Who was Alexander Hamilton? What did Alexander Hamilton do? Information on American political leader Alexander Hamilton biography, life story, military and political career.
Alexander Hamilton; (1755 -1804), American political leader, who was largely responsible for the ratifîcation of the U. S. Constitution and the establishment of a strong central govemment. He was one of the most influential figures during the formative years of the new nation. As the first secretary of the treasury, he instituted sound fîscal policies and established the credit of the United States at home and abroad. He was a close friend and adviser of George Washington, some of whose speeches and decisions reflect Hamilton’s views.
The leader of the Federalist party and the most eloquent spokesman of Federalist policies, Hamilton was the political and personal enemy of Thomas Jefferson, leader of the Democratic-Republican party. Nevertheless, he threw his support to Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 to prevent victory for Aaron Burr, whom he regarded as a greater evil. Hamilton’s own career was abruptly and prematurely terminated when he died following a duel with Burr.
Alexander Hamilton was born in Charleston, on the island of Nevis, in the West Indies, on Jan. 11, 1755 or 1757. (He claimed 1757 as his year of birth, but the evidence suggests that 1755 is more likely.) He and his older brother James, Jr., were born out of wed-lock to Rachel Faucitt (or Fawcett or other spellings) Lavien and James Hamilton, a younger son of the Laird of Cambuskeith. The father abandoned them in St. Croix, and Alexander at the age of about 12 took a job in Christiansted with the New York merchants Nicholas Cruger and David Beekman.
His business acumen, quick intelligence, and literary precocity soon attracted attention. A letter he wrote describing a hurricane that gutted Christiansted on Aug. 30, 1772, was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette about a month later. Impressed by young Hamilton’s exceptional talents, Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian clergyman, raised the necessary funds to send the lad to the mainland to continue his education. Landing in Boston in 1773, he made his way to New York City, enrolled at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, N. J., and entered King’s College (now Columbia) in 1774.
Hamilton had been on the mainland only a short time when the Boston Tea Party took place. At a mass meeting held in the fields (now City Hail Park) in New York on July 6, 1774, he made a sensational speech attacking British policies. In addition, he wrote a series of letters for John Holt’s New York Journal, as well as a number of broadsides. When an Anglican clergyman, Samuel Seabury, denounced the first Continental Congress in several Westchester Farmer letters, Hamilton replied with two powerful pamphlets, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress from the Calumnies of their Enemies (Dec. 15, 1774) and The Farmer Refuted (Feb. 5, 1775).
Revolutionary Military Service.
For one of Hamilton’s dynamic temperament, the pen would not suffice in the crisis. At King’s College he joined a patriot volunteer band known as the “Corsicans” and drilled every morning before classes. In August 1775 his troop participated in a raid to seize the cannon from the Battery. On March 14, 1776, he was commissioned captain of a company of artillery set up by the New York Provincial Congress. According to unsubstantiated tradition, Hamilton received his baptism of fire at the Battle of Long Island (August 27). At White Plains (October 28) his battery reputedly guarded Chatterton’s (Chatterton) Hill, protecting the withdrawal of William Small-wood’s militia.
Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777) established Hamilton’s military reputation. His cannon were brought to bear on Nassau Hail, and he gave the order to fire when the British troops there refused to surrender. Now under the direct observation of George Washington, Hamilton, on March 1, 1777, was made a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp on Washington’s staff. He became, in fact, the general’s confidential secretary, one of his most ardent defenders, and a leading denunciator of the so-called Conway Cabal, a repııted move to oust Washington after the Battle of Saratoga (Oct. 7, 1777).
Hamilton distinguished himself on a number of military missions, notably to French officers, where his fluency in the French language was a special advantage, and he became an intimate friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. At the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778) he was one of the heroes of the day. Warning the retreating Gen. Charles Lee that a troop of British cavalry would soon be in a position to attack Lee’s flank, he advised Lee to counterattack and was authorized to issue the order.
Hamilton rallied the fleeing men, who turned upon the British and swept them with a withering fire. At the court-martial of Lee that followed, Hamilton testified against the general, declaring that he “seemed to be ıınder a hurry of mind,” and that, while his men retreated, he sat on his horse, “doing nothing that I saw.” Lee, in turn, accused Hamilton of being hotheaded and in “a sort of frenzy of valor.”
Failing to secure an assignment in the field, Hamilton, in a pique, quit Washington’s staff (February 1781), but the coolness between them soon subsided. Washington, ignoring seniority, gave Hamilton a command for the Yorktown campaign (September-October 1781), where he acquitted himself brilliantly, leading the attack that reduced the redoubt on the right.
