Born on the tiny island of Nevis, in the British West Indies, Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) was a "natural" child, a curious but popular euphemism of the day, meaning that he was a bastard, born out of wedlock, the son of a Scottish merchant, James Hamilton., a man of good family but rather indolent and of little business ability. His common-law wife was Rachel Faucette, a rather well-to-do Creole of French Huguenot descent who had married a Dane and had long been separated from him. The law, however, blocked her from obtaining a divorce and remarrying. She and Hamilton had two sons, Alexander being the elder.
In later years, Hamilton's political and personal enemies made a number of remarks about Hamilton's illegitimacy. After a harsh quarrel, John Adams called him the "bastard brat of a Scots pedlar." Jefferson jibed at him as "that foreign bastard." An influential writer-editor-publisher of the day, James Callender, referred to him often as the "son of a camp girl." Such remarks were obviously unfair, and unworthy of those who made them.
In 1772, after the death of his mother and his father's bankruptcy, young Alexander, at the age of 15, was sent by Faucette relatives and family friends to the mainland to continue his education. Landing at Boston, Hamilton went to New Jersey to finish his preparatory studies and, in 1774, moved to New York City to enroll in King's College (a Church of England institution), soon renamed Columbia College, the original unit of Columbia University.
It was a time of crisis and confusion. The conflict between Britain and the thirteen colonies, long simmering, was coming to a boil and soon erupted into open hostilities after the clash of arms at Lexington and Concord. Young Hamilton, throughout his life a supporter of legally constituted authority, was at first inclined to be pro-British in his views and sympathies.
But he soon changed his mind, not because he subscribed to the then radical doctrines of Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Tom Paine, Sam Adams, George Mason, and other revolutionary democrats. And even more, not because he approved of the often riotous proceedings of the Sons of Liberty, who could be very rough on their Tory adversaries, most of them men of substantial property. Many of these Tories were tarred and feathered, or worse.
Hamilton always had the highest regard for property, and particularly for men who owned large quantities of it. He embraced the cause A the patriots (or "rebel scoundrels," as King George III termed them) because he had become a nationalist, swinging to the view that separation of the colonies from the mother country was not only inevitable, but desirable.
With characteristic boldness and energy, young Hamilton, still a collegian, organized a militia company and was elected captain. This was an artillery company, the self-styled "Hearts of Oak," whose bravery and military proficiency soon came to the attention of Gen. George Washington, commander-in-chief of Continental forces since June, 1775. The general was so impressed that, early in 1777, he made Hamilton a lieutenant colonel and called him to become his private secretary and confidential aide, a very responsible post for a youth just turned twenty.
For four years Hamilton served brilliantly at that post, being at Washington's side during the awful winter of 1777–1778 at Valley Forge and down to the culminating American victory at Yorktown where Hamilton, now a full colonel, led an assault that captured the key British redoubt.
Meanwhile, in 1780, Hamilton had married Elizabeth Schuyler, a laughter of Gen. Philip Schuyler, thus becoming a member of a rich and influential New York family, closely related to the Van Rensselaers and other old Dutch patroon families with their vast landed estates along both banks of the Hudson and elsewhere. Hamilton was now well on his way up the social and financial ladder.
After the war, Hamilton resumed his studies, became a lawyer, and soon opened his own office. He had many clients, but being a man of vast ambition, he found the routines of a private law practice not very challenging. They did not begin to use up his driving physical energy or satisfy his broad intellectual interests. More and more, he immersed himself in politics and public affairs. As one of New York's delegation to the 1782–1783 session of the Continental Congress, he saw for himself, to his dismay, the many weaknesses and disabilities of the national government under the Articles of Confederation.
Almost everyone agreed that the Articles should be amended to strengthen the powers and reform the procedures of the central government. But here agreement ended. Almost everyone — Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Patrick Henry, George Mason, John Adams, Sam Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, among many more — had his own notions about what an ideal constitution should contain. The notions privately entertained by Hamilton, which were extreme and almost incredibly authoritarian and politically simplistic, will be outlined later.
Hamilton made himself a leader in the movement to call a convention to consider revisions of the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton spoke for those who shared his view that the rights of property should be defended and secured above all else, that such rights provided the very foundation of society and orderly government, and that the existing government did not adequately protect such rights. To those holding these views the country was on the brink of disaster, especially because of fiscal and commercial problems.
