Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) was an American statesman and Founding Father who served in the American Revolutionary War. He is best known for coauthoring The Federalist Papers (1787), which is still used to interpret the U.S. Constitution today.

Alexander Hamilton Alexander Hamilton

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Table of contents

    Alexander Hamilton: Biography

    Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, an island in the British West Indies, and is of French, English, and Scottish descent. He spent most of his childhood with his brother James and his mother, Rachel Faucette. His father, James, abandoned the family while he was still a boy. Impoverished, Rachel moved the family to St. Croix, where she had inherited land from her late father. Running a small shop, she supported the family but ultimately succumbed to yellow fever and died in 1768. Their cousin took in the Hamilton boys, but after committing suicide, they became separated.

    The adolescent Alexander Hamilton worked as a clerk for a local trading company. He loved to read and write, as his family owned a small book collection. Hamilton wrote a letter to his father describing a hurricane that struck the town of Christiansted, where he worked, and his desire to leave the island. A private tutor was impressed with Hamilton’s writing ability, and with the help of community fundraising, secured enough money to send Hamilton to the British American colonies.

    Hamilton had been denied an education through the Church of England because he was born out of wedlock. While he had a private tutor as a child, his formal education did not begin until he arrived in New York City. He prepared for college by attending the Elizabeth Academy, a preparatory school. He lived with William Livingston, whose pro-revolutionary thinking first introduced Hamilton to the American cause for independence. Hamilton attended King College (now Columbia University) until the American Revolutionary War broke out, and he enlisted in the military.

    Alexander Hamilton, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Hamilton grew up poor and emigrated to continental British America.

    After the battles of Lexington and Concord, Hamilton joined a volunteer militia. He studied military strategy and proved his acumen after successfully leading a company of sixty men through several battles. For the next four years, he served as a staff aide under General George Washington at his personal request. Hamilton handled intelligence and communication with other senior officers of the Continental Army.

    While posted in Morrisburg, New Jersey, Hamilton met his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip Schuyler. They married on December 14, 1780, and had eight children together. After a successful political career, Hamilton formally resigned from public office in 1795 to be with his family.

    Alexander Hamilton: Political Career

    Within a few months of returning to civilian life, Hamilton passed the New York Bar as a self-taught lawyer. In 1782, he was appointed to the Confederation of Congress, the legislative and governing body of the newly formed United States. He was critical of the decentralized nature of congress due to the difficulty in securing funds during his military duty in the Revolutionary War.

    Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton would become bitter rivals.

    As a New York Assemblyman, he was appointed as a delegate in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention, a meeting to revise the Articles of Confederation into a new constitution. Hamilton signed for the ratification but was still dissatisfied with the lack of a strong federal government, but he felt it was a major improvement. He campaigned extensively for ratification with The Federalist Papers.

    Famous Works of Alexander Hamilton

    The most famous work of Alexander Hamilton is The Federalist Papers. He enlisted the help of John Jay and James Madison to argue for the ratification of the new constitution. Hamilton wrote nearly two-thirds of the more than eighty essays.

    Alexander Hamilton, Federalist Papers, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The Federalist Papers were originally published periodically but collected as one volume.

    In 1789, first President George Washington selected Hamilton as the first United States secretary of the treasury. Hamilton submitted several reports on key industries while serving in Washington’s cabinet. His Report on a National Bank (1790) led to the creation of a national bank whose primary purpose was to lend money to the newly formed government outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Hamilton’s Report on the Establishment of a Mint (1791) led to the creation of the United States Mint, which produced the coinage for the United States. His Report on Manufactures (1791) proposed the promotion and establishment of manufacturing as a foundational part of the American economy and securing independence. It’s considered his best-written work.

    Hamilton’s financial reforms were opposed by statesmen Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They favored states' rights over a strong central government. Coming from agrarian Virginia, Jefferson, and Madison, felt states were better suited to govern themselves. Hamilton and his proponents comprised the Federalist party, while Jefferson and Madison constituted the Democratic-Republican party. While Hamilton believed in the consent of the people and protecting civil liberties, he felt a strong central government was necessary to create a cohesive union among the thirteen states.

