Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Born in the British West Indies to parents who were not legally married, Alexander Hamilton surmounted his origins, becoming a wartime aide to General George Washington, a key theorist and promoter of the U.S. Constitution, and the creator of a bold financial system for the new republic. Prideful and outspoken, Hamilton died at the hands of Vice President Aaron Burr in a politically motivated illegal duel in July 1804.

Motherless by age 12 and estranged from his father, Hamilton trained as a clerk on the sugar island of St. Croix. There, the self-taught young man dabbled in poetry, penned an eyewitness account of a devastating 1772 hurricane, and so impressed Presbyterian minister Hugh Knox that the older man took up a collection to send his protégé to college in New York. Mentorship by important older men would become a pattern in Hamilton’s career.

Caught up in the growing revolutionary fervor, Hamilton soon became a pamphleteer and, by 1776, captained an artillery company. Noticed by Washington, Hamilton became the general’s trusted aide-de-camp.

Marriage in 1780 to Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of a wealthy and politically influential Albany landowner, and a temporary falling out with Washington resulted in Hamilton’s returning to Albany, where he studied law alongside Aaron Burr, another young and ambitious New Yorker. Hamilton resumed pamphleteering on urgent issues of governance, taxation, and finance.

He found time to cofound the Bank of New York and an antislavery society, although his father-in-law owned slaves. In 1782 as a delegate to the congress crafting the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton began an intellectual partnership with a promising young Virginian, James Madison.

An early proponent of a stronger and more centralized government to replace the faltering Articles, Hamilton was New York’s sole delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As “Publius,” he, along with Madison and John Jay, wrote a series of arguments for ratification, later collected as the Federalist Papers.

Controversial Economics

In September 1789 Hamilton became George Washington’s and the nation’s first secretary of the treasury. Audaciously, Hamilton proposed a controversial economic plan based in part on the ideas of pioneering British economist Adam Smith. Many of Hamilton’s ideas contradicted much of his era’s traditional financial wisdom and religious teachings.

His proposals included consolidation of state liabilities into a permanent federal debt, a national bank controlled by a public/private partnership that could manipulate the nation’s money supply, and luxury taxes on such goods as tea and whiskey. Hamilton also urged Congress to use federal funds and impose tariffs to promote manufacturing and America’s role in the emerging Industrial Revolution.

Hamilton soon found himself at odds with former ally Madison and secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, both slave-owning Virginians who had a very different vision of the new nation, based primarily on the expansion of agriculture.

Nevertheless, major portions of Hamilton’s economic plan were adopted after Jefferson brokered an agreement creating a federal capital district on the Potomac between Maryland and Virginia, rather than New York, Hamilton’s preference. Hamilton’s F1rst Bank of the United States was chartered in 1791, and the U.S. Mint approved in 1792.

Although Hamilton was personally involved in the creation of one of America’s first water-powered industrial cities, Paterson, New Jersey, most of his “Report on Manufactures” failed to win congressional approval.

At the height of his power and influence, Hamilton became entangled in a web of personal and financial misadventures that would cast a shadow over his career. Although generally regarded as personally honest, he did not always use good judgment in picking close friends and assistants.

Some used insider information to speculate on currency fluctuations and otherwise enrich themselves. One key aide, William Duer, not only took financial advantage of his connection with the treasury secretary but also introduced Hamilton to Maria Reynolds, a married woman.

Their ensuing affair, apparently abetted by Mrs. Reynolds’s husband for purposes of blackmail, continued for more than a year and ended with Hamilton’s embarrassing confession, publicly revealed in 1797.

As the French Revolution took a turn into violence, political differences between cabinet colleagues Hamilton and Jefferson intensified as Jefferson hailed the end of French monarchy while Hamilton abhorred turmoil in the United States’s old ally.

Alexander Hamilton statue
Alexander Hamilton statue

In 1794, when Pennsylvania farmers rebelled against Hamilton’s whiskey tax, the treasury secretary persuaded President Washington to use troops to quell the uprising by raising the specter of anarchy akin to recent events in France.

Hamilton rode into battle alongside his general. The next year, Hamilton resigned his cabinet post to resume a lucrative law practice. He would in 1796 help Washington write his farewell address.

John Adams of Massachusetts and Hamilton were part of the new Federalist Party by the time of America’s first contested presidential election in 1796, but they were not friends.

Unable to derail Adams’s presidential candidacy, Hamilton played a supportive role by questioning the character of Jefferson, a leader of the new Democratic-Republican Party. Hamilton also founded a newspaper, the New-York Evening Post, as a mouthpiece for Federalist politics and his own New York ambitions.

The Duel

The election of 1800 deadlocked, with Jefferson and Burr, both Republicans, each receiving 73 electoral votes. Into this procedural mess (later corrected by the Constitution’s 12th Amendment) waded Hamilton. Despite their political differences, Jefferson and Hamilton were major figures, founders of the republic.

By contrast, Hamilton argued as he urged the electors to pick Jefferson, Burr was an opportunist of questionable character. Burr became Jefferson’s vice president; the uneasily competitive Burr-Hamilton relationship became loathing on both sides.

Against a backdrop of vicious New York political maneuvering, Burr and Hamilton squared off at dawn on a Weehawken, New Jersey, bluff overlooking Manhattan. Both fired; Burr’s bullet tore through Hamilton’s liver. A day later, Hamilton was dead.

Burr, never even tried for illegal dueling, resumed his seat as president of the Senate in the next congressional session. Elizabeth Hamilton would outlive her husband by 50 years. She was buried alongside him in Trinity Churchyard near Wall Street, America’s financial heart.