Last reviewed: June 2018
American politician and essayist
January 11, 1755
Nevis, British West Indies
July 12, 1804
New York, New York
Alexander Hamilton was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton and Rachel Fawcett Levein. At the age of thirteen, a penniless orphan, he was apprenticed to a merchant. His 1772 newspaper account of a hurricane influenced charitable islanders to finance his education at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and at King’s College from 1772 to 1776, where he was a premedical student; during this time, he became interested in debate and wrote newspaper essays, among them A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, in which, while professing moderation, he appealed to racial, religious, and economic prejudice against Parliament’s pretensions. Alexander Hamilton
A revolutionary militia captain in 1776, Hamilton became a lieutenant-colonel as aide-de-camp to George Washington. He was a good secretary and confidential adviser, but he coveted personal glory in combat. After a disagreement with Washington, he resigned in 1781 and was given a colonelcy and command of an assault at Yorktown. Hamilton supplied secret war news to certain individuals in New York, including Philip Schuyler, whose daughter Elizabeth he married in 1780.
Retiring from active service in 1782, Hamilton successfully prepared himself for the bar, served briefly as Continental tax collector in New York, and was elected to Congress in 1782-1783 and 1788-1789. In pamphlets and in Congress, Hamilton advocated a peacetime standing army, restitution of Loyalist franchise and property, and congressional control over trade, tariffs, and its own bureaucracy. His prospect of a “great Federal Republic” instead of disunited “petty” states appealed more to merchants than laborers. As early as 1779, Hamilton proposed a national bank with high profits for wealthy investors and tax schedules weighing most heavily upon farmers and artisans. In the army mutinies of 1783, he first encouraged unpaid soldiers to frighten congressmen into closer unity and then urged their forcible suppression.
A member of the 1786 Annapolis Convention to consider interstate problems and foreign trade, Hamilton and James Madison were largely responsible for its adjournment to Philadelphia in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation. Brief service in the New York legislature in 1786 secured liberalization of divorce laws, enfranchisement of Tories, enlargement of Columbia University (of which he was long a trustee), and participation in the convention. At Philadelphia, he despaired of republican government and unsuccessfully advocated British-style government of “the rich and well born,” a lifetime executive and Senate chosen by indirect and restricted election, a triennial assembly elected by universal suffrage, an executive veto over federal and state laws, and the elimination of states. Contributing little to the Constitution, Hamilton urged all delegates to sign it “as better than nothing.” The kindest light in which Hamilton’s proposals may be viewed is that he consciously overstated his reactionary case to create a position from which to bargain with advocates of decentralized liberty. He recognized that popular opinion would countenance only a republic, and he was determined to make it as supremely powerful and strong as he could.
Although ever considering the Constitution a “frail and worthless fabric,” Hamilton fought for its ratification in the New York convention and in newspaper essays. His fifty-three contributions to The Federalist, together with those of Madison and John Jay, form the Constitution’s greatest commentary and America’s greatest contribution to political philosophy. Hamilton argued the indispensability of a strong nation to avoid foreign aggression, fragmentation, and commercial disadvantages. He nevertheless postponed New York’s decision until a number of other states had ratified the Constitution.
Hamilton’s chief fame rests upon his career as secretary of the Treasury, from 1789 to 1795. Reform of national finances, upon which the Confederation foundered, was accomplished by his bold, comprehensive program, which was attuned to demands for solvency, despite questionable details, and delivered in written reports to Congress on public credit (1790 and 1795), the national bank (1790), and manufactures (1791). Continental currency had already been repudiated, but staggering foreign and domestic debts after 1776 remained for the state and central governments. Hamilton guaranteed full repayment of both, despite demands by Madison’s followers to prefer original domestic creditors above subsequent speculators, many of whom were Hamiltonians; unlike Hamilton himself, his supporters had profited from advance knowledge of his financing. By a close decision, the federal government assumed state debts, largely because Thomas Jefferson and Madison disliked obstructing the new government at the outset.
Hamilton’s meddling in foreign affairs antagonized Jefferson and started a newspaper war. Congressional censure of Hamilton for violating instructions in the disposition of new foreign loans was avoided by Washington’s reluctant sharing of responsibility. During the French revolutionary wars, Hamilton’s desire for a neutrality stricter than consistent with the Franco-American Alliance of 1778 and his opposition to Madison’s proposals to discriminate against British trade were almost thwarted, but negotiation and ratification of Jay’s Treaty effected both his foreign and domestic policies.
It always has been questionable to what extent Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury dealt with speculators during the Washington administration. The historian Julian P. Boyd has shown that Hamilton condoned speculation to the point of failing to discharge Treasury personnel responsible for leaking vital information. When two of his disgruntled subordinates, Clingman and Reynolds, began to provide his enemies with grounds for an investigation, Hamilton apparently confessed to an extramarital liaison with Reynolds’s wife and spirited him out of the country to cover up his own administrative dereliction of duty. Boyd has also presented documents that indicate that Hamilton betrayed the secrets of the president and his cabinet to the British intelligence agent Major George Beckwith, for the purpose of dislocating officially authorized hard diplomatic bargaining with England in 1789-1790.
Even after his retirement to a New York legal practice in 1795, Hamilton’s governmental influence remained great. He so intrigued against John Adams in the election of 1796 and so dominated his cabinet that they became enemies. Threat of war with France in 1798 made him Washington’s second-in-command of a provisional army, but Adams’s diplomacy averted war. Adams’s assertion that Hamilton was under British influence evoked Hamilton’s publication of a diatribe against Adams that contributed to the Federalist defeat in 1800. Hamilton’s influence in the electoral college to break the tie in favor of Jefferson over Aaron Burr was motivated more by vindictiveness against his New York rival than by statesmanship. When his libelous meddling in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804 led to Burr’s defeat, Burr challenged him, and when Hamilton refused to apologize they dueled at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. Hamilton died of his wounds the next day in New York, survived by his wife and children.