Alexander Hamilton

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Editor: Anne Commire
Date: 1994
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 3,900 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1360L

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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
Updated:Jan. 1, 1994
 
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"Hamilton was indeed a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest, and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, and duly valuing virtue in private life, yet so bewitched & perverted." ---Thomas Jefferson

American statesman, who was an early advocate for an energetic national government, the architect of a national economic program, and the controversial leader of the Federalist party.

  • 1772 Published famous "Hurricane Letter"
  • 1774 Published "A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Continental Congress"
  • 1776 Commissioned as captain of New York provincial artillery company
  • 1777 Appointed Washington's aide-de-camp; promoted to lieutenant colonel
  • 1781 Commanded successful bayonet assault on British Redoubt No. 10 at battle of Yorktown
  • 1782 Admitted to the bar; appointed delegate to the Continental Congress from New York
  • 1786 Elected to New York Assembly; delegate to the Annapolis Convention
  • 1787 Delegate to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention
  • 1787--88 Published a majority of the Federalist essays; led fight for ratification of the Constitution
  • 1789 Appointed secretary of the treasury
  • 1795 Resigned as secretary of the treasury; returned to New York law practice
  • 1798 Appointed inspector general of the army
  • 1804 Mortally wounded in duel with Aaron Burr; buried in Trinity Churchyard, New York City

Born the illegitimate son of James Hamilton and Rachel Fawcett Lavien on the island of Nevis, the British West Indies on January 11, 1755, Alexander Hamilton early on demonstrated the audacity, perseverance, intensity, and genius associated with his name. Denied the opportunity for extensive formal schooling, his education consisted of voracious reading and experience as a clerk in the St. Croix mercantile firm of David Beekman and Nicholas Cruger.

In 1772, Hamilton gained a measure of fame with his so-called "Hurricane Letter" in The Royal Danish American Gazette in which he described in vivid terms the devastating tropical storm which destroyed much of St. Croix. Perhaps because opportunities were limited in the West Indies, and because of his acknowledged precociousness, Hamilton was encouraged and financed by his employer Nicholas Cruger and Presbyterian minister Hugh Knox to move to the mainland. By 1773, Hamilton was productively residing with the eminent William Livingston family in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and attending Francis Barber's grammar school.

After a few months of studying the classics, Hamilton applied for admission to the College of New Jersey (Princeton). But President John Witherspoon would not bend the rules to allow the 18-year-old to enter as a junior, so Hamilton matriculated at King's College, New York City. During his two and a half years at King's College, Hamilton read widely in the ancient classics and also honed his writing skills in several published essays. In late 1774, he published his first pamphlet entitled "A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Continental Congress." Written in reply to Samuel Seabury's highly critical "Free Thoughts on Congress," Hamilton became clearly identified with the growing radical movement against alleged English tyranny.

Hamilton Serves as Aide to George Washington

Alexander had long aspired to glory through the military. Commissioned as a captain of a New York provincial artillery company, the 19-year-old served ably but without distinction in the various battles in and around New York City in 1776 and in American victories at Trenton and Princeton. On March 1, 1777, he was appointed aide-de-camp to the commander in chief, George Washington, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Thus began a lifelong and mutually beneficial association. While Washington enjoyed the services of a bright, articulate, energetic military secretary, Hamilton was brought into close, daily contact with the American "Cincinnatus." Despite one notable period of estrangement, this relationship continued through the remainder of the War for Independence, through the critical Confederation period of the 1780s, and through the crucial period of Washington's presidency and Hamilton's tenure as the first secretary of the treasury.

In late 1780, Hamilton entered into a second relationship which would prove to be beneficial. On December 14, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler. This association with a wealthy, aristocratic family provided Hamilton with social status, money, valuable political connections, and entrance to the best salons of New York. Hamilton was a devoted husband and father. Despite the one substantiated scandal of his life (a love affair with Maria Reynolds), his marriage was obviously one of genuine love and mutual respect. To this union were born eight children: two daughters and six sons. Up to his death, Hamilton maintained a close, loving relationship with all of his children. Frequently, even during times of pressing public and professional duties, Hamilton wrote long and loving letters to his offspring. They in turn were devoted to their father and well after his death defended his actions and policies in published tomes.

