Alexander Hamilton was one of the most influential and enigmatic of America’s founding fathers. As a pamphleteer who supported the actions of the Continental Congress, he embraced the concepts of natural law and natural rights to defend the American Revolution. Later, as a representative to the Constitutional Convention and author of 51 of The Federalist Papers, Hamilton argued for the establishment of a strong federal government based on the British model.
Alexander Hamilton was born on the British West Indian Island of Nevis, probably in 1755. His father, James Hamilton, was a Scottish merchant. His mother Rachael Fawcette Levine, was of French Huguenot descent. Because her divorce from a previous marriage was not legally recognized, Hamilton’s birth was considered illegitimate.
Hamilton’s mother died in 1768. His father’s business failures caused him to apprentice the young Hamilton as a clerk on the island of St. Croix. In 1772, his guardian, James Crugar, sent Hamilton to New Jersey to further his education. He enrolled at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York.
During his years as a student, Hamilton became engaged in the debate over independence, writing pamphlets defending the actions of the First Continental Congress, including A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress (1774) and The Farmer Refuted (1775). In 1775, Hamilton joined a militia group and participated in several skirmishes with the British in the New York area. His bravery and leadership abilities brought Hamilton to the attention of continental leaders. In 1777, he was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and George Washington appointed Hamilton as his aide-de-camp. Hamilton served Washington ably in that position for four years, but he longed for battlefield action. In 1781, Hamilton was appointed as commander of a battalion of light infantry and participated in the Battle of Monmouth, the Battle of Long Island and the Battle of Yorktown.
Following the Revolution, Hamilton turned his attention to civilian life. He had married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780. Schuyler was the daughter of General Philip Schuyler one of the richest and most prominent men in New York State. Hamilton began studying law and was admitted to the bar in 1783, but he remained politically active. He represented New York in the Continental Congress, was a member of the New York state assembly, and was one of New York’s three delegates to the Constitutional Convention
At the Constitutional Convention Hamilton was an adamant proponent for the establishment of a strong federal government. He believed that a “fundamental defect” in the Articles of Confederation was “a want of power in Congress.” He warned that just “as too much power leads to despotism, too little leads to anarchy, and both, eventually to the ruin of the people.” Power, to Hamilton, consisted of two critical components; coercive force and independent revenue. Because neither of these had been invested in the Confederation government, he directed a good deal of his energies after the convention to the establishment of both. No fewer than seven of his Federalist essays addressed the need to raise a standing army “to preserve the peace of the community and to maintain the just authority of the laws. On the subject of revenue, he was equally as prolific, stating, “power without revenue, in a political society, is a name.” He incorporated that argument into at least six of his Federalist essays.
Hamilton also had reservations about the structure of the Continental government. While an advocate of a republican form of government, the failures of Congress during and after the Revolution had convinced Hamilton that a large legislative body could not effectively “play the executive.” As he put it, “Two thirds of the members, one half of the time, cannot know what has gone before them, or what connection the subject in hand has to what has been transacted on former occasions.” Hamilton’s solution was the establishment of a government with a strong executive tempered by a separation of powers, much like the British model. Although other delegates to the Constitutional Convention roundly criticized Hamilton for that belief, but it was just such a system of government that was established by the new constitution, and that has served the United States so ably for over two hundred years since.
Following ratification of the Constitution, President Washington named Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. During his five years in that position, Hamilton was instrumental in establishing the financial stability of the new nation. His policies promoting commercial development led to a political rift with more agriculturally oriented contemporaries such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. That rift eventually led to the formal establishment of the two prominent political parties of the day, the Federalists, led by Hamilton and the Anti-Federalists, or Democratic-Republicans, led by Jefferson.
Hamilton resigned form the treasury in 1795 and returned to his law practice in New York, but he remained active in politics. When it appeared that Aaron Burr might defeat Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, due to technicalities with the Electoral College vote, Hamilton actively supported Jefferson because of his distrust of Burr. Burr’s anger over Hamilton’s actions simmered, eventually leading him to challenge Hamilton to a duel. The two men met at Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804, and Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Hamilton is buried in Trinity Churchyard, in New York City.