach between Jefferson and Hamilton grew steadily more open and embarrassing until Jefferson's resignation as secretary of state in December 1793, and Jefferson continued to try to discredit the Hamiltonian party by connecting it with speculation at home and British interests abroad. While it is commonly said that Hamilton enjoyed the decisive favor of Washington, there were points in foreign affairs upon which Washington rightly preferred Jefferson's counsel, and some upon which the three men had no real disagreement. Neutrality was a clearly defined American policy before Hamilton ever asserted it, and Jefferson had been fully committed to it. But in home affairs Hamilton's place was secure, and when the Whiskey Rebellion occurred in 1794 he played the chief rôle in its suppression, attending Gen. Henry Lee's punitive force as a superintending official. He regarded the insurrection as an opportunity for the federal government to vindicate its strength. Soon afterward financial pressure, for his office paid only $3,500 a year, caused him to resign (Jan. 31, 1795). Even after he left the cabinet, however, he did much to advise Washington, as in the recall of Monroe from France and the sending of C. C. Pinckney in his stead; and he assisted Washington to give final form to his Farewell Address (Horace Binney, An Inquiry into the Formation of Washington's Farewell Address, 1859).

Until his death, Hamilton remained out of civil office. His best work had all been done; his cruellest errors remained to be committed. When Jay returned home with his treaty to meet a storm of criticism, Hamilton brought his pen into play in its behalf, writing two powerful series of newspaper articles signed "Camillus" and "Philo-Camillus." Their ability extorted from Jefferson a remarkable tribute. "Hamilton," he wrote to Madison, on Sept. 21, 1795, "is really a colossus to the anti-republican party. Without numbers, he is an host within himself" (P. L. Ford, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, VII, 1896, p. 32). Though he was the leader of his party in 1796, he showed no aspiration for the presidency, to which because of the hostility of the South his election would have been impossible. He returned with zest to his work at the New York bar of which he was regarded as the foremost member, and where his earnings shortly reached $12,000 a year. A great favorite with the merchants of the city, he was "employed in every important and especially in every commercial case" (Memoirs and Letters of James Kent, 1898, p. 317); of insurance business he had "an overwhelming share." He took delight in his leisure for domestic life, building for his large family in 1802-03 a new home, "The Grange," at what is now Amsterdam Avenue and 141st-145th streets. Had he been discreet his pathway might have been fairly smooth, but discretion repeatedly failed him. In 1797 a baseless accusation against his honesty as secretary of the treasury, brought by Monroe and others, forced him to make public confession of his intrigue some years previous with a Mrs. Reynolds; an avowal which had the merit of a proud bravery, for it showed him willing to endure any personal humiliation rather than a slur on his public integrity. From the beginning of John Adams's administration he was on ill terms with the President, partly because of an old mutual dislike, and partly because in 1796 Hamilton had encouraged the Federalist electors to cast a unanimous vote for Adams's runningmate Thomas Pinckney, frankly declaring that he would rejoice if this gave Pinckney the presidency in place of Adams. Hamilton also attempted to maintain a steady influence over the acts of Timothy Pickering and Oliver Wolcott as secretaries of state and the treasury, and succeeded until the President discovered the connection and angrily reorganized his cabinet. To the end of his life Adams cherished resentment over this "intrigue," condemning Hamilton and Pickering (though not Wolcott) in the strongest terms. The natural ill-feeling between two men so unlike in temperament and principles resulted in a series of clashes. Hamilton and Adams disagreed upon the personnel of the diplomatic commission to be sent to France, the former resenting the appointment of Elbridge Gerry; they disagreed upon the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Hamilton with his usual shrewdness condemned as "violence without energy"; and upon the course which was to be pursued when the French Directory, in the X.Y.Z. Affair, outraged American feeling.

When war threatened with France in 1798, Hamilton again entertained dreams of military achievement. Following the passage of a law for raising a provisional army, Washington, who was to command it, suggested Hamilton's appointment as inspector-general with the rank of major-general, his plan being to make his old aide second in command. Gen. Henry Knox forthwith raised the question of precedence, refusing to serve if the generals were ranked according to the order of Washington's published list. Adams acceded to this view, ordering the commissions to be dated to give Knox the first rank. Washington thereupon threatened to resign, and Adams reluctantly yielded. Commissioned as inspector-general on July 25, 1798, Hamilton was busy for several months with plans for organizing a force of 50,000 and for offensive operations against Louisiana and the Floridas. He hoped to effect conquests upon an impressive scale. When suddenly Adams dissipated both the war cloud and these dreams of glory by his wise stroke in dispatching a new minister to France, Hamilton and his supporters were filled with angry consternation. With outward good grace, Hamilton advised his friends in the Senate that "the measure must go into effect with the additional idea of a commission of three," but his inward resentment was extreme. He realized that the French mission, rending the Federalist party in two, had struck it what would probably be its deathblow. A short time later he heard that Adams had accused him of being under British influence. After writing twice to the President and receiving no answer, he rashly gave way to his feelings. In what he called "a very belligerent humor," he wrote a letter harshly arraigning Adams as unfit for the presidency and letting out much confidential cabinet information. Against his friends' protests he circulated it widely, a copy was obtained by Aaron Burr, and the Republicans saw that it went through at least five printings during the year 1800 (Letter from Alexander Hamilton Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq., President of the United States, 1800). It was a blunder of the first magnitude, and represented so palpable a surrender to personal irritation that it was without excuse.

