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  Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), by John Trumbull, 1792 Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), by John Trumbull, 1792
Hamilton, Alexander (1757–1804), politician in the United States of America, was born on 11 January 1757 in Nevis, British West Indies, the second of two illegitimate sons of James Hamilton (c.1718–1799), itinerant trader, and Rachel Faucett Lavien (c.1729–1768). His father deserted the family when Hamilton was eight, and his mother died three years later. He was apprenticed to a mercantile firm and, being precociously gifted in commerce, was soon placed in charge of the business. When he was fifteen he was sent by a Presbyterian minister to study in America at Francis Barber's Elizabethtown Academy, New Jersey. After a year in the preparatory school he was admitted to the College of New Jersey at Princeton, but when the president refused to let him set his own pace, he went instead to King's College in New York in 1774.

That placed Hamilton in a beehive of radical activity. He did not neglect his studies, but he was increasingly drawn into the struggle between the American colonies and Britain. During the winter of 1774–5 he attracted attention by publishing two fiery tracts, A Full Vindication and The Farmer Refuted. He then organized an artillery company and won a commission as captain in the continental army. Bold in the extreme, he repeatedly saw action throughout 1776.

His prowess as a warrior was exceeded by his administrative skills, and after refusing offers from other generals he accepted the position as aide-de-camp to George Washington. He became Washington's right arm and served with him (as a lieutenant-colonel) until February 1781. Then he sought a field command, obtaining it in July. In October he won the glory he craved, leading a successful attack on a crucial redoubt in the decisive American victory at the battle of Yorktown.

Early career

Hamilton's military service deepened his nationalism even as it taught him contempt for the corruption and weakness of congress. He also grew disillusioned with his adopted countrymen, whom he characterized as indolent, provincial, and oligarchic. Sensing that both national authority and American society could be reformed and energized by a system of public finance, he spent much of his time studying that arcane subject.

On 14 December 1780 Hamilton had married Elizabeth (c.1757–1854), daughter of the wealthy New York aristocrat Philip Schuyler, but he declined to accept monetary support from his father-in-law. After the battle of Yorktown he resigned his commission, devoted ten months to the study of law, and passed the rigorous New York bar examination. During his study, he wrote a book—a compilation of legal tracts—and memorized it. This book was later published and became a standard manual for aspiring attorneys.

After a brief and unproductive period of service in congress as a delegate for New York appointed in 1782, Hamilton returned to New York to take up his law practice and rapidly rose to the top of his profession. His most important early case, Rutgers v. Waddington (1784), is often but inaccurately cited as a precedent for the doctrine of judicial review. Flourishing as his law practice was, he sought a public career. His ‘ruling passion’ was hunger for fame—immortality in the form of the grateful remembrance of posterity. By 1786 he knew how to win his fame: as minister of the nation's finances, provided that the nation could create a government with finances to administer.

Hamilton was instrumental in bringing such a government into being. He was appointed as a New York delegate to the Annapolis interstate commercial convention in 1786. There he joined James Madison and John Dickinson in calling for a general convention to meet in Philadelphia to address the exigencies of the union of states. That call did not evoke an immediate response. But early in 1787 an armed rebellion (Shays's rebellion) erupted in the backcountry of Massachusetts, and a desperate congress endorsed the convention call. Twelve states voted to send delegates, and despite Governor George Clinton's anti-nationalist stance, Hamilton was chosen as one of New York's three delegates. He attended the convention only part-time and was of minor influence in it. His one major speech, on 18 June 1787, was an analysis of the nature of man, society, and government. He ended by proposing a strong central government—though he did not, as was later charged, propose a monarchy. The speech raised the general philosophical level of the debate, but did nothing more.

Hamilton would have preferred a higher-toned government, but he cared little for forms and was determined to sign and support whatever the convention produced. In support of ratification he co-wrote the series of eighty-five essays signed ‘Publius’, which is widely known as The Federalist and generally regarded as the greatest commentary on the constitution. John Jay wrote five essays; James Madison is credited with twenty-nine, and Hamilton with fifty-one. Though the two main authors complemented one another, differences between them are obvious. Hamilton self-confidently emphasized the need for ‘energy’, particularly in the executive; Madison entrusted power hesitantly and stressed the checks and restraints in the document. Madison characterized the system as partly national, partly federal; Hamilton disliked the federal features. His conception was that each level of government was sovereign as to matters within its purview.

