Authors: Alexander Hamilton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American politician and essayist

January 11, 1755

Nevis, British West Indies

July 12, 1804

New York, New York

Biography

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

(Library of Congress)

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.

Author Works Nonfiction: A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, 1774 The Farmer Refuted, 1775 Letters from Phocion [on Tory enfranchisement], 1784 “Speech on a Plan of Government,” 1787 The Federalist, 1788 (2 volumes; with John Jay and James Madison) [First] Report [on] Public Credit, 1790 Report on a National Bank, 1790 Report on Manufactures, 1791 Catullus [and Other Anti-Jefferson Essays], 1792 Report Relative to Foreign Loans, 1793 Pacificus [on Neutrality], 1793–1794 No Jacobin [Essays], 1793 Americanus [Condemns Proposed Discrimination Against British Goods], 1794 Horatius and Camillus: Defence of Mr. Jay’s Treaty, 1795 (with John Jay and Rufus King) [Second Report on the] Public Credit, 1795 Letters of Pacificus, 1796 Observations on Certain Documents Contained in . . . [James T. Callender’s] History of the United States for the Year 1796, in Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton Is Fully Refuted [but His Affair with Mrs. Reynolds Is Admitted], 1797 Letter . . . Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, 1800 The Works of Alexander Hamilton, 1904 (12 volumes; Henry C. Lodge, editor) The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, 1961–1978 (27 volumes; Harold C. Syrett and Jacob E. Cooke, editors) Bibliography Adair, Douglass. Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays. Edited by Trevor Colbourn. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998. An important series of essays, worthy of a thorough reading. Boyd, Julian. Number 7: Alexander Hamilton’s Secret Attempts to Control American Foreign Policy. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1964. The best anti-Hamilton work. Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. New York: Free Press, 1999. An admiring popular biography. Carey, George W. “The Federalist”: Design for a Constitutional Republic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. An examination of The Federalist. Cooke, Jacob E., ed. The Federalist. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1961. No look at Hamilton is complete without reading these papers. Cooke’s edition is a good source. Frisch, Morton J. Alexander Hamilton and the Political Order: An Interpretation of His Political Thought and Practice. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991. A good presentation of Hamilton’s ideas. Kaplan, Lawrence S. Alexander Hamilton: Ambivalent Anglophile. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2002. Captures Hamilton’s personality and his place in contemporary foreign policy. Lodge, Henry Cabot. Alexander Hamilton. 1898. Reprint. Broomall, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1997. Includes an introduction by Mary-Jo Kline, bibliographical references, and an index. Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper, 1959. A somewhat sympathetic look at Hamilton. Millican, Edward. One United People: The Federalist Papers and the National Idea. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Millican’s text stresses nationalism as the key factor motivating the authors of The Federalist. He connects Alexander Hamilton’s support of a strong, centralized government with the views of Franklin D. Roosevelt and New Deal liberals. Millican contends that both the political left and the political right fell short of Publius’s sound brand of nationalism in the 1980’s. Morris, Richard B. Witnesses to the Creation: Hamilton, Madison, Jay and the Constitution. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985. Shows Hamilton against a backdrop of his peers. Nevens, Allan. “Alexander Hamilton.” In Dictionary of American Biography, edited by Allen Johnson et al. 23 vols. New York: Scribner, 1928-1958. A general biographical sketch. Schachner, Nathan. Alexander Hamilton. 1946. Reprint. New York: Barnes, 1961. A less favorable view of Hamilton. White, Morton. Philosophy, “The Federalist,” and the Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. White analyzes the philosophical assumptions that guided Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in their writings as Publius. White finds that Publius was both a pragmatist and an ideologist who was sometimes troubled by conflicting beliefs such as the need to retain slavery in order to preserve the Union in the context of the realities of 1787. In conclusion, White holds that The Federalist was a philosophical hybrid of “Lockean rationalism” in morals and “Humeian empiricism” in politics. Wills, Garry. Explaining America: “The Federalist.” Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Wills, a convert from National Review conservatism to moderate liberalism, offers a unique perspective on the ideology of The Federalist. He illustrates Scottish philosopher David Hume’s influence on Hamilton and Madison as authors of The Federalist.

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