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Alexander Hamilton

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A portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, 1792.

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757July 12, 1804) was an American politician, statesman, journalist, lawyer, and soldier. One of the United States' most prominent early constitutional lawyers, he was an influential delegate to the U.S. Constitutional Convention and the principal author of the Federalist Papers, which successfully defended the U.S. Constitution to skeptical New Yorkers. He also put the new United States of America onto a sound economic footing as its first and most influential Secretary of the Treasury, establishing the First Bank of the United States, public credit and the foundations for American capitalism and stock and commodity exchanges.

Contents

Early years

Alexander Hamilton was born on the West Indies island of Nevis. He was the son of James Hamilton, a struggling businessman from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, who was then married to another man, though the couple lived apart from one another under an order of legal separation. There is some uncertainty as to the year of Hamilton's birth. Throughout his life, Hamilton stated that it was 1757, and that year went unquestioned for centuries. More recent examinations of probate court records at St. Croix indicate the year was 1755 (though the year is not explicitly noted) and for several decades it has been the more commonly cited year. The date, January 11, can be neither substantiated nor refuted, and is still commonly accepted. Alexander had no middle name.

Hamilton's father abandoned him, and his mother died when Hamilton was in his early teens. As a teenager, Hamilton wrote an article about a hurricane that had severely battered the West Indies in a local paper that caused so much sensation, that the town soon raised money to fund his passage to America. He settled in New York in 1772 where he began grammar school. Later he attended King's College (now Columbia University). Arriving at King's College, Hamilton originally studied anatomy with the intent of becoming a doctor.

Hamilton possessed talents of the highest order. At the start of his teenage years, he was an impoverished orphan with no family connections, working as a clerk on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. By the close of his teenage years, he was in America, General George Washington's most trusted aide-de-camp, an accomplished artillery captain, and a published pamphleteer renowned in New York. It was while on the battlefield, however, that Hamilton began formulating the ideas on government and economics that would make him an historic figure.

He was one of the earliest and most active nationalists, believing that the continental congress needed to be strengthened or overthrown in favor a new, more imposing federal government that could legislate within the states, which the continental congress could not do. Hamilton was the spokesman for an active government, stressing the principle of government 'Responsibility', against the Jeffersonian/Madisonian principle of public vigilance and suspicion of government power. Recent scholars have argued that these two philosophies form the thesis-antithesis of the post-revolutionnary era. Alexander Hamilton being the figurehead of responsible government.

He left Washington to take command of an infantry regiment that took part in the siege of Yorktown, and it is under an assault led by him that redoubt #10 was taken. After the war, he served as a member of the Continental Congress (from 1782-1783), and then retired to open his own law office in New York City. His public career resumed when he attended the Annapolis Convention as a delegate in 1786.

He also served in the New York State Legislature and attended the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Throughout the convention's proceedings Hamilton, a federalist, argued consistently for a strong central government, including a king-like president (minus the familial inheritance of power), and an upper legislative body based on the English House of Lords. Hamilton opposed equal representation in the Senate, saying the concept "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." He also wanted senators to serve for life, subject to good behavior. Finally, Hamilton strongly advocated the abolition of slavery.

Although the U.S. Constitution eventually produced by the convention was less centrist than Hamilton proposed, and the tenures of those exercising power were shorter than he desired, he was active in the successful campaign for its ratification in New York. During this endeavor he made the largest single contribution to the authorship of the Federalist Papers.

In 1788, Hamilton served another term in what proved to be the last time the Continental Congress met under the new Articles of Confederation.

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Alexander Hamilton

Secretary of the Treasury

On the advice of Robert Morris, with whom he had discussed economics as an aide-de-camp during the American Revolution, President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury when the first Congress passed an act establishing the Treasury Department. He served in that post from September 11, 1789 until January 31, 1795. It is for his tenure as Treasury secretary that Hamilton is considered one of America's greatest statesmen.

Hamilton's term was marked by innovation, planning and masterful reports. In office for barely a month, he proposed the idea of a seagoing branch of the military to secure tax revenue against contraband shipments. The following summer, the Congress authorized a Revenue Marine force of ten cutters, the precursor to the United States Coast Guard. He also played a crucial role in creating the United States Navy (the Naval Act of 1794).