Yet, after this surrender to petty motives, Hamilton magnificently rose above them during the Jefferson-Burr contest for the presidency in the election of 1800-01, while three years later he was to perform a still more signal service for the Republic. When the Jefferson-Burr tie went to the House, he might have joined other Federalists in attempting to revenge themselves upon Jefferson by throwing the election to his rival, but believing that Burr was an ill-equipped and dangerous man, Hamilton cast his influence into the opposite scale. After Jefferson's election he necessarily played a minor part in national politics, though he watched public affairs alertly and in 1801 joined with some friends in founding the New York Evening Post to increase his influence. He trenchantly criticized Jefferson's first message, he supported the acquisition of Louisiana, and he occasionally wrote on other questions. The rising tide of disaffection with the Republican administration in certain New England circles, and the half-covert talk of secession there and in New York, found in him an immovable opponent. When in 1804 Burr again sought the governorship of New York, and it was suspected that if victorious he meant to join the New England malcontents in the formation of a Northern confederacy, Hamilton immediately took the offensive with his old dash. He succeeded in stemming the tide which had set in behind Burr's Independent and Federalist ticket, and the Republican candidate, Morgan Lewis, was easily elected. It was a brilliant achievement, scotching the best hopes of the secessionists. Burr's defeat left him thirsting for revenge, and he found his opportunity in a statement published by Dr. Charles D. Cooper, declaring that Hamilton had called Burr "dangerous" and had expressed privately "a still more despicable opinion of him." A challenge for a duel passed, and Hamilton lacked courage to defy public opinion by rejecting it, though he accepted with the utmost reluctance. The encounter took place on the early morning of July 11, 1804, under the Weehawken heights on the banks of the Hudson, and Hamilton fell mortally wounded at the first shot. He was carried back to the home of William Bayard at 80 Jane St., and after excruciating suffering died the next afternoon. It was the end of both a brilliant career and a dastardly plot against the Union. "The death of Hamilton and the Vice President's flight, with their accessories of summer-morning sunlight on rocky and wooded heights, tranquil river, and distant city, and behind all, their dark background of moral gloom, double treason, and political despair, still stand as the most dramatic moment in the early politics of the Union" (Henry Adams, History of the United States of America, 1890, II, p. 191).

Hamilton was below the middle height, being five feet seven inches tall, slender, remarkably erect, and quick and energetic in his movements. His complexion was clear and ruddy, his hair reddish brown, his eyes deep blue, and his whole countenance recognizably Scottish. It was often observed that his face had a double aspect, the eyes being intent and severe, the mouth kindly and winning. Few could resist his captivating traits, and even his enemies acknowledged the charm of his graceful person, frank manners, and lively conversation. He possessed a quick and powerful pride, which Gouverneur Morris somewhat unfairly called vanity. When at work, and he worked almost incessantly, he had a marvelous faculty of concentration; many observers spoke of his ability to reach conclusions as by a lightning flash--to divine them. "Hamilton avait diviné l'Europe," said Talleyrand (Life, Letters and Journals of George Ticknor, 1876, I, 261). In his political activities he displayed a taste for intrigue, which he sometimes carried too far. His machinations against Adams in 1796, his confidential correspondence with the British minister while he sat in Washington's cabinet, his proposal to trick the Republicans in 1800 out of New York's presidential electors--a proposal which Gov. Jay quietly set aside as one "which it would not become me to adopt"--can all be counted heavily against him. Apart from this, his character was of the highest stamp, while his patriotism was unquestioned. His power as an orator was the greatest of his time, but it was characteristic of him that he chose to exert it upon select bodies of influential men, not upon the multitude. His abilities as a political leader were surpassed by few, but again he chose to work upon and through small groups rather than upon the masses. His intellect was hard, incisive, and logical, but wanting in imagination and in subtlety.

