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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3065

Article abstract: Hamilton served as aide-de-camp to Washington during the American Revolution and was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and signer of the Constitution. An early advocate of a strong national government, he coauthored The Federalist and was the United States’ first secretary of the treasury.

Early...

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Article abstract: Hamilton served as aide-de-camp to Washington during the American Revolution and was a delegate to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 and signer of the Constitution. An early advocate of a strong national government, he coauthored The Federalist and was the United States’ first secretary of the treasury.

Early Life

Alexander Hamilton was the illegitimate son of a Scottish ne’er-do-well and a woman previously arrested for adultery. He was probably born in 1755, although at times he claimed that his birth year was 1757. Hamilton spent his early years in abject poverty on the Caribbean island of his birth, Nevis. After his mother’s death, he worked for a merchant family on St. Croix, where he flourished, as his unusual abilities brought him to the attention of his employers. Hamilton quickly rose to be something more than a clerk but less than a partner. By age sixteen, he was giving orders to ship captains, making decisions on when cargoes should be sold, and firing and hiring company lawyers. When not working, he studied on his own.

In 1773, Hamilton’s employers, recognizing his precocious genius, sent him to the mainland for his first formal education. From 1773 to 1774, he lived with Elias Boudinot, a future president of the Continental Congress, and studied at a Presbyterian academy in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. In this period, Hamilton socialized with such future patriots and political leaders as William Livingston, Richard Stockton, Philip Schuyler, and Henry Brockholst Livingston. In 1774, Hamilton entered Kings College (now Columbia University) as a sophomore. In 1775, he anonymously published a pamphlet supporting the patriot cause; this was Hamilton’s first political activity.

Life’s Work

In March, 1776, Hamilton dropped out of college to become an artillery captain in the New York militia. He quickly came to the attention of senior officers, and in 1777 he joined George Washington’s staff. Hamilton’s relationship with the general was complex. The childless Washington often treated Hamilton as the son he never had. Hamilton, whose father was never present in his life, revered Washington, but at the same time he felt stifled working for “The Great Man , ” as his staff officers called him. As Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton had a unique view of the war and the politics of the Revolution. It was during this period that he became a committed nationalist, as he saw the states squabbling over issues while the national army went without adequate food and other provisions.

The young Hamilton was short, slim, and not particularly athletic. He was brilliant as an administrator but hardly suited to frontline command. Yet he longed for the opportunity to achieve battlefield glory. This desire strained his relationship with Washington, and in February, 1781, he resigned his position. In July, Hamilton returned with his rank of lieutenant colonel to command a battalion, and at Yorktown he was finally given his opportunity for combat glory. Hamilton led his battalion in a brief and heroic assault on a British position. He was thrilled with his exploit but bitter that the Congress never saw fit to award him a medal for his heroism. Shortly after the victory at Yorktown, Hamilton returned to civilian life.

In 1780, Hamilton was married to Elizabeth Schuyler. His father- in-law, General Schuyler, was one of the richest men in America and a powerful politician in New York. This family connection eliminated the taint of his illegitimate birth. In April, 1782, he began preparing for a career as a lawyer, and in July he was admitted to the bar. At first, Hamilton was ambivalent about his new profession, writing to the Marquis de Lafayette that he was “studying the art of fleecing my neighbours.” Hamilton quickly threw himself into his law practice and was soon representing many of the wealthiest men in his state. Many of his clients were former loyalists who sought to regain property taken during the Revolution, yet Hamilton had few scruples about representing his former enemies. Between 1783 and 1789, he was involved in massive litigation over huge land claims in upstate New York. He also represented banks, shippers, and merchants. Hamilton’s fundamentally conservative nature was reflected by his clients and his law practice.

During this period, Hamilton ventured into politics. The New York legislature chose him as a delegate to the Continental Congress (1782, 1783, 1787, 1788) and to the Annapolis Convention of 1786. Through his political connections, he served a short time as a collector of taxes for the Congress. In 1787, Hamilton was also elected to the New York legislature. With the exception of his election to the convention called to ratify the Constitution, this was the only popular election that Hamilton ever won. Although a brilliant political theorist, his personal style prevented him from being a popular candidate.

The Annapolis Convention of 1786 was called to negotiate a trade agreement among the American states under the Articles of Confederation. The convention failed: Most of the states did not bother to send delegations. The meeting at Annapolis led to a call for another convention, however, to be held in Philadelphia the following year. That convention would write the Constitution.

Hamilton was one of three delegates from New York to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. He received the unanimous support of the state legislature. Even his political enemies (and he had many by this time) believed that Hamilton was one of the ablest men in the state. At the beginning of the Convention, a fellow delegate wrote that “Colo. Hamilton is deservedly celebrated for his talents. He is a practitioner of the Law, and reputed to be a finished Scholar. . . . His manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.” While haughty and arrogant, Hamilton was also exceedingly handsome, with auburn hair, deep blue eyes, and a charming smile, especially when directed at women.