    Alexander Hamilton: Cause of Death

    Alexander Hamilton died from a fatal gunshot wound in a duel with Aaron Burr. Hamilton maintained a bitter rivalry with Burr for over fifteen years.

    Alexander Hamilton, An old drawing of a duel, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The duel resulting in Hamilton's death ended Burr's political career.

    The rivalry culminated in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, where he openly denounced Burr and gave his support to Burr’s opponent. Hamilton reluctantly agreed to the duel, citing his family’s welfare, but felt obligated to protect his public image. After his death, the Federalist party slowly dissolved after losing its de facto leader.

    Alexander Hamilton: Quotes

    Below are quotes from Hamilton’s most famous works.

    Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of a country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighborhood of the town. They are, upon that account, the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country”

    Report on Manufactures

    As the first secretary-treasurer, Hamilton surveyed all aspects of the American economy. He saw the economic growth that European countries achieved with their manufacturing industries. He felt that for America to secure its independence, it needed to be competitive with European markets. Despite the opposition from agrarian states, Hamilton proposed that American manufacturing would benefit all citizens. The improvement of infrastructure would allow the cities to better connect with the rural population and increase the flow of raw agricultural materials to the manufacturing centers in the north.

    “Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. But if they have been consulted, and have happened to disapprove, opposition then becomes, in their estimation, an indispensable duty of self-love”.

    —Federalist No. 70 (18 March 1788)

    Hamilton believed in protecting civil liberties. However, his experience showed him the extent to which individuals, who disagree with popular public policy, will go to oppose it. To him, this obstinacy was a human flaw, and without the constraint of law, could lead to the detriment of the majority. Hamilton saw that men bound by honor are willing to sacrifice the whole for what they believed was just.

    “Unless your government is respectable, foreigners will invade your rights; and to maintain tranquillity you must be respectable; even to observe neutrality you must have a strong government.”

    —Elliot's Debates, volume 1, p. 463. (29 July 1788)

    A strong central government was not only important for the union of the states. Hamilton wanted the new United States to be seen as legitimate by the international community. Even if the U.S. government had no intention of competing with other nations, Hamilton believed it would need a strong government capable of mobilizing military action in order to secure its independence against any foreign threats.

    Alexander Hamilton - Key takeaways

    • Alexander Hamilton was an American statesman and founding father.
    • He is famous for his authorship of The Federalist Papers.
    • Hamilton believed in a strong central government.
    • As the first secretary of the treasury, he wrote reports that shaped the financial system of the new United States.
    • Hamilton famously died from a duel with Aaron Burr.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - Alexander Hamilton (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alexander_Hamilton_by_John_Trumbull,_1806.png) by John Trumbull (N/A) is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 - Aaron Burr (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aaron-burr-yale-art-gallery.jpg) by John Vanderlyn (N/A) is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 - The Federalist (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Federalist_(1st_ed,_1788,_vol_I,_title_page)_-_02.jpg) by N/A is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 4 - Duel of Hamilton and Burr (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duel_of_Aaron_Burr_and_Alexander_Hamilton.png) by unknown is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alexander Hamilton

    Who was Alexander Hamilton?

    Alexander Hamilton was an American statesman and Founding Father.

    What is Alexander Hamilton best known for?

    Alexander Hamilton is best known for coauthoring The Federalist Papers

    What race was Alexander Hamilton?

    Alexander Hamilton was a white man of French, English, and Scottish descent.

    Who shot Alexander Hamilton and why?

    Aaron Burr fatally shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel because of a bitter rivalry.

    Why was Alexander Hamilton not president?

    After a successful political career, Alexander Hamilton formally resigned from public office in 1795 to be with his family and never ran for president. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the pseudonym the authors published their articles under?

    Where was Alexander Hamilton born?

    How did Hamilton move the continental British American colonies?

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