Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton

1st  United States Secretary of the Treasury
In office
September 11, 1789 –  January 31, 1795
President George Washington
Preceded by (New office)
Succeeded by Oliver Wolcott, Jr.

Delegate from New York to the Congress of the Confederation
In office
1788 – 1789

Delegate from New York to the Constitutional Convention
In office
1787 – 1787

Delegate from New York County to the New York State Legislature
In office
1787 – 1788

Delegate from New York to the Annapolis Convention
In office
1786 – 1786

Delegate from New York to the Congress of the Confederation
In office
1782 – 1783

Born January 11, 1755(1755-01-11) or 1757
Nevis, Caribbean (now Saint Kitts and Nevis)
Died July 12, 1804 (aged 47 or 49)
New York City, New York
Political party Federalist
Spouse Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
Profession military officer, lawyer, financier, political theorist
Religion Episcopalian at his death

Alexander Hamilton ( January 11, 1755 or 1757 July 12, 1804) was the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, a Founding Father, economist, and political philosopher. He led calls for the Philadelphia Convention, was one of America's first Constitutional lawyers, and cowrote the Federalist Papers, a primary source for Constitutional interpretation.

Born on the British West Indian island of Nevis, Hamilton was educated in the American Colonies. During the American Revolutionary War, he joined the American militia and was chosen artillery captain. Hamilton became senior aide-de-camp and confidant to General George Washington, and led three battalions at the Siege of Yorktown. He was elected to the Continental Congress, but resigned to practice law and to found the Bank of New York. He served in the New York Legislature, was the only New York signer at the Philadelphia Convention, and later returned to Congress. As Washington's Treasury Secretary, he influenced formative government policy widely. An admirer of British political systems, Hamilton emphasized strong central government and Implied Powers, under which the new U.S. Congress funded the national debt, assumed state debts, created a national bank, and established an import tariff and whiskey tax.

By 1792, a Hamilton coalition and a Jefferson- Madison coalition had arisen (the formative Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties), which differed strongly over Hamilton's domestic fiscal goals and his foreign policy of extensive trade and friendly relations with Britain. Exposed in an affair with Maria Reynolds, Hamilton resigned from the Treasury in 1795 to return to Constitutional law and advocacy of strong federalism. In 1798, the Quasi-War with France led Hamilton to argue for, organize, and become de facto commander of a national army.

Hamilton's opposition to fellow Federalist John Adams contributed to the success of Democratic-Republicans Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in the uniquely deadlocked election of 1800. With his party's defeat, Hamilton's nationalist and industrializing ideas lost their former national prominence. In 1801, Hamilton founded the New York Post as the Federalist broadsheet New-York Evening Post. His intense rivalry with Vice President Burr eventually resulted in a duel, in which Hamilton was mortally wounded, dying the following day.

Early years

Hamilton in his youth.
Hamilton in his youth.

By his own account, Hamilton was born in Charlestown, the capital of Nevis in the British West Indies, out of wedlock to Rachel Faucett Lavien, of part French Huguenot descent, and James A. Hamilton, fourth son of Scottish laird Alexander Hamilton of Grange, Ayrshire. He was born on January 11 in either 1755 or 1757; most historians now say 1755, although disagreement remains. A young Hamilton claimed 1757 as his birth year when he first arrived in New England; but he is also recorded in probate papers, shortly after his mother's death, as being 13 years old, indicating 1755. Explanations for this discrepancy include that he may have been trying to appear younger than his college classmates or to avoid standing out as older, or that the probate document may be wrong or he may have been passing as 13 to be more employable after his mother's death. He was often approximate about his age in later life.

Hamilton's mother had been separated previously from Johann Michael Lavien of St. Croix; to escape an unhappy marriage, Rachel left her husband and first son for St. Kitts in 1750, where she met James. They moved together to Rachel's birthplace of Nevis, where she had inherited property from her father. Their two sons were James, Jr., and Alexander. Because Hamilton's parents were not legally married, the Church of England denied him membership or education in the church school. Instead, he received "individual tutoring" and classes in a private Jewish school. Hamilton supplemented his education with a family library of thirty-four books, including Greek and Roman classics.

A 1765 business assignment led Hamilton's father to move the family to Christiansted, St. Croix; he then abandoned Rachel and the two sons. Rachel supported the family by keeping a small store in Christiansted. She contracted a severe fever and died on February 19, 1768, leaving Hamilton effectively orphaned. This may have had severe emotional consequences for him, even by the standards of an eighteenth-century childhood. In probate court, Hamilton's half-brother obtained the few valuables Rachel had owned, including some household silver. Many items were auctioned off, but a friend purchased the family books and returned them to the studious young Hamilton. (Years later Hamilton received his half-brother's death notice and a small amount of money.)

Hamilton then became a clerk at a local import-export firm, Beekman and Cruger, which traded with New England; he was left in charge of the firm for five months in 1771, while the owner was at sea. He was adopted briefly by a cousin, Peter Lytton, but when Lytton committed suicide, Hamilton was split from his older brother James. James apprenticed with a local carpenter, while Hamilton was adopted by Nevis merchant Thomas Stevens. Some evidence suggests Stevens may have been Hamilton's biological father: his son, Edward Stevens, became a close friend of Hamilton; the two boys looked much alike, were both fluent in French, and shared similar interests.

Hamilton continued clerking, remained an avid reader, developed an interest in writing, and began to long for a life off his small island. A letter of Hamilton's was first published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette, describing a hurricane that had devastated Christiansted on August 30, 1772. The impressed community began a collection for a subscription fund to educate the young Hamilton in New England. He arrived at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in the autumn of 1772.


