Alexander Hamilton

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A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792.
A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792.

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757July 12, 1804) was an American politician, statesman, journalist, lawyer, and soldier. One of the United States' most prominent and brilliant early constitutional lawyers, he was an influential delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and the principal author of the Federalist Papers, which successfully defended the U.S. Constitution to skeptical New Yorkers. He also put the new United States of America onto a sound economic footing as its first and most influential Secretary of the Treasury, establishing the First Bank of the United States, public credit and the foundations for American capitalism and stock and commodity exchanges.


Early years

Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies island of Nevis to James Hamilton, a businessman from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien of French Huguenot descent, who was then married to another man. (The couple lived apart from one another under an order of legal separation. Remarriage was forbidden by law at the time.) There is some uncertainty as to the year of Hamilton's birth. Throughout his life, Hamilton stated that it was 1757, and that year went unquestioned for centuries. More recent examinations of probate court records at St. Croix indicate the year was 1755 (though the year is not explicitly noted) and for several decades it has been the more commonly cited year. According to Chernow, Hamilton may have misrepresented his age upon entering King's College because he was relatively old for a university freshman, which may explain the discrepancy between the court records and Hamilton's own statements about his birth year. The date, January 11, can be neither substantiated nor refuted, and is still commonly accepted.

Hamilton was always sensitive to the fact that, under the laws of the time, he was born illegitimately and was thus considered a bastard. Hamilton's father abandoned him, and his mother died when he was in his early teens. Business misfortunes having caused his father's bankruptcy, and his mother dying in 1768, young Hamilton was thrown upon the care of maternal relatives at St Croix, where he entered the countinghouse of Nicholas Cruger. Shortly afterward Mr Cruger, going abroad, left the boy in charge of the business. An accomplishment later of great service to Hamilton was a familiar command of French; common enough in the Antilles, but very rare in the English continental colonies.

As a teenager, Hamilton wrote an article in a local paper about a hurricane that had severely battered the West Indies. The article was so dramatically written that it caused a sensation and the town soon raised money to fund his passage to America. He settled in New York City in 1772, and began grammar school. Later, he attended King's College (now Columbia University), originally studying anatomy with the intent of becoming a doctor.

A visit to Boston seems to have thoroughly confirmed the conclusion, to which reason had already led him, that he should cast in his fortunes with the colonists. He threw himself into their cause with ardour. In 1774-1775 he wrote two influential anonymous pamphlets, which were attributed to John Jay; they show remarkable maturity and controversial ability, and rank high among the political arguments of the time. He organized an artillery company, was awarded its captaincy on examination, won the interest of Nathanael Greene and Washington by the proficiency and bravery he displayed in the campaign of 1776 around New York City. He joined Washington's staff in March 1777 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and during four years served as his private secretary and confidential aide. The important duties with which he was entrusted attest Washington's entire confidence in his abilities and character; then and afterwards. Indeed, reciprocal confidence and respect took the place of personal attachment in their relations. But Hamilton was ambitious for military glory. It was an ambition he never lost. He became impatient of detention in what he regarded as a position of unpleasant dependence, and (Feb. 1781) he seized a slight reprimand administered by Washington as an excuse for abandoning his staff position. Later he secured a field command, through Washington, and won laurels at Yorktown, where he led the American column in the final assault on the British fortifications. In 1780 he married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler, and thus became allied with one of the most distinguished families in New York.

Hamilton was very intelligent, talented and a quick study. At the start of his teenage years he was an impoverished orphan with no family connections, working as a clerk on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. By the close of his teenage years he was in America, General George Washington's most trusted aide-de-camp, an accomplished artillery captain, and a published pamphleteer renowned in New York. It was while on the battlefield, however, that Hamilton began formulating the ideas on government and economics that would make him an historic figure.

He saw how the war was prolonged and the army was deprived of needed supplies by Congress's relative powerlessness vis-a-vis the states, and was one of the earliest and most active nationalists. Hamilton, like Washington, believed that the Continental Congress needed to be strengthened or reformed in favor of a new, stronger Federal government that could legislate without being hamstrung by the states. Hamilton became the spokesman for an active government, stressing the principle of government "responsibility," against the Jeffersonian/Madisonian principle of public vigilance and suspicion of government power. Recent scholars have argued that these two philosophies form the thesis-antithesis of the post-Revolutionary era—Alexander Hamilton being the figurehead of responsible government.

