Alexander Hamilton

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Hamilton, Alexander

Hamilton, Alexander, 1755–1804, American statesman, b. Nevis, in the West Indies.

Early Career

He was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton (of a prominent Scottish family) and Rachel Faucett Lavien (daughter of a doctor-planter on Nevis and the estranged wife of a merchant). Orphaned and impoverished at around the age of 12, the brilliant, ambitious youth arrived in the North American colonies late in 1772 and studied (1773–74) at King's College (now Columbia). In the troubled times leading to the American Revolution, he wrote articles and pamphlets espousing the colonial cause so well that the works were popularly attributed to John Jay.

In the war he became a captain of artillery, attracted George Washington's notice, and, as Washington's secretary and aide-de-camp, performed invaluable services. Desiring more active duty, he left Washington's staff in 1781 and performed brilliantly in the field at Yorktown. His marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Gen. Philip J. Schuyler, connected him with an old and powerful New York family. He practiced law in New York City and was a member of the Continental Congress.

Federalist Leader

By 1780 Hamilton had outlined a plan of government with a strong central authority to replace the weak system of the Articles of Confederation, and as delegate (1782–83) to the Continental Congress he pressed continually for strengthening of the national government. It was Hamilton who proposed at the unsuccessful Annapolis Convention (1786) that a constitutional convention be called at Philadelphia in May, 1787, and he was one of New York's three delegates when it was convened.

Although he believed the Constitution to be deficient in the powers that it gave the national government, he did much to get it ratified, particularly by means of his contributions to The Federalist. In New York, Hamilton was a powerful constitutional supporter, fighting vigorously against the opposition of George Clinton and becoming perhaps the strongest advocate of the new instrument of government aside from James Madison.

In the first decade of the republic, Hamilton played a decisive role in shaping domestic and foreign policy. As Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington, he presented (1790) a far-reaching financial program to the first Congress. He proposed that the debt accumulated by the Continental Congress be paid in full, that the federal government assume all state debts, and that a Bank of the United States be chartered. For revenue, Hamilton advocated a tariff on imported manufactures and a series of excise taxes. He hoped by these measures to strengthen the national government at the expense of the states and to tie government to men of wealth and prosperity.

Hamilton was a well-to-do lawyer and banker (he helped to found the Bank of New York), and his own high connections aroused suspicion among the less conservative; his policies alienated agrarian interests and drew opposition from those who feared concentration of power in the federal government. Widespread antipathy to party divisions muted the opposition, however, and Congress adopted the Hamiltonian program.

Foreign affairs soon brought this unity to an end. Hamilton's program depended for success on continued trade with Great Britain. He supported Jay's Treaty (1794), and, opposed to the French Revolution, encouraged strong measures against France in the near-war of 1798—measures bitterly opposed by the pro-French Thomas Jefferson.

Two opposing parties formed: the Federalists, led by Hamilton and John Adams (then President), and the Democratic Republicans (see Democratic party), led by Jefferson and James Madison. Hamilton was perhaps the most powerful of the Federalists, but he was not in complete command of the party (he had even resigned his cabinet post in 1795, largely for financial reasons). There was little personal liking between Hamilton and Adams, and friction between them grew in the course of the Adams administration. Both were swept under in the election of 1800.

Because the Constitution did not provide for the election of the President and Vice President on separate ballots, a tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, left the choice of chief executive to the House of Representatives in 1800. Hamilton's influence made Jefferson President and Burr Vice President—an outcome in accord with the popular will, but Burr was disgruntled.

When in 1804 Hamilton again thwarted Burr, keeping him from the governorship of New York, Burr accused Hamilton of having called him a “dangerous” man and, when Hamilton replied to the charge, challenged him to a duel. The two men met at Weehawken Heights, N.J., and Hamilton was mortally wounded.

Bibliography

See the definitive edition of Hamilton's papers (ed. by H. C. Syrett, 27 vol., 1961–87) and law papers (ed. by J. Goebel, Jr., and J. H. Smith, 5 vol., 1964–81) as well as Alexander Hamilton: Writings (ed. by J. B. Freeman, 2001). See also biographies by H. C. Lodge (1898), N. Schachner (1946, repr. 1961), B. Mitchell (2 vol., 1957–62), J. C. Miller (1959, repr. 1964), F. McDonald (1979), R. Brookhiser (1999), W. S. Randall (2002), R. Chernow (2004), and one in his own words, ed. by M.-J. Kline (2 vol., 1973); R. Morris, ed., Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation (1957); C. Rossiter, Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution (1964); J. E. Cooke, ed., Alexander Hamilton: A Profile (1967); G. Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (1970); B. Mitchell, Alexander Hamilton: The Revolutionary Years (1970); S. Elkins and E. McKitrick, The Age of Federalism (1993); A. A. Rogow, A Fatal Friendship (1998); T. Fleming, Duel (1999); R. G. Kennedy, Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson (1999); M. P. Federici, The Political Philosophy of Alexander Hamilton (2012); J. Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton (2013); J. Sedgwick, War of Two (2015).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Hamilton, Alexander