In 1781, Hamilton was given command of a New York and Connecticut light infantry battalion in preparation for the upcoming Virginia campaign. On October 14, Colonel Hamilton achieved a measure of military glory by leading a bayonet assault on British Redoubt No. 10 in the climactic battle of Yorktown. With this notable victory, the military phase of the American Revolution came to an end. Hamilton resigned his commission and returned to New York.

Like many of his talented compatriots, Hamilton turned to the study of law. After six months of intense work, he was admitted to the New York bar. He also wrote a practice manual entitled Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of the State of New York demonstrating again a clarity of written expression and the ability to condense logically a mass of factual information. These abilities served him well in both his legal and political careers. As a lawyer in New York, the still youthful Hamilton joined the most distinguished group of barristers then practicing in the American republic. Despite his relative inexperience, he held his own legally with such luminaries as Robert R. Livingston, James Duane, Aaron Burr, and John Jay.

It was in the 1780s that Hamilton entered the political arena first as a member of the increasingly morbid and ineffectual Confederation Congress and later as a delegate to both the Annapolis Convention and Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. Throughout the Confederation Period (1781--89), Hamilton was in the vanguard of those who decried the weakness of the national government under the Articles of Confederation and sought to strengthen the central government at the expense of the states. As the leader of a small but growing number of nationalists (a group that included Washington, James Madison, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, and Robert Morris), Hamilton should be credited with being one of a few who were responsible for the calling of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention and the overthrow of the ineffectual Articles of Confederation.

Called at the invitation of James Madison and the Virginia legislature, the Annapolis Convention of September 1786 was an important, perhaps necessary step on the way to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Five states (Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York) accepted the invitation to meet in the Maryland capital. Most of the 12 delegates would serve later at the Philadelphia convention and in the new government established by the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton was one of two delegates from New York, Tench Coxe (future Hamilton assistant in the treasury department) was the sole Pennsylvania representative, Delaware's renowned John Dickinson was chosen president of the Annapolis gathering, and Edmund Randolph (later U.S. attorney general) and James Madison ably represented Virginia. The delegates realized that the sparse attendance made it impractical to proceed to a study of interstate political and commercial problems. However, before disbanding, they adopted an address to the states. Drafted by Hamilton, it called upon the states to send commissioners to a new convention at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May 1787 to discuss not only commercial problems but all matters necessary "to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union." This was the clarion call for the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

He Is a Delegate to Constitutional Convention

On March 16, 1787, the New York state legislature voted to appoint John Lansing Jr., Robert Yates, and Alexander Hamilton as delegates to the upcoming Philadelphia convention. The powerful governor of New York, George Clinton, by supporting the election of two of his henchmen, had made certain that Hamilton would be outvoted by his two states' rights colleagues and thus would be rendered ineffectual as a spokesman for a strong national government. With two notable exceptions, Clinton's strategy worked.

The Philadelphia convention was called by Thomas Jefferson "an assembly of demi-gods," and by almost everyone else ever since a gathering of talented, well-educated, hard-working, experienced men. Of the 55 delegates attending---including Roger Sherman of Connecticut, John Dickinson of Delaware, James Wilson, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Luther Martin of Maryland, Charles C. Pinckney and John Rutledge of South Carolina, and Edmund Randolph, George Mason, George Washington, and James Madison of Virginia---it would have been difficult for the relatively youthful Hamilton to have assumed a leadership role. With two exceptions, he either absented himself or played a passive role in the constitutional deliberations. Soon after the convention convened on May 25, Hamilton was chosen to serve on the rules committee. As such, he was largely responsible for formulating the rules under which the convention operated, including that of meeting in secret. The second exception occurred on June 18 when he gave a five-hour speech (the longest of the entire convention) in which he proposed his plan for an effective national government. He advocated a chief executive who would be chosen practically for life, a senate whose members would be named by electors chosen by the people and who would serve for life, and a national judiciary which would have the power to declare any national law unconstitutional. Finally, he favored eliminating the states as separate sovereignties by giving the president the authority to appoint the state governors and to veto all local and state laws. His plan of government was largely ignored primarily because of its essential conservatism and because it had no chance of being accepted by either his fellow delegates or by the American people. Having said his piece, Hamilton spent most of the remainder of the summer of 1787 in New York City, practicing law and enjoying the company of his ever-growing family. However, he did return to Philadelphia in time to serve on the Committee on Style and Arrangement and to sign the finished document on September 17.