But the people at large, and the highest authorities in most states, did not take this alarmist view. They did not see the nation facing any grave immediate crisis. Consequently, when the convention assembled at Annapolis in September, 1786, only five states were represented: New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware. As it was obvious that no business could be done under the circumstances, the twelve delegates chose Hamilton to draft an address calling on all the states to send representatives to a new constitutional convention to meet in Philadelphia early in May the next year.
On the day the Philadelphia convention was to open, not enough states were represented to constitute a quorum. Several weeks passed before a quorum of seven was present. Delegations from five more states later came in. One state, Rhode Island, did not send a delegation. Radical and agrarian in its general views, it regarded the convention as a trap devised by large landed proprietors and rich conservative urban families to advance their special interests, a view widely held in other states.
Sitting from late May to mid-September, 1787, the Philadelphia convention adopted a document, a patchwork of compromises and accommodations between many sharply conflicting points of view, and the Congress sent copies of the proposed constitution to the state legislatures, each of which was to call a special convention to adopt or reject the proposal.
For reasons to be discussed later, Hamilton did not like the proposed constitution. But he felt that anything was better than the Articles of Confederation, and threw his full energies into efforts to secure ratification of the Philadelphia document. His main effort went into contributions to the long series of newspaper articles published in book form as The Federalist. Hamilton conceived the idea of the series and, as noted before, wrote most of the argumentative essays, with Madison and John Jay contributing others.
The fight for and against ratification was bitter, particularly in the larger states. By the end of July, 1788, the proposed constitution had been ratified by eleven states, the last two being Virginia and New York. This was two more than the requisite number. If Virginia had declined to ratify — and the margin was slim, 88 votes for, 80 against — New York would have followed suit and not ratified, and Pennsylvania would no doubt have reversed its close vote of approval, obtained by force and duress. It was stipulated that if nine states ratified the constitution, it was to go into effect immediately. But if the three largest, richest, and most populous states — Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania — declined to ratify, there can be no doubt that the proposed constitution would have been sent back to another national convention for revision and amendment.
The Congress adjourned and there was technically no federal government until the following March, when the newly elected Congress met at New York. Washington became the first president of the United States and, for the two most important posts in his administration, chose Jefferson as secretary of state and Hamilton as secretary of the treasury.
Hamilton took hold of the duties of office in his usual brisk manner. Early in 1790, he submitted his first report on the public credit. National credit was in dire straits. The report dealt specifically with the debts inherited from the Confederation, which were considerable in terms of the day. Foreign debts owed by the government amounted to some $12,000,000, and domestic debts to some $45,000,000. In addition, the states had Revolutionary War debts estimated at $25,000,000.
To maintain the public credit and build confidence at home and abroad in the new government, to strengthen it by fostering interest among the business groups holding most of the domestic debt, Hamilton proposed that national, foreign, and domestic debts be funded at par value, and that the federal government assume, up to some $21,500,000, the debts incurred by the states during the years of the American Revolution.
Funding of the foreign debt aroused little opposition, but the plan to fund domestic national debt was bitterly attacked since much of the currency and many of the bonds had been sold to speculators at high discount, and the speculators rather than the original holders would be the ones to profit when the currency and bonds were redeemed at face value. The attack on the proposal that the national government assume responsibility for the repayment of state debts of certain kinds met with even heavier opposition, and the division took place along sectional lines.
In general, the northern states, especially those in New England, had the largest unpaid debts and therefore favored assumption which would ease their tax burden by spreading it around. On the other hand, most southern states had made arrangements to clear their indebtedness and therefore objected to a measure that would greatly increase the national debt, for the servicing of which their inhabitants would be taxed.
Virginia took the lead in opposing the assumption measure. In strong resolutions drafted by Patrick Henry, Virginia protested that Hamilton's scheme would profit and maintain a monied interest, that agriculture would be subordinated to commercial and financial interests, that the proposal would undermine republican institutions, and that there was "no clause in the Constitution authorizing Congress to assume the debts of states."
When the assumption bill came to its first vote in the House of Representatives, it was defeated. But Hamilton, never daunted, was not prepared to give up. He would make a deal. Meeting Madison at a dinner party arranged by Jefferson, he made a proposition: he would use his utmost influence to gather enough northern votes to assure that the national capital would be established along the Potomac, a step that should placate the southerners. In return, Madison should do his best to get enough southern votes to assure the adoption of the assumption measure.
