Alexander Hamilton, an American statesman, born in the island of Nevis, West Indies, Jan. 11, 1757, died in New York, July 12, 1804. His father had emigrated from Scotland and established himself in mercantile business in St. Christopher's. His mother was of French Huguenot descent; she had first been married to a Dane named Levine, from whom she obtained a divorce. Hamilton's father failed in business, and passed the remainder of his life in poverty. His mother died in his childhood, but relatives of hers who resided at Santa Cruz took charge of the orphan, her only surviving child. There were no great advantages of education at Santa Cruz; but, possessing the French as well as the English tongue, young Hamilton eagerly read such books in both languages as fell in his way. At 12 years of age he was placed in the counting house of a merchant of Santa Cruz; but this occupation was not to his taste, and in his earliest extant letter, written to a schoolfellow, he speaks with disgust of the "grovelling condition of a clerk," and wishes for a war. But though he did not like his employment, he applied himself to it with characteristic assiduity; and the practical knowledge thus acquired was doubtless a stepping stone to his subsequent reputation as a financier.
He began to use his pen early, and among other things he wrote a description of a hurricane by which St. Christopher's was visited in August, 1772. This description, published in a newspaper of that island, attracted so much attention as to induce his friends to comply with his wish for a better education than could be had at home, and to send him to New York for that purpose. He was first placed in a grammar school at Elizabethtown, N. J., where he enjoyed the acquaintance of the families of William Livingston and Elias Boudinot. After a few months he entered King's (now Columbia) college. Besides the regular studies of an undergraduate, he attended lectures on anatomy with the idea of becoming a physician. While he was thus engaged the quarrel with the mother country came to a crisis. Some differences in the city of New York as to the selection of delegates to the proposed continental congress led to a public meeting, July 6, 1774. Hamilton attended, and made a speech which first drew attention to him. Not long after he became a correspondent of " Holt's Journal," the organ of the New York patriots.
A pamphlet having appeared attacking the proceedings of the continental congress, written by Samuel Seabury, afterward the first bishop of the American branch of the church of England, Hamilton replied to it in another pamphlet, written with so much ability that it was ascribed to Jay. This reply drew out an answer, to which Hamilton rejoined in a second pamphlet. These pamphlets, and another which he published in June, 1775, on the "Quebec Bill," gave him standing and consideration among the popular leaders. Meanwhile ho had joined a volunteer corps, and applied himself to obtain information and instruction as an artillerist. In March, 1770, though yet but 19 years of age, he obtained, on the recommendation of Gen. Schuyler, then in command of the northern department, a commission as captain in an artillery company raised by the state of New York. The main body of the continental army, lately employed in the siege of Boston, had now arrived at New York, which it was expected would he the next object of attack.
The mind of the young artillery captain was not, however, wholly absorbed in military matters; in the pay book of his company, which still exists, are notes which show that he was revolving in his thoughts the subject of currency, commerce, the collection of taxes, and other questions of political economy. In the campaign which followed, Hamilton bore an active part. It soon became necessary to abandon New York, and Washington retired to the upper part of the island on which that city stands. It was here that Hamilton, while employed in the construction of an earthwork, first attracted the attention of the commander-in-chief, who invited him to his quarters. Hamilton's artillery formed a part of the detachment of 1,600 men posted at Chatterton's hill, the attack upon which by the British is commonly known as the battle of White Plains. He shared in the retreat through New Jersey, and his guns helped to check the advance of Cornwallis, who with greatly superior force came upon the retreating troops as they were crossing the Raritan. He also took part in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, by all which hard service his company was reduced to 25 men. The spirit and ability of the young captain of artillery had not escaped notice.
He had received invitations from two major generals to take a place in their staff. These he declined; but he accepted a similar offer from Washington, and on March 1, 1777, was announced in orders as aide-de-camp to the commander-in-chief with the rank of lieutenant colonel. What Washington most wanted in his aides-de-camp was competent assistance in the multifarious correspondence which he was obliged to carry on with congress, the governors of the states, the officers on detached service, and in regard to the exchange of prisoners and other subjects with the British commander-in-chief. He required somebody able to think for him, as well as to transcribe and to execute orders; and so much did he rely on Hamilton's judgment as to employ him, young as he was, in the most delicate and confidential duties. After the battles of Brandy wine and Germantown, in which Hamilton took an active part, he was despatched on a confidential mission to Putnam and (rates, to hasten forward the reenforcements which those officers after the surrender of Bur-goyne's army had been directed to send to Washington. These orders they had been in no hurry to execute, and it required a good deal of firmness on Hamilton's part to accomplish the object of his mission.