Hamilton’s social status was enhanced by a brilliant marriage (Dec. 14, 1780) to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler, a prominent landowner and political figüre in New York. They eventually had eight children. After three months’ intensive study of law in Albany, N. Y., he was admitted to the bar in July 1782. That month, too, he was elected a New York delegate to the Continental Congress. In November 1783, on the evacuation of the British army, he opened law ofifices at 57 Wall Street in New York City, and he soon became a leader of the New York bar. Concerned with the need for a sound banking system, he founded and became a director of the Bank of New York in February 1784.
During tbe closing years of the Revolution and the early days of the Confederation period Hamilton viewed the political drift with considerable alarm. He set forth, in private letters, various plans for strengthening the federal government; among these letters was one from Liberty Pole, N. J. (Sept. 3, 1780), in which he wrote New York Congressman James Duane: “We are ripening for a dissolution.” He also publicized his views in six essays signed “The Continentalist,” published in the New York press. In this period he repeatedly urged the need for a system of federal taxation and a national bank. On March 20, 1783, he unsuccessfully proposed that Congress be empowered to nominate its own ofBcers to collect the revenue from individuals.
Shortly thereafter Hamilton prepared but did not present to Congress a proposal for calling a convention with full powers to revise the Articles of Confederation. He was one of the prime movers for calling the Annapolis Convention, which met in September 1786. At that session he drafted the notable address to the states, which the convention adopted on September 14. Cautiously endorsed by Congress, the address led to the calling of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in May 1787.
Hamilton attended the Constitutional Convention as one of three delegates from New York. During the early debates he showed himself to be a nationalist, favoring a strong executive and the election of the House of Representatives by the people instead of by the state legislatures. In his majör speech (June 18, 1787) he attacked the states’ rights proposal of William Paterson.
Hamilton’s own ideas were submitted tentatively. He advocated a chief executive indirectly elected by the people to serve on good behavior and to have an absolute veto. Because both his antifederalist colleagues had quit the convention, leaving New York without official representation, he was technically without a vote and left the convention on June 30. On July 19, Washington wrote him: “I am sorry you went away. I wish you were back.”
Hamilton’s return to the convention on Aug. 13, 1787, found him reconciled to the basic draft, which was then meeting general agreement. He was a member of the Committee on Style, which revised the draft, and when the engrossed Constitution was read, he urged every member to sign. “No man’s ideas were more remote from the plan than his were known to be,” James Madison reported him as saying, “but is it possible to deliberate between anarchy and convulsion on one side, and the chance of good to be expected from the plan on the other?”
“The Federalist” and Ratification.
When Hamilton affixed his name to the Constitution, he put aside any reservations and plunged into the fight for its ratification. Collaborating with Madison and John Jay, he wrote a series of letters to the New York press, published in book form in May 1788 as The Federalist. All the Federalist letters were signed with the pseudonym “Publius,” and the three writers evidently agreed to keep the authorship of individual letters a secret.
While the mystery of authorship is still not completely resolved, and it is likely that a few of the letters Hamilton claimed to have written were probably written in whole or large part by Madison, it is clear that Hamilton wrote at least three fifths of the book. Some divergence in emphasis and point of view between Hamilton and Madison may be found in The Federalist; but taken as a whole, it is an outstanding example of intellectual teamwork and stands as a masterpiece of constitutional interpretation.
Hamilton furthered the cause of ratification by a series of great speeches and skillful maneuvers at the New York ratification convention at Poughkeepsie (June 17-July 26, 1788). In as much as the Antifederalists at the start constituted a majority of the delegates, Hamilton recognized the need for a thorough discussion of the issues. James Kent, later chancellor of New York, heard Hamilton’s speeches and observed that he “maintained the ascendancy on every question,” carrying the burden of the debate for his side. Hamilton was able to persuade the opposition that a conditional ratification would be inadmissible. The Antifederalists then capitulated, the final vote for ratification being 30 to 27.
Secretary of the Treasury.
The inauguration of Washington marked the beginning of the great collaboration between the first president and Hamilton. Hamilton drafted many of Washington’s state papers and prepared two drafts of the Farewell Address (1796), upon the first of which the retiring president drew very heavily.
