Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton
1st United States Secretary of the Treasury
From: September 11, 1789 – January 31, 1795
President George Washington
Predecessor none
Successor Oliver Wolcott, Jr.
Party Federalist
Spouse(s) Elizabeth Schuyler
Religion Christian

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1757 – July 12, 1804) was one of the most important, and most conservative and nationalistic, of the Founding Fathers of the United States. One of the greatest American intellectuals ever, Hamilton became a Christian about a decade before he was shot and killed in a duel with Aaron Burr.[1]

After wartime service as aide-de-camp to General George Washington, he became a leading lawyer in New York. He called for a strong new constitution to replace the weak national government, and in 1788 he wrote half the Federalist Papers, which mobilized supporters of the Constitution and continues to be the single most influential interpretation of republicanism and what the Constitution means. He was a leading intellectual of his time and the driving force of the Washington Administration that shaped the young nation.

Hamilton realized that the basis of British power was its system of centralized tax collection and its funded national debt together with its sophisticated banking structure and its open market in public securities. For a state to wage war successfully, it had to tax efficiently and borrow cheaply—to become a powerful nation, America had to follow the British financial example. Hamilton's conclusion horrified Thomas Jefferson and his followers—they saw a deliberate adoption of British methods as an evil corruption—a betrayal of the values of Republicanism inherent in the American Revolution.

Hamilton played a key role in:

  • the continued success of George Washington as his top aide
  • the ratification of the Constitution in 1788
  • the interpretation of the Constitution to this day
  • the policies that made the United States an economic power
  • writing George Washington's Farewell Address, which remains one of the finest statements of conservative principles
  • the compromise that placed the nation's capital at Washington, D.C.
  • the election of Thomas Jefferson as president rather than Aaron Burr in 1801
  • preventing secessionist Aaron Burr from winning the governorship of New York and then breaking up the Union, in 1804

As the nation's first secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton's far-reaching vision put the United States on an stable financial basis and promoted national unity. His Treasury took over state debts as well as debts owed by the national government, and funded them with long-term national debt, which in turn was paid by a new tariff on imports and a tax on whiskey. He set up the Bank of the United States, a central bank to make liquidity in financial markets possible. The nation's business and financial communities for the first time became united in a single economy, and provided critical support for Hamilton. To mobilize that grass-roots support he founded the Federalist Party, which operated in every state. It was the first popular political party in the world, but soon had competition from the Republicans, a party founded by his great adversary Thomas Jefferson.

In foreign affairs he was a strong supporter of Britain, and the well-balanced British political system. Working closely with George Washington, Hamilton in 1795 secured the critical Jay Treaty over the intense opposition of Jeffersonians who favored France in its war with Britain. Despite an embarrassing sex scandal, Hamilton tried to keep control of the Federalist Party while John Adams was president, and orchestrated the creation of a powerful national army in 1798, which he and Washington were to head. Adams' achievement of peace with France frustrated Hamilton's plans, so he sabotaged Adams' reelection in 1800. Nevertheless, he helped Jefferson become president when it appeared the scoundrel Aaron Burr might take the office. He was killed by Burr in a duel, and for most of the 19th century was a target of attacks by Democrats as undemocratic and even pro-monarchy.

By the Progressive Era after 1900, however, Hamilton's nationalism, financial wizardry, and promotion of business and banking increasingly appealed to conservatives, who made Hamilton into a hero of their own. Hamilton was one of the great expositors of the American political creed of republicanism, and set up programs that proved a strong, effective government of the people could be made operational without an aristocracy or monarch.

Early life

Hamilton was born out of wedlock in the British West Indies to a mother who had a reputation as the town harlot and a father who was a gambler and who had a wife on another Caribbean island. When he was ten his father left, leaving he, his brother, and his mother alone. At twelve, his mother died while sick, due to fever. Alexander and his brother James would later move in with their older cousing Peter Lytton, but Lytton committed suicide.