He spent the following winter in the camp at Valley Forge. He was present at the battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778, an attack which, in common with Greene, Wayne, and Lafayette, he had strongly favored, notwithstanding the opinion of Lee to the contrary. Of the challenge which his fellow aide-de-camp Laurens sent to Lee, growing out of the incidents of that day, Hamilton was the bearer, and he acted as second to Laurens in the duel which followed. When Admiral D'Estaing arrived at Sandy Hook, Hamilton was sent by Washington to confer with him, and to make the arrangement which resulted in the attack on Rhode Island. His courtesy and tact made a very favorable impression on the French admiral. When in the autumn of the next year D'Estaing reappeared on the southern coast, Hamilton was again sent to express to him the views and wishes of Washington. He was at West Point at the time of the disco very of Arnold's treason, and strongly urged a compliance with Andre's last request to be shot. At the close of the year 1780 he married Eliza, the second daughter of Philip Schuyler, and by this alliance with a wealthy and influential family established for himself a permanent hold upon the state of New York. Shortly afterward he resigned his position as a member of Washington's staff.
A rebuke from Washington which he thought unmerited was answered on the spot by a resignation, which he declined to withdraw, though Washington sent him an apology. But this separation did not interrupt their mutual confidence and esteem. He subsequently obtained a position in the line of the army as commander of a New York battalion, and in that capacity was present at the siege of Yorktown, where he led in the attack and capture of one of the British outworks, Oct. 14, 1781. The rest of the autumn and the winter he spent with his father-in-law at Albany, where he began to study law. . After a few months' study he obtained at the July term of the supreme court, 1782, a license to practise. A few days later he was elected by the legislature of New York a delegate to the continental congress, and took his seat in November following. During the year that ho sat in this body Hamilton bore an active part in the proceedings relating to the settlement with the officers of the army as to their half pay, the treaty of peace, and attempts to provide means of meeting the public debt.
He had become fully satisfied of the necessity of giving increased authority to congress, and before his election had drafted a resolution which the New York legislature adopted, urging an amendment of the articles of confederation having that end in view. The city of New York having been evacuated by the British, he resigned his seat in congress, removed thither, and commenced the practice of the law. An act had been passed by the New York legislature just before, disqualifying from practice all attorneys and councillors who could not produce satisfactory certificates of attachment to whig principles; most or all the old city lawyers fell within this prohibition, which remained in force for three or four years, and enabled Hamilton and other young advocates to enter immediately on a run of practice which other-wise they might not have obtained so speedily.
There existed indeed in the New York legislature a very bitter feeling against the tories. Another act levelled against them, known as the "Trespass Act," gave occasion to a suit in which Hamilton early distinguished himself. This act authorized the owners of buildings in the city of New York, who had abandoned them in consequence of the British possession of the city, to maintain suits for rent against the occupants, notwithstanding the plea on their part that the buildings had been held under authority from the British commander. Being retained by the defendant in one of these suits, Hamilton made an elaborate plea, in which he maintained that whatever right might be given by the statute, the treaty of peace and the law of nations extinguished it. Though the popular sentiment was strongly against him, he prevailed with the court, whose decision was of the more consequence as there were many other cases depending on the same principle. The decision was denounced by a public meeting in the city; and the legislature, without waiting the result of an appeal, passed resolutions censuring the court. Hamilton defended his views in two pamphlets, and the spirit as an advocate and ability as a lawyer which he displayed in this case secured him at once a multitude of clients.