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

Leaving Washington's staff, Hamilton took command of an infantry regiment that participated in the siege of Yorktown, and led the assault that captured Redoubt #10. After the war he served as a member of the Continental Congress (from 1782 to 1783), and then retired to open his own law office in New York City. He married Elizabeth Schuyler (known as Eliza), heiress of a wealthy and influential New York family, on December 14, 1780. His public career resumed when he attended the Annapolis Convention as a delegate in 1786.

He also served in the New York State Legislature and attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Throughout the convention's proceedings Hamilton, a Federalist, argued consistently for a strong central government, including a king-like president (minus the familial inheritance of power), and an upper legislative body based on the English House of Lords. For this, he was long derided by political foes as a monarchist. Hamilton opposed equal representation in the Senate, saying the concept "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." He also wanted senators to serve for life, subject to good behavior. Finally, Hamilton strongly advocated the abolition of slavery.

Although the U.S. Constitution which the convention eventually produced was less robust than Hamilton had proposed, and the tenures of those exercising power were shorter than he desired, he was active in the successful campaign for its ratification in New York. He made the largest single contribution to the authorship of the Federalist Papers, which were extremely influential in that state and others during the debates over ratification, and are still often cited.

In 1788, Hamilton served another term in what proved to be the last time the Continental Congress met under the Articles of Confederation.

Secretary of the Treasury

On the advice of Robert Morris, with whom he had discussed economics as an aide-de-camp during the American Revolution, President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury when the first Congress passed an act establishing the Treasury Department. Hamilton served in that post from September 11, 1789, until January 31, 1795. It is for his tenure as Treasury secretary that Hamilton is considered one of America's greatest early statesmen.

Hamilton's term was marked by innovation, planning and masterful reports. In office for barely a month, he proposed the creation of a seagoing branch of the military to discourage smuggling and enhance tax collections. The following summer, Congress authorized a Revenue Marine force of ten cutters, the precursor to the United States Coast Guard. He also played a crucial role in creating the United States Navy (the Naval Act of 1794).

He published the Report on the Public Credit in January 1790. It was a milestone in American financial history, marking the end of an era of bankruptcy and debt repudiation which had virtually ruined American credit. The plan provided for the assumption of both domestic and foreign debts. Democratic Republicans such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr strongly opposed Hamilton's plan. Surprisingly, it passed overwhelmingly.

Hamilton advocated having the Federal government assume states' debts. Madison and Jefferson (who deferred to Madison on this issue) opposed this plan as well, but according to a story later told by Jefferson (which probably oversimplified the matter), Madison and Hamilton settled their disagreements in a private dinner meeting at Jefferson's New York residence on July 21, 1790. During this meeting, Hamilton agreed to support a Potomac River site as the future location of the nation's capital, in return for Madison's support.

Hamilton's perceptive and creative mind, coupled with a driving ambition to set his ideas in motion, resulted in many proposals to Congress. His proposals included a plan for import duties and excise taxes for raising revenue, funding the Revolutionary War debt, and suggestions on naval laws. He also developed plans for a congressional charter for the First Bank of the United States.

Strong opposition to taxing liquor erupted into the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1794. Hamilton felt compliance with the laws was important, so he accompanied President Washington, General "Light Horse Harry" Lee and Federal troops to help put down the insurrection, virtually without bloodshed.

During Washington's first term, Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton put forth a plan to deal with the immense national debt (which consisted of foreign, domestic and state debts). He proposed to pay off all foreign debt to help restore national credit, which would then enable the nation to issue bonds to pay off the domestic debt. He reasoned that this would help ensure that the "aristocracy of wealth and talent" had a stake in the success of the new government. His plan was for the Federal government to assume the state debts, which would stabilize the country. This would work because, if creditors wanted the individual states to thrive to be able to pay them, the Union could crumble, but if these same creditors now needed the Federal government, and subsequently the country, to thrive then the country would be supported. Hamilton also asked for a whiskey tax and a high import tax (also known as a tariff) to help pay for the debt. Congress gave him the whiskey tax but not the import tax, which was the only part of the plan Hamilton was unable to secure. Finally, Hamilton asked for the creation of a national bank to help the government fulfill its financial obligations and create some income due to interest on loans. Hamilton's financial plan is significant not only for its attempt (mostly successful) to restore the nation's credit and deal with its financial difficulties, but also because it resulted in the first national political parties.