A prodigy in every sense of the word, he was handling merchant accounts as a teenager, and his essay on a hurricane that had hit the town attracted patrons, who would later collect a fund to pay his way to the American colonies. Some scholars have argued that Hamilton's origins can be reflected in his later life, where, unlike much of the Revolutionary generation, his views were more nationalistic, rather than tied to the interests of a particular region or state.


As a student at King's College (now Columbia University), Hamilton took a major role in the political debates over independence, writing several papers refuting opponents and activists. Most notably, Hamilton refuted the bishop Samuel Seabury (who wrote under the pen name A. W. Farmer) in a paper titled The Farmer Refuted, published on February 23, 1775.[2]

Hamilton later raised a company of artillery and was selected captain. Fighting the British invasion of New York City in late 1776, he came to the attention of George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Washington promoted Hamilton to colonel and made him his aide-de-camp — in effect the chief of staff (although that title was not in use). Hamilton had a combat command in the Battle of Yorktown, which ended the war in 1781. Hamilton may have alerted General Washington to the existence of the Newburgh Conspiracy, in which disgruntled officers may have become a threat to civilian government. Washington prevented that.

After the Battle of Yorktown, Hamilton resigned his commission. New York appointed Hamilton to the Congress of the Confederation for the term beginning in November 1782, and appointed him as a delegate to the Annapolis Convention in 1786.

New York

Hamilton became a leading lawyer in New York City, and married into the rich and powerful Schuyler family. Along with his close friend John Jay, he was active in anti-slavery movements. In 1787, Hamilton served as assemblyman from New York County in the New York State Legislature. He was also chosen by the legislature as a delegate to the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787 along with Robert Yates and John Lansing, Jr.

Constitutional Convention

Hamilton, alongside James Madison and James Wilson, voiced strong opposition to state's rights, decentralization, and limited government at the Constitutional Convention and favored a radically nationalist approach to American government. Hamilton believed that the central principle of the Articles of Confederation was the idea of state sovereignty, but he argued that this indicated that the entire idea was completely wrong. Because state sovereignty, "the fundamental principle of the old Confederation," was wholly defective, Hamilton argued that America's only choice was to "eradicate and discard this principle before we can expect an efficient government."[3]

During the convention, Hamilton argued for the most heavily centralized plan of government out of all of the attendees. He proposed making the chief executive an elected monarch who could not be removed from office unless he ceased to rule "in good behavior." The president under Hamilton's plan would have been given an absolute veto which could not be overturned by the legislature. The national government would have had the power to appoint all state governors and would wield absolute veto power over all state legislation. Hamilton's plan also gave a life-time tenure in office to senators and to the judiciary. With his plan considered as a whole, Hamilton "advocated virtually doing away with state sovereignty, noting that as long as there was power to be had in the states, people would aspire to acquire that power, to the detriment of the nation as a whole."[4] Hamilton himself put it even more tersely, saying that "no amendment of the confederation can answer the purpose of a good government, so long as State sovereignties do, in any shape, exist."[5]

Hamilton authored 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers, while James Madison and John Jay composed the others. These essays, published anonymously in newspapers in New York and throughout the United States, helped turn popular opinion in favor of ratifying the Constitution, particularly in the decisive states of New York and Virginia.

Secretary of the Treasury

Perhaps Hamilton's greatest contribution to the success of the United States occurred during his tenure as Washington's Secretary of the Treasury from 1789 to 1795. Through a system of tariffs and excise taxes (some of which, as demonstrated by the Whiskey Rebellion, caused a great deal of resentment), Hamilton placed the United States on sound financial footing. While Hamilton disliked taxes, he also realized that they were necessary. Hamilton not only favored close trade ties with Great Britain, the world's leading commercial power, but he believed that the United States should emulate their economic system. In his Report on Manufactures, Hamilton envisioned the United States as a nation that would rely on manufacturing and commerce in order to become a great power. This (among other things) put him at odds with Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned the United States as an agrarian republic.