He took an active part in establishing the bank of New York, the first institution of the kind in the state and the second in the Union, and was appointed one of its directors. He was one of the founders of the manumission society, the object of which was the abolition of slavery, then existing in the state of New York. By appointment of the state legislature he attended in 1786 the convention at Annapolis, and as a member of it drafted the address to the states which led to the convention the next year by which the federal constitution was framed. Having been chosen a member of the legislature of New York, he vainly urged the concession to congress of power to collect a 5 per cent. import duty, and the repeal of all state laws inconsistent with the treaty of peace. In the settlement of the long pending controversy between New York and Vermont, and the acknowledgment of the independence of Vermont by New York, he was more successful. Though the prevailing party in the New York legislature was little inclined to any material increase of the authority of the federal government, Hamilton was appointed one of the delegates to the convention to revise the articles of confederation, which met at Philadelphia, May 14, 1787. He had, however, two colleagues, Robert Yates and John Lansing, who together controlled the vote of the state, of decidedly opposite opinions.
Two projects were brought forward in that body, one known as the Virginia plan, which contemplated the formation of a national government with an executive, legislature, and judiciary of its own, the basis of the constitution actually adopted; the other known as the New Jersey plan, which was little more than an amendment in a few particulars of the existing confederation. In the course of the debate on these two plans, Hamilton delivered a very elaborate speech. As between the two plans, he preferred that which went furthest, though he doubted if even that was stringent enough to secure the object in view. He offered a written sketch of such a frame of government as he would prefer, not for discussion, or with the idea that in the existing state of public sentiment it could be adopted, but as indicating the mark to which he would desire to approach as near as possible. This scheme included an assembly to be elected by the people for three years; a senate to be chosen by electors chosen by the people, to hold office during good behavior; and a governor chosen also for good behavior by a similar but most complicated process. The governor was to have an absolute negative on all laws, and the appointment of all officers, subject to the approval of the senate.
The governors of the states were to be appointed by the general government, and were to have a negative on all state laws. The power of declaring war and of ratifying treaties was to be tested in the senate. He insisted on the necessity of establishing a national government so powerful and influential as to create an interest in its support extensive and strong enough to counterbalance the state governments, and to reduce them to subordinate importance. Upon the adoption of the Virginia scheme his New York colleagues abandoned the convention in disgust. He too was absent for some time on business in New York, but returned again to the convention, and, though the constitution as reported by the committee of detail failed to come up to his ideas of energy and efficiency, he exerted himself to perfect it. He was one of the committee for revising its style and arrangement, and warmly urged its signature by the delegates present as the best that could be had. There still remained the not less serious and doubtful task of procuring for the constitution the consent and ratification of the states.
The convention adjourned Sept. 17. On Oct. 27 there appeared in a New York journal the first number of a series of papers entitled "The Federalist," in support of the constitution against the various objections urged to it. These papers continued till the following June, reaching the number of 85, were republished throughout the states, and made a strong impression in favor of the new scheme of government. Five of them were written by Jay, fourteen by Madison, three by Madison and Hamilton jointly, and the rest by Hamilton. They are still read and quoted as a standard commentary on the ends and aims of the federal constitution and its true interpretation. In the convention of New York, of which Hamilton was a member, he sustained the constitution with zeal and success. The government having been put into operation under it, and congress at its first session having passed acts reorganizing the executive departments, Washington in 1789 selected Hamilton as secretary of the treasury. At the ensuing session Hamilton presented an elaborate report on the public debt and the reestablishment of the public credit. That debt was of two descriptions, loans obtained abroad, and certificates issued for money lent, supplies furnished, and services rendered at home.
As to the foreign debt, all agreed that it must be met in the precise terms of the contract. As to the domestic debt, the certificates of which had largely changed hands at a great depreciation, the idea had been suggested of paying them at the rates at which they had been purchased by the present holders. The report of the secretary took strong ground against this project. He considered it essential to the reestablishment of the public credit that the assignees of the certificates should be considered as standing precisely in the place of the original creditors; and the funding system which he proposed, and which was carried in the face of a strong opposition, was based on this idea. Another part of the system not less warmly opposed was the assumption of the debts contracted by the states in the prosecution of the late war. At the next session he proposed two other measures, both of which encountered a not less earnest resistance - an excise duty on domestic spirits, and a national bank with a capital of $10,000,000. At the first session of the second congress Hamilton presented an elaborate report on the policy of having regard in the imposition of duties on imports to the protection of domestic manufactures, with an answer to the objections made against it - a summary of the arguments on that side of the question to which subsequent discussion has added little.
