• Exploring American History

Alexander Hamilton – America’s first Secretary of the Treasury

Born in the British West Indies on January 11, 1755, Alexander Hamilton was the product of an adulterous affair. His mother was married to a different man at the time of Alexander’s birth. When Rachel’s husband threw her out of the house, she moved in with Alexander’s father; a Scottish trader. The arrangement between Hamilton’s parents was short-lived, as James soon abandoned his family, leaving his mother impoverished. John Adams later referred to Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler” in an effort to illustrate the humble way in which Alexander’s life began. His humble beginnings would likely not cause someone to envision him as becoming one of the most influential of America’s Founding Fathers.

Thankfully, her family stepped in after his mother died and did what they could to help. At the ripe old age of 11, Hamilton launched his career as a clerk with an accounting firm. His boss, Nicholas Cruger, saw potential in the young man and pooled his financial resources with Rev. Hugh Knox to send Alexander to school in America.

Alexander moved to Boston in 1772 at the age of 17 and then settled in New York where he enrolled in King’s College (Columbia University). His intellectual pursuits, however, were interrupted by the political atmosphere of that day. In a letter to a friend, Hamilton stated, “I wish there was a war.” In 1774, a young revolutionary was born from two pamphlets he wrote in which he described his opposition to British Loyalists.

The opening days of the American Revolution quickly fulfilled young Hamilton’s desire for war. He soon assumed the position of captain with the New York Provincial Artillery Company and saw action during the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton and Princeton.

Hamilton was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and became an aide-de-camp to George Washington per the recommendation of General Nathanael Green. During the next five years, he wrote critical letters for Washington and composed important reports regarding strategic reform and restructuring of the Continental Army. During these same five years, Hamilton married Elisabeth Schuyler, part of an affluent New York family.

In 1781, Hamilton requested a transfer to the battlefield. Washington complied and Hamilton led the charge against the British during the Battle of Yorktown. When General Cornwallis surrendered at the end of the battle, the American Revolution came to a close.

Returning to New York, Hamilton distinguished himself in the legal field. In 1782, he was elected to the Continental Congress and then returned to his law practice two years later. During the years he served as an advisor to General Washington, Hamilton became aware of the weakness of Congress, fueled by resentment and jealousy. Hamilton felt it was due in part to the way the Articles of Confederation had been designed.

One of Hamilton’s outstanding moments occurred in 1786 during the Annapolis Convention. Here he addressed issues dealing with interstate commerce and argued the shortcomings of the government under the Articles of Confederation. His remarks served to label him a leading proponent of a strong central government. Hamilton’s views helped pave the way for the numerous structural changes he would engineer in the young country’s revised federal government.

Hamilton became New York’s most outspoken supporter of the Constitution throughout the ratification debates, despite the fact the document’s text felt short of what he had hoped it would accomplish. The Federalist Papers became Hamilton’s ‘megaphone’ of choice. Composed of 85 tracts, it is believed Hamilton wrote 51 of them. The Papers served as fodder for public debaters in both New York and Virginia, along with enhancing arguments presented during key debates and negotiations during ratification.

Hamilton’s portion of the Federalist Papers clearly displays the political pragmatism and nationalism he felt, along with presenting his most convincing arguments regarding the need for a strong national government and addressing various topics on the subject of foreign affairs. Hamilton was also instrumental in encouraging James Madison and John Jay to contribute their efforts to the Federalist Papers; though the quantity of effort they brought to the project was far less.

Following ratification of the Constitution, George Washington became the young nation’s first president and appointed Hamilton the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. The cost of the American Revolution had left the nation’s finances in a mess. Hamilton offered numerous proposals to address the manner in which foreign debt would be paid, along with a method to improve public credit. These proposals were hotly debated by Congress, but his efforts paid off. Hamilton’s proposals played a vital role in helping to sustain the young nation financially.

Hamilton also had considerable influence regarding foreign policy. He was able to convince President Washington of the need to adopt a neutral strategy with respect to the wars being fought in Europe and helped developed the groundwork for Jay’s Treaty, an agreement with England in 1794. This agreement put to rest a number of longstanding disputes between England and the United States, in addition to removing British troops from America’s borders. His efforts resulted in Washington strongly urging President John Adams to appoint Hamilton to the post of Inspector General of the Army.

Though Hamilton was a well-known politician during his life, his infamous duel with Aaron Burr played an equally important role regarding his fame in the chronicles of American history. Burr served as Vice-President during Thomas Jefferson’s first term. Throughout these four years, Jefferson kept a tight rein on Burr and gave him little power. In the election of 1804, he barred Burr’s nomination, resulting in George Clinton serving as Vice-President during Jefferson’s second term. Though Hamilton despised Jefferson, his hatred of Burr was far greater. During the campaign of 1804, Hamilton spoke out strongly against him because he considered Burr to be a very dangerous man. In the end, Hamilton’s efforts had little effect on the election.

Following the election, Burr read an article in the local newspaper in which Hamilton offered a despicable opinion of him, provoking his anger towards Hamilton. In an effort to restore his injured reputation, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804, in Weehauken, New Jersey. There are those who speculate Burr’s desired outcome from the challenge was either to wrench an apology from Hamilton or if unsuccessful in doing so, merely maim his opponent during the duel. Instead of maiming him, however, Burr’s shot created a mortal wound in Hamilton’s midsection, resulting in his death the following day. Burr was charged with murder in both New Jersey and New York. Though he never went to trial, his political career was now over.

When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation.”

Alexander Hamilton

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