 

Born Jan. 11, 1757, on the island of Nevis; died July 12, 1804, in New York. US statesman.

During the War of Independence (1775-83), Hamilton became famous as an orator and journalist. From 1776 to 1781 he served in the army, and he was a secretary of G. Washington. In 1789 he was the leader of the Federalist Party. He favored a constitutional monarchy based on the English model. From 1789 to 1795, Hamilton was secretary of the treasury. He advocated a centralized government that would foster the development of a capitalistic economy. Hamilton’s research on the problems of value, money, and cost had a major influence on the further development of a bourgeois political economy in the USA. Oriented towards Great Britain in foreign policy, Hamilton, like other Federalist leaders, promoted the conclusion of an Anglo-American treaty that was not fair to the USA (the Jay Treaty).

WORKS

The Works of Alexander Hamilton, vols. 1-7. Edited by J. C. Hamilton. New York, 1851-52.

REFERENCES

Al’ter, L. B. Burzhuaznaia politicheskaia ekonomiia SShA. Moscow, 1961. Pages 61-75.
Schachner, N. A. Hamilton. New York-London, 1946.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hamilton, Alexander

(1757–1804) cabinet officer, political thinker; born in Nevis, British West Indies. Son of a Scottish merchant and a French Huguenot mother who died when he was 11, he went to work in a store that same year because his father's business was failing. He showed an early talent for writing and an ambition to gain an education, so aunts sent him to America in 1772; he entered King's College (now Columbia University) in 1773. Although always a moderate in his political views, he soon aligned himself with the anti-British patriots, writing lengthy pamphlets that left many amazed at the knowledge and writing skills of a 17-year-old. With the outbreak of the American Revolution, he joined the army and by early 1776 was fighting under George Washington's command. By March 1777 he was Washington's secretary and aide-de-camp and soon assumed considerable responsibilities that extended well beyond organizing Washington's communications and affairs—setting forth plans to reorganize not only the present army but the government that would follow the fighting. After a minor quarrel with Washington, he got himself reassigned to head an infantry regiment that he led at the siege of Yorktown. After a term in the Continental Congress (1782–83), he went into private law practice in New York City. As one of New York's delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, he did not exercise much influence as his ideas on the organization of a government were too conservative; but he signed the new constitution and in October he published the first of the so-called "Federalist papers" endorsing the new government. (Of the 85 "papers"—actually open letters, most signed by "Publius"—he wrote 51 and collaborated with James Madison on 3 others; Madison and John Jay wrote the remaining 31.) Hamilton also played a most crucial role in applying the power of his oratory and arguments to persuade New York State to adopt the Constitution. Selected by Washington as the first secretary of the treasury (1789–95), he proceeded boldly to structure the new nation's fiscal system, setting up a national bank and national mint and taking on the national debt. But the very aggressiveness that served to strengthen the new government also contributed to the divisiveness—particularly between Thomas Jefferson and himself—that led to the emergence of two opposing political parties, the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans led by Jefferson. Hamilton resigned in 1795 and returned to private law practice in New York City and remained recognized as head of the Federalists, but when Jefferson and Aaron Burr ended up in a tie in the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton used his influence to get the House of Representatives to choose Jefferson because he believed Burr to be a dangerous man. In 1804 Hamilton then used his influence to help defeat Burr's candicacy for the governorship of New York. Burr then challenged Hamilton to a duel and although he was opposed to dueling—his own son having been killed in one in 1801—he met Burr early in the morning of July 11 at Weehauken, N.J.; Hamilton fired into the air but Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day. Widely admired for his intellect, Hamilton was less popular for a certain arrogance in pursuit of his own beliefs. And if some of his ideas now seem less than congenial—especially his outspoken distrust of common people—he was probably the right man in the right place at the right time, giving form to many of the elements that allowed for the endurance of the government of the United States of America.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.