The success of the funding system and the bank gave Hamilton a strong hold upon the moneyed and mercantile classes, but they also raised against him a very bitter opposition, which extended even to the cabinet, Mr. Jefferson, the secretary of state, strongly sympathizing with it. Both the funding system and the bank were denounced as instruments of corruption dangerous in the highest degree to the liberties of the people, and Hamilton as designing to introduce by their means aristocracy and monarchy. Charges of this sort, constantly iterated in a newspaper edited by a clerk in the state department, drew out from Hamilton a newspaper article under the signature of "An American," in which he charged upon Jefferson the instigation of these attacks, and urged the inconsistency of Jefferson's holding a place in an administration the policy of which he assailed. At the next session of congress a violent attack was made by Mr. Giles of Virginia upon the management of the treasury department. He moved nine resolutions of censure, but Hamilton sent in a triumphant reply, and the proceedings proved a total failure.
The breaking out of the war between England and France in 1793, by raising new questions as to the policy to be pursued toward the belligerents, aggravated the differences between Hamilton and Jefferson. Hamilton favored the policy of a strict and exact neutrality, and the right of the president to assume that position; and he defended his views in print under the signature of "Pacificus." Jefferson, finding Hamilton's influence predominant in Washington's cabinet on this question as on others, finally retired from it. The opposition to the excise law having proceeded in western Pennsylvania to the extent of armed resistance, it became necessary to call out a force to repress it; this operation was successfully conducted under Hamilton's eye in the autumn and winter of 1794. Having procured the adoption by congress of a system for the gradual redemption of the public debt, and finding his salary insufficient for his support, after six years' service, Hamilton resigned his office, Jan. 31, 1795, and resumed the practice of the law in New York. He still remained, however, a warm supporter of Washington's administration.
On the question of the ratification of Jay's treaty, by which the country was soon after greatly shaken, he gave effectual aid to the president's policy of ratifying the treaty in a series of essays signed "Camillus." In the preparation of Washington's " Farewell Address," Hamilton's assistance was asked and given, precisely to what extent has been and still is a matter of controversy. About the time of Adams's accession to the presidency, the charges against Hamilton of misbehavior as secretary of the treasury were renewed in a new and aggravated shape. While Giles was hunting up matter for his abortive resolutions some opposition members of congress, of whom Monroe was one, had fallen in with two persons named Clingman and Reynolds, who intimated that they were in possession of secrets very damaging to Hamilton's character. By way of confirmation Reynolds exhibited some notes in Hamilton's handwriting as proving a confidential correspondence between them. Under the idea that they had discovered a connection between Reynolds and Hamilton for speculation in public securities, in which while at the head of the treasury Hamilton could not legally engage, Monroe and his companions waited upon Hamilton to ask an explanation.
He speedily convinced them, by the production of other letters, that the correspondence between himself and Reynolds had grown entirely out of an intrigue with Reynolds's wife, into which he had been entrapped. Though Monroe and his associates admitted that their suspicions of official misconduct were wholly removed, Monroe preserved certain memoranda of their interview with Reynolds, Clingman, and Hamilton; and these, having come by some unexplained means into the hands of Callender, a pamphleteer of the opposition, were published, with the intimation (based on an opinion expressed by Clingman, in a conversation with Monroe after the interview with Hamilton, Monroe's memorandum of which was not communicated to him) that the alleged intrigue was a falsehood invented by Hamilton and sustained by forged letters and receipts to cover up his illegal stock speculations. After a sharp correspondence with Monroe, whose explanations as to his memorandum and the credit he attached to it were not satisfactory, Hamilton published a pamphlet containing not only the correspondence with Monroe, but that also which he had exhibited to Monroe and his associates; a step into which he considered himself forced by the position assumed by Monroe. The difficulties with France consequent upon the ratification of Jay's treaty soon reached a point little short of war.
A French invasion was apprehended. In the summer of 1798 additions were made to the regular army, further additions were provisionally authorized, and Washington was appointed commander-in-chief with the title of lieutenant general. He accepted with the understanding that he should not be called into active service except in the event of hostilities, and on the condition that Hamilton should be major general, thus throwing upon him the details of the organization of the army. While thus engaged Hamilton wrote in defence of the policy which had led to these military preparations. On the death of Washington, Dec. 14, 1799, Hamilton succeeded to the command in chief; but satisfactory arrangements having been made with France, the army was soon disbanded and he resumed the practice of law in New York. The appointment made by Adams, in September, 1799, of a new embassy to France contrary to the advice of his cabinet, was strongly disapproved by the more ardent federalists, and among others by Hamilton. This produced a breach in the federal party; but Hamilton and his friends, considering the strong influence of Adams in New England, could not venture openly to oppose his reelection as president.
