Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) 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.
Budding Political Career
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 (1732-1799). 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 (1751-1836), a delegate from Virginia, and John Jay (1745-1829), 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.
First Secretary of the Treasury
Named by President George Washington (1789-1797) 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 (1743-1826), 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 (1735-1826), a Federalist and the second president of the United States, and Aaron Burr (1756-1836), 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. The duel took place at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Although both men fired shots, Hamilton is believed to have intentionally missed Burr; however, Burr returned fire and Hamilton was hit by the bullet. Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, the day after the duel.
Public interest in Hamilton's legacy surged in the early twenty-first century thanks to the 2015 debut of Hamilton, a Broadway musical about the titular Founding Father's life. Written by and starring composer and playwright Lin Manuel Miranda (1980-), the play recounts Hamilton's dramatic rise to power and abrupt fall and sets the events to a soundtrack of hip-hop, rap, and jazz. In addition to winning eleven Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama, Hamilton helped to revive American interest in one of the nation's most important early leaders.
- 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," Internet Broadway Database, https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/hamilton-499521 (July 9, 2018).
- "What Is This Hamilton Broadway Show Anyway, and Why Should I Care?," Digital Spy, http://www.digitalspy.com/showbiz/theatre/feature/a783839/what-is-this-hamilton-broadway-show-anyway-and-why-should-i-care/ (July 9, 2018)