Alexander Hamilton Essay - Critical Essays

Hamilton, Alexander


Alexander Hamilton 1755(?)-1804

American statesman and essayist.

One of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Alexander Hamilton is best known as the principal author of the classic work on constitutional government, The Federalist (1787-88). However, his enduring influence on American matters of state lies equally with his reports to Congress on the financial affairs of the Federal government. Hamilton is chiefly responsible for the design and establishment of Federal institutions, and above all for the financial system which helped consolidate the states into a nation, and then put that nation on its path toward an industrial economy. Hamilton is often considered the rival of Thomas Jefferson, for while Jefferson promoted a democratic agrarian society, and sided with France in matters of foreign policy, Hamilton foresaw a manufacturing economy founded on secure financial principles, and he sought for the United States a government closer to the British model.

Biographical Information

Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in 1755, the illegitimate son of Rachel Faucett Lavien and James Hamilton. Orphaned early, Hamilton worked for a merchant on the island of St. Croix. His precocity and business acumen were quickly noted, and he was sent to the American colonies to be educated. Hamilton enrolled at King's College in New York (now Columbia University) but his studies were cut short by war with the British; he was appointed captain of an artillery company, and in 1777 was appointed aide-de-camp to General George Washington. In 1782 Hamilton was admitted to the New York Bar and appointed a New York delegate to the Continental Congress. He attended the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787, and his essay-writing campaign for ratification of the Constitution resulted in The Federalist, which also contained essays by John Jay and James Madison. Hamilton's appointment as Secretary of the Treasury in 1789 prompted the reports on finance and manufacturing which Jacob E. Cooke has called Hamilton's "enduring claim to fame." Following his resignation in 1795, Hamilton practised law in New York City and continued his interest in New York and national politics. His attacks on political rival Aaron Burr resulted in the latter's challenge to a duel. He reluctantly accepted, and he met Burr on the morning of July 11, 1804 in Weehauken, New Jersey. Hamilton was mortally wounded and died the following day.

Major Works

Hamilton's most enduring work is The Federalist (1788), the series of political essays he wrote with Madison and Jay. Hamilton was responsible for two thirds of the papers, which were written under the pseudonym "Publius" to support ratification of the Constitution, but now provide a contemporary commentary on the intentions of the Founders. Taken as a whole, The Federalist is considered a classic treatise on constitutional government; it provides a theoretical foundation for the United States Constitution. In addition, in his capacity as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton wrote a series of important and influential reports. His Report on Manufactures (1791) argued that only by establishing an industrial economy would the United States be free of reliance on foreign markets. This work, and others such as the Report on a National Bank (1790) and the Report on the Public Credit (1795), sought to expand the powers of central government. Throughout his life Hamilton was a prolific pamphleteer; under a variety of pseudonyms—Publius, Phocion, Catullus, Tully, Pacificus, Lucius Crassus—he used the press to engage in vigorous political argument. These essays, along with his legal writings, attest to Hamilton's faith in the written word as both a guarantor of civil order and a spur to action.

Critical Reception

Hamilton's writing sought and often resulted in political change. From the outset he engaged in a polemical dialog with his political rivals, and his ideas prompted strong partisan reactions of acceptance and rejection. Hamilton's success as a rhetorician is measured less in critical reviews than in the shape of American government during his lifetime and since, for the acceptance of his arguments brought on practical remedies. The success of Hamilton's ideas and the persuasiveness of his rhetoric determined, in large measure, the industrialized capitalist character of the United States, and spawned the judicial, governmental and financial institutions which sustain it. Hamilton's conservatism, his attachment to monarchy and aristocracy, and his claim that self-interest is a political constant have made him a clear target for criticism, but the widespread implementation of his ideas is testament to his capacity for compromise.

Principal Works

The Federalist (essays) 1788

*The Mind of Alexander Hamilton (essays, speeches and letters) 1958

†The Papers of Alexander Hamilton 27 vols. (essays, letters, speeches and notebooks) 1961-1987

‡Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton (essays, speeches and letters) 1985

* These works were written between 1757 and 1804.