Hamilton, contrary to popular belief, did not believe in perpetual debt. He thought it was a weakness that should be avoided except under exceptional circumstances. He had set up a sinking fund that would have paid off all government debt, and wrote numerous articles denouncing perpetual government debt. PAH, vol. 6, pp. 98-106; Report on Public Debt, January 1790; and PAH, vol. 12, p. 570; Fact No. II National Gazette, Philadelphia, October 16 1792.

Hamilton as an industrialist

Statue of Hamilton by Franklin Simmons, overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Hamilton envisioned the use of the falls to power a new city based on industry.
Statue of Hamilton by Franklin Simmons, overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Hamilton envisioned the use of the falls to power a new city based on industry.

Hamilton was among the first to recognize the larger transformations of industry and capitalism of his era—in particular the trend toward larger-scale manufacturing financed through credit. In 1778 he visited the Great Falls of the Passaic River in northern New Jersey and saw that the falls could one day be harnessed to provide power for a manufacturing center on the site. As Secretary of the Treasury, he put this plan into motion, helping to found the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, a private corporation that would use the power of the falls to operate mills. Although the company did not succeed in its original purpose, it leased the land around the falls to other mill ventures and continued to operate for over a century and a half. The city which grew on the spot of Hamilton's vision, Paterson, New Jersey, became one of the most important manufacturing centers for cotton, steel and silk, until its decline after World War II.

Out of the Cabinet

Main article: Maria Reynolds Affair

In 1794, Hamilton became intimately involved in an affair with Maria Reynolds that badly damaged his reputation and prevented him from rising further in politics. Reynolds's husband blackmailed Hamilton for money, though he was content to permit sexual liaisons between Hamilton and his wife. When James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted several prominent Jeffersonian Republicans, most notably James Monroe. When they visited Hamilton with their suspicions of malfeasance, he insisted he was innocent of any misconduct in public office, while admitting to an affair with Maria Reynolds.

Monroe promised to keep details from public knowledge, but Thomas Jefferson had no such compunctions. When rumors began spreading, Hamilton was forced to publish a confession of his affair, which shocked his family and supporters. A duel with Monroe over his supposed breach of confidentiality was averted by then-Senator Aaron Burr. Ironically, Burr would later represent Maria Reynolds in her divorce lawsuit, leading some to suspect he set Hamilton up. However, Hamilton's relationship with Burr had long been cordial during their years together as prominent New York trial lawyers.

Hamilton's resignation as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795 did not remove him from public life. With the resumption of his law practice, he remained close to Washington as an adviser and friend. Hamilton influenced Washington in the composition of his Farewell Address, and Washington often consulted with him, as did members of his Cabinet. Relations between Hamilton and Washington's successor, John Adams, however, were frequently strained. Adams resented Hamilton's influence with Washington, and considered him overambitious and scandalous in his private life; Hamilton compared Adams unfavorably with Washington, and thought him erratic and fussy. During the Quasi-War with France of 1798, and with Washington's strong endorsement, Adams very reluctantly appointed Hamilton a major general of the army.

Adams had also held it right to retain Washington's cabinet, except for cause; he found, in 1800, that they were answering to Hamilton, rather than himself, and fired several of them. Hamilton also wrote a pamphlet which was highly critical of Adams (although it closed with a tepid endorsement) which badly hurt Adams's 1800 reelection campaign and split the Federalist Party, contributing to the victory of the Jeffersonian Republicans, led by Jefferson, in the election of 1800.

Neither Adams, Jefferson or Burr (Jefferson's putative running mate) gained a majority in the Electoral College. With the United States House of Representatives split and Burr seeking Federalist votes, Hamilton reluctantly threw his weight behind Jefferson, causing one Federalist congressman to abstain from voting after 36 tied ballots. This ensured that Jefferson was elected President rather than Burr. Even though Hamilton did not like Jefferson and disagreed with him on many issues, he was quoted as saying, "At least Jefferson was honest." Burr, who became Vice President of the United States under the law at the time, knew he would not be asked to run again with Jefferson and sought the New York governorship in 1804. He ran first as a Federalist, then as an independent, but was badly defeated.

