Hamilton, Alexander


Hamilton, Alexander
(1755–1804)
   American soldier, politician, statesman, and constitutional theorist of the Federalist Papers, as well as first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States (1789–1795). Hamilton was born in the Caribbean on the tiny island of Nevis. When he was 10 years old, his father moved the family to the nearby island of St. Croix and subsequently abandoned them. His mother opened a shop while Hamilton found a job as a clerk at a trading post where he was first immersed in bookkeeping and economics. The main trade in the Caribbean at this time was sugar and slaves formed the majority of workforce. Witnessing the brutal reality of slavery firsthand, Hamilton developed an aversion to the practice that prevented him from ever owning slaves or endorsing the practice. At 17, Hamilton left for the colony of New York in 1772 and enrolled at King’s College, now Columbia University. He joined the New York Militia in 1775 and became a captain of an artillery unit. After two years of service, he gained the respect of General George Washington, who appointed him his aidede-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel. His intelligence and his proximity to Washington ensured his position as an important political figure after the Revolutionary War was won.
   In 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, began a successful Manhattan law practice, and represented New York at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Hamilton led the Federalist side in the constitutional debates, accounting for two-thirds of The Federalist, a series of 85 newspaper essays written together with James Madison and John Jay on the fundamental principles and constituent institutions of government that represent both the first major work of political theory produced in America and the blueprint for The Constitution of the United States of America. The coherence of Hamilton’s ideas and the force with which he articulated them did much to secure ratification of the Constitution. As Secretary of the Treasury to President Washington, Hamilton was able to encourage manufacturing, allow the national government to assume responsibility for the country’s debt, create a national bank that standardized and controlled the currency, and was able to maintain friendly ties with the British government. Hamilton found himself in a constant struggle with anti-Federalists, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison most prominent among them, who wished to keep the federal government’s power to a minimum. Federalists and Anti-Federalists disagreed on almost every issue - save that of territorial expansion.
   Expansion was deemed not only desirable but also a necessity in ensuring the security of the republic. Hamilton personally went as far as trying to form a permanent standing army to accomplish this task, but he was impeded when then President John Adams disagreed. The little republic was, Hamilton maintained, “the embryo of a great empire” and the powers of Europe would happily crush the American experiment. In the meantime he deemed it imperative that the United States avoid any overseas commitments beyond “occasional alliances,” a sentiment evident in the Farewell Address of Washington’s presidency, which Hamilton co-authored. The speech is often cited as the first article of American isolationism in the first half of the twentieth century. Hamilton used his influence to help his rival Jefferson to the presidency in 1801 over Vice President Aaron Burr, whom he distrusted personally and politically. He also supported Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase, deeming it important to American security that European power be eliminated from the North American continent and the hemisphere. In this attitude he anticipated the Monroe Doctrine. Hamilton died young and suddenly at the age of 49 in a pistol duel with Burr.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Chernow, Rob. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Books, 2004;
    Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Knopf Publishing, 2004;
    Hamilton, Alexander. Hamilton: Writings. Washington, DC: Library of America, 2001.
   ARTHUR HOLST

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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