During the convention, Georgia delegate William Pierce wrote informative biographical sketches of his fellow conventioneers. "Colo. Hamilton," he noted, "is deservedly celebrated for his talents. He is a practitioner of the law, and reputed to be a finished Scholar. . . . He is about 33 years old, of small stature, and lean. His manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable." Hamilton's failure to influence the convention's deliberations was due as much to personality and tactics as to basic principles. His vanity was frequently to be his undoing.

It was during the ratification controversy that Hamilton played a decisive role. He conceived of the plan to publish a series of letters which would explain in positive terms the organic law drafted at Philadelphia. Enlisting the help of fellow New Yorker John Jay (who wrote five of the 85 essays) and James Madison (who wrote some 39 letters including the famous No. 10), Hamilton painstakingly explained in detail, in the 51 essays attributed to him, why the Constitution of 1787 should be ratified. Designed to influence the vote in the New York ratifying convention, The Federalist Papers probably swayed very few of the 57 largely antifederalist delegates to the Poughkeepsie meeting. However, these thoughtful, well-written essays remain the best commentary available on the Constitution of 1787 and are still read with profit.

Hamilton Formulates Financial Program

To nobody's surprise, George Washington was unanimously elected president in 1788. Also non-surprisingly, the new chief executive appointed Alexander Hamilton to be his secretary of the treasury. Hamilton's involvement in the founding of the Bank of New York in 1784, his well-known views on establishing a strong, energetic national government, and his long friendship with Washington all make this appointment seem inevitable. As it turned out, Hamilton was the person best qualified to formulate a financial program which would lead the country out of the economic morass of the Confederation Period.

It is for this financial program that Alexander Hamilton is deservedly remembered and admired. In late 1789 shortly after his appointment to the treasury post, Hamilton was instructed by the House of Representatives to propose "an adequate provision for the support of the public credit" and "to prepare a plan for that purpose." In four brilliantly crafted reports, Hamilton proposed an economic program which when implemented brought about a period of prosperity and stability unknown previously. His program consisted of four parts: funding, assumption, excise law, and national bank. In his first report to Congress, Hamilton advocated funding the national debt by paying face value to actual holders of government securities. The total national debt was around $56 million of which approximately $11 million was owed to the French government and to Dutch bankers. There was general agreement that this portion of the debt should be fully honored. Disagreement arose over payment of the domestic debt. The secretary supported full face value payment to actual security holders. This debt, once widely held, was by 1790 largely held by a relatively few primarily northern speculators. In advocating payment to actual holders, Hamilton wanted to forge an alliance between the commercial and banking interests of the country and the national government. Thus funding was motivated as much by political considerations as by economic. It was over this issue that Hamilton and James Madison had a falling out. Convinced that funding would work to the detriment of his Virginia constituents and would unnecessarily enhance the power of the national government at the expense of state sovereignty, Madison introduced in the House of Representatives his discriminatory proposal by which original security holders would receive the difference between the face value of their securities and the low price they received for selling them. This fundamental disagreement brought about the political estrangement between Hamilton and Madison---an estrangement which would have momentous consequences for the immediate and far-reaching future. Now in opposition to the Hamilton program, Madison became the co-founder (along with fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson), of the Republican party---the party which wrested control of the national government from Hamilton and the Federalists in the controversial election of 1800.

The second part of Hamilton's economic program involved the assumption of state debts by the national government. In 1790, the states collectively owed approximately $25 million. Hamilton proposed the assumption of some $21 million. Many states (mostly southern) had largely paid off these revolutionary debts while other states (mostly northern) were on the verge of bankruptcy. Thus assumption became a North-South sectional issue as well as a political one between those who wanted to strengthen the central government and those who favored strong state governments.