On Sept. 11, 1789, Hamilton was appointed secretary of the treasury. His administration was marked by bold planning and masterful reports. His financial program provided public credit, where there had been none before, and gave the nation a circulating medium and financial machinery. His Report on the Public Credit (Jan. 14, 1790) constituted a watershed in American history, marking the end of an era of bankruptcy and repudiation. Providing for the assumption of both the domestie and the foreign debt, it quickly encountered opposition led by Madison, who would have discriminated between original and present holders of government securities.
Hamilton refused to compromise on both practical and ethical grounds, and his plan was carried over-whelmingly. The contest över the assumption by the federal government of the debts of the states, which Hamilton advocated and Thomas Jefferson and Madison opposed, was settled when, in a private meeting (July 21, 1790), Hamilton agreed to the future location of the national capital on the Potomac in return for Jefferson’s support of assumption.
While Hamilton favored the creation of a national debt, he also believed that so far as practicable the operating expenses of the government should be paid out of taxes. His recommendation of various excise taxes, including a tax on the domestie manufacture of distilled liquor, as a means of supplementing the revenues obtained from the tariff, were in the main enacted by Congress. Hamilton acconıpanied troops into the fîeld in 1794 to enforce the whiskey excise when insurgency developed in western Pennsylvania. His Report on a National Bank (Dec. 13, 1790) advocated a private bank with semipublic functions, patterned after the Bank of England. His masterly opinion on the implied powers of the Constitution persuaded Washington of the constitutionality of the bank. His views were adopted virtually word for word by Chief Justice John Marshall in McCulloch v. Manjland (1819).
Of all Hamilton’s economic papers, his Report on the Subject of Manııfactures (Dec. 5, 1791) was the most constructive and farsighted. Although he presented the classical arguments in support of protective duties, he was more inclined to use government bounties than to rely on a high tariff. His ideas were far ahead of his age, and most of his recommendations were not adopted at the time.
Serious differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, which began över domestic issues, became irreconcilable as the cabinet split over foreign policy. When the French Revolution turned into a war against all of Europe, and the French republic sought to involve the United States, Hamilton advocated strict neutrality, which Washington proclaimed (April 22, 1793).. In his “Pacificus” letters Hamilton defended the proclamation and sharply criticized the activities of Citizen Edmond Charles Genet, the French minister, as well as his successor, Joseph Fauchet, for intervening in American domestic politics. At the same time he sought to minimize anti-British sentiment, intensified when the British issued orders in council in 1793 interfering with neutral shipping.
Washington proposed to send Hamilton to England as a special envoy to negotiate a settlement of differences, but the Jeffersonians protested so vehemently that Hamilton withdrew and proposed in his place John Jay, the chief justice. Although Hamilton had reservations about the treaty Jay finally obtained (1794), notably about the omission of a stipulation by England against impressing American seamen he supported ratification with a series of masterly “Camillus” essays (1795-1796), which caused Jefferson to write despairingly to Madison that Hamilton was “really a colossus to the anti-republican party.”
Disheartened by ceaseless and unfair attacks from the opposition party on his conduct of office, Hamilton had meantime resigned as secretary of the treasury (Jan. 31, 1795) and resumed the practice of law. When war clouds with France gathered, President John Adams, at Washington’s request, named Hamilton inspector general of the Army (July 25, 1798), second in command to Washington, and he served in that capacity until June 2, 1800.
In the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton contributed to dividing the Federalist party by indicating his preference for Charles Cotesworth Pinckney över John Adams. A lengthy attack on Adams, issued under Hamilton’s own name, was meant for private circulation to party leaders, but Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s political enemy in New York, got hold of it and had it widely distributed. When, in the ensuing election, Burr was tied in votes for the presidency with Jefferson, and the final vote was thrown into the lameduck House of Representatives, strongly Federalist in character, Hamilton showed his stature as a statesman by urging his political supporters to vote for his old enemy Jefferson.
In 1804, Burr sought the governorship of New York and, failing to get the Republican nomination, solicited the aid of embittered Federalists. Hamilton, who rightly doubted Burr’s integrity, again denounced him as “a man of irregular and unsatiable ambition. . . who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” After his defeat in the election, Burr wrote Hamilton demanding satisfaction. When Hamilton refused to retract, a challenge to a duel followed. Hamilton felt that as a public figüre he could not avoid the issue even though he was opposed to the practice of dueling, an opposition intensified by the fatal shooting of his son Philip in a duel in 1801.
The duel was fought at Weehawken, N. J., on July 11, 1804. Hamilton did not take aim, and the shot he fired into the air was purely involuntary. Hit by Burr’s bullet, he died the following day in New York City. His widow survived him for 50 years. Both are buried in Trinity churchyard, in New York City.