Alexander Hamilton (1757?-1804), American statesman, best known for his fiscal policies settling the finances of the American Revolution, for his role as the principal author of The Federalist papers, and for his advocacy of a strong central government.
Hamilton was born on the West Indian island of Nevis on January 11, 1757, the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, a Scottish trader, and Rachel Faucett Lavien. In 1769, after the death of his mother and the bankruptcy of his father, he entered the countinghouse of David Beckman and Nicholas Cruger at Saint Croix, where he exhibited a precocious ability to comprehend the complexities of commerce and accounting. With the aid of funds advanced by friends to further his education, he studied (1772-1774) at a grammar school at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and then entered King's College (now Columbia University).
Hamilton first entered the revolutionary movement in 1774 at a public meeting in the “fields” (now City Hall Park) in New York City, with a speech urging the calling of a general congress of the colonies. In the winter of 1774-1775, he also wrote anonymously two pamphlets, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress from the Calumnies of Their Enemies and The Farmer Refuted, in answer to the Loyalist pamphlets signed “Westchester Farmer.”
On the outbreak of war, Hamilton became a captain of artillery and served with distinction in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton. His courage and ability won him the notice of General Nathanael Greene, who introduced him to George Washington with a recommendation for advancement. In March 1777, Washington made Hamilton his aide-de-camp and personal secretary. By virtue of his administrative skills, he acquired great influence with Washington, but he longed for active military service. In 1781 he resigned from Washington's staff after a dispute with the general, but he remained in the army and was able to command a New York regiment of light infantry at the decisive battle of Yorktown.
|III||LAWYER AND STATESMAN|
In 1780 Hamilton had married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip John Schuyler, a member of an influential New York family. At the close of the Revolution Hamilton left the army to study law at Albany, New York. He served in the Continental Congress in 1782-1783 and then returned to the practice of law, becoming one of the most prominent lawyers in New York City.
In 1786 Hamilton took a leading part in the Annapolis Convention, called to consider the problems of interstate commerce and other matters not covered by the Articles of Confederation, and at this time he also drafted the resolution that led to the assembling of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. At the convention Hamilton was unable to play a significant role. His desire for a strongly centralized federal government, including a president for life, was not shared by the other convention delegates, and his two fellow delegates from New York were Anti-Federalists who were able to outvote him on every measure. Hamilton then turned his energies to securing the ratification of the Constitution in New York; for this purpose he enlisted the help of John Jay and James Madison in writing the essays that were subsequently collected and published under the title of The Federalist. Just how many of the 85 essays were written by Hamilton has long been a matter for dispute, but there is little doubt that he wrote at least 51, and they remain the works by which he is best known.
|IV||SECRETARY OF THE TREASURY|
Shortly after the establishment of the new government in 1789, President Washington appointed Hamilton the first secretary of the treasury. The nation's finances were in disorder, public credit was at a low ebb, and the economies of the states were still adjusting to the changes resulting from independence. In 1790 Hamilton submitted to the Congress a report on the public credit that provided for the funding of national and foreign debts of the United States, as well as for federal assumption of the states' revolutionary debts. After some controversy, Hamilton's proposals were adopted, as were his subsequent reports calling for the establishment of a national bank and the encouragement of American manufactures by means of bounties and protective tariffs. In foreign affairs his role was almost as influential. He persuaded Washington to adopt a policy of neutrality after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793, and in 1794 he wrote the instructions for the diplomatic mission to London that resulted in the Anglo-American agreement known as Jay’s Treaty.
|V||LATER CAREER AND DEATH|
Hamilton returned to law practice in New York City in 1795. He remained active in politics, however, and throughout 1795-1796 he defended Jay's Treaty in the essays he wrote under the pseudonym of “Camillus.” Washington continued to consult Hamilton on a regular basis, particularly with the final drafting of his farewell address, which was released to the public in September 1796. In 1798, at the insistence of Washington, President John Adams reluctantly appointed Hamilton inspector general of the army when war with France seemed imminent. Thereafter, Hamilton and Adams quarreled bitterly and publicly. The resulting factionalism in the Federalist Party contributed significantly to its defeat by the Republican Party in 1800.
The presidential election of 1800, however, had to be decided in the House of Representatives because Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had received an equal number of votes in the electoral college. On this occasion Hamilton exerted his influence in favor of Jefferson rather than Burr, whom he regarded as a dangerously unprincipled adventurer. In 1804 Burr was a candidate for governor of New York State and Hamilton again did his best to thwart Burr's ambitions. After this defeat, Burr provoked a quarrel with Hamilton in order to force him into a duel. Hamilton felt obliged to accept the challenge, and he and Burr met on July 11, 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the spot where Hamilton's eldest son had been killed in a duel three years earlier. Hamilton was mortally wounded and died the next day.
Apart from his contributions to The Federalist and his reorganization of the U.S. financial system in the 1790s, Hamilton is best remembered for his consistent emphasis on the need for a strong central government in order to foster the development of a great and powerful American nation. His advocacy of the doctrine of “implied powers” to advance a broad interpretation of the Constitution has been invoked frequently to justify the extension of federal authority, and it has greatly influenced a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
See also Constitution of the United States; Continental Congress; Federalist, The; Federalist Party; Political Parties in the United States.