Duel with Aaron Burr

Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

Soon after the election, a newspaper referred to a "despicable opinion" that a Dr. Charles D. Cooper attributed to Hamilton about Burr. This probably resulted from comments Hamilton made in private, sarcastically questioning Burr's integrity. Sensing a chance to regain political honor, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused on the grounds that he could not recall the instance the newspaper mentioned. After an exchange of testy letters, and despite the attempts of mutual friends to avert a confrontation, a duel was nevertheless scheduled for July 11, 1804 on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey. At dawn, the duel began, and Vice President Aaron Burr shot Hamilton in his abdomen, above his right hip. Burr's shot ricocheted off Hamilton's rib and caused considerable damage to his internal organs. Hamilton's shot was fired into the air away from his opponent. A letter that he wrote the night before the duel states, "I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire." The circumstances of the duel, and Hamilton's actual intentions, are still disputed; the guns were Hamilton's, they have survived, and one of them has a hair-trigger setting. After considerable suffering, Hamilton died the next day and was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan (Hamilton was nominally Episcopalian). Gouverneur Morris, a political ally of Hamilton's, gave the eulogy at his funeral and secretly established a fund to support his widow and children.

Burr fled New York after being charged with murder, his political career in ruins. Years later, he returned to New York City to practice law and was tried and acquitted for his role in the duel. He died in 1836 in Staten Island, New York, having never apologized to Hamilton's family or shown any remorse for ending Hamilton's life.

Hamilton's wife Elizabeth (known as Eliza) and he had eight children. He referred to her as "best of wives and best of women." Despite the Reynolds affair, Alexander and Eliza were very close, and as a widow she always strove to guard his reputation and enhance his standing in American history. She died in 1854, after 50 years of widowhood.

Hamilton and modern politics

Alexander Hamilton on the U.S. $10 bill
Alexander Hamilton on the U.S. $10 bill

Arguably, Hamilton set the path for American economic and military might. His most important contribution may have been establishing the supremacy of the executive branch of American government over the legislative and judicial branches. At the moment of founding, it was not clear whether the executive should wield most of the power, especially when it came to the creation of policy, which was supposed to be a legislative task. From the start, Hamilton set a precedent as a Cabinet member by dreaming up federal programs, writing them in the form of reports, pushing for their approval by appearing in person to argue them on the floor of Congress, and then implementing them. Hamilton did this brilliantly and forcefully, setting a high standard for administrative competence.

Another of Hamilton's legacies was his strongly pro-federal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Though the Constitution was drafted in a way that was somewhat ambiguous as to the balance of power between Federal and state governments, Hamilton consistently took the side of greater Federal power at the expense of states. Thus, as Secretary of the Treasury, he established, against the intense opposition of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the country's first national bank. Hamilton justified the creation of this bank, and other robust Federal powers, on Congress's constitutional powers to issue currency, to regulate interstate commerce, and anything else that would be "necessary and proper." Jefferson, on the other hand, took a stricter view of the Constitution: parsing the text carefully, he found no specific authorization for a national bank. This controversy was eventually settled by the Supreme Court of the United States in McCulloch v. Maryland, which in essence adopted Hamilton's view, granting the federal government broad freedom to select the best means to execute its constitutionally enumerated powers, specifically the doctrine of implied powers.

Hamilton’s portrait began to appear during the Civil War on the $2, $5, $10, and $50 notes, which was symbolic of his ideological opposition to the secessionist ideas of the Confederacy. His face continues to grace the front of the ten dollar bill, but after the death of Ronald Reagan, some suggested replacing Hamilton with Reagan. Hamilton also appears on the $500 Series EE Savings Bond.



  • "The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power." Hamilton 1775


  • Hendrickson. Robert A. The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
  • Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton.


  • McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company, 1982 (ISBN 039330048X).
  • Flexner, James Thomas. The Young Hamilton: A Biography. Fordham University Press, 1997 (ISBN 0823217906).
  • Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. Free Press, 1999 (ISBN 0684839199).
  • Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. Basic Books, 2000 (ISBN 0465017371).
  • Knott, Stephen F. Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. University Press of Kansas, 2002 (ISBN 0700611576).
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. HarperCollins, 2003 (ISBN 0060195495).
  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books, 2004 (ISBN 1594200092).

External links

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