Alexander Hamilton was born as a British subject on the island of Nevis in the West Indies on the 11th of January 1755. His father was James Hamilton, a Scottish merchant of St. Christopher. His grandfather was Alexander Hamilton, of Grange, Lanarkshire. One of his great grandfathers was Sir R. Pollock, the Laird of Cambuskeith.
Hamilton’s mother was Rachael Fawcette Levine, of French Huguenot descent. When she was very young, she married a Danish proprietor of St. Croix named John Michael Levine. Ms. Levine left her husband and was later divorced from him on June 25, 1759. Under Danish law, the (the court ordering the divorce) Ms. Levine was forbidden from remarrying. Thus, Hamilton’s birth was illegitimate. Alexander Hamilton had one brother, James Hamilton.
Heavy burdens fell upon Hamilton’s shoulders during childhood. Business failures caused Hamilton’s father to become bankrupt. Soon thereafter, his mother died in 1768. At twelve, Alexander entered the counting house of Nicholas Cruger and David Beekman. There, young Alexander served as a clerk and apprentice.
At the age of fifteen, Mr. Cruger left Alexander in charge of the business. Early on, Hamilton wished to increase his opportunities in life. This is evidenced by a letter written to his friend Edward Stevens at the age of fourteen on Nov. 11, 1769 where he stated, “[m]y ambition is prevalent, so that I contemn the groveling condition of a clerk or the like … and would willingly risk my life, though not my During adolescence, Hamilton had few opportunities for regular schooling.
However, he possessed a commanding knowledge of French, due to the teaching of his late mother. This was a very rare trait in the English continental colonies. Hamilton was first published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette with his description of the terrible hurricane of August 30th, 1772 that gutted Christiansted. Impressed by this, an opportunity to gain his education was provided by family friends. Seizing this, Hamilton arrived the grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey in the autumn of 1772. One year later, in 1774, Hamilton graduated and entered King’s College in New York City.
There, Hamilton obtained a bachelor’s of arts As the War of Independence began, Hamilton took a trip to Boston, which seems to have solidified his loyalties with the colonists. At a mass meeting held in the fields in New York City on July 6, 1774, he made a sensational speech attacking British policies.
In addition, he wrote a series of letters for John Holt’s New-York Journal. When an Anglican clergyman, Samuel Seabury, denounced the first Continental Congress in several Westchester Farmer letters, Hamilton replied with two powerful pamphlets. His military aspirations also flowered with a series on early accomplishments. At King’s College he joined a patriot volunteer band known as the “Corsicans” and drilled every morning before classes.
In August of 1775, the “Corsicans” participated in a raid to seize the cannon from the Battery. On March 14th, 1776, he was commissioned captain of a company of artillery set up by the New York Providential Congress. Some sources state that Hamilton’s company participated at the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776. At White plains, in October of 1776, his battery guarded Chatterton’s Hill and protected the withdrawal of William Smallwood’s militia.
On January 3, 1777, Hamilton’s military reputation won the interest of General Nathaniel Greene. His cannon were brought to rear on Nassau Hall, and Hamilton gave the order to fire when the British troops there refused to surrender. Impressed by this, General Greene introduced the young Captain to General Washington.
The proficiency and bravery Hamilton displayed around New York City impressed General Washington. He joined Washington’s personal staff in March of 1777 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He served four years as Washington’s personal secretary and confidential aide. Hamilton’s military fervor continued in his position next to Washington. At the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778), Hamilton again proved his bravery and leadership. He warned the retreating General Charles Lee that a troop of British cavalry would soon be in a position to counterattack and was authorized to give the order.
Hamilton rallied the fleeing men, who turned upon the British and swept them with a withering fire. At the court martial of Lee that followed, Hamilton testified against the General. He declared that he “seemed to be under a hurry of mind,” and that, while his men retreated, he sat on his horse, “doing nothing that I saw.” Lee, in turn, accused Hamilton of being hotheaded and in “a sort of frenzy of valor.” Hamilton, however, remained ambitious for military glory. He became impatient in his position of dependence and used a slight reprimand from Washington as an excuse for leaving his staff position in February of 1781. He secured a field command through Washington and won laurels at Yorktown (Sept. – Oct. 1781), where he led the American column in a final assault in the British works.
As the need for the military diminished, Hamilton acquired a domestic life. On Dec. 14, 1780, he married Elizabeth, the daughter of General Philip Schuyler. The Schuylers were one of the most distinguished families in New York. Hamilton and Elizabeth eventually had eight children. Here, Elizabeth is pictured to the left, with her father and mother to the right. At twenty-five, Hamilton began his popular political efforts from which his greatest fame arises.