In 1773, Hamilton attended a college-preparatory program with Francis Barber at Elizabethtown. There he came under the influence of a leading intellectual and revolutionary, William Livingston. Hamilton may have applied to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) but been refused the opportunity for accelerated study; he decided to attend King's College in New York City (now Columbia University). While studying there, Hamilton and several classmates were members of a campus literary group that foreran Columbia's Philolexian Society.

When Church of England clergyman Samuel Seabury published a series of pamphlets promoting the Tory cause the following year, Hamilton struck back with his first political writings, A Full Vindication of the measures of Congress and The Farmer Refuted. He published two additional pieces attacking the Quebec Act as well as fourteen anonymous installments of "The Monitor" for Holt's New York Journal. Although Hamilton was a supporter of the Revolutionary cause at this prewar stage, he did not approve of mob reprisals against loyalists. One generally accepted account details how Hamilton saved his college president, Tory sympathizer Myles Cooper, from an angry mob, by speaking to the crowd long enough for Cooper to escape the danger.

During the Revolutionary War

Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform of the New York Artillery by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)
Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform of the New York Artillery by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)

Early military career

In 1775, after the first engagement of American troops with the British in Boston, Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak, (which included other King's College students). He drilled with the company before classes in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul's Chapel. Hamilton studied military history and tactics on his own, and achieved the rank of lieutenant. Under fire from the HMS Asia, he led a successful raid for British cannon in the Battery, the capture of which resulted in the Hearts of Oak becoming an artillery company thereafter. Through his connections with influential New York patriots like Alexander McDougall and John Jay, he raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of sixty men in 1776, and was elected captain. It took part in the campaign of 1776 around New York City, particularly at the Battle of White Plains; at the Battle of Trenton, it was stationed at the high point of town, the meeting of the present Warren and Broad Streets, to keep the Hessians pinned in the Trenton Barracks.

Washington's staff

Hamilton was invited to become an aide to Nathaniel Greene and other generals; however, he declined these invitations in the hopes of obtaining a place on Washington's staff. Hamilton did receive such an invitation, and joined as Washington's aide in March 1777 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Hamilton served for four years, in effect, as Washington's Chief of Staff. He handled the "letters to Congress, state governors, and the most powerful generals in the Continental Army." He drafted many of Washington's orders and letters at the latter's direction, and was eventually allowed to "issue orders from Washington over his own signature." Hamilton was involved in a wide variety of high-level duties, including: intelligence, diplomacy, and negotiation with general officers as Washington's emissary. The important duties with which he was entrusted attest to Washington's deep confidence in his abilities and character, then and afterward. At the points in their relationship where there was little personal attachment, there was still always a reciprocal confidence and respect.

During the war Hamilton became close friends with several fellow officers, including John Laurens and the Marquis de Lafayette. Jonathan Katz argues that Hamilton's letters to Laurens reveal at least a homosocial attachment and perhaps, in coded allusions to Greek history and mythology, a relationship modern readers would label homosexual. Ron Chernow implies this in discussing Laurens; Thomas Flexner portrays a similar homosocial relationship with Lafayette. These biographers may well be over-reading the literary conventions of the late eighteenth century, an age of sentiment.


Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1781
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, 1781

In spring 1779, Hamilton asked his friend John Laurens to find him a wife in South Carolina: :

"She must be young—handsome (I lay most stress upon a good shape) Sensible (a little learning will do) —well bred... chaste and tender (I am an enthusiast in my notions of fidelity and fondness); of some good nature—a great deal of generosity (she must neither love money nor scolding, for I dislike equally a termagant and an economist)—In politics, I am indifferent what side she may be of—I think I have arguments that will safely convert her to mine—As to religion a moderate stock will satisfy me—She must believe in God and hate a saint. But as to fortune, the larger stock of that the better."

Hamilton found his own bride on December 14, 1780 when he married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler, and thus joined one of the richest and most political families in the state of New York. The marriage took place at Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York.

Hamilton grew extremely close to Eliza's sister, Angelica Church, who was married to John Barker Church, a Member of Parliament in Great Britain. Some historians argue that the two may have had an affair, although, due to extensive editing of much Hamilton-Church correspondence by Hamilton's later descendants, it is impossible to know for sure.

Command and the Battle of Yorktown

 Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown  by John Trumbull. Oil on canvas, 1820.
Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown by John Trumbull. Oil on canvas, 1820.

While on Washington's staff, Hamilton had long been seeking a command position in an active combat situation. As the war drew ever nearer to a close, he knew that opportunities for military glory were slipping away. In February 1781, Hamilton was mildly reprimanded by Washington and used it as the excuse for resigning his staff position. Immediately following his resignation from Washington's staff, Hamilton began to angle Washington and others incessantly for a field command. This continued until early July of 1781, when Hamilton submitted a letter to Washington with his commission enclosed, "thus tacitly threatening to resign if he didn't get his desired command."

On July 31, 1781, Washington relented, and Hamilton was given command of a New York light infantry battalion. In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions which were to fight in conjunction with French troops in taking Redoubts #9 and #10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions fought bravely and took Redoubt #10 with bayonets, as planned. The French also fought bravely, took heavy casualties, and successfully took Redoubt #9. This action forced the British surrender at Yorktown of an entire army, effectively ending the British effort to reclaim the Thirteen Colonies.