The Federalist was written primarily to influence the election of delegates to New York's ratifying constitutional convention, and to that end it failed. Opponents of the constitution (anti-federalists) dominated; Jay and Hamilton were among the minority. The convention did, however, ultimately ratify the constitution due to various political manipulations.

Minister of finance

Once New York ratified the federal constitution Hamilton became eligible to serve in the new government. In 1789 congress created the treasury department, and Washington, as president and head of state, asked Hamilton to be its head. On 21 September, two days before adjourning, the house of representatives directed Hamilton to present a plan for support of the public credit—which had long since disappeared—at its next meeting in January 1790. This command meant that the treasury, unlike the other executive departments, would be responsible to the lower house of the legislature as well as to the president. That suited Hamilton, for it facilitated the implementation of his design for the government and for American society. Establishing public credit was important to him for its own sake and also as a means to broader ends. The constitution did not preclude the development of something like the British ministerial system, in which the first lord of the treasury could be the ‘prime’ minister; Hamilton's having one foot in the house and the other in the executive branch might make that development possible.

The companion piece in Hamilton's design was to reshape society. He believed that Americans ‘labour less now than any civilized nation of Europe’, and that habits of industry were ‘essential to the health and vigor’ of a people (Hamilton, 2.635). Americans, he believed, had few incentives to work hard, for earning a subsistence was easy whereas improving one's social standing was difficult. Status came primarily from the ownership of (usually inherited) landed estates, and Hamilton abhorred inherited status. (He was an active participant in New York's anti-slavery movement.) To transform the existing order, Hamilton proposed to erect fiscal machinery so convenient and necessary to the conduct of daily economic activity that money would become the measure of all things. Bourgeois values would then be embraced, oligarchies would fall, and the best men would rise to the top.

The opening steps of Hamilton's fiscal plans were taken in his ‘first report on the public credit’, presented to congress in January 1790. Unlike many members of congress, who wanted to pay off the debts rapidly, Hamilton chose to ‘fund’ them. Accordingly he asked congress to provide semi-permanent appropriations for interest payments on the federal and state debts. Redemption of the principal would be at the government's discretion, but no more than 2 per cent of the total could be retired annually. New government securities were issued to retire the old certificates of debt, and to stabilize them and maintain their market value a ‘sinking fund’ would be created, financed by the profits from the post office.

Congress readily enacted the funding and sinking fund proposals, but the assumption of the state debts faced opposition. Several states had retired most of their debts, and they were averse to paying added taxes to benefit those states that had not. Among these was Virginia, and James Madison—a leader in the lower house—headed the opposition to assumption. It was defeated in the house of representatives by two votes, whereupon a political deal was struck. The Virginians were eager to locate the permanent national capital on the Potomac. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and his friend Madison held a dinner party for Hamilton at which he agreed to find northern votes for the Potomac site (now Washington, DC) and they would find votes for assuming the state debts. The funding and assumption plan became law in August 1790.

When congress reconvened in December Hamilton presented a ‘second report on the public credit’, proposing to create a national bank. The treasury needed a reliable source of short-term credit, and experience showed that the three existing banks in America were not trustworthy. Moreover, Hamilton wanted to use the bank's notes as a basis for currency. He asked congress to grant a twenty-year charter to a private corporation, the Bank of the United States. It would have $10 million in capital stock, one-fifth of which would be subscribed by the federal government using funds borrowed from the bank itself. Private purchases of the stock were payable one-quarter in gold or silver and the rest in government securities. Because the bank could earn tremendous profits the price of its stock would soar, which would raise the price of government securities since they were interchangeable.