At Philadelphia, Hamilton was limited in his effectiveness. The other two New York delegates, John Lansing and Robert Yates, were opposed to a strong national government, which Hamilton supported. Thus, Hamilton was able to participate in debates, but his votes on the developing document were canceled by the rest of New York’s delegation. In his first major speech, Hamilton argued for an extremely strong central government and a narrow and limited role for the states. Hamilton asserted his belief “that the British Govt. was the best in the world: and that he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.” He argued that the “hereditary interest of the King” prevented the dangers of corruption in England and that, for the American chief executive, “the English model was the only good one on this subject.” His plan of government, which never received the support of any other delegates, called for a chief executive to serve for life and the appointment of state governors by the national government. This speech has led Hamilton’s detractors to conclude that he was a monarchist. While that is perhaps an exaggeration, it is clear that Hamilton did favor a lifetime chief executive and that he leaned toward ruling over the people, rather than the people ruling themselves.

On June 29, Hamilton left the convention, in part because it was not headed in the direction he favored and in part because Yates and Lansing had outvoted him on most issues. Hamilton also wanted to return to his political base in New York and to the Continental Congress. Early in July, however, Yates and Lansing left the convention, and three days later, Hamilton returned. For the rest of the summer, Hamilton moved in and out of the convention. The rules of the convention required that each state have at least two delegates present in order to vote on the emerging document. Thus, Hamilton could debate but not vote. His most important contributions came in the debates that took place in September and in his work on the committee of style. At the end of the convention, he persuaded his fellow delegates to sign the document, even though New York as a state was not represented under the convention rules.

After the convention, Hamilton actively supported the new Constitution. In collaboration with fellow New Yorker John Jay and with Virginian James Madison, Hamilton planned and wrote a series of essays collectively known as The Federalist (1787-1788). All three authors wrote under the pen name Publius. Of the eighty- five separate essays, Hamilton wrote fifty-one and collaborated on another three. Madison’s contributions, which included the famous numbers 10, 14, and 51, ended when he left New York in March, 1788, while Jay’s writings were limited by illness. Hamilton continued the project without Madison and Jay, producing the last twenty-one essays on his own, including the powerful number 78, which explained the role of the judiciary in the constitutional system. The Federalist was written to convince New York voters to support the Constitution, but this goal was not really achieved. The majority of those elected to the New York ratifying convention opposed the Constitution. Neither the essays of Publius nor Hamilton’s own speeches at the ratifying convention convinced the delegates to support the Constitution. Ultimately, New York ratified it by a slim three-vote margin, because a number of opponents of the Constitution concluded that with the ratification in Virginia and Massachusetts they had no choice but to ratify. While it was not persuasive in New York, The Federalist is generally considered to contain the single most important contemporary analysis of the Constitution and has been cited repeatedly by scholars and courts in the twentieth century.

With the organization of the new government, Hamilton became the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. In his first two years in that office, Hamilton organized the nation’s finances, established a mint and a system of creating money, and convinced the Congress and the president to support a national bank. He attempted to create a national program to support manufacturing and economic development, but this was defeated.

Hamilton’s Report Relative to a Provision for the Support of Public Credit (1795), presented to the Congress in January, 1795, laid out a program for putting the nation on a sound financial footing. Hamilton urged that the national government pay off all foreign and domestic debt incurred by the Congress and the states during the Revolution and Confederation period. Two aspects of this report were particularly controversial. Hamilton recommended that all bondholders receive the face value of their bonds. This meant that speculators who had purchased war bonds at far below their original value would reap great profits, while those who had actually risked their money to support the American Revolution would not even get their original investment back. Hamilton also recommended that the national government pay off all unpaid state war debts. This proposal offended Virginia, which had paid off most of its debts and did not want to have to pay the debts of other states as well. Congressmen from states with small debts, such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Maryland, also opposed this plan. Representatives from states with large debts, including South Carolina, New York, and Massachusetts, naturally supported the plan.

Hamilton’s goals in his debt-funding plan were not to aid one section of the nation and harm another. Nor did he seek to enrich speculators at the expense of patriotic investors who were forced, because of a postwar depression, to sell their bonds at low prices. Hamilton simply sought to put the nation on a sound economic footing. Nevertheless, high motives and sound economic policy were not enough to push through his proposal, and Congress adopted it only after much political maneuvering, which included an agreement to move the nation’s capital from New York City to some place close to Virginia. Besides some political advantages, the Virginians hoped that the move would stimulate economic development in the Chesapeake region.

The creation of the Bank of the United States was Hamilton’s second major accomplishment as secretary of the treasury. In the cabinet, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph both opposed the bank. Congressional opposition was led by Madison, Hamilton’s former collaborator on The Federalist. Hamilton’s arguments in favor of the bank were more than economic. They were also constitutional. He asserted that the Constitution needed to be read broadly, and he argued that Congress must have the power to go beyond the specific “enumerated powers” in the Constitution through the “necessary and proper clause” of the document. In the cabinet debate, Hamilton prevailed and Washington signed the bank bill into law.

Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” delivered to the Congress in December, 1791, argued in favor of stimulating manufacturing in the nation through tariff and tax policies. Hamilton’s report detailed the types of manufacturing needed, including iron, leather, textiles, sugar, gunpowder, paper, and books. The report anticipated an America in which manufacturing, not agriculture, would be the dominant economic activity. This report was unacceptable, however, to the agrarian America of the 1790’s.

In the cabinet, Hamilton proved a tireless and ruthless advocate of expanding national power. He came close to accusing Jefferson of treason when the secretary of state publicly indicated his disagreement with Hamilton. As a cabinet official, Hamilton helped organize the Federalist Party to support his economic and political policies. In 1794, he advocated the use of massive military force against hard-pressed western farmers who opposed his policy of taxing the producers of whiskey. Hamilton’s role in the Whiskey Rebellion, was, in the end, almost comical. He led a large army into western Pennsylvania, where a handful of farmers were arrested and then released. Hamilton once again sought military glory, but this time he appeared to be an oppressor of the people; instead of glory, he won contempt.

In 1795, Hamilton left Washington’s cabinet for the private practice of law. He quickly became one of the most successful attorneys in New York. In 1798, he became inspector general of the army when it appeared that a war with France was likely. This was his last public position. Once again, however, military glory eluded Hamilton, and he returned to law after the crisis with France ended. In his law practice, he was enormously successful, with clients begging for his services. In 1802, Hamilton earned nearly thirteen thousand dollars, an incredibly large sum for the period. Most of his law practice centered on marine insurance, banking law, and other litigation tied to commerce. Hamilton remained involved in politics, but his aggressive personal style and his penchant for intrigue served only to undermine the Federalist Party that he had helped to build in the early 1790’s. Hamilton’s public and private attacks on John Adams did little except to aid the fortunes of the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson and Aaron Burr. In 1804, he vigorously opposed Burr’s attempt to gain the governorship of New York. Burr challenged him to a duel, which took place on July 11, 1804. Hamilton once again had an opportunity for glory on the field of combat. Once again, however, he was unsuccessful. He died, on July 12, of his wounds.

Summary

Hamilton was one of the great figures of the Revolutionary era. He was brilliant, charming, and a first-rate administrator. Yet he was also vain, overly ambitious, arrogant, and insecure over his status and place in the world. Hamilton’s influence was undermined by his inability to get along with other leaders of the age. He was also something of a misfit. Reared in the West Indies, Hamilton was a monarchist when he first came to America. Although he quickly joined the patriot cause, his political views, as expressed in the Constitutional Convention and in Washington’s cabinet, were almost always antirepublican; he had less faith in representative government than any of the other Founding Fathers. More than most public figures of the period, Hamilton favored a strong chief executive, if not a king. Hamilton was similarly out of step with America in his grandiose plans for the nation’s economy. Nevertheless, the contributions of Alexander Hamilton to American politics, economics, and constitutional theory make him a towering figure of his age.

Bibliography

Bowen, Catherine Dinker. Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September 1787. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1966. Probably the best narrative history of the convention. Excellent for high school and undergraduate students. Good details on delegates to the convention.

Cooke, Jacob E. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982. A short, readable biography by one of the nation’s leading Hamilton scholars. An excellent place to begin.

Cooke, Jacob E., ed. Alexander Hamilton: A Profile. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967. Contains essays on Hamilton by a wide range of scholars, including those who liked him and those who did not.

Emery, Noemie. Alexander Hamilton: An Intimate Portrait. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982. Much like the Flexner biography (below), although this volume gives more attention to Hamilton’s later life.

Flexner, James Thomas. The Young Hamilton: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1978. A superbly written study by the author of a leading biography of Washington. Focuses on Hamilton’s early years and on his psychological development. A fascinating, accessible study.

Frisch, Morton J. Alexander Hamilton and the Political Order: An Interpretation of His Political Thought & Practice. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1991.

Hamilton, Alexander. The Reports of Alexander Hamilton. Edited by Jacob E. Cooke. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1964. Contains Hamilton’s reports on public credit, the Bank of the United States, and manufacturers. Also contains Hamilton’s constitutional arguments in favor of the bank. Excellent introduction by Cooke, a leading Hamilton scholar. Hamilton’s reports are models of lucidity and can be read with profit by students and nonspecialists as well as by scholars.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. The Federalist. Edited by Henry B. Dawson. New York: J. and A. McLeon, 1788. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961. Various editions are available in both paperback and clothbound formats, generally including introductions by major scholars. The Federalist papers reveal much of Hamilton’s political philosophy, although they should be read with care, since they were originally written to gain support for the Constitution and not as political theory.

Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: A Concise Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Excellent one-volume study by one of Hamilton’s major biographers. Mitchell is also the author of a more elaborate two-volume study of Hamilton. This book covers the same ground, with less detail.

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