Under the Confederation

Hamilton enters Congress

While on Washington's staff, Hamilton became frustrated with the decentralized nature of the wartime Continental Congress, particularly its dependence upon the states for financial support: it had no power to collect taxes, or to demand money from the states; this had caused serious problems in Army supplies and pay. Congress had given up printing unsupported paper money back in September 1779; it obtained what money it had from subsidies from the King of France, aid requested from the several states (which were often unable or unwilling to contribute), and loans from Europe against these uncertain revenues. After Yorktown, Hamilton resigned his commission. He was elected to the Congress of the Confederation as a New York representative beginning on November 1782; he supported such Congressmen as superintendent of finance Robert Morris, his assistant Governor Morris (no relation), James Wilson, and James Madison, who had already been trying to provide the Congress with an independent source of revenue it lacked under the Articles of Confederation.

An amendment to the Articles had been proposed by Thomas Burke, in February 1781, to give Congress the power to collect a 5% impost or duty on all imports, but this required ratification by all states; securing its passage as law proved impossible after it was rejected by Rhode Island in November 1782. Madison joined Hamilton in convincing Congress to send a delegation to persuade Rhode Island to change its mind. Their report recommending the delegation also argued that the federal government needed not just some level of financial autonomy, but also the ability to make laws that supersede those of the individual states. Hamilton transmitted a letter arguing that Congress already had the power to tax, since it had the power to fix the sums due from the several states; but Virginia's rescission of its own ratification ended Rhode Island negotiations.

Congress and the army

While Hamilton was in Congress, discontented soldiers began to be a danger to the young United States. Most of the army was then posted at Newburgh, New York. The army was paying for much of their own supplies, and they had not been paid in eight months. Furthermore, the Continental officers had been promised, in May 1778, after Valley Forge, a pension of half their pay when they were discharged. It was at this time that a group of officers organized under the leadership of General Henry Knox sent a delegation to lobby Congress, led by Capt. Alexander MacDougall (see above). The officers had three demands: the Army's pay, their own pensions, and commutation of those pensions into a lump-sum payment.

Several Congressmen, including Hamilton and the Morrises, attempted to use this Newburgh conspiracy as leverage to secure independent support for funding for the federal government in Congress and from the states; they encouraged MacDougall to continue aggressive approach, threatening unknown consequences if their demands were not granted, defeated proposals which would have resolved the crisis without establishing general federal taxation: that the states assume the debt to the army, or that an impost be established dedicated to the sole purpose of paying that debt. Late in January 1783, Hamilton suggested using the Army's claims to prevail upon the states for the proposed national funding system. In February, the Morrises and Hamilton contacted Knox to suggest he and the officers defy civil authority, at least by not disbanding if the army were not satisfied; Hamilton wrote Washington to suggest that he covertly "take direction" of the officers efforts to secure redress, to secure continental funding but keep the army within the limits of moderation. Washington wrote Hamilton back, declining to introduce the army; after the crisis was over, he warned of the dangers of using the army as leverage to gain support for the national funding plan. On March 15, Washington defused the Newburgh situation by giving a speech to the officers. Congress ordered the Army officially disbanded in April 1783. In the same month, Congress passed a new measure for a twenty-five year impost, which Hamilton voted against, and which again required the consent of all the states; it also approved a commutation of the officers' pensions to five years of full pay. Rhode Island again opposed these provisions, and Hamilton's robust assertions of national prerogatives in his previous letter offended many. The Continental Congress was never able to secure full ratification for back pay, pensions, or their own independent sources of funding.

In June 1783, a different group of disgruntled soldiers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania sent Congress a petition demanding their back pay. When they began to march toward Philadelphia, Congress charged Hamilton and two others to intercept the mob. Hamilton requested militia from Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council, but was turned down. Hamilton instructed Assistant Secretary of War William Jackson to intercept the men. Jackson was unsuccessful. The mob arrived in Philadelphia, and proceeded to harangue Congress for their pay. The President of Congress, John Dickinson, feared the Pennsylvania state militia was unreliable, and refused their help. Hamilton argued that Congress ought to adjourn to Princeton, New Jersey. Congress agreed, and relocated there.

Frustrated with the weakness of the central government, Hamilton drafted a call to revise the Articles of Confederation while in Princeton. This resolution contained many features of the future U.S. Constitution, including a strong federal government with the ability to collect taxes and raise an army. It also included the separation of powers into the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches.

Return to New York

Hamilton resigned from Congress, and in July, 1783, was admitted to the New York Bar after several months of self-directed education. He soon began a law practice in New York City. He specialized in defending Tories and British subjects, as in Rutgers v. Waddington, in which he defeated a claim for damages done to a brewery by the Englishmen who held it during the military occupation of New York. He pleaded that the Mayor's Court should interpret state law to be consistent with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which had ended the Revolutionary War.

In 1784, he founded the Bank of New York, now the oldest ongoing banking organization in the United States. Hamilton was one of the men who restored King's College as Columbia College, which had been suspended since the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and severely damaged during the War. His public career resumed when he attended the Annapolis Convention as a delegate in 1786. While there, he drafted its resolution for a Constitutional convention, and in doing so brought his longtime desire to have a more powerful, more financially independent federal government one step closer to reality.

Constitution and the Federalist Papers

Alexander Hamilton shortly after the American Revolution
Alexander Hamilton shortly after the American Revolution

In 1787, Hamilton served as assemblyman from New York County in the New York State Legislature and was the first delegate chosen to the Constitutional Convention. In spite of the fact that Hamilton had been a leader in calling for a new Constitutional Convention, his direct influence at the Convention itself was quite limited. Governor George Clinton's faction in the New York legislature had chosen New York's other two delegates, John Lansing and Robert Yates, and both of them opposed Hamilton's goal of a strong national government. Thus, while the other two members of the New York delegation were present, they decided New York's vote; and when they left the convention in protest, Hamilton remained with no vote (two representatives were required for any state to cast a vote).