In 1790, Hamilton appointed Tench Coxe as Assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury.[6]

The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair

In the summer of 1797, Hamilton became the first major American politician publicly involved in an affair. Six years earlier, in the summer of 1791, 34-year-old Hamilton started an affair with 23-year-old Maria Reynolds; according to Hamilton's recount, Maria approached him at his house in Philadelphia, claiming that her husband, James Reynolds, had abandoned her and she wished to return to her relatives in New York but lacked the means. Hamilton retrieved her address and delivered her $30 personally at her boarding house where she led him into her bedroom. The two began an illicit affair that lasted approximately until June 1792.

Over the course of that year, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife's unfaithfulness. He continually supported their relationship in order to regularly gain blackmail money from Hamilton. The common practice in the day was for the wronged husband to seek retribution in a pistol duel, but Reynolds, realizing how much Hamilton had to lose if his activity came into public view, insisted on monetary compensation instead; after an initial request of $1,000 to which Hamilton complied, Reynolds invited Hamilton to renew his visits to his wife "as a friend" only to extort forced "loans" after each visit. In the end, the blackmail payments totaled over $1,300 (including the initial extortion). Hamilton, at this point, was probably aware of both Reynoldses' being involved in the blackmail, and welcomed, as well as strictly complied with, Reynolds' request to end the affair.

In November 1792, James Reynolds and his associate Jacob Clingman were arrested for counterfeiting and speculating in veteran back wages. Clingman was released on bail and relayed information to James Monroe that Reynolds had evidence that would incriminate Hamilton. Monroe consulted with Congressmen Muhlenberg and Venable on what actions to take and the Congressmen confronted Hamilton on December 15, 1792. Hamilton refuted the suspicions of speculation by exposing his affair with Maria and producing as evidence the letters by both Reynoldses, proving that his payments to James Reynolds related to blackmail over his adultery, and not to treasury misconduct. The trio were to keep the documents privately with the utmost confidence.

In the summer of 1797, however, when "notoriously scurrilous journalist" James T. Callender published A History of the United States for the Year 1796, it contained accusations of James Reynolds being an agent of Hamilton, using documents from the confrontation of December 15, 1792. On July 5, 1797, Hamilton wrote to Monroe, Muhlenberg and Venable asking them to confirm that there was nothing that would damage the perception of his integrity while Secretary of Treasury. Muhlenberg and Venable complied with Hamilton's request but Monroe didn't, and after several rounds of argument, the two almost resorted to a duel. When Hamilton did not obtain an explicit response from Monroe, he published a 91-page pamphlet, later usually referred to as the Reynolds Pamphlet, in order to preserve his public reputation, discussing the affair in exquisite detail. His wife Elizabeth eventually forgave him.

Federalist Party

Hamilton saw the need for political newspapers and subsidized numerous editors, most famously Noah Webster. In 1801, with $10,000 from investors, Hamilton started the New York Evening Post.[7]

Adams and Jefferson administrations

During the Adams administration, Hamilton was Senior Officer of the United States Army. Although he and Adams were both Federalists, both had a strong disagreement over how to handle the XYZ Affair, with Hamilton supporting war and Adams opposing it. This led to Hamilton supporting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney for president in 1800, though this backfired and Pinckney was not nominated, further straining Hamilton's relationship with Adams. During the election of 1800, Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in electoral votes, sending the election to the House of Representatives. The vote deadlocked, but Hamilton intervened and endorsed Jefferson over Burr, saying, "At least Jefferson is honest." In 1802 Hamilton proposed the idea of a "Christian Constitution Society", one that would likely be a pro-Federalist Party organization.[8] Later in 1804, Hamilton would stop Aaron Burr from being elected governor of New York, leading to their duel and Hamilton's death.