†These works were written between 1768 and 1802.

‡These works were written between 1775 and 1803.


Thomas Jefferson (memoir date 1818)

SOURCE: "The Anas: Explanations of the 3 Volumes Bound in Marbled Paper," in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by Saul K. Padover, The Heritage Press, 1967, pp. 107-20.

[The third president of the United States, Jefferson is best known as a respected statesman whose belief in natural rights, equality, individual liberties, and self-government found its fullest expression in the Declaration of Independence. During the early years of the American republic Jefferson, by his outspoken opposition to Federalist policies, became the leader of the Republican (now Democratic) Party. As such, he was a bitter opponent of the Federalists' chief spokesman, Hamilton. In the following excerpt from a portion of his memoirs originally published in 1818, Jefferson offers a contemptuous portrait of Hamilton.]

Hamilton was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption. In proof of this, I will relate an anecdote, for the truth of which I attest the God who made me. Before the President set out on his southern tour in April, 1791, he addressed a letter of the fourth of that month, from Mount Vernon, to the Secretaries of State, Treasury and War, desiring that if any serious and important cases should arise during his absence, they would consult and act on them. And he requested that the Vice-President should also be consulted. This was the only occasion on which that officer was ever requested to...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Henry Cabot Lodge (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: "Professional Life—Duel and Death," in Alexander Hamilton, 1882. Reprint by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1883, pp. 237-84.

[Lodge was an American politician, historian, and author, who coedited the North American Review with Henry Adams from 1873 to 1876, and who later served as associate editor of the International Review. His works of American history and biography include A Short History of the English Colonies in America (1881), Alexander Hamilton (1882), and Daniel Webster (1883). In the excerpt below, from his biography of Hamilton, Lodge summarizes his subject's accomplishments in glowing terms.]

Hamilton is one of...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

L. H. Boutell (review date 1885)

SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton," in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. VI, No. 61, May, 1885, pp. 5-7.

[In the excerpt below, Boutell provides a laudatory account of Hamilton's life and works.]

When New York ratified the Federal Constitution, the people of that State celebrated the event by a festival procession, in which was borne a flag with the portrait of Washington on one side and that of Hamilton on the other. The enthusiasm of the hour, which recognized these great men as foremost among the founders of the republic—as the men who knew how to build and save a State—has been justified by the political history of succeeding years, and especially by the fierce and bloody...

(The entire section is 2496 words.)

The Atlantic Monthly (review date 1887)

SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. LIX, No. CCCLI, January, 1887, pp. 115-23.

[The following is an approbatory overview of Hamilton's character and works.]

As one reads the writings of Alexander Hamilton, it is impossible to escape a sense of regret that he was not born within the limits of the thirteen colonies in British America. The most distinguished statesman of the United States should have been a son of their soil, a product of their civilization, a result of their formative influences. It was a strange freak of chance or destiny which placed so magnificent an intellect in the head of a child to be born illegitimately, of obscure...

(The entire section is 4265 words.)

Vernon Louis Parrington (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: "Political Thinkers—The English Group," in Main Currents in American Thought, An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920: The Colonial Mind, 1620-1800, Vol. I., 1927. Reprint by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, pp. 297-326.

[Parrington was an American historian, critic, and educator. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the first two volumes of his influential Main Currents in American Thought (1927); the third volume remained unfinished at the time of his death. In the following excerpt, Parrington presents Hamilton as a key theorist of American industrial economy.]

Of the disciplined forces that put to rout the disorganized...

(The entire section is 5955 words.)

Frederick C. Prescott (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: An introduction to Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, American Book Company, 1934, pp. xi-lxxii.

[In the excerpt below, Prescott traces Hamilton's career as both a political theorist and participant in government.]

Hamilton's interests of public concern were mainly political. His work as a lawyer was secondary; that as a financier and economist, as will appear, was subordinate to his political activity. We are here concerned, therefore, primarily with the development of his political theory and its applications.