Early in the Convention he made a speech proposing what many considered a very monarchical government for the United States. Though regarded as one of his most eloquent speeches, it had little effect upon the deliberations of the convention. He proposed, to have an elected President and elected Senators who would serve for life contingent upon "good behaviour", and subject to removal for corruption or abuse. Hamilton's plan attempted to incorporate the "liberties of a republic" while "guarding against both anarchy and tyranny" Yet, his plan was probably the least trusting in the wisdom of the people. The deliberations of the convention were intended to be secret, so as to promote a free and vigorous flow of ideas during the Convention. Yet, some notes were kept, and due to Hamilton's argument for lifelong terms, and his proposal of measures that seemed, to some contemporaries, too reminiscent of previous monarchist forms of government, Hamilton acquired the bad reputation in some circles of being a monarchist sympathizer.

During the convention, Hamilton constructed a draft for the Constitution on the basis of the convention debates that he never actually presented. This draft had most of the features of the actual Constitution, down to such details as the three-fifths clause. In this draft, the Senate was to be elected in proportion to population, being two-fifths the size of the House, and the President and Senators were to be elected through complex multi-stage elections, in which chosen electors would elect smaller bodies of electors; they would hold office for life, but were removable for misconduct. The President would have an absolute veto. The Supreme Court was to have immediate jurisdiction over all law suits involving the United States, and State governors were to be appointed by the federal government.

At the end of the Convention, Hamilton was still not content with the final form of the Constitution, but signed off on it anyway as a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation, and urged his fellow delegates to do so also. Since the other two members of the New York delegation, Lansing and Yates, had already withdrawn, Hamilton is the only New York signatory to the United States Constitution. He then took a highly active part in the successful campaign for the document's ratification in New York (1788), which was a crucial step in its national ratification. Hamilton recruited John Jay and James Madison to write a defense of the proposed Constitution, now known as The Federalist Papers, and made the largest contribution to that effort, writing 51 of 85 essays published (Madison wrote 29, Jay only five). Hamilton's essays and arguments were influential in New York State, and elsewhere, during the debates over ratification. The Federalist Papers are more often cited than any other primary source by jurists, lawyers, historians and political scientists as the major contemporary interpretation of the Constitution.

In 1788, Hamilton served yet another term in what proved to be the last time the Continental Congress met under the Articles of Confederation. He remained involved in the politics of New York: the ratification of the Constitution had been a success for two of the family cliques which constituted New York State politics, against a third, that led by George Clinton; the Legislature of 1789 had a majority of those two factions, one led by Hamilton's father-in-law, the other by the Livingston family. They had agreed to each select one of New York's first Senators: Phillip Schuyler was to be one, and James Duane, whose wife was a Livingston, was to be the other. Hamilton, however, persuaded the Legislature to elect Schuyler and his friend Rufus King, instead. The Livingstons responded by breaking the alliance and supporting the Clintons instead; this new coalition was to be the basis for the Democratic-Republican Party in New York. When Phillip Schuyler's term ended in 1791, they began by electing, in his place, the attorney-general of New York, one Aaron Burr. Hamilton blamed Burr for this result, and ill characterizations of Burr appear in his correspondence thereafter, although they did work together from time to time on various projects, including Hamilton's army of 1798 and the Manhattan Water Company.

Secretary of the Treasury: 1789–1795

President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury on September 11, 1789; he left office on the last day of January 1795; much of the structure of the Government of the United States was worked out in those five years, beginning with the structure and function of the Cabinet itself. Forrest McDonald argues that Hamilton saw his office, like the British Chancellor of the Exchequer as that of a Prime Minister; Hamilton would oversee his colleagues under the elective reign of George Washington. Washington did request Hamilton's advice and assistance on matters outside the purview of the Treasury Department.

Within one year, Hamilton submitted five reports:

  • First Report on the Public Credit: Communicated to the House of Representatives, January 14, 1790.
  • Operations of the Act Laying Duties on Imports: Communicated to the House of Representatives, April 23, 1790.
  • Second Report on Public Credit: Report on a National Bank. Communicated to the House of Representatives, December 14, 1790.
  • Report on the Establishment of a Mint: Communicated to the House of Representatives, January 28, 1791.
  • Report on Manufactures: Communicated to the House of Representatives, December 5, 1791.

Report on Public Credit

In the Report on Public Credit, the Secretary made a controversial proposal that would have the federal government assume state debts incurred during the Revolution. This would, in effect, give the federal government much more power by placing the country's most serious financial obligation in the hands of the federal, rather than the state governments.

The primary criticism of the plan was spearheaded by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Representative James Madison. Some states, like Jefferson's Virginia, had paid almost half of their debts, and felt that their taxpayers should not be assessed again to bail out the less provident. They further argued that the plan passed beyond the scope of the new Constitutional government.

Madison objected to Hamilton's proposal to cut the rate of interest and postpone payments on federal debt, as not being payment in full; he also objected to the speculative profits being made. Much of the national debt had been bonds issued to Continental veterans, in place of wages which the Continental Congress did not have the money to pay; as these continued to go unpaid, many of these bonds had been pawned for a small fraction of their value. Madison proposed to pay in full, but to divide payment between the original recipient and the present possessor. Others, like Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire, wished to curb speculation, and save taxation, by paying only part of the bond. The disagreements between Madison and Hamilton extended to other proposals Hamilton made to Congress, and drew in Jefferson when he returned from France. Hamilton's supporters became known as Federalists and Jefferson's as Republicans. As Madison put it:

"I deserted Colonel Hamilton, or rather Colonel H. deserted me; in a word, the divergence between us took place from his wishing to administration, or rather to administer the Government into what he thought it ought to be..."