Hamilton's political principles were clearly formed by the time he was twenty-five, were pursued unremittingly throughout his life, and have probably laid a clearer impress upon the Republic than those of any other single man. He did not believe in the people, but instead profoundly distrusted the political capacity of the common man, believing him too ignorant, selfish, and ill-controlled to be capable of wise self-government. "Take mankind in general, they are vicious, their passions may be operated upon," he said in the Federal Convention (Works, 1904, I, 408); and again he referred to the people as a "great beast." He recognized that the ideas and enthusiasms of the time made large concessions to popular and republican government necessary, but he strove to hold them within close bounds. The main instruments of power, he believed, should be kept in the hands of selected groups, comprising those with intelligence and education enough to govern, and those with property interests for government to protect. This implied a concentration of strength in the central government. His belief in a powerful federal authority, springing thus from his political philosophy, was confirmed and made aggressive by his observations of the evils of the Confederation, with its feebleness and its disintegrating emphasis on state rights. At the time of the Federal Convention he believed the complete extinction of all the states desirable but impossible (Works, 1904, I, 397 ff.), and the plan which he actually brought forward would have reduced the states to shadows and have placed a tremendous authority in the hands of the federal executive. As a member of the cabinet, he wished to go beyond the words of the Constitution in invigorating the government, and hence proclaimed his doctrine of implied powers; a doctrine which, as developed under Marshall and since, has tremendously strengthened the national as compared with the state sovereignties. Accepting representative institutions, he perceived the necessity of creating an economic element devoted to a strong government and eager to uphold it for selfish as well as patriotic reasons, hence his funding measures and his views in the reports on the national credit and on manufactures. In the Federalist, which is a keen study in the economic interpretation of politics, he had remarked: "Every institution will grow and flourish in proportion to the quantity and extent of the means concentrated towards its formation and support"; as administrator he simply gave this principle application. He thought much of governmental strength, but little of liberty. He emphasized national wealth, power, and order, and neglected local attachments and autonomy. He believed in governmental measures for helping whole classes to grow prosperous, but he paid no attention to the aspirations of the individual for greater happiness, opportunity, and wisdom. He was a hard, efficient realist, whose work was invaluable to the nation at the time it was done, but whose narrow aristocratic political ideas needed correction from the doctrines of Jefferson and Lincoln.


[There is still room for a biography of Hamilton making full use of his papers, which were purchased by the government in 1849 and are now in the Lib. of Cong. Hist. of the Republic of the U. S. of America, as Traced in the Writings of Alexander Hamilton (6 vols., 1857-60), by his son, John Church Hamilton, is a documentary life on an excessively grand scale. J. C. Hamilton also published a seven-volume edition of the Works (1850-51), which is supplemented rather than supplanted by the editions of Henry Cabot Lodge (9 vols., 1885-88; 12 vols., 1904). Two lives strongly biased in Hamilton's favor are Lodge, Alexander Hamilton (1882), and J. T. Morse, Life of Alexander Hamilton (1876). Still more partisan, and full of dubious if interesting theorizing, is F. S. Oliver, Alexander Hamilton: An Essay on Am. Union (1906). More impartiality is shown in W. G. Sumner, Alexander Hamilton (1890); James Schouler, Alexander Hamilton (1901); and H. J. Ford's thoughtful but often inaccurate Alexander Hamilton (1920). In Claude G. Bowers, Jefferson and Hamilton (1925), and Francis W. Hirst, Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson (1926), the point of view is frankly hostile to Hamilton. There is material of value in The Intimate Life of Alexander Hamilton (1910), by his grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton [q.v.], and there are interesting sidelights in E. S. Maclay, Jour. of Wm. Maclay (1890). Hamilton's connections with journalism are treated in Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism (1922). For a study of the background, two books by Charles A. Beard, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913) and Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915), are invaluable. Gertrude Atherton, who published A Few of Hamilton's Letters (1903), put much original research into her historical novel upon him, The Conqueror (1902). Paul Leicester Ford compiled a Bibliotheca Hamiltoniana (1886). Among articles on special phases of his work in technical journals may be cited the following: A. D. Morse, "Alexander Hamilton," Pol. Sci. Quart., Mar. 1890; E. G. Bourne, "Alexander Hamilton and Adam Smith," Quart. Jour. of Economics, Apr. 1894; E. C. Lunt, "Hamilton as a Pol. Economist," Jour. of Pol. Economy, June 1895; W. C. Ford, "Alexander Hamilton's Notes on the Federal Convention of 1787," Am. Hist. Rev., Oct. 1904. See also the published writings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.]


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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310012024