When the outbreak of the Revolution converted Hamilton, at the age of nineteen, from a student to a soldier, his political...

(The entire section is 8376 words.)

Bertrand Russell (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Jeffersonian Democracy," in Freedom and Organization: 1814-1914, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1934, pp. 259-73.

[A respected and prolific author, Russell was an English philosopher and mathematician known for his support of humanistic concerns. In the following excerpt, Russell compares the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton, noting that the success of the Jeffersonian Republicans ironically led to the advent of Hamiltonian economic policies in the United States.]

In the first Congress elected under the new Constitution, the business of using democratic machinery to make the rich richer was brilliantly inaugurated. During the War of...

(The entire section is 1115 words.)

John Allen Krout (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: "Alexander Hamilton's Place in the Founding of the Nation," in American Themes: Selected Essays and Addresses of John Allen Krout, edited by Clifford Lord and Henry F. Graff, Columbia University Press, 1963, pp. 19-32.

[In the following essay, originally a paper delivered before a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in 1957, Krout stresses Hamilton's importance as a pioneer American economist and advocate of centralized government.]

Every successful nation-builder of modern times—Colbert in the seventeenth century, the elder Pitt in the eighteenth, Cavour and Bismarck in the nineteenth—understood the relation of economic strength to political...

(The entire section is 4678 words.)

Dumas Malone (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Jefferson, Hamilton, and the Constitution," in Theory and Practice in American Politics, edited by William H. Nelson with Francis L. Loewenham, The University of Chicago Press, 1964, pp. 13-23.

[Malone wrote the definitive biography of Jefferson: the six-volume Jefferson and His Time (1948-1981). In the following essay, he explicates the respective roles of Jefferson and Hamilton in shaping the interpretation of Constitutional law and the role of government.]

Jefferson and Hamilton had much to do with interpreting the Constitution, but little or nothing to do with its framing. Had Jefferson been available, he could hardly have failed to be a delegate...

(The entire section is 5070 words.)

Albert Furtwangler (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Strategies of Candor in The Federalist," in Early American Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 91-109.

[In the following excerpt, Furtwangler provides a close analysis of language and rhetorical strategy in The Federalist.]

In the course of the eighteenth century an important shift occurred in the usage of the word "candor," so that it came to mean what it does today: forthrightness, frankness, direct honesty. Corresponding with this shift was a perceptible turn in the way readers and authors regarded one another or looked at the writings that stood between them. When a writer early in the century asked his readers to be candid in accepting...

(The entire section is 8198 words.)

Forrest McDonald (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton" in Rhetoric and American Statesmanship, edited by Glen E. Thurow and Jeffrey D. Wallin, Carolina Academic Press and The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 1984, pp. 71-86.

[In the following essay, originally a paper delivered at a conference in 1980, McDonald discusses Hamilton's language, his rhetorical strategies, and his literary style.]

The political rhetoric of the Founders of the American Republic has received scant attention from scholars. The relative neglect is understandable. On the one hand, the very concept of rhetoric has, in modem times, all but lost its classical...

(The entire section is 6579 words.)

Russell Kirk (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "John Adams and Liberty under Law: Alexander Hamilton," in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, revised edition, Regnery Books, 1986, pp. 75-80.

[An American historian, political theorist, novelist, journalist, and lecturer, Kirk was one of America's most eminent conservative intellectuals. His works have provided a major impetus to the conservative revival that has developed since the 1950s. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk traces the roots and canons of modern conservative thought to such important predecessors as Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Alexis de Tocqueville. In the following excerpt from the seventh (1986) edition of that work, Kirk discourses on Hamilton's...

(The entire section is 2081 words.)

Further Reading


McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1979, 464 p.

Complete biography and critical reading by one of the foremost modern authorities on the era of the Constitution's framing.

Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959, 659 p.

Focuses on Hamilton's political life, especially his dedication to American national unity.

Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: Youth to Maturity, 1755-1788. New York: Macmillan, 1957, 675 p. and Alexander Hamilton: The National Adventure, 1788-1804. New York:...

(The entire section is 416 words.)