Alexander Hamilton was born a British subject on the island of Nevis in the West Indies on January 11, 1755. His father was James Hamilton, a Scottish merchant of St. Christopher. Hamilton’s mother was Rachael Fawcette Levine, of French Huguenot descent. When she was very young, she had 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, Ms. Levine was forbidden from remarrying. Thus, Hamilton’s birth was legally illegitimate.
Business failures resulted in the bankruptcy of his father. After the death of his mother, at the age of twelve, Alexander entered the counting house of Nicholas Cruger and David Beekman and served as a clerk and apprentice. By the age of fifteen, Alexander was left in charge of the business. Opportunities for regular schooling were very limited. With the aid of funds advanced by friends, Hamilton studied at a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. In 1774, he graduated and entered King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City and in one year obtained a bachelor’s of arts degree.
The War of Independence had begun, and at a mass meeting held in the fields in New York City on July 6, 1774, Hamilton made a sensational speech attacking British policies. Hamilton’s military aspirations flowered with a series of early accomplishments. On March 14, 1776, he was commissioned captain of a company of artillery set up by the New York Providential Congress. 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. General Greene introduced the young Captain to General Washington with a recommendation for advancement. Washington made Hamilton his aide-de-camp and personal secretary with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He served four years as Washington’s personal secretary and confidential aide. Longing for active military service, he resigned from Washington’s staff after a dispute with the general, but remained in the army. At the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778), Hamilton again proved his bravery and leadership and also won laurels at Yorktown (Sept. – Oct. 1781), where he led the American column in a final assault in the British works.
Hamilton married Elizabeth, the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, on December 14, 1780. The Schuylers were one of the most distinguished families in New York. This connection placed Hamilton at the center of New York society. In 1782, he was admitted to legal practice in New York and became an assistant to Robert Morris who was then superintendent of finance.
Hamilton was elected a member of the Continental Congress in 1782. He at once became a leading proponent of a stronger national government than that provided for by the Articles of Confederation. As a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he advocated a national government that would have virtually abolished the states and even called for a president for life to provide energetic leadership. Hamilton left the convention at the end of June, but he approved the Constitution. He considered it preferable to the Articles of Confederation but not as strong as he wished. Hamilton used his talents to secure the adoption of the Constitution and published a letter in the Constitution’s defense. This article was published in the New York Independent Journal on Oct. 2, 1787.
Hamilton 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 helped win, against great odds, New York’s ratification convention’s vote for the Constitution.
During Washington’s presidency, Hamilton became the first secretary of the Treasury. Holding this office from September 11, 1789 to January 31, 1795, he proved, while organizing the treasury, to be a brilliant administrator. In 1790 Hamilton submitted to the Congress a report on the public credit that provided for the funding of national and foreign debts of the United States and the federal assumption of the states’ revolutionary debts. After some controversy, the proposals were adopted, as were his subsequent reports calling for the establishment of a national bank. He is chiefly responsible for establishing the credit of the United States, both at home and abroad. In foreign affairs his role was almost as influential. He persuaded Washington to adopt a policy of neutrality after the outbreak of war in Europe in 1793, and in 1794 he wrote the instructions for the diplomatic mission to London that resulted in the Anglo-American agreement known as Jay’s Treaty. Hamilton also became the esteemed leader of one of the two great political parties of the time.
After he left the Treasury, he 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.
Following the death of George Washington, the leadership of the Federalist Party became divided between John Adams and Hamilton. Adams had 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. 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 confidential cabinet information. Although this pamphlet was intended for private circulation, the document was secured and published by Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s political and legal rival. Based on his opinion of Burr, Hamilton deemed it his patriotic duty to thwart Burr’s ambitions. Burr forced a quarrel and subsequently challenged Hamilton to a duel. The duel was fought at Weehawken, across from New York City, on the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River. On July 12, 1804, at the age of forty-nine, Hamilton was shot, fell mortally wounded, and died the following day. 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 lay dying, “I have no ill-will against Colonel Burr. I met him with a fixed resolution to do him no harm. I forgive all that happened.” His death was very generally deplored as a national calamity.
Apart from his contributions to The Federalist and his reorganization of the United States Financial system in the 1790’s, Hamilton is best remembered for his consistent emphasis on the need for a strong central government. His advocacy of the doctrine of “implied powers” to advance a broad interpretation of the Constitution has been invoked frequently to justify the extension of federal authority and has greatly influenced a number of Supreme Court decisions.
Alexander Hamilton's "Statement of My Property
and Debts, with Remarks"
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