Hamilton eventually secured passage of his assumption plan by striking a deal with Jefferson and Madison. According to the terms, Hamilton was to use his influence to place the permanent national capital on the Potomac River, and Jefferson and Madison were to encourage their friends to back Hamilton's assumption plan. In the end, Hamilton's assumption, together with his proposals for funding the debt, overcame legislative opposition and narrowly passed the House on July 26, 1790.

Founding the U.S. Mint

Hamilton helped found the United States Mint; the first national bank; a "System of Cutters", forming the Revenue Cutter Service, now known as the United States Coast Guard, and an elaborate system of duties, tariffs, and excises. The complete Hamiltonian program replaced the chaotic financial system of the confederation era, in five years, with a modern apparatus which gave the new government financial stability, and gave investors sufficient confidence to invest in government bonds.

Manufacturing and industry

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 new factories.
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 new factories.

Hamilton's next report was his "Report on Manufactures." Congress shelved the report without much debate, except for Madison's objection to Hamilton's formulation of the General Welfare clause, which Hamilton construed liberally as a legal basis for his extensive programs. It has been often quoted by protectionists since.

In 1791, while still Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton worked in a private capacity to help 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.

Emergence of parties

During Hamilton's tenure as Treasury Secretary, political factions began to emerge. A Congressional caucus, led by James Madison and William Giles, began as an opposition group to Hamilton's financial programs; Jefferson joined this group when he returned from France in October. Hamilton and his allies began to call themselves Federalists. The opposition group, now referred to as the Democratic-Republican Party, was then known by several names, including Republicans, republicans, Jeffersonians, and Democrats.

The Federalists assembled a nationwide coalition in order to garner support for the Administration, including the expansive financial programs Hamilton had made Administration policy; the Democratic-Republicans built their own national coalition to oppose these Federalist programs. Both sides were gained the support of local political factions; each side developed its own partisan newspapers. Noah Webster, John Fenno, and eventually William Cobbett were prominent editors for the Federalists. Benjamin Franklin Bache and Philip Freneau edited major publications for the Democratic-Republicans. Newspapers of both parties were characterized by frequent personal attacks and information of questionable veracity.

In 1801, Hamilton established a daily newspaper, the New-York Evening Post under editor William Coleman. It is the oldest continually published daily newspaper in the U.S., and is now known as the New York Post.

Revolutionary wars

When France and England went to war in January 1793, all four members of the Cabinet were consulted on what to do (they unanimously agreed to remain neutral); and both Hamilton and Jefferson were major architects in working out the specific provisions which maintained and enforced that neutrality.

During Hamilton's last year in office, policy toward Britain became a major point of contention between the two parties. Hamilton and the Federalists wished for more trade with Britain, which would provide more revenue from tariffs; the Democratic Republicans preferred an embargo to compel England to respect the rights of the United States and give up the forts which they still held on American soil, contrary to the Treaty of Paris.

In order to avoid war, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay, late in 1794, to negotiate with the British; Hamilton helped to draw up his instructions. The result was Jay's Treaty, which, as the State Department says, "addressed few U.S. interests, and ultimately granted Britain additional rights." The treaty was extremely unpopular, and the Democratic-Republicans opposed it for its failure to redress previous grievances, and for its failure to address British violations of American neutrality during the war.

Several European nations had formed a League of Armed Neutrality against incursions on their neutral rights; the Cabinet was also consulted on whether the United States should join it, and had decided not to, but had kept that decision secret. Jay, in London, threatened to join the League if U.S. rights were not respected; but this was ignored because Hamilton had revealed this decision in private to George Hammond, the British Minister to the United States, without telling Jay—or anyone else; it was unknown until Hammond's dispatches were read in the 1920s. This "amazing revelation" may have had limited effect on the negotiations; Jay did threaten to join the League at one point, but the British had other reasons not to view the League as a serious threat.

Retirement from federal service


In 1791, Hamilton became sexually involved in an affair with Maria Reynolds that badly damaged his reputation. Reynolds' husband, James, blackmailed Hamilton for money, threatening to inform Hamilton's wife Elizabeth. When James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted several prominent members of the Democratic-Republican Party, most notably James Monroe and Aaron Burr, touting that he could expose a top level official for corruption. When they visited Hamilton with their suspicions (expecting that James Reynolds could implicate Hamilton in an abuse of his position in Washington's Cabinet), Hamilton insisted he was innocent of any misconduct in public office and admitted to the affair with Maria Reynolds. When rumors began spreading, Hamilton published a confession of his affair, shocking his family and supporters by not merely confessing but also by narrating the affair in detail, thus injuring Hamilton's reputation for the rest of his life.

At first Hamilton accused Monroe of making his affair public, and challenged him to a duel. Aaron Burr stepped in and persuaded Hamilton that Monroe was innocent of the accusation. His well-known vitriolic temper led Hamilton to challenge several others to duels in his career.

Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury while this affair was still being investigated; he submitted his resignation on December 1, 1794, effective on January 31, 1795.

1796 presidential election

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 influenced Washington in the composition of his Farewell Address; Washington and members of his Cabinet often consulted with him.

In the election of 1796, under the Constitution as it stood then, each of the presidential Electors had two votes, which they were to cast for different men. The one with most votes to be President, the second Vice President. This system was not designed for parties, which had been thought disreputable and factious. The Federalists planned to deal with this by having all their Electors vote for John Adams, the Vice-President, and all but a few for Thomas Pinckney of South Carolina, then on his way home from a successful embassage to Spain. Jefferson chose Aaron Burr as his vice presidential running mate.

