Who Was Alexander Hamilton?

By Jordyn Posluns on March 2 2020 in Society

Alexander Hamilton portrait from ten dollar bill
Alexander Hamilton portrait from ten dollar bill
  • As one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton's Constitutional legacy was his ability to secure the Constitution’s ratification as one of the three authors of The Federalist Papers
  • Hamilton is widely-regarded as the Father of American Banking for his contribution as the founder of the U.S. Treasury and the American banking system
  • Hamilton's portrait is featured on the U.S. ten-dollar bill, and the U.S. Treasury Building is featured on the reverse side.

The Legacy of Alexander Hamilton

Among his numerous influential roles that significantly shaped the United States' political, legal, economic, and financial climates, Alexander Hamilton was a notable American politician, lawyer, scholar, military commander, and the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States.  As one of America's Founding Fathers, he was responsible for the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and founded the first political party in the United States, the Federalist Party, as well as the United States Coast Guard and the New York Post newspaper.  Hamilton was a tireless and tenacious advocate for a strong central government for the United States and the abolition of the international slave trade. The biography of Alexander Hamilton was so interesting and intriguing that famous play-write Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to write a multiple Tony award-winning musical entitled Hamilton. 

Early Life

The year Hamilton was born in the British West Indies is still disputed - however, records show it was either 1755 or 1757.  He was born on January 11, out of wedlock in Charlestown, Nevis.  His father abandoned the family several years after Hamilton's birth, and his mother died shortly after that after contracting yellow fever.  An orphan, Hamilton persevered through a difficult childhood, and subsequently moved to New York as a teenager to study in late 1772, just several years before the American Revolutionary War, the result of which culminated in the international recognition of America's independence from Great Britain and the sovereignty of the United States.

Political Career

During the war, Hamilton served in the military, ultimately advancing to the position of lieutenant colonel, serving as a chief staff aide to George Washington in directing the Continental Army two years after it was established.

Hamilton's post-war achievements were immense.  Not only was he elected as a New York delegate to the Congress of the Confederation, but he became a successful lawyer after studying for and passing the bar in just six months, and founded the Bank of New York.  He then commenced his political career, campaigning for a stronger federal government under a new Constitution.  Hamilton's significant roles in the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 contributed to the enactment of the Constitution of the United States, which remains in force to this day.  Hamilton's Constitutional legacy was focused on his writing of 51 of the 85 installments of The Federalist Papers, a series of articles and essays that are still referred to by scholars and the Supreme Court to facilitate Constitutional interpretation.

Hamilton: The Father of American Banking

As a member of President Washington's first Cabinet, Hamilton was appointed the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury.  The U.S. had accrued large sums of foreign and domestic debt as a result of expenses incurred during the war.  Tasked with devising a system for the "adequate support of the public credit," Hamilton established the first government-supported Bank of the United States.  His policies endorsed the establishment of national and international credit programs, the reinforcement of national government and military (at the expense of the states), the institution of a federal system for tax collection, and the development of a strong and stable commercial economy.  Hamilton's programs were funded by the implementation of tariffs on imported goods and his widely-unpopular whiskey tax. 

Competing Visions: Federalists vs. Democratic-Republicans

While Hamilton's fiscal and foreign policies became the foundation of the Federalist party, not everyone agreed with his political philosophies.  Opposition emerged when the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, outwardly criticized Hamilton's Federalist stance on America's response to the eruption of war between Great Britain and France in 1793.  While the Democratic-Republicans were in favor of supporting France, the Federalists maintained neutrality, further corroborating Jefferson's and Madison's allegations that Hamilton's had too friendly relations with "corrupt Britain."

In 1795, Hamilton resigned from the Treasury.  Several years later, under President John Adams, Hamilton was appointed to the Commanding General of the U.S. Army.  Despite Hamilton's demands for mobilization against the French First Republic, Adams insisted on a diplomatic resolution to the conflict with France that did not involve combat.  Infuriated by Adams' defiance, Hamilton's opposition to Adams' re-election resulted in a loss for the Federalist party in 1800.

The Deadly Duel

In 1804, Aaron Burr, Hamilton's longtime political rival, ran for Governor of New York, and his candidacy was supported by nearly all of the members of the Federalist Party, except for Hamilton. Following his loss in the June election, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel after learning that Hamilton had allegedly announced at a dinner party he held a "despicable opinion" of Burr.  Burr also read in a newspaper that Hamilton had claimed that Burr was "the most unfit and dangerous man of the community."

The duel between the two adversaries took place on the morning of July 11 in Weehawken, New Jersey, the same location where Hamilton's son had been killed in a duel just three years earlier.  Burr mortally wounded Hamilton, and he succumbed to his injuries the next day, leaving behind his wife and seven children.

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