He published Report on the Public Credit in January 1790, which was a milestone in American financial history, marking the end of an era of bankruptcy and repudiation. The plan provided for the assumption of both domestic and foreign debts. Democratic Republicans such as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr strongly opposed Hamilton's plan. Surprisingly, it passed overwhelmingly.

Hamilton advocated having the federal government assume states' debts. Madison and Jefferson opposed this plan as well, but, according to a story later told by Jefferson which probably greatly simplified matters, they settled their disagreements in a private meeting on July 21, 1790. During this meeting, Hamilton agreed to support the Potomac River as the future location of the nation's capital, in return for Jefferson's support.

Hamilton's perceptive and creative mind, coupled with a driving ambition to set his ideas in motion, resulted in many proposals to Congress. His proposals included a plan for import duties and excise taxes for raising revenue, funding the revolutionary debt, and suggestions on naval laws. He also developed plans for a congressional charter for the First Bank of the United States.

Strong opposition to taxing liquor erupted into the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1794. Hamilton felt compliance with the laws was important, so he accompanied General "Light Horse Harry" Lee and his troops to help put down the insurrection.

During Washington's first term, as Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton put forth a plan to deal with the immense national debt (which consisted of foreign, domestic and state debts). He proposed to pay off all foreign debt to help restore national credit, which would then enable the nation to issue bonds to pay off the domestic debt. He reasoned that this would help ensure that the "aristocracy of wealth and talent" had a stake in the success of the new government. His plan was for the federal government to assume the state debts, which would work to stabilize the country. This would work because if the creditors wanted the individual states to thrive to be able to pay them, the union could crumble, but if these same creditors now needed the federal government, and subsequently the country, to thrive then the country would be supported. Hamilton also asked for a whiskey tax and a high import tax (also known as a tariff) to help pay for the debt. Congress gave him the whiskey tax but not the import tax, which was the only part of the plan Hamilton was unable to secure. Finally, Hamilton asked for the creation of a national bank to help the government fulfill its financial obligations and create some income due to intrest on loans. Hamilton's financial plan is significant not only for its attempt (mostly successful) to restore the nation's credit and deal with its financial difficulties, but also because it resulted in the first national political parties.

Hamilton, contrary to popular belief, did not believe in perpetual debt. He thought it was a weakness that should be avoided. He has set up programs that would have paid off all government debt. He wrote numerous articles denouncing perpetual government debt. PAH vol. 6 p.98-106 Report on public debt January 1790 and PAH vol. 12 p570 Fact No II National Gazette, Philadelphia October 16 1792.

Hamilton as an industrialist

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Statue of Hamilton by Franklin Simmons, overlooking the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Hamilton envisioned the use of the falls to power a new city based on industry.

Hamilton was among the first to recognize the larger transformations of industry and capitalism of his era -- in particular the trend toward larger-scale manufacturing financed through credit. In 1778 he visited the Great Falls of the Passaic River in northern New Jersey and saw that the falls could one day be harnessed to provide power for a manufacturing center on the site. As Secretary of Treasury, he put this plan into motion, helping to found the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures, a private corporation that would use the power of the falls to operate mills. Although the company did not succeed in its original purpose, it leased the land around the falls to other mill ventures and continued to operate for over a century and a half. The city which grew on the spot of Hamilton's vision, Paterson, New Jersey became one of the most important manufacturing centers for cotton, steel and silk, until its decline after World War II.

The Maria Reynolds affair and rivalry with Aaron Burr

In 1794, Hamilton became intimately involved with Maria Reynolds, an affair that damaged his reputation and prevented him from rising further in politics. Reynolds' husband blackmailed Hamilton for money, though he was content to permit sexual liaisons between Hamilton and his wife. When James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted several prominent Jeffersonian Republicans, most notably James Monroe. When they visited Hamilton with their suspicions of malfeasance, he stressed his innocence, while admitting to an affair with Maria Reynolds.

Monroe promised to keep details from public knowledge, but Thomas Jefferson had no such compunctions. Hamilton was forced to publish a confession of his affair, which shocked his family and supporters. A duel with Monroe over his supposed breach was averted by then-Senator Aaron Burr. Ironically, Burr would later represent Maria Reynolds in her divorce lawsuit, leading some to suspect he set Hamilton up. However, Hamilton's relationship with Burr had been cordial during their years as New York lawyers.