Hamilton, however, disliked Adams and saw an opportunity. He urged all the Northern Electors to vote for Adams and Pinckney, lest Jefferson get in. He cooperated with Edward Rutledge to have South Carolina's Electors vote for Jefferson and Pinckney. If all this worked, Pinckney would have more votes than Adams. Pinckney would be President, and Adams would remain Vice President. It did not. The Federalists found out about it (even the French minister to the United States knew), and Northern Federalists voted for Adams but not for Pinckney, in sufficient numbers that Pinckney came in third and Jefferson became Vice President. Adams resented this, since he rightly felt his service to the nation was much more extensive than Pinckney's. Adams also resented Hamilton's influence with Washington and considered him overambitious and scandalous in his private life; Hamilton compared Adams unfavorably with Washington and thought him too emotionally unstable to be President.


During the Quasi-War of 1798–1800, and with Washington's strong endorsement, Adams reluctantly appointed Hamilton a major general of the army (essentially placing him in command since Washington could not leave Mt. Vernon). If full scale war broke out with France, Hamilton argued that the army should conquer the North American colonies of France's ally, Spain, bordering the United States.

To fund this army, Hamilton had been writing incessantly to Oliver Wolcott, his successor at the Treasury, William Loughton Smith, of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Senator Theodore Sedgwick, of Massachusetts. He directed them to pass a direct tax to fund the war. Smith was to resign in July of 1797, as Hamilton scolded him for slowness, and told Wolcott to tax houses instead of land.

The eventual program included a Stamp Act, like that of the British before the Revolution, and an array of taxes on land, houses, and slaves, calculated at different rates in different states, and requiring difficult and intricate assessment of houses. This provoked resistance in south-eastern Pennsylania, led primarily by men, such as John Fries, who had marched with Washington against the Whiskey Rebellion.

Hamilton aided in all areas of the Army's development, and officially served as the Senior Officer of the United States Army as a Major General from December 14, 1799 to June 15, 1800. The army was to guard against invasion from France. Hamilton also suggested that its strategy should involve marching into the possessions of Spain, then allied with France, and potentially even taking Louisiana and Mexico. His correspondence further suggests that when he returned in military glory, he dreamed of setting up a properly energetic government, without any Jeffersonians. Adams, however, derailed all plans for war by opening negotiations with France. Adams had also held it right to retain Washington's cabinet, except for cause; he found, in 1800 (after Washington's death), that they were obeying Hamilton rather than himself and fired several of them.

1800 presidential election

Statue of Hamilton in the United States Capitol rotunda.
Statue of Hamilton in the United States Capitol rotunda.

In the 1800 election, Hamilton worked to defeat not only the rival Democratic-Republican candidates, but also his party's own nominee, John Adams. In New York, which Burr had won for Jefferson in May, Hamilton proposed a rerun of the election under different rules with carefully drawn districts, each choosing an Elector, so that the Federalists would split the electoral vote of New York. John Jay, a Federalist, who had given up the Supreme Court to be Governor of New York, wrote on the back of the letter the words "Proposing a measure for party purposes which it would not become me to adopt", and declined to reply.

John Adams was running this time with Pinckney's elder brother Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. On the other hand, Hamilton toured New England, again urging Northern Electors to hold firm for this Pinckney, in the renewed hope to make Pinckney President; and he again intrigued in South Carolina. This time, the important reaction was from the Jeffersonian Electors, all of whom voted both for Jefferson and Burr to ensure that no such deal would result in electing a Federalist. (Burr had received only one vote from Virginia in 1796.)

In September, Hamilton wrote a pamphlet (Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States) which was highly critical of Adams, although it closed with a tepid endorsement. He mailed this to two hundred leading Federalists; when a copy fell into Democratic-Republican hands, they printed it. This hurt Adams's 1800 reelection campaign and split the Federalist Party, virtually assuring the victory of the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Jefferson, in the election of 1800, and destroyed Hamilton's position among the Federalists.

On the Federalist side, Governor Arthur Fenner of Rhode Island denounced these "jockeying tricks" to make Pinckney President, and one Rhode Island Elector voted for Adams and Jay. The result was that Jefferson and Burr tied for first and second; and Pinckney came in fourth.

So Jefferson had beaten Adams, but both he and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received 73 votes in the Electoral College. With Jefferson and Burr tied, the United States House of Representatives had to choose between the two men. (As a result of this election, the Twelfth Amendment was proposed and ratified, adopting the method under which presidential elections are held today.) Several Federalists who opposed Jefferson supported Burr, but Hamilton reluctantly threw his weight behind Jefferson, causing one Federalist congressman to abstain from voting after 36 tied ballots. This ensured that Jefferson was elected President rather than Burr. Even though Hamilton did not like Jefferson and disagreed with him on many issues, he was quoted as saying, "At least Jefferson was honest." Burr then became Vice President of the United States. When it became clear that he would not be asked to run again with Jefferson, Burr sought the New York governorship in 1804 with Federalist support, against the Jeffersonian Morgan Lewis, but was defeated by forces including Hamilton.

Duel with Aaron Burr and death

Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. The depiction is inaccurate: Only the two seconds actually witnessed the duel.
Hamilton fights his fatal duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. The depiction is inaccurate: Only the two seconds actually witnessed the duel.

Soon after the gubernatorial election in New York—in which Morgan Lewis, greatly assisted by Hamilton, defeated Aaron Burr—the Albany Register published Charles D. Cooper's letter, citing Hamilton's opposition to Burr and alleging that Hamilton expressed "a still more despicable opinion" of the vice president at an upstate New York dinner party. Burr, sensing an attack on his honour, and surely still stung by the political defeat, demanded an apology. Hamilton refused on the grounds that he could not recall the instance.