Thus, instead of going to Philadelphia or New York, the largest cities, the national capital went south to the Potomac, to the District of Columbia, a ten-mile-square unsettled tract, not yet chosen, and where a city had yet to be built. in a real sense, Hamilton was the founder of Washington, D.C.
In his next bold step Hamilton proposed the chartering of a bank to be owned and operated by the national government, the Bank of the United States. When consulted about this by President Washington, Secretary of State Jefferson forcefully declared his opinion that such a step was clearly unconstitutional. Taking a "strict constructionist" view of the Constitution, Jefferson declared that chartering of a national bank was not one of the powers delegated to Congress.
Taking a "loose constructionist" view of the Constitution, and developing for the first time the doctrine of "implied powers," Hamilton replied that the national government had been empowered to collect taxes and regulate trade, and that a national bank was an efficient and proper means of executing that power. Such a bank was not forbidden by any particular provision of the Constitution, and therefore "it may safely be deemed to come within the compass of the national authority."
President Washington wavered between Jefferson's view and that of Hamilton, finally taking Hamilton's, thereby following his practice of accepting the counsel of the cabinet officer most immediately concerned in any question at issue.
Dissension within the Washington administration about national policies became ever more pronounced, with one group led by Hamilton, and the opposing one by Jefferson. Our political party structure had its origins in the conflicts here.
Hamilton spoke for those who believed, as he did, that the national government should actively promote the development of manufacturing, commerce, banking, and shipping. Infant American industries should be protected from competition by erecting high tariff barriers against foreign imports. This would be not only good in itself, but incidentally would produce considerable revenues for the national government.
There should be the strongest possible central government under strong executive leadership. The reins of power should be kept as far as possible from popular control. The country should be governed by an elite group, which, as Hamilton defined it, was the propertied class. As men of property literally "owned" the country, their voice in public affairs should be, if not exclusive, at least always predominant.
Opposing such views, Jefferson led those who distrusted an overriding central government. There should be a minimum of industrialization, urbanism, and organized finance. Wealth should be broadly diffused, to lessen the gap between rich and poor. The ideal society was a democratic agrarian order based on the individual freeholder. The people, acting through their elected representatives, should be left to govern themselves. Jefferson believed they had the ability to do so. Those who shared Jefferson's views began organizing groups that soon coalesced nationally as the Democratic-Republican party, which strongly opposed the measures advocated by The Federalist party headed by Hamilton.
The split between Hamilton and Jefferson was widened by the impact of the French Revolution which was well on its way by that historic July 14, 1789, when Parisians razed the hated fortress-prison, the Bastille, which was to become the symbol of autocratic oppression. This revolution shook to its foundations the ancien regime with all its semi-feudal trappings in church and state. Crowned heads throughout Europe began to tremble, particularly after France declared herself a republic and sent King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette to the guillotine, and many titled aristocrats and rich bourgeois as well.
After many provocations and attempts at intervention by foreign powers, revolutionary France declared war on Britain, Spain, and Holland, the start of a war that went on almost continuously for 22 years, ending with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815.
Though deploring its excesses, Jefferson remained very sympathetic toward revolutionary republican France. Favoring monarchy and an aristocratic order of things, Hamilton was strongly pro-British. But the two men agreed on one point, and the most important: the United States should not become involved in any way in the European war. Each had a hand in drafting the proclamation President Washington issued in 1793 announcing American neutrality, though the word "neutrality" was not used.
In addition to other differences between Hamilton and Jefferson, a matter of personality was involved. Hamilton was always a difficult man to get along with, having a rather abrasive character. For one thing, he had no sense of humor, and took himself very seriously, which led him into many serious as well as silly quarrels that might well have been avoided. While he could be very charming when he pleased, he was often very arrogant, opinionated, and stubborn; and while not greedy or corrupt, he could be ruthless in advancing himself and the causes he favored.
Under President Washington, Hamilton began to attempt the functions of a prime minister on the British model. This very much annoyed Jefferson who, as secretary of state, held top rank and was ex officio the chief officer in the cabinet. But more than status was involved here. Jefferson and other cabinet officers were soon complaining that Hamilton, by his policies and practices as secretary of the treasury, was introducing into and interfering with the operations and decision-making of their departments as if he were, in fact, prime minister. At the end of 1793, Jefferson resigned as secretary of state, and issued a public blast against Hamilton, what he stood for, and what he was doing.
Hamilton was a danger to the country as constituted, said Jefferson. His fiscal system "flowed from principles adverse to liberty, . . . and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic." In a real sense, this was true. To the end of his life, Hamilton openly avowed his dislike of republicanism, which was exceeded only by his distrust of the people and what he called "open democracy."