Jefferson repeatedly attacked Hamilton as an enemy of American values—and Jeffersonians have echoed the criticism over the centuries. Jefferson said he was an enemy of popular government, did not believe in republicanism, admired the British system too much, and even wanted to set up a monarchy. Since the 1980s scholars have rescued Hamilton from these interpretations and stressed his republicanism, arguing that Jefferson went too far in his attacks. Historians now portray Hamilton as a moderate, mainstream republican. They point to the Federalist Papers as a core statement of American values, and also Washington's "Farewell Address." One debate in the 1790s was whether true republican citizens should have "confidence" in their elected leaders, which was Hamilton's position, or maintain a "vigilant" scrutiny of them, which was Jefferson's. Hamilton stressed confidence in his vision of republican citizenship and freedom of the press. Hamilton's philosophy, argues Martin (2005), is best understood as an energetic, elitist reformulation of republicanism.

Hamilton's conception of human nature shaped his political thought. His predominantly and radically liberal conception of human nature was based on John Locke's concept of liberty, Thomas Hobbes's concept of power, and Nicolò Machiavelli's concept of the 'effectual truth.' It thus stressed the necessary relation between self-interest and republican government and entailed the repudiation of classical republican and Christian political ideals. But Hamilton's love of liberty was nonetheless rooted in a sense of classical nobility and Christian philanthropy that simultaneously elevated and contradicted his liberalism. The complex relation between liberty, nobility, philanthropy, and power in Hamilton's conception of human nature, in effect, defined his thought and exposed the strengths and weaknesses of his ideology. That complexity formed the spirit of his liberal republicanism.[9]

In defense of Republicanism, Hamilton authored papers under the pseudonym Lucius Crassus.


Hamilton's long standing rivalry with Aaron Burr eventually lead to Burr accusing Hamilton of slander. Hamilton replied that the anti-Burr statements he had made were not slander, but were instead the truth. The resulting argument brought a lifetime of feuding to a head in the form of a duel. The duel took place on the 11th of July 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton believed that a gentleman shoots over his target, and that honor is served.[10] Burr had no such belief. Hamilton shot over Burr's head, but Burr's gunshot struck its target into Hamilton's body. Hamilton was taken away and after suffering horribly from the wound throughout the night, died the next day.[11] Hamilton's son, who was given the same advice by his father that a gentleman shoots over his target, had earlier died in a duel the same way.

At dawn on the morning of July 11, 1804, political antagonists and personal enemies Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr met on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, to settle their longstanding differences with a duel. The participants fired their pistols in close succession. Burr's shot met its target immediately, fatally wounding Hamilton and leading to his death the following day. Burr escaped unharmed. This tragically extreme incident reflected the depth of animosity aroused by the first emergence of the nation's political party system.[12]


No figure in American history has had so many ups and down, so many champions and detractors as Hamilton over the last two centuries. Historians continue to ask, "Was he a closet monarchist or a sincere republican? A victim of partisan politics or one of its most active promoters? A lackey for British interests or a foreign policy mastermind? An economic genius or a shill for special interests? The father of a vigorous national government or the destroyer of genuine federalism? A defender of governmental authority or a dangerous militarist?"[13]


Hamilton, along with Benjamin Franklin, is one of only two non-presidents to be portrayed on American money. Hamilton's portrait is on the $10 bill, while Franklin is on the $100 bill.

Originally the United States Treasury planned to replace Hamilton with a female on the $10 bill (since Hamilton was not a sitting president); however, the plan was shelved due to the popularity of the Hamilton musical.


  • "Those who stand for nothing fall for anything."
  • "In the general course of human nature, a power over a man's subsistence amounts to a power over his will." - Federalist 79
  • "Foreign influence is truly the Grecian horse to a republic. We cannot be too careful to exclude its influence."[14]
  • "The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed."[15]

See also


  1. D'Elia, Donald (1983). "Alexander Hamilton: From Caesar to Christ", ch. 6 of The Spirits of 76 (Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press), p. 87. Republished at Catholic Education Resource Center website/Culture/History.
  2. The Farmer Refuted, The Online Library of Liberty
  3. Alexander Hamilton, Elliot II, 234. The idea is also present in "The Federalist" no. 15.
  6. Appointment of Tench Coxe as Assistant to the Secretary of the Treasury, (10 May 1790)
  7. It is currently published by Rupert Murdoch under the name New York Post.
  8. Turner, John. (April 29, 2015). Alexander Hamilton's "Christian Constitutional Society". Patheos.
  9. Michael J. Rosano, "Liberty, Nobility, Philanthropy, and Power in Alexander Hamilton's Conception of Human Nature". American Journal of Political Science 2003 47(1): 61-74
  11. Biography
  12. Alexander Hamilton.
  13. Ambrose and Martin, ed. The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton (2006) p. 11
  14. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay (1842). “The Federalist, on the New Constitution, Written in the Year 1788”, p. 427
  15. Federalist No. 69