Congressional response was favourable, but an obstacle arose: during the debates Madison objected that chartering a corporation would exceed the congressional powers itemized in the constitution. The bill was passed, but Madison's objections so upset Washington that he asked Jefferson and Attorney-General Edmund Randolph for advisory opinions before signing the bill into law. They held that the bill was unconstitutional. Washington then requested Hamilton's opinion. He responded with the now classic formulation of the doctrine of implied powers and ‘loose construction’ (Hamilton, 8.63–134). Pointing to the constitutional clause giving congress power ‘to make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution’ the enumerated powers, Hamilton insisted that Randolph and Jefferson had interpreted the word ‘necessary’ as if the words ‘absolutely’ or ‘indispensably’ preceded it. Besides, he continued, Jefferson had confused means with ends. The bank was merely a means of carrying out legitimate, enumerated functions. And, ‘If the end be clearly comprehended within any of the specified powers’, he said, and ‘if the measure have an obvious relation to that end, and is not forbidden by any particular provision of the constitution—it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority’ (ibid., 8.107). Washington signed the bill on 25 February 1791.

Despite their differences Hamilton and Jefferson were still friendly, but a break was soon to come. At a casual dinner in April, during conversation among Vice-President John Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton, Adams declared that if the British constitution were purged of corruption and if representation in the House of Commons were reformed, ‘it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man’. This statement upset Jefferson, but he was appalled by Hamilton's response. ‘Purge it of its corruption’, Hamilton said, paraphrasing David Hume, ‘and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impractable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed’ (McDonald, Hamilton, 214). Connecting Hamilton's comment to his policies, Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton was trying to erect an American variation of the British system.

Thereafter Jefferson saw every Hamiltonian action as a subversion of the constitution. Jefferson shared his discovery with Washington, who belittled it. He then turned to Madison, who did believe him, and the two began organizing an opposition political party, which they styled ‘republican’, pointedly suggesting that Hamilton was a monarchist.

Soon issues arising from the French Revolution widened the rift. When the revolution had begun Hamilton was excited, for like most Americans he believed that Louis XVI would voluntarily turn France into a constitutional monarchy. But by the winter of 1792–3 France had proclaimed itself a republic, beheaded the king, and set out to liberate Europe. These developments, in Hamilton's view, portended serious trouble. The United States was bound to France by perpetual treaties of commerce and alliance signed in 1778. America was not obliged to join France in an offensive war, for the alliance pertained only to defensive wars, but Hamilton believed that if America were not strictly neutral it could be dragged into the conflict. The infant nation could not chance a war with France's enemy, Britain, for Britain and the USA remained major trading partners and war would drastically cut the import revenues that supported Hamilton's financial system. The problem became urgent after the arrival in April 1793 of Citizen Edmond Genet. In response to his activities Hamilton urged Washington to issue a neutrality proclamation and suspend the 1778 treaties. Washington issued the proclamation but took no action concerning the treaties.

By then a fresh peril had arisen—from the British side. Under secret orders British naval commanders seized several hundred American vessels for neutrality violations. The popular cries for war were intensified by news that the British were inciting American Indians in the Northwest Territory of the USA and were arming a slave rebellion in Hispaniola. Hamilton recommended preparing for war as a precondition for negotiating a peace. A provisional army was authorized, Chief Justice John Jay was sent to Britain to negotiate, and in 1795 Jay returned with a treaty. To defend the treaty against a vigorous republican attack, Hamilton wrote thirty-eight newspaper articles signed ‘Camillus’.

Post-treasury career

Hamilton officially left the cabinet on 31 January 1795 and returned to his long-neglected private business. He became one of a handful of lawyers who were creating a new law of contracts based on market forces and pioneering (through cases, not legislation) a market-driven law of commercial paper and marine insurance. His retirement from public affairs, however, was not complete. The president and cabinet officers repeatedly asked for his advice. He wrote Washington's seventh annual message to congress, and in 1796 he composed much of Washington's famous ‘Farewell Address’. In addition he found it necessary to defend his previous work as secretary of the treasury. He was publicly charged with having paid blackmail to a confidence man, James Reynolds, to cover department irregularities. Fearing that if the charges were believed the integrity of the financial system would be shaken, he published a lengthy pamphlet detailing an amorous affair he had had with Reynolds's wife, Maria, that had occasioned the blackmail payments.

In 1798 another call to service sounded. Relations with France had further deteriorated, and amid preparations for war President Adams asked Washington to serve as commander-in-chief. Washington agreed, provided that he would go on active duty only if an invasion occurred and that Hamilton be named his second-in-command. Adams grudgingly accepted but, mistrusting and envying Hamilton, he immediately lost his appetite for war. The quasi-war with France (1798–1800) was a period of frustration for Hamilton; his efforts to organize the army were hampered by the war department's incompetence and by the president's obstruction.