In letters dated from 1779 to 1780 he correctly diagnosed the ills of the new Confederation and suggested the necessity of centralization. He was also one of the first to suggest adequate checks on the anarchic tendencies of the time. At twenty-seven, with the Revolutionary War over, Hamilton began a non-military career. After three months of intensive study of the law in Albany, New York, Hamilton was admitted to the bar in July of 1783. Then, after the British army evacuated New York City, he opened his law office at 57 Wall Street. Hamilton also continued with his political endeavors. He served in Congress from 1782 to 1783, was elected to the Continental Congress, and founded the Bank of New York in February of 1784.
Once elected, Hamilton remained politically active all of his life. He prepared but did not present a proposal calling for a convention with full powers to revise the Articles of Confederation. Instead, he became one of the prime movers for calling the Annapolis Convention. At the Annapolis Convention in September of 1786, Hamilton served as one of three delegates from New York. He supported Madison in inducing the Convention to exceed its delegated powers and personally drafted the call to summon the Federal Convention of May 1787 at Philadelphia.
At that Convention, Hamilton again represented New Hamilton’s own presence at the Convention was limited. His colleagues from New York represented converse political views from Hamilton. They chose to withdraw from the convention, leaving New York without an official delegation and Hamilton without a vote.
However, he did make one remarkable speech on June 18th, 1787. In this he attacked the states’ rights proposal of William Paterson. In this speech he upheld the British government as the best model from the world for the colonists to use. He advocated that the best solution lied in an aristocratic, strongly centralized, coercive, but representative union with devices that would give weight to class and property. Apart from this, Hamilton was largely absent from the convention, having left on June 30, 1787.
Washington wrote him saying, “I am sorry you went away. I wish you were back.” At the close of the Convention, Hamilton returned to sign the Constitution for his Hamilton immediately used his talents to secure the adoption of the Constitution. Hamilton was the first to publish a letter in the Constitution’s defense. This article was published in the New York Independent Journal on Oct. 2, 1787, only two weeks after the Constitution was signed. He was one of three authors of The Federalist. This work remains a classic commentary on American constitutional law and the principals of government. Its inception and approximately three-quarters of the work are attributable to Hamilton (the rest belonging to John Jay and James Madison).
Hamilton also won the New York ratification convention vote for the Constitution against great odds in July 17-July 26, 1788. Chancellor James Kent stated that “all of the documentary proof and the current observation of the time lead us to the conclusion that he surpassed all of his contemporaries in his exertions to create, recommend, adopt and defend the Constitution of the United States.” During Washington’s presidency, Hamilton became the first secretary of the Treasury.
In this position he secured the traditional strength of American finance. He is chiefly responsible for establishing the credit of the United States, both at home and abroad. His Report on the Public Credit, Jan. 14, 1790, constituted a watershed in American history. It marked an end of an era of bankruptcy and repudiation. His Report on a National Bank, Dec. 13, 1790, advocated a private bank with semipublic functions and was patterned after the Bank of England. His Report on Manufacturers, 1791, itself entitles Hamilton to a position as an epoch economist. It was the first great revolt from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).
It, in part, argued for a system of moderate protective duties associated with a deliberate policy of promoting national interests. The inspirations from this work became England’s official economic policy and remain the primary foundation of the German economic system. His masterly opinion on the implied powers of the Constitution persuaded Washington of the Constitutionality of the bank. Hamilton’s views were adopted almost word for word in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316, 4 L.Ed. 579, 4
Hamilton sometimes overstepped the limits of his office in interfering with other departments. For instance, serious differences between Jefferson and Hamilton developed in the field of foreign affairs. When the French Revolution turned into war against all of Europe, and the French Republic sought to involve the United States, Hamilton advocated strict neutrality, which Washington proclaimed on April 22, 1793. Hamilton defended the proclamation in his “Pacifist” letters and attacked two succeeding French prime ministers for their interference in American domestic affairs.
The United States has retained this policy of neutrality in foreign affairs to this day. Hamilton also became the esteemed leader of one of the two great political parties of the time, the Federalists. Once after a political victory achieved through a series of letters known as the “Camillus essays,” (1795-96) Jefferson wrote despairingly about Hamilton to Madison saying that Hamilton was “really a colossus to the anti-republican party.”
On January 31, 1795 Hamilton resigned from his position of Secretary of the Treasury and returned to the practice of law in New York. Despite his resignation, Hamilton remained Washington’s chief advisor through a continual interchange of letters between the two men. Typical of the relationship, Hamilton wrote Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796.
Two years later, Hamilton returned to military service at the age of forty-three. Here, he served as active head of the army under Washington that was organized for the impending war with France. Washington himself insisted that Hamilton serve in that position as a condition of accepting the position. Hamilton served from July 25, 1798 to June 2, 1800. After the death of George Washington, the leadership of the Federalist Party became divided between John Adams and Hamilton. John Adams had the prestige from his varied and great career and from his great strength with the people.
Conversely, Hamilton controlled practically all of the leaders of lesser rank and the greater part of the most distinguished men in the country. Hamilton, by himself, was not a leader for the population. Hamilton himself once said that his heart was ever the master of his judgment. He was indiscreet in utterance, impolitic in management, opinionated, self-confident, and uncompromising in nature and methods. Three times Hamilton used the political fortunes of John Adams in presidential elections as a mere hazard in his maneuvers.
