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Alexander Hamilton
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Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755/7July 12, 1804) was an American statesman. He is credited with successfully defending the U.S. Constitution to skeptical New Yorkers as the principal author of the Federalist Papers. He also put the new United States of America onto a sound economic footing as its first and most influential Secretary of the Treasury, establishing a central bank, public credit, and the foundations for a mixed economy and stock and commodity exchanges.

Table of contents
1 Early Years
2 Secretary of the Treasury
3 The Maria Reynolds Affair and Rivalry with Aaron Burr
4 Hamilton and modern politics
5 Biographies
6 Writings
7 External links

Early Years

Hamilton was born on the West Indies island of Nevis, the son of James Hamilton, a struggling businessman from Scotland, and Rachel Fawcet Lavien, who was then married to another man. His father abandoned the family and his mother died when Hamilton was in his early teens. As a teenager, a letter he wrote to the local paper caused such a sensation that community leaders raised money to fund his passage to America. He settled in New York in 1772 for formal education, beginning with grammar school. Later he attended King's College, which is now Columbia University.

Hamilton's great genius revealed itself early. While in his teens, he took a firm stand on the side of the patriots, and became a leader in the movement advocating independence. Before he was 20, Hamilton commanded artillery troops in several important battles in the American Revolutionary War, and from 1777 to 1781, served as aide-de-camp to General Washington.

He left Washington to take command of an infantry regiment that took part in the siege of Yorktown. At the age of 25, he served as a member of the Continental Congress from 1782-1783, then retired to open his own law office in New York City. His public career resumed when he attended the Annapolis Convention as a delegate in 1786.

He also served in the New York State Legislature and attended the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. Throughout the convention's proceedings Hamilton, who was a federalist, argued consistently for a strong central government, including a king-like, though not hereditary, president, and an upper house based on the House of Lords. Hamilton opposed equal representation in the Senate, saying the idea "shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling" and wanted Senators to serve for life, subject to good behavior. Although the document finally produced by the convention was less centralist than Hamilton proposed, and the tenures of those exercising power were shorter than he desired, Hamilton was active in the successful campaign for its ratification in New York. In this endeavour Hamilton made the largest single contribution to the authorship of the Federalist Papers.

Hamilton served another term in 1788 in what proved to be the last time the Continental Congress met under the new Articles of Confederation.

Secretary of the Treasury

On the recommendation of Robert Morris, President George Washington appointed him to be the first Secretary of the Treasury when the first Congress passed an Act establishing the Treasury Department. He served in that post from September 11, 1789 until January 31, 1795.

As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton's term was marked by bold innovation, statesmanlike planning, and masterful reports. In office for barely a month, he proposed the idea of a seagoing branch of the military to secure the revenue against contraband. The following summer, the Congress authorized a Revenue Marine force of ten cutters, the precursor to the United States Coast Guard. He also played a crucial role in creating the United States Navy (the Naval Act of 1794).

He published Report on the Public Credit in January 1790, which was a milestone in American financial history, marking the end of an era of bankruptcy and repudiation. The plan provided for assumption of both the domestic and the foreign debts. Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson strongly opposed Hamilton's plan, but it passed overwhelmingly. He advocated assumption by the Federal Government of the debts of the States. Madison and Jefferson also opposed this plan, but they settled the contest in a private meeting on July 21, 1790. During this meeting, Hamilton agreed to the future location of the nation's capital on the Potomac River, in return for Jefferson's support of assumption.

Hamilton's perceptive and creative mind coupled with his driving ambition to set his ideas in motion resulted many proposals to the Congress. His proposals included a plan including import duties and excise taxes for raising revenue, funding of the revolutionary debt, and suggestions on naval laws. He also developed plans for a Congressional charter for the First Bank of the United States, and for placing the revenues on firm ground.

Strong opposition to collection efforts of his excise tax on spirits erupted into the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia in 1794. Hamilton felt that compliance with the laws was very urgent. He accompanied General "Light Horse Harry" Lee and his troops part of the way in an advisory capacity to help put down the insurrection.

The Maria Reynolds Affair and Rivalry with Aaron Burr

One scandal damaged Alexander Hamilton's reputation as Secretary of the Treasury, and prevented his further elevation in American politics. In 1794, he became intimately involved with Maria Reynolds, a woman whose husband subsequently blackmailed the Secretary for money, while still permitting sexual liaisons between Hamilton and his wife. When James Reynolds was arrested for counterfeiting, he contacted several prominent Jeffersonians, most notably James Monroe. When they visited Hamilton with their suspicions of malfeasance, he stressed his innocence, while admitting to an affair with Maria Reynolds. Monroe promised to keep details from public knowledge, but Thomas Jefferson had no such compunctions. Hamilton was forced to publish a confession of his affair, which shocked his family and supporters. A duel with Monroe over his supposed breach was averted by none other than Senator Aaron Burr.

Ironically, attorney Aaron Burr would later represent Maria Reynolds in her divorce lawsuit, leading some to suspect he set Hamilton up. However, Hamilton's relationship with Burr had been cordial during their years as New York lawyers; in fact, their families often met for social occasions. When Burr defeated Hamilton's [father-in-law], Philip Schuyler in the 1791 Senate race, Hamilton began a secret campaign to destroy his opportunistic rival, who had sought the Presidential nomination in 1796, and would do so again in 1800.

Hamilton's resignation as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795 did not remove him from public life. With the resumption of his law practice, he remained close to Washington as an advisor and friend and he is believed to have influenced Washington in the latter's composition of his Farewell Address. Relations between Hamilton and Washington's successor, John Adams, were frequently strained and Hamilton's attempts to frustrate Adams' adoption as presidential candidate of the Federalist Party split the party and contributed to the victory of the Jeffersonian Republicans in the election of 1800.

Hamilton's role in ensuring the subsequent selection of Jefferson as President in preference to Aaron Burr marked his first bold stroke against his erstwhile friend. Burr sought the New York governorship in 1804, first running as a Federalist, then as an independent. One newspaper referred to a "despicable opinion" that a Dr. Charles D. Cooper attributed to Hamilton about Burr. Scenting a chance to regain political honor, Aaron Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused, on grounds he could not recall the instance the newspaper mentioned. A duel was arranged for July 11, on a rocky ledge in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same place where Hamilton's son Phillip had lost a duel over three years earlier, defending his father's honor. At dawn, the duel began. Hamilton, who had come to oppose dueling following his son's death, may have fired his shot into the air. Others have speculated he could have misfired his pistol, one of a pair that belonged to his family. Regardless, Burr shot Hamilton, the bullet entering below the chest. He died the next day and was interred in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan.

Burr fled New York under charges of murder and later of treason. He died in 1836, having squandered his fortune, and having become almost universally reviled because of his 1807 conspiracy trial. General James Wilkinson had also approached Hamilton repeatedly with plans for filibuster expeditions along the Spanish frontier.

Hamilton and modern politics

Hamilton's legacy on the current political landscape remains controversial. He was a strong supporter of the Federal Constitutional system of government. An opposing force during his time was the Jeffersonians and their view that the states were independent entities not inferior to the Federal Government.

Hamiltonís portrait began to appear on money during the Civil War, when he appeared on the $2, $5, $10, and $50 notes, which was symbolic of his ideological opposition to the ideas of the Confederacy.

Hamilton's portrait appears on the U.S. $10 bill. Some conservatives want to replace Hamilton with Ronald Reaganís portrait.

Biographies

Writings

Preceded by:
None
United States Secretary of the Treasury Succeeded by:
Oliver Wolcott, Jr


External links