Hamilton, Alexander Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

One of the most effective advocates for a strong and independent national government, Hamilton developed many of the arguments later used by Chief Justice John Marshall to establish the constitutional doctrines of judicial review, national supremacy, and the loose construction of the Constitution.

As an aide-de-camp and secretary to General George Washington during the American Revolution and later as a representative to the Congress of the Confederation, Hamilton saw at first hand the political, military, and economic weaknesses of confederation as a form of union. A delegate to the 1786 Annapolis convention (called to resolve trade disputes among the states), he was instrumental in having it recommend the calling of another convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. This led to the meeting of the Constitutional ConventionConstitutional Convention in Philadelphia the next year. Although he represented New York at the convention, Hamilton’s greatest contribution to the new constitution came during the ratification debates when he, John Jay, and James Madison wrote The Federalist,Federalist, The[Federalist] the first interpretation of the meaning of the U.S. Constitution’s provisions. After President Washington appointed him the first secretary of the treasury in 1789, Hamilton quickly developed the basis for broad involvement by the national government in the development of the nation’s economy and influenced the Supreme Court’s later interpretation of the commerce clause. In 1804 Hamilton was killed in a duel by vice president Aaron Burr.Burr, AaronFederalismFederalism

Alexander Hamilton

(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Henry Cabot Lodge)

Hamilton’s most significant contributions to the Court were his arguments for judicial reviewJudicial review and for the broad interpretation of the powers granted to the federal government. In No. 78 of The Federalist, Hamilton developed the argument for the power of judicial review upon which Chief Justice Marshall would base his decision in Marbury v. Madison[case]Marbury v. Madison[Marbury v. Madison] (1803). The Constitution, Hamilton argued, is the fundamental law of the land, and any legislative act that violates the Constitution is invalid. “The interpretation of the laws,” he wrote, “is the proper and peculiar province of the courts.” If a court finds that a legislative act conflicts with the will of the people expressed in the Constitution, then it must rule the law unconstitutional and void. Judicial review is a function of the courts because they “were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.”

In McCulloch v. Maryland[case]McCulloch v. Maryland[MacCulloch v. Maryland] (1819), Marshall drew directly and heavily on Hamilton’s interpretation of the necessary and proper clause of the Constitution as the basis for the doctrine of implied powers.Implied powers In No. 33 of The Federalist and later in his advice to President Washington on the constitutionality of the first national bank, Hamilton maintained that the clause simply made explicit what was already an implicit power of Congress that it could adopt any means helpful to carrying out the powers expressly delegated to it by the Constitution. The provisions of the Constitution had to be broadly interpreted as implying a grant of power to accomplish the goals of the federal union by any means except those explicitly forbidden.Hamilton, Alexander

Further Reading
  • Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton: American. New York: Free Press, 1999.
  • Cooke, Jacob E. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Scribner, 1982.
  • McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

Burr, Aaron

Federalist, The

Jefferson, Thomas

Judicial review

McCulloch v. Maryland

Marbury v. Madison

Marshall, John

Categories: History