Hamilton, Alexander

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Hamilton, Alexander (1757 – 1804): American statesman and Founding Father.

Alexander Hamilton, born on January 11, 1757, on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, rose to become an aggressive public servant and political philosopher of the Enlightenment. Much of Hamilton’s early years include contradictory assertions including the exact year of his birth although he claimed 1757 after arriving in the American colonies. His parents, James A. Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien, were not married. James later abandoned Rachel, Alexander, and James Jr., Alexander’s brother, in 1765 on the island of St. Croix. Rachel died three years later. The orphaned Alexander clerked for an import-export firm and was adopted by Thomas Stevens of Nevis. Hamilton demonstrated a keen intellect and aggressiveness rare for an individual of his age. A public subscription raised funds to send him to the American colonies for formal education where he eventually entered Kings College in New York City.

Hamilton emerged as an ardent supporter of Patriot ideology in the years prior to the American Revolution. He wrote several pamphlets and articles refuting Loyalist positions defending British actions to enforce taxation enforcement measures in the American colonies. He joined a New York Patriot militia unit in 1775 and later assumed the captaincy of a New York artillery company that participated in the 1776 engagements around New York City and the famous attack by General George Washington on Trenton in December. Hamilton accepted an appointment as the senior aide to Washington and held this position for nearly four years. In 1780, Hamilton married into the influential Schuyler family of New York. His bride, Elizabeth, was the daughter of Philip Schuyler of Albany. The American and French siege of Yorktown led to Hamilton’s most celebrated exploit in the American Revolution. During the last phase of the siege, he personally led a night bayonet assault on the British position at Redoubt #10. After the American Revolution, Hamilton represented New York in the American Congress organized under the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton’s dissatisfaction with the loose alliance of states led him to become an avid supporter of political reform. In particular, he recognized that a national government without the ability to raise its own funds would never be strong enough to keep the states from squabbling and endangering the entire union. Although selected to represent New York in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Governor Clinton, George ensured two other delegates opposed to strengthening the Articles of Confederation were selected in order to negate Hamilton’s vote. With each state allocated one vote in the Convention, a vote of 2-to-1 against Hamilton would ensure New York’s position would reflect the opinions of the other two delegates, John Lansing and Robert Yates.

While much as been written about the competing Virginia and New Jersey Plans during the Convention, little has been said about a third plan proposed by Hamilton who rose to eloquently propose an interesting option that is frequently misunderstood. Hamilton recognized that three types of government existed – monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies. Each had its attributes yet each could devolve into political chaos. Monarchs could become despots; aristocracies could split into factions with one emerging as a tyrannical oligarchy; and democracies could slide into anarchy. In order to maximize the advantages of each, Hamilton proposed a government combining all three styles yet with a system of checks and balances to prevent a movement toward political chaos. Hamilton saw the basic model for his proposed government in the British system which included a monarch, a House of Lords (aristocracy) and a House of Representatives (democracy).

While accused of trying to transplant a British style government onto the colonies, Hamilton’s plan actually consisted of many differences. While he admired the British system as the basic model, Hamilton’s option envisioned a series of internal checks and balances. Unfortunately, many individuals who heard the speech later disagreed on its exact contents and Hamilton’s own writings do not completely clarify the discussion. It is clear that Hamilton proposed a single elected executive who would serve for life. However, disagreement reigns over whether this national leader would be followed by another elected individual or whether the position would be based on heredity as the British monarchy. The national leader, representing the “monarchy” form of government, could be removed by the upper house of a bicameral legislature. This upper house, to be known as the Senate, would consist of individuals chosen for life and representing the “aristocracy” form of government. Regular elections (every three years) would fill the lower legislative house and represent a “democratic” form of government. A third branch of government, a Supreme Court consisting of twelve justices serving for life, would provide an impartial overview of the entire system.

The Convention politely ignored Hamilton and approved a Constitution consisting of a hybrid of the Virginia and New Jersey plans. Although his idea was not considered, Hamilton proved to be an avid supporter of the new Constitution to replace the existing Articles of Confederation. As the ratification debate began across the country, Hamilton emerged as a major leader of the Federalists – those who supported ratification of the Constitution. Although his many writings (51 of the 85 essays), written under the pseudonym “Publius”, were aimed at persuading his state to ratify the Constitution, they were reproduced in many states and in book form (The Federalist Papers) with the articles of his fellow Federalists Madison, James (29 essays) and John Jay (5 essays). The essays were key factors in persuading many to support the new Constitution and evolved into prime resources for understanding the intent of the framers. George Washington, as the first President of the United States, selected Hamilton to serve as the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. He held this position from 1789 to 1795. As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton had the opportunity to implement many of his economic ideas which had lasting impact across American history. He established a Revenue Cutter service to combat smuggling and which would become the United States Coast Guard. He proved to be instrumental in founding the controversial national bank and the United States mint. In order to help establish funding for the new national government, he enacted an excise tax on whiskey that led the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. He successfully secured a controversial agreement for the national government to assume all debts from the American Revolution. In his “Report on Manufactures”, Hamilton proposed increasing the manufacturing sector of the American economy. This enhanced manufacturing sector would be interdependent with the existing agricultural sector in order for the new country to compete more equally with Europe. Hamilton’s work in the office is recognized with his portrait on the United States $10 dollar bill.

Hamilton retired from public service in 1795 hounded by an extra-marital affair and political disagreements with Adams, John, Aaron Burr, Jefferson, Thomas and others. Retirement did not stop him from remaining involved in the national political scene. He campaigned against John Adams and worked diligently in attempts to direct the electoral college vote in the 1796 and 1800 presidential campaigns. A lingering feud with Aaron Burr following Hamilton’s campaign to block him from the governorship of New York resulted in a duel. Burr killed Hamilton in the duel on July 11, 1804.

Further Reading:

Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 2004.

John Miller, Alexander Hamilton and the Growth of the New Nation, 2003.

Broadus Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton, 1962.

Terry M. Mays

The Citadel