Further reading


  • Ambrose, Douglas, and Robert W. T. Martin, eds. The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father. (2006) 310pp, essays by scholars; excerpt and text search
  • Cooke, Jacob E. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography. (1982) by leading scholar
  • Flexner, James Thomas. "The Young Hamilton: A Biography". (1997)
  • Hacker, Louis M. Alexander Hamilton in the American Tradition. (1957) online edition
  • McDonald, Forrest. Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (1979) online edition biography focused on intellectual history esp on AH's republicanism.
  • McDonald, Forrest. "Hamilton, Alexander"; American National Biography Online 2000, 5000 words
  • Miller, John C. Alexander Hamilton: Portrait in Paradox (1959), full-length scholarly biography; online edition
  • Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton (2 vols, 1957–62), the most detailed scholarly biography; online edition of vol 1
    • Mitchell, Broadus. Alexander Hamilton: A Concise Biography (1976), 395pp
  • Nevins, Allan. "Alexander Hamilton" in Dictionary of American Biography (1934)
  • Randall, Willard Sterne. "Alexander Hamilton: A Life". (2003) Popular. excerpt and text search

Political philosophy

  • Chan, Michael D. "Alexander Hamilton on Slavery." Review of Politics 66 (Spring 2004): 207–31. in JSTOR
  • Fatovic, Clement. "Constitutionalism and Presidential Prerogative: Jeffersonian and Hamiltonian Perspectives." American Journal of Political Science 2004 48(3): 429–444. in JSTOR
  • Horton, James Oliver. "Alexander Hamilton: Slavery and Race in a Revolutionary Generation" New-York Journal of American History 2004 65(3): 16–24. online version
  • Mason, Alpheus Thomas. "The Federalist—A Split Personality," American Historical Review 57 (1952): 625-43 online at JSTOR
  • Martin, Robert W. T. "Reforming Republicanism: Alexander Hamilton's Theory of Republican Citizenship and Press Liberty." Journal of the Early Republic 2005 25(1): 21–46. Issn: 0275-1275 in Project Muse
  • Rossiter, Clinton. Alexander Hamilton and the Constitution (1964)
  • Sheehan, Colleen. "Madison V. Hamilton: The Battle Over Republicanism And The Role Of Public Opinion" American Political Science Review 2004 98(3): 405–424. online abstract
  • Stourzh, Gerald. Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (1970),
  • Staloff, Darren. "Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson: The Politics of Enlightenment and the American Founding." (2005)


  • Bassett, John Spencer. The Federalist System, 1789-1801 (1906) old scholarly survey; online edition
  • Bowers, Claude G. Jefferson and Hamilton (1925), a slashing attack on Hamilton as unamerican aristocrat
  • Charles, Joseph. "The Jay Treaty: The Origins of the American Party System," in William and Mary Quarterly, (Oct., 1955), pp. 581–630. online at JSTOR
  • Elkins, Stanley M. and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism. (1993), the most advanced history of politics in 1790s online edition
  • Kurtz; Stephen G. The Presidency of John Adams: The Collapse of Federalism, 1795-1800 1957 online edition
  • Miller, John C. The Federalist Era: 1789-1801 (1960), scholarly survey
  • Nevins, Allan. The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism (1922) online edition ch 1 on Hamilton's ownership
  • Sharp, James. American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. (1995), survey of politics in 1790s