Hamilton's resignation as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795 did not remove him from public life. With the resumption of his law practice, he remained close to Washington as an adviser and friend. Hamilton is believed to have influenced Washington in the composition of his Farewell Address. Relations between Hamilton and Washington's successor, John Adams, were frequently strained and Hamilton's attempts to frustrate Adams' adoption as presidential candidate of the Federalist Party split the party and contributed to the victory of the Jeffersonian Republicans in the election of 1800.

With the House split and Burr seeking Federalist votes, Hamilton threw his weight behind Jefferson causing one Federalist to abstain from voting. This ensured that Jefferson was selected rather than Burr. Even though Hamilton did not want Jefferson as president, he was quoted as saying that "at least Jefferson was honest." Burr later sought the New York governorship in 1804, first running as a Federalist, then as an independent. One newspaper referred to a "despicable opinion" that a Dr. Charles D. Cooper attributed to Hamilton about Burr. This probably resulted from comments Hamilton made in private circles sarcastically questioning Burr's integrity. Sensing a chance to regain political honor, Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused on the grounds that he could not recall the instance the newspaper mentioned.

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Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.

A duel was set July 11 on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place where Hamilton's son Phillip had been killed in a duel three years earlier. At dawn, the duel began, and Vice-President Burr shot Hamilton below his chest. Hamilton probably fired his shot into the air, deliberately missing—two of his letters were found afterwards saying he was going to throw away the first shot. Some Democratic Republicans said he misfired his pistol, one of a pair that belonged to his family. Hamilton died the next day and was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan. Burr fled New York under charges of murder and later of treason. He died in 1836, having squandered his fortune and almost universally reviled because of his 1807 conspiracy trial.

Hamilton and modern politics

Arguably, Hamilton set the path for American economic and military might. His most important contribution may have been establishing the supremacy of the executive branch of American government over the legislative and judicial branches. At the moment of founding, it was not clear whether the executive should wield most of the power, especially when it came to the creation of policy, which was supposed to be a legislative task. From the start, Hamilton set a precedent as a cabinet member by dreaming up federal programs, writing them in the form of reports, pushing for their approval by appearing in person to argue them on the floor of Congress, and implementing them. Hamilton did this brilliantly and forcefully, setting a high standard for administrative competence. In the whole of Hamilton's policy making, the legislature was a passive observer, ultimately approving his projects with little left for it to do.

Another of Hamilton's legacies was his strongly pro-federal interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Though the Constitution was drafted in a way that was somewhat ambiguous as to the balance of power between federal and state governments, Hamilton consistently took the side of greater federal power at the expense of states. Thus, as Secretary of the Treasury, he established, against the intense opposition of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the country's first national bank. Hamilton justified the creation of this bank, and other robust federal powers, on Congress's constitutional powers to issue currency and to regulate interstate commerce. Jefferson, on the other hand, took a stricter view of the constitution: parsing the text carefully finding no specific authorization for a national bank. This controversy was eventually settled by the Supreme Court of the United States in McCulloch v. Maryland, which in essence adopted Hamilton's view, granting the federal government broad freedom to select means to execute its constitutionally-enumerated powers.

Hamilton’s portrait began to appear during the Civil War on the $2, $5, $10, and $50 notes, which was symbolic of his ideological opposition to the ideas of the Confederacy. His face continues to grace the front of the ten dollar bill, but after the death of Ronald Reagan small movements began making noise about replacing Hamilton with Reagan. Hamilton also appears on the $500 Series EE Savings Bond.

Writings

References

  • Hendrickson. Robert A. The Rise and Fall of Alexander Hamilton. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
  • Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton.

Biographies

  • McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. W. W. Norton & Company, 1982 (ISBN 039330048X).
  • Flexner, James Thomas. The Young Hamilton: A Biography. Fordham University Press, 1997 (ISBN 0823217906).
  • Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton, American. Free Press, 1999 (ISBN 0684839199).
  • Fleming, Thomas. Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America. Basic Books, 2000 (ISBN 0465017371).
  • Knott, Stephen F. Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth. University Press of Kansas, 2002 (ISBN 0700611576).
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life. HarperCollins, 2003 (ISBN 0060195495).
  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books, 2004 (ISBN 1594200092).

External links


Preceded by:
(none)
United States Secretary of the Treasury
1789–1795
Succeeded by:
Oliver Wolcott, Jr.

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