Alexander Hamilton Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.