The most they could do was to endeavor by a secret understanding to secure a greater number of votes for the other candidate who might be placed on the federal ticket; candidates being voted for, as the constitution then stood, without designating whether for president or vice president, the first office falling to him who had the highest vote. Whether the federalists would be able to command a majority of the electoral votes seemed likely to depend on the political complexion of the legislature of New York, and that in its turn on the character of the delegation from the city of New York. To secure that delegation, Hamilton on the one side and Aaron Burr on the other made every possible exertion. Burr, who was a master of the arts of political intrigue, succeeded in carrying the day. Shortly after this election the breach in the federal party became fully apparent. Adams dismissed the chief members of his cabinet, whom he accused of being under Hamilton's influence and belonging with him to a British faction. Hamilton in his turn printed a severe criticism on Adams's political character, intended for private circulation among the leading federalists, but of which the publication became necessary in consequence of extracts from it which found their way into some of the opposition newspapers.
The presidential election went against the federalists, but the result showed an equal vote for Jefferson and Burr. The federalists in the house of representatives (to which body it fell to decide between them), being strong enough to control or neutralize the vote of half the states, favored the election of Burr; but Hamilton, who entertained a very unfavorable opinion of Burr, remonstrated strongly against this attempt to make him president. In the trial in 1803 of Croswell for an alleged libel on Jefferson, he supported the doctrine that to publish the truth is no libel. The court charged against him, and the jury gave an adverse verdict; but the doctrine which he maintained was adopted by the legislature in 1805, and has since prevailed throughout the United States. Burr, having lost the confidence of his party, and being unable to obtain a renom-ination as vice president, sought to be elected governor of New York. He hoped to receive the support of the federalists, then in a minority and unable to elect any candidate of their own. Hamilton's opinion of Burr had undergone no change, and at a federal caucus he warmly opposed the project of supporting him for governor. He took no active part in the election, but his opinions were frequently quoted by those who did.
Burr was defeated by Morgan Lewis, as he believed, through Hamilton's instrumentality, and became eager for vengeance. He called on Hamilton to disavow having used pending the election any expressions derogatory to his personal honor, and finally challenged him. This challenge was accepted by Hamilton, but not in the spirit of a professed duellist. The practice of duelling he utterly condemned; indeed, he had himself already been a victim to it in the loss of his eldest son, a boy of 20, in a political duel in 1802. This condemnation he recorded in a paper which under a premonition of his fate he left behind him. It was in his character of a public man that he accepted the challenge. "The ability to be in future useful," such was his own statement of his motives, "whether in resisting mischief or affecting good in those crises of our public affairs which seem' likely to happen, would probably be inseparable from a conformity with prejudice in this particular." The meeting took place, July 11, 1804, at Wee-hawken on the Hudson opposite New York, and at the first fire Hamilton received a wound of which he died the next day. - The object alike of bitter hatred and of the warmest admiration, Hamilton enjoyed among his contemporaries, both friends and foes, a reputation for extraordinary ability, which he still retains.
He was under the middle size, thin in person, and very erect, courtly, and dignified in his bearing. His figure, though slight, was well proportioned and graceful. His complexion was very delicate and fair, his cheeks rosy, and the whole expression pleasing and cheerful. His voice was musical, his manner frank and cordial. He excelled equally as a writer and a speaker. His widow survived him 50 years, having died in 1854 at the age of 97. His son John 0. Hamilton wrote his life (2 vols. 8vo, 1834-'40), edited his works from MSS. in the state department (7 vols., 1851), and also compiled an elaborate work in several volumes under the title of " History of the Republic of the United States, as traced in the Writings of Alexander Hamilton and his Contemporaries" (1850). See also "A Collection of Facts and Documents relative to the Death of Major General Hamilton," by W. Coleman (1804); "Official Reports" (1810); his life by James Renwick (1841); "Official and other Papers," edited by Francis L. Hawks (1842); and "Hamilton's Conduct as Secretary of the Treasury Vindicated," by J. A. Hamilton (1870).