Initially the funding/assumption bill failed passage in the House of Representatives. At this juncture, Hamilton proposed a compromise to his cabinet adversary, Thomas Jefferson, and to his erstwhile colleague, but now most determined congressional critic, James Madison. If Jefferson and Madison would convince some of their Virginia colleagues to abstain in the congressional voting and thus assure passage of the funding/assumption bill, Hamilton would support moving the capital from New York City to Philadelphia for ten years and then to a location on the Potomac River. Thus Hamilton was instrumental in crafting one of the major compromises between North and South and between nationalists and states righters.

Funding/assumption increased the national debt by some $77 million. To service this indebtedness, Hamilton proposed and Congress passed the Excise Law of 1791. This whiskey tax placed a particular hardship on frontier farmers and led to the so-called Whiskey Insurrection of 1794. With the president's blessing, Hamilton accompanied the hastily assembled 12,000-man army sent to the four westernmost counties of Pennsylvania to quell this challenge to national authority and to his financial program. The army, under the nominal command of Henry Lee of Virginia, but under the actual command of the determined secretary of the treasury, found few whiskey rebels when it arrived in the Pittsburgh area. Hamilton conducted several "kangaroo" trials in which he attempted to implicate Jeffersonian Congressmen John Smilie, Albert Gallatin, and William Findley. All in all, only two non-Congressional "rebels" were indicted and found guilty, and both were prudently pardoned by the president. Throughout this episode, Hamilton demonstrated that he was an active advocate of the supremacy of the national government over state governments and that he would utilize the full powers of government to enforce national laws and decrees.

The Doctrine of Implied Powers

The fourth piece of Hamilton's financial program was the chartering in 1791 of the first bank of the United States. Patterned after the Bank of England and Robert Morris's Bank of North America, this primarily privately capitalized bank would act as the fiscal agent of the United States government. It would be authorized to make loans, supervise state and private banks, and issue bank notes which would circulate as money and thus help save the currency shortage. The bill which chartered the bank for 20 years passed largely along sectional lines; the north generally favoring passage and the south opposing it. When the chartering bill reached Washington's desk, he asked his department heads for their written opinions regarding its constitutionality. In his carefully crafted reply, Jefferson advanced the doctrine of interpreting the constitution narrowly. Thus he concluded that the bank chartering bill was unconstitutional and should not be signed. Hamilton had the advantage of having Jefferson's reply in front of him as he wrote his views regarding interpreting the Constitution. In what many consider to be his most brilliant piece of writing, Hamilton presented the doctrine of implied powers. If it was implied in the Constitution that Congress had the power to take a certain action, then it was constitutional. Hamilton reasoned that since Congress did have the specific authority to lay and collect taxes, then it was implied that the legislature had the power to create an agency to carry on these functions. Hamilton's implied powers doctrine has prevailed to such an extent that much of the power now exercised by the national government is due to interpreting the Constitution "loosely" as advocated by the secretary of the treasury.

By 1791, the Hamiltonian financial program was in place. The major consequences of the far-reaching plan were threefold. The country was soon on the road to full economic prosperity, public credit was restored, and financial stability was achieved. Secondly, this program forged an alliance between the national government and the banking/commercial/speculating interests primarily of the north. Finally, this financial structure was the cause for the emergence of political factions which by 1796 had evolved into identifiable political parties. Thus somewhat ironically, Hamilton, who decried factionalism, was partly responsible for the emergence of the present two-party system.