After Adams became President Hamilton constantly advised the members of the cabinet and endeavored to control Adams’s policy. On the eve of the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton wrote a bitter personal attack on the president that contained much confidential cabinet information. Although this pamphlet was intended for private circulation, the document was secured and published by Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s Hamilton seems to have read Burr’s character correctly from the beginning. Based on his opinion of Burr, Hamilton deemed it his patriotic duty to thwart Burr’s ambitions.
First, Hamilton defeated Burr’s hopes of successfully completing a foreign mission. Later, Hamilton ended Burr’s goal of attaining the presidency. In the election, Burr was tied in votes for the presidency with Jefferson. Thus, the final vote was thrown onto the lame-duck House of Representatives, which was strongly Federalist. Hamilton urged the House to side with Jefferson, who consequently won the election. Last, Burr wished to attain the governorship of New York.
Failing to get the Republican nomination, Burr solicited the aide of the Federalists. Hamilton denounced Burr as “a man of irregular and unsatiable ambition … who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government.” The denunciations seem to have been largely ignored by Burr until this last defeat. After that, Burr forced a quarrel between the two stating that Hamilton said he had a “despicable” opinion of Burr.
Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Before going to this confrontation, Hamilton wrote a letter stating that a compliance with the dueling prejudices of the time was inseparable from the ability to be in future useful in public affairs. The duel was fought at Weehawken on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River opposite New York City. At forty-nine, Hamilton was shot, fell mortally wounded, and died the following day, July 12th, 1804.
It is unanimously reported that Hamilton himself did not intend to fire, his pistol going off involuntarily as he fell. Hamilton was apparently opposed to dueling following the fatal shooting of his son Philip in a duel in 1801. Further, Hamilton told the minister who attended him as he laid dying, “I have no ill-will against Col. Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.” Hamilton’s death was very generally deplored as a national calamity.
A summary of his beliefs Hamilton’s mind was eminently legal. His writings are distinguished by their clarity, vigor and rigid reasoning rather than any show of scholarship. In his earliest writings of 1774-75, he started out with the ordinary pre-Revolutionary War Whig doctrines of natural rights and liberty. After the War’s conclusion, his experiences of semi-archaic states’ rights and individualism ended his earlier fervor.
Hamilton saw the feeble inadequacies of conception, the infirmity of power, factional jealousy, disintegrating particularism, and vicious finances that marred the Confederation. No other author saw more clearly the concrete nationalistic remedies for these concrete ills or pursued remedial ends so constantly and consistently as Hamilton. He wanted a strong union and energetic government that should “rest as much as possible on the shoulders of the people and as little as possible on those of the state legislatures.”
As early as 1776, he urged the direct collection of federal taxes by federal agents. In 1781 he created the idea that a non-excessive public debt would be a blessing. He conceived the constitutional doctrines of liberal construction, “implied powers,” and the “general welfare,” which were later embodied in the decisions of John Marshall.
Liberty, he reminded his fellows, in the New York Convention of 1788, seemed to be the only consideration for the new government. Hamilton pointed out another thing of equal importance; “a principal of strength and stability in the organization … and of vigour in its operation.” Hamilton’s notion of a strong national government did err on the side of oppression at times. This is best evidenced by his warm support for the final form of the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.
Hamilton did not agree with Jefferson that the general public should control government. “Men,” he said, “are reasoning rather than reasonable animals.” His last letter on politics, written two days before his death, illustrates the two sides of his thinking already emphasized; in this letter he warns his New England friends against dismemberment of the union as “a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good; administering no relief to our real disease, which is democracy, the poison of which, by a subdivision, will only be more concentrated in each part, and consequently the more virulent.” No judgment of Hamilton is more justly measured than James Madison’s written in 1831.
“That he possessed intellectual powers of the first order, and the moral qualities of integrity and honor in a captivating degree, has been awarded him by a suffrage now universal. If his theory of government deviated from the republican standard he had the candour to avow it, and the greater merit of co-operating faithfully in maturing and supporting a system which was not his choice.”
- COLLIER’S ENCYCLOPEDIAvol. 11, 608 (1995).
- FLEXNER, JAMES T., THE YOUNG HAMILTON: A BIOGRAPHY (Little 1978).
- HENDRICKSON, ROBERT A., THE RISE AND FALL OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1981).
- Jack Hitt, America’s First Lecher: Sex romps? Cover-ups? Questions of character? Public confessions? You’d think Bill
- Clinton would have learned something from Alexander Hamilton, GENTLEMEN’S QUARTERLY 347 (Nov. 1998).
- LODGE, HENRY CABOT, ALEXANDER HAMILTON (1898; reprint, AMS Press 1972).
- LODGE, HENRY CABOT, HAMILTON’S WORKS (New York, 9 vols. 1885-86, and 12 vols., 1904).