Following an exchange of three testy letters, and despite the attempts of friends to avert a confrontation, a duel was nevertheless scheduled for July 11, 1804, along the west bank of the Hudson River on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, a common dueling site at which, three years earlier, Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, had been killed.

Hamilton's Tomb in the graveyard of Trinity Church, New York.
Hamilton's Tomb in the graveyard of Trinity Church, New York.

At dawn, the duel began, and Vice President Aaron Burr shot Hamilton. Hamilton's shot broke a tree branch directly above Burr's head. A letter that he wrote the night before the duel states, "I have resolved, if our interview [duel] is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire", which asserts an intention to miss Burr. The circumstances of the duel, and Hamilton's actual intentions, are still disputed. Neither of the seconds, Pendleton or Van Ness, could determine who fired first. Soon after, they measured and triangulated the shooting (both men were the same height), but could not determine from which angle Hamilton fired. Burr's shot, however, hit Hamilton in the lower abdomen above the right hip. The bullet ricocheted off Hamilton's second or third false rib, fracturing it and caused considerable damage to his internal organs, particularly his liver and diaphragm before becoming lodged in his first or second lumbar vertebra.

If a duelist decided not to aim at his opponent there was a well-known procedure, available to everyone involved, for doing so. Hamilton did not follow this procedure (If so, Burr might have followed suit, and death may have been avoided). It was a matter of honour among gentlemen to follow these rules. Because of the high incidence of septicemia and death resulting from torso wounds, a high percentage of duels employed this procedure of throwing away fire. Years later, when told that Hamilton may have misled him at the duel, the ever-laconic Burr replied, "Contemptible, if true."

Hamilton was ferried back to New York. After final visits from his family and friends and considerable suffering, Hamilton died on the following afternoon, July 12, 1804. Governor Morris, a political ally of Hamilton's, gave the eulogy at his funeral and secretly established a fund to support his widow and children. Hamilton was buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan.


1805 portrait by John Trumbull.">Alexander Hamilton on the current U.S. $10 bill, based on an 1805 portrait by John Trumbull.
Alexander Hamilton on the current U.S. $10 bill, based on an 1805 portrait by John Trumbull.

From the start, Hamilton set a precedent as a Cabinet member by formulating federal programs, writing them in the form of reports, pushing for their approval by appearing in person to argue them on the floor of the United States Congress, and then implementing them. Hamilton and the other Cabinet members were vital to Washington, as there was no president before him (under the Constitution) to set precedents for him to follow in national situations such as seditions, foreign affairs, etc.

Another of Hamilton's legacies was his 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 national 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 increased federal powers, on Congress's constitutional powers to issue currency, to regulate interstate commerce, and anything else that would be "necessary and proper." Jefferson, on the other hand, took a stricter view of the Constitution: parsing the text carefully, he found 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 the best means to execute its constitutionally enumerated powers, specifically the doctrine of implied powers.

Hamilton's policies as Secretary of the Treasury have had an immeasurable effect on the United States Government and still continue to influence it. In 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Navy was still using inter-ship communication protocols written by Hamilton for the original U.S. Coast Guard. His constitutional interpretation, specifically of the necessary-and-proper clause, set precedents for federal authority that are still used by the courts and are considered an authority on constitutional interpretation. The prominent French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, who spent 1794 in the United States, wrote "I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch, and if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton", adding that Hamilton had intuited the problems of European conservatives. Talleyrand, who helped demolish the First French Republic, would have preferred to have a coalition of European monarchies curtail the solitary republicanism of the United States, which would permit the peaceful recreation of the French colonial empire of Louis XIV; he found a meeting of minds with Hamilton.

Opinions of Hamilton have run the gamut: both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson viewed him as unprincipled and dangerously aristocratic. He was sufficiently admired by the time of the American Civil War that his portrait began to appear on US currency, and now appears on the $10 bill; after the Civil War, a time of high tariffs, he was highly praised. Herbert Croly, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt directed attention to him at the end of the nineteenth century in the interest of an active federal government, whether or not supported by tariffs. Several 19th and 20th Century Republicans entered politics by writing laudatory biographies of Hamilton.

Hamilton's portrait began to appear during the American Civil War on the $2, $5, $10, and $50 notes. His face continues to appear on the front of the ten dollar bill. Hamilton also appears on the $500 Series EE Savings Bond. The source of the face on the $10 bill is John Trumbull's 1805 portrait of Hamilton that belongs to the portrait collection of New York City Hall.

On the south side of the Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. is a statue of Hamilton.

Hamilton's upper Manhattan home is preserved as Hamilton Grange National Memorial, and currently includes a statue at the entrance. The historic structure, already removed from its original location many years ago, is being moved again - from its current position sandwiched between two masonry buildings, to a spot in a nearby park on land that was once part of the Hamilton estate. It is expected to re-open to the public in 2009.

Multiple towns throughout the United States have been named after Hamilton.


Hamilton's widow, Elizabeth (known as Eliza or Betsy), survived him for fifty years, until 1854; Hamilton had referred to her as "best of wives and best of women." An extremely religious woman, Eliza spent much of her life working to help widows and orphans. After Hamilton's death, Eliza sold the country house, the Grange she and Hamilton built together 1800 to 1802; and she co-founded New York's first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. Despite the Reynolds affair, Alexander and Eliza were very close, and as a widow she always strove to guard his reputation and enhance his standing in American history.