Early in 1795, Hamilton resigned as secretary of the treasury and returned to New York City to resume his law practice there. But he regained a powerful political influence behind the scenes. When President Washington decided to step down after his second term in office, it was Hamilton who drafted most of the celebrated "Farewell Address."
Though out of public office, Hamilton was always ready with counsel and advice, but the new president, John Adams, was not as receptive o it as Washington had been. On receiving Hamilton's recommendation or a very aggressive anti-French, pro-British foreign policy, which would have meant instant war, Adams exclaimed: "This man is stark read, or I am."
The president and Hamilton became estranged and soon violently quarreled, with Adams denouncing Hamilton as an "unprincipled intriguer." With the approach of the 1800 election, Adams wanted to continue as president and was furious when he discovered that Hamilton was working to defeat him by organizing Federalist support for another candidate.
The 1800 election resulted in a resounding Federalist defeat all along the line. The Democratic-Republicans had two presidential aspires Jefferson of Virginia (vice president under Adams) and Aaron Burr of New York City, a brilliant lawyer and an adroit political organizer and manipulator. It was Burr who put new life into the Society of St. Tammany in New York City, transforming it from merely a social club into an overpowering political force, the notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall of later years.
When the electoral college met after the election, the vote to designate the president resulted in a tie: 73 votes for Jefferson, the same for Burr, with John Adams trailing at 65. The other Federalist candidate, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, actively supported by Hamilton, ran close behind Adams with 64 votes. Thus Hamilton spiked President Adams' ambitions, and was to play an even more decisive role in choosing the next president. The tie vote in the electoral college threw the choice of a president to the House of Representatives, as the Constitution stipulated.
In the House, the balloting for the presidency went on and on, ballot after ballot. Finally, the Federalist members, after a caucus, decided to back Aaron Burr, but Hamilton objected. He and Burr had been rather close friends for years, but it appeared that from the start Hamilton had distrusted Burr and his intentions, describing him in his private correspondence as an "unprincipled and dangerous man." Hamilton disliked Jefferson and abhorred his Democratic-Republican principles, but he even more disliked what he regarded as Burr's blustering political opportunism. Concluding that Jefferson was the lesser of two evils, Hamilton swung the New York vote to Jefferson. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Jefferson became our third president, with Burr as vice president.
Hamilton received no reward for his action in breaking the presidential deadlock. His influence under the Jefferson administration was nil. All he gained was what he regarded as a good conscience and the lasting animosity of his old friend Burr. It was not long before the two men clashed again, and bloodily. In 1804, Burr decided that he would like to be governor of New York and offered himself as a candidate. Hamilton immediately came out of semi-retirement and did his best to defeat him, which he accomplished. Burr turned on Hamilton, informing him that he had it on good authority, in a published letter, that Hamilton, in company, had spoken of him as "despicable, . . . a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government." Burr demanded "satisfaction" in accord with the gentlemen's code of honor of the time.
As Hamilton in his pride was not prepared to issue a flat disclaimer of what he was reported to have said in company at one time, for he had often spoken ill of Burr, a duel was arranged, to be fought on the Jersey side of the Hudson, opposite Manhattan, on the heights at Weehawken, a favorite ground for such encounters. The field on Weehawken Heights was a doubly tragic one for the Hamiltons. Their oldest son, Philip, had been killed there in a duel three years previously, in 1801, while still a student at Columbia College.
In the very early morning of July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr faced each other with pistols at twenty paces. At the signal, two shots rang out and Hamilton fell forward, gravely wounded, shot through the groin. Carried back across the river in the barge on which he had come over, he was taken to a friend's house in lower Manhattan where he died the next-day, in his 47th year, a premature and tragic end for one who was a great American, no matter what one may think of his political and social philosophy. And in historical perspective, it should not be forgotten that Hamiltonianism has been a strong, often dominant, tone in American public and private life since his day, though its echoes may now be fading.
Whatever his other qualities, Hamilton had a strong, incisive, logical mind, unquestioned courage, boundless energy, deep devotion to duty, and an unremitting zeal in forwarding the public good along the lines he thought best. He also possessed a masterful pen as an advocate 'or whatever cause he favored. As his bitter and eventually fatal enemy Burr once remarked, with awe and reluctant admiration, "Anyone who puts himself down on paper with Hamilton is lost."