  • Edling, Max M. "'So Immense a Power in the Affairs of War': Alexander Hamilton and the Restoration of Public Credit." William and Mary Quarterly 2007 64(2): 287–326. in History Cooperative
  • Flaumenhaft, Harvey. The Effective Republic: Administration and Constitution in the Thought of Alexander Hamilton Duke University Press, 1992 online edition
  • McDonald, Forrest. The Presidency of George Washington (1974).
  • McNamara, Peter. Political Economy and Statesmanship: Smith, Hamilton, and the Foundation of the Commercial Republic. (Northern Illinois University Press, 1997). 256 pp.
  • Nettels, Curtis P. The Emergence of a National Economy, 1775–1815 (1962). general survey of economic history and policy
  • White, Leonard D. The Federalists (1949), detailed coverage of how the Treasury and other departments were created and operated.
  • Wright; Robert E. Hamilton Unbound: Finance and the Creation of the American Republic Praeger (2002) online edition

Foreign Policy

  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1923) online edition
  • Coleman, Aaron N. "'A Second Bounaparty?': A Reexamination of Alexander Hamilton during the Franco–American Crisis, 1796–1801," Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 28, Number 2, Summer 2008, pp. 183–214 in Project Muse
  • Combs, Jerald. A. The Jay Treaty: Political Background of Founding Fathers (1970) Combs dislikes Hamilton's quest for national power and a "heroic state" dominating the Western Hemisphere, but concludes the Federalists "followed the proper policy" because the treaty preserved peace with Britain
  • Harper, John Lamberton. American Machiavelli: Alexander Hamilton and the Origins of U.S. Foreign Policy. (2004) online review
  • Lycan, Gilbert L. Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy: A Design for Greatness (1970),
  • Smith, Robert W. Keeping the Republic: Ideology and Early American Diplomacy. (2004)
  • Walling, Karl-Friedrich. Republican Empire: Alexander Hamilton on War and Free Government (1999),


  • Ambrose, Douglas and Robert W. T. Martin, eds. The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life & Legacy of America's Most Elusive Founding Father (2006)
  • Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2001). essential on the meaning of duels; online interview
  • Kennedy, Roger G. Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson: A Study in Character Oxford UP, 2000 online edition
  • Knott, Stephen F. Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth University Press of Kansas, (2002) (ISBN 0-7006-1157-6).
  • Trees, Andrew S. "The Importance of Being Alexander Hamilton." Reviews in American History 2005 33(1): 8–14. Issn: 0048-7511 Fulltext: in Project Muse
  • Trees, Andrew S. The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character. (2004)

Primary sources

  • Freeman, Joanne B., ed. Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001), The Library of America edition, 1108 pages. Most of Hamilton's major writings and many of his letters excerpt and text search
  • Syrett, Harold C. ed. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (27 vol, Columbia University Press, 1961–87); includes all letters and writing by Hamilton, and all important letters written to him; this is the definitive letterpress edition, heavily annotated by scholars; it is available in larger academic libraries; there is also a separate Law series.
  • Morris, Richard. ed. Alexander Hamilton and the Founding of the Nation (1957), excerpts from AH's writings, by topic, 617pp
  • Morton J. Frisch ed. Selected Writings and Speeches of Alexander Hamilton. (1985), 528pp. online edition
  • The Works of Alexander Hamilton edited by Henry Cabot Lodge (1904) full text online at Google Books online in HTML edition. This is the only online collection of Hamilton's writings and letters. Published in 10 volumes, containing about 1.3 million words. full text online at
  • Federalist Papers under the shared pseudonym "Publius" by Alexander Hamilton (c. 52 articles), James Madison (28 articles) and John Jay (five articles)
  • Cooke, Jacob E. ed., Alexander Hamilton: A Profile (1967), short excerpts from AH and his critics.
  • Cunningham, Noble E. Jefferson vs. Hamilton: Confrontations that Shaped a Nation (2000), short collection of primary sources with commentary.
  • Taylor, George Rogers. ed, Hamilton and the National Debt 1950, excerpts from all sides in 1790s online edition
  • Alexander Hamilton, by Charles A. Conant - Audiobook at LibriVox

External links