Hamilton and Elizabeth had eight children, including two named Phillip. The elder Philip, Hamilton's first child (born January 22, 1782), was killed in 1801 in a duel with George I. Eacker, whom he had publicly insulted in a Manhattan theatre. The second Philip, Hamilton's last child, born on June 2, 1802, after the first Philip was killed. Their remaining children's names were: Angelica, born September 25, 1784; Alexander, born May 16, 1796; James Alexander ( April 14, 1788 - September 1878); John Church, born August 22, 1792; William Stephen, born August 4, 1797; and Eliza, born November 26, 1799.

On slavery

Modern scholarly views on Hamilton's attitude to slavery have been described as viewing Hamilton as anything from a "steadfast abolitionist" to a "hypocrite"; one middle view is that he was deeply ambivalent.

Hamilton's first polemic against King George's ministers contains a paragraph which speaks of the evils which "slavery" to the British would bring upon the Americans. One biographer sees this as an attack on actual slavery; such hostility was quite common in 1776.

During the Revolutionary War, there was a series of proposals to arm slaves, free them, and compensate their masters. Freeing any enlisted slaves had also become customary by then both for the British, who did not compensate their American masters, and for the Continental Army; some states were to require it before the end of the war. In 1779, Hamilton's friend John Laurens suggested such a unit be formed under his command, to relieve besieged Charleston, South Carolina; Hamilton wrote a letter to the Continental Congress to create up to four battalions of slaves for combat duty, and free them. Congress recommended that South Carolina (and Georgia) acquire up to three thousand slaves, if they saw fit; they did not, even though the South Carolina governor and Congressional delegation had supported the plan in Philadelphia.

Hamilton argued that blacks' natural faculties were as good as those of free whites, and he forestalled objections by citing Frederick the Great and others as praising obedience and lack of cultivation in soldiers; he also argued that if the Americans did not do this, the British would (as they had elsewhere). One of his biographers has cited this incident as evidence that Hamilton and Laurens saw the Revolution and the struggle against slavery as inseparable. Hamilton later attacked his political opponents as demanding freedom for themselves and refusing to allow it to blacks.

In January 1785, he attended the second meeting of the New York Manumission Society (NYMS). John Jay was president and Hamilton was secretary; he later became president. He was also a member of the committee of the society which put a bill through the New York Legislature banning the export of slaves from New York; three months later, Hamilton returned a fugitive slave to Henry Laurens of South Carolina.

Hamilton never supported forced emigration for freed slaves; it has been argued from this that he would be comfortable with a multiracial society, and this distinguished him from his contemporaries. In international affairs, he supported Toussaint L'Ouverture's black government in Haiti after the revolt that overthrew French control, as he had supported aid to the slaveowners in 1791—both measures hurt France. He may have owned household slaves himself (the evidence for this is indirect; one biographer interprets it as referring to paid employees, and he did buy and sell them on behalf of others. He supported a gag rule to keep divisive discussions of slavery out of Congress, and he supported the compromise by which the United States could not abolish the slave trade for twenty years. When the Quakers of New York petitioned the First Congress (under the Constitution) for the abolition of the slave trade, and Benjamin Franklin and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society petitioned for the abolition of slavery, the NYMS did not act.

On economics

Alexander Hamilton is sometimes considered the " patron-saint" of the American School of economic philosophy that, according to one historian, dominated economic policy after 1861. He firmly supported government intervention in favour of business, after the manner of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, as early as the fall of 1781.

Hamilton opposed the British ideas of free trade which he believed skewed benefits to colonial/imperial powers, in favour of U.S. protectionism which he believed would help develop the fledgling nation's emerging economy. Henry C. Carey was inspired by his writings. Some say he influenced the ideas and work of German Friedrich List.

Hamilton's religion

In his early life, he was an orthodox and conventional, though not deeply pious, Presbyterian. From 1777 to 1792, he appears to have been completely indifferent, and made jokes about God at the Constitutional Convention. During the French Revolution, he had an "opportunistic religiosity," using Christianity for political ends and insisting that Christianity and Jefferson's democracy were incompatible. After his misfortunes of 1801, he asserted the truth of the Christian revelation. He proposed a Christian Constitutional Society in 1802, to take hold of "some strong feeling of the mind" to elect "fit men" to office; but Hamilton now wrote also of "Christian welfare societies" for the poor. He was not a member of any denomination, but led his family in the Episcopal service the Sunday before the duel. After he was shot, Hamilton requested communion first from Benjamin Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, who initially declined to administer the Sacrament chiefly because he did not wish to sanction the practice of dueling. Hamilton then requested communion from Presbyterian pastor John Mason, who declined on the grounds that Presbyterians did not reserve the Sacrament. After Hamilton spoke of his belief in God's mercy, and of his desire to renounce dueling, Bishop Moore reversed his decision, and administered communion to Hamilton.

Memorial at colleges

Alexander Hamilton served as one of the first trustees of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy when the school opened in 1793. When the academy received a college charter in 1812 the school was formally renamed Hamilton College. There is a prominent statue of Alexander Hamilton in front of the school's chapel (commonly referred to as the "Al-Ham" statue) and the Burke Library has an extensive collection of Hamilton's personal documents.

Columbia College, Hamilton's alma mater, whose students formed his militia artillery company and fired some of the first shots against the British, has official memorials to Hamilton. The college's main classroom building for the humanities is Hamilton Hall, and a large statue of Hamilton stands in front of it. The university press has published his complete works in a multivolume letterpress edition.

The main administration building of the Coast Guard Academy is named Hamilton Hall to commemorate Hamilton's creation of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, one of the entities that was combined to form the United States Coast Guard.

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