In 1800 Hamilton attempted to defeat Adams's bid for re-election. But when republicans Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the lead in the electoral college, the final choice fell upon the house of representatives. Regarding Burr as an embryonic Caesar, Hamilton threw his support behind Jefferson. Jefferson's election in turn marked the end of Hamilton's public career. Hamilton founded a newspaper to act as a responsible critic of the administration, but mainly he stuck to practising law.

Hamilton's last major case had an enduring impact. A newspaper printer, Harry Croswell, was prosecuted for libel for publishing a report that Jefferson had paid a writer to smear Washington and Adams. The statement was true, but truth was not a defence under the common law, and he was convicted. On appeal Croswell employed Hamilton as counsel. Hamilton contended that truth, if not used ‘wantonly’, must be a defence. Otherwise ‘you must for ever remain ignorant of what your rulers do … I never did think the truth was a crime … for my soul has ever abhorred the thought, that a free man dared not speak the truth’ (McDonald, Hamilton, 359). The court was divided; therefore the conviction was not overturned. But state legislators had heard Hamilton's argument and found it persuasive. The following year they enacted a law making truth a defence.

During the New York gubernatorial election of 1804 Hamilton and his newspaper were fierce critics of Aaron Burr's candidacy. A few weeks after his defeat Burr demanded an explanation for unspecified remarks. Unsatisfied with the response, Burr met Hamilton at the duelling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey—the same place where Hamilton's eldest son had been killed three years earlier in a duel. Burr shot Hamilton through the liver. He died at the home of William Bayard, 80–82 Jane Street, New York city, shortly afterwards, on 12 July 1804, after receiving communion from Benjamin Moore, the Episcopalian bishop of New York (the Revd John Mason, a Presbyterian minister, had refused Hamilton). He was buried two days later in the graveyard of Trinity Church in Manhattan. His affairs were in disarray, and friends had to raise money to discharge his debts and support his wife and seven children. Elizabeth lived on for fifty years, and died on 9 November 1854.

For a century and more after his death Hamilton's niche in the pantheon of American founders seemed secure. But then, during the great depression of the 1930s, Hamilton came to be seen as the founder not of a thriving capitalistic economic system but of a wicked plutocracy. Only since the 1980s has he returned to grace among historians.

Forrest McDonald

Sources  

F. McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: a biography (1979) · The papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. H. C. Syrett and others, 26 vols. (New York, 1961–79) · J. Goebel, ed., The law practice of Alexander Hamilton, 2 vols. (New York, 1964–9) · R. Brookhiser, Alexander Hamilton: American (1999) · B. Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton, 2 vols. (1957–62) · J. C. Miller, Alexander Hamilton: portrait in paradox [1959] · J. E. Cooke, Alexander Hamilton (1982) · G. Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the idea of republican government (Stanford, CA, 1970) · G. L. Lycan, Alexander Hamilton and American foreign policy: a design for greatness (Norman, OK, [1970]) · F. McDonald, The presidency of George Washington (Lawrence, KS, 1974) · K.-F. Walling, Republican empire: Alexander Hamilton on war and free government (Lawrence, KS, 1999) · M. J. Frisch, Alexander Hamilton and the political order (1991)

Likenesses  

A. Chappel, engraving, c.1790 (after oils), NYPL · C. W. Peale, oils, c.1791, Independence National Historical Park Collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania · J. Trumbull, oils, 1792, Yale U. Art Gallery · J. Trumbull, oils, 1792, Donaldson, Lufkin, and Jenrette Collection of Americana, New York [see illus.] · J. Trumbull, oils, 1792, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC · G. Ceracchi, marble bust, 1794, NYPL · W. Rollinson, engraving, c.1794–c.1804 (after wash drawing by A. Robertson), Museum of the City of New York · R. Ball Hughes, statue, 1831, Museum of the City of New York

Wealth at death  

$80,500, incl. real estate $74,150, personal property $3850, fees due $2500; debts owed $54,722: Papers of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Syrett and others, 26.283–90, 305–6