With the financial structure firmly in place, Hamilton turned his attention to foreign affairs. In 1793 England and France once again went to war. This war, with one brief intermission would last until 1815 and would prompt Washington's neutrality policy. Despite the United States' announced policy of staying out of European embroilments, both England and France violated U.S. maritime and neutral rights. France would seize American ships destined for English ports while England would capture and condemn U.S. vessels destined for French ports. The English went one step further by impressing American sailors. Along with Washington and Secretary of State Jefferson (who resigned in late 1793), Hamilton was the architect of the policy of neutrality. In the titanic struggle between England and France, however, Hamilton favored the English. Partly because he admired the essential conservatism of the British government and partly because his recently created financial system required peace and trade with England, Hamilton flirted with treason in maintaining close personal relations with British minister, George Hammond. On several occasions, Hamilton worked behind the back of the secretary of state to assure the English of friendly American intentions. The John Jay mission to England in 1794 was largely due to Hamilton's machinations. Determined to maintain peace with England at almost all costs, President Washington sent the chief justice to negotiate a treaty which would resolve the pressing issues of West Indian trade, impressment, and British troops on American soil. Although serving as secretary of the treasury, Hamilton wrote Jay's diplomatic instructions and thus greatly influenced the implementation of foreign policy. The resultant Jay's Treaty was unpopular and became still another issue separating Hamilton (Federalists) and Jefferson/Madison (Republicans).

In 1795, Hamilton resigned as secretary of the treasury and returned to his New York City law practice. Although a private citizen, he maintained an interest in public affairs and served as an unofficial advisor to Washington. As such he drafted Washington's famous Farewell Address which was published on September 19, 1796.

Hamilton's last ten years were increasingly unhappy ones. In mid-1798, he wrangled an appointment as inspector general of the army with the rank of major general during the Quasi-war with France. When President John Adams opted for peace rather than a shooting war, thus creating a division in the Federalist party between Adams moderates and Hamiltonian High Federalists, the way was opened for a Republican election victory in 1800.

In the election, Hamilton's role was a curious one. Although he generally supported the Federalist ticket of Adams and Charles C. Pinckney of South Carolina, he privately circulated a letter in which he criticized Adams. Then when it was learned that there was an electoral tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, Hamilton was forced to make a choice between support for his former cabinet rival and his long-time New York adversary. To the surprise of many, Hamilton threw his considerable support to Jefferson thus helping to ensure the former secretary of state's election as the third president.

The rivalry between Hamilton and Burr became intense when, in 1801, Hamilton's oldest son Philip was killed in a duel with a supporter of Vice President Burr. After Burr's defeat in the New York gubernatorial election of early 1804, this rivalry reached a crescendo when the vice president challenged Hamilton to a duel for acrimonious remarks made during the campaign. Specifically, Hamilton had denounced his old enemy as "a man of irregular and unsatiable ambition who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government." The result was the most famous duel in American history. Details of the July 11, 1804, duel are scanty, but Hamilton was fatally wounded and died the following day in the New York home of William Bayard. With his sudden death at the age of 49, Alexander Hamilton achieved a degree of martyrdom whereas Burr (allegedly the "winner" of the bloody confrontation) was ruined politically and was forced eventually into a four-year exile in Europe.

PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Born on January 11, 1755, at Charlestown, Nevis, British West Indies; died on July 12, 1804, in New York City; son of James Hamilton and Rachel (Fawcett) Lavien; married: Elizabeth Schuyler (daughter of General Philip Schuyler), December 14, 1780; children: Philip, Angelica, Alexander, James Alexander, John Church, William Stephen, Eliza, and Philip (named for the first child who was killed in a duel in 1801).

 
FURTHER READINGS:

  • Jacob E. Cooke. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. Scribners, 1982.
  • Robert Hendrickson. Hamilton I (1757--1789). Mason/Charter, 1976.
  • ---------. Hamilton II (1789--1804). Mason/Charter, 1976.
  • ------------------- The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
  • Forrest McDonald. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. Norton, 1979.
  • John C. Miller. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. Harper, 1959.
  • Claude G. Bowers. Jefferson and Hamilton: The Struggle for Democracy in America. Houghton, 1925.
  • Marcus Cunliffe. The Nation Takes Shape, 1789--1837. University of Chicago Press, 1959.
  • Milton Lomask. Aaron Burr: The Years from Princeton to Vice President, 1756--1805. Farrar, Straus, 1979.
  • ---------. Aaron Burr: The Conspiracy and Years of Exile, 1805--1836. Farrar, Straus, 1979.
  • John C. Miller. The Federalist Era, 1789--1801. Harper, 1960.
  • Richard B. Morris. Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny: The Founding Fathers as Revolutionaries, Harper, 1973.

 

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1616000258