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Alexander Hamilton - One of America's Founding Fathers

Posted on Monday, March 9, 2020

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Birth: January 11, 1757
Death: July 12, 1804 (age 49)
Colony: New York
Occupation: Lawyer, Politician, Soldier
Significance: Signed the United States Constitution (at the age of 30); and served as first United States Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795)

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton hanging in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Alexander Hamilton was a Founding Father of the United States of America. Hamilton was originally born in the British West Indies and was orphaned in his youth after his father left and his mother subsequently died of Yellow Fever in 1768, when Hamilton was 11. Hamilton and his brother, James, were initially sent to live with their cousin, but within a year, he had committed suicide, leaving Hamilton orphaned once again. Hamilton then went to live with a merchant named Thomas Stevens who had taught Hamilton his trade. Hamilton was barred from being educated in the Anglican schools that were located on the island due to religious standards of the time regarding Hamilton's birth into an "unmarried home."
Hamilton though worked hard to educate himself and eventually funds were raised to help send Hamilton to the American Colonies where he could receive a proper education. Hamilton arrived in the American Colonies in 1772 at the age of 15, and he began attending a school in New Jersey. Hamilton eventually attended college in New York City at King's College (now known as Columbia University), but the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 led to Hamilton joining a New York volunteer militia company and then the Continental Army.  

The American Revolution

Hamilton's militia company consisted of many of his former classmates at Columbia who were also inspired the join the American Revolution. The company elected Hamilton as Captain, and the young militia company took part in many of the early military conflicts of the Revolutionary War. Hamilton impressed his superiors during this early action and was offered promotions that would have taken him off the battlefield, but Hamilton refused these offers, preferring to remain on the battlefield. However, when he was asked to be George Washington's Aide-de-camp, Hamilton could not refuse. While serving Washington, Hamilton participated in Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 for the succesful Battle of Trenton. Hamilton also endured the difficult winter of 1777-1778 with Washington at Valley Forge.
Hamilton rose to the rank of General George Washington’s Chief Staff Aide and commanded a New York infantry battalion in the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive victory that secured the Revolutionary War for America. It was also during his time serving as Washington's Aide-de-camp that Hamilton met and married his wife Elizabeth Schuyler.
As the Revolutionary War was coming to a conclusion in 1782, Hamilton returned to New York, now as a respected war hero. Hamilton quickly got involved in politics, and he was elected to be a New York Representative to the Continental Congress (Congress of the Confederation) in 1782. Although happy to have secured his place in Congress, Hamilton was unafraid to voice his displeasure with the structure of America's new government which he viewed to be ineffective and lacking centralized power. 

The Pennsylvania Mutiny

While in Congress, Hamilton also played a key rule in what became known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny, a situation in which a large group of Revolutionary War soldiers descended upon Independence Hall, demanding payment for their military service. Hamilton, himself a respected veteran of the war was able to convince the soldiers to stand down. Hamilton then advocated that the government should leave Philadelphia as he was no longer confident that the state of Pennsylvania had the ability to protect the federal government. Based in part upon Hamilton's recommendation, the Federal government departed Philadelphia that night and relocated to Princeton, New Jersey. Upon his arrival in Princeton, Hamilton wrote passionately about the need to make significant changes to the Articles of Confederation.

Creation and Ratification of the Constitution of the United States

In 1787, Hamilton received his wish and a convention was called for to meet in Philadelphia in order to edit the Articles of Confederation. It was at Independence Hall during the Constitutional Convention that Alexander Hamilton helped to shape the United States Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton became a key figure despite the fact that the other two New York delegates to the convention had abandoned the convention, leaving his home state of New York without a vote in the process. After much debate, Alexander Hamilton became one of the signatories of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787.
A Statue of Alexander Hamilton in "Signers Hall" at the National Constitution Center
After the signing of the Constitution of the United States, the newly proposed government was presented to the American people and became a lightening rod of controversy. While many agreed that there was a need for a stronger centralized government in America, many questioned whether or not the U.S. Constitution was the right way to accomplish this. Almost immediately, a series of essays penned under pseudonyms were published in newspapers throughout the United States. Known collectively as the Anti-Federalist Papers, and believed to have been authored by Founding Fathers such as Patrick Henry, George Clinton and Richard Henry Lee, these essays began shaping public opinion. Supporters of the U.S. Constitution decided that they needed to start responding to these criticisms and advocating for the new U.S. Constitution. 

Federalist Papers

The first Federalist Paper was written was written by Alexander Hamilton on October 27, 1787 under the pseudonym Publius. Hamilton convinced John Jay to help him in this project (though he fell ill before he was able to write many essays), and then Hamilton and Jay convinced James Madison to join them. A total of 85 essays were written, and although authorship of each essay is not known for certain today, it is believed that Hamilton authored 51 of them, Madison wrote 29 and John Jay wrote 5.
Originally published in newspapers throughout the Colonies, the Federalist papers were incredibly effective in communicating the intent of the Constitution of the United States to the American people and were a major reason for increased public support for the Constitution. The Federalist Papers remain incredibly important to this day since they represent some of the most important contextual documents for understanding the meaning and intent of the United States Constitution. 
The Federalist Papers were a success, and by July 1788, eleven of the thirteen United States had ratified the Constitution of the United States, more than the required nine to make it the new framework for the government of the United States. Preparations for the installation of the new government commenced and by March 4, 1789 the United States Constitution went into effect as the First Congress convened in New York City.

Secretary of the Treasury

George Washington was unanimously voted to serve as the first President of the United States under the U.S. Constitution, and Washington began assembling his Cabinet. Washington tapped his former Aide-de-Camp, Alexander Hamilton, to serve as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton became a major figure in Washington's government and had a very busy tenure as Secretary of the Treasury. 
Historical Market Indicating the Location where Hamilton worked as Secretary of the Treasury
The new government created by the United States Constitution spent much of its formative years in Philadelphia, since the City served as Capital of the United States under the U.S. Constitution from 1790 to 1800. During the early years of the Constitution, Hamilton lived in Philadelphia since he had earned the role of Secretary of the Treasury in George Washington's Administration.
The Treasury Department was at this time the largest executive department created by the U.S. Congress, and it was Hamilton who shaped it in these critical early years of this country’s history.  Washington trusted Hamilton enough that it was Hamilton, not Washington, that shaped much of the economic agenda during most of Washington’s Presidency.  While some of Hamilton’s economic policies proved to be controversial, he had great success in implementing them and has received much credit over time, for stabilizing the economy of the United States after years of economic turmoil that directly followed the American Revolution.  

Arguably, Hamilton’s greatest political victory was the establishment of a Federal banking system. Hamilton's banking system was criticized by small government focused Southern agrarians such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and sparked the nation’s first great Constitutional debate. Despite the political controversy, Hamilton eventually convinced both George Washington and Congress to support his plan.

The resulting First Bank of the United States became one of the most important financial institutions in the world for a period of time. It was also during his time as Secretary of the Treasury that Hamilton convinced the U.S. Congress to pass the Coinage Act of 1792 which resulted in the creation of the United States Mint.  

The First Bank of the United States

Hamilton's controversial policies as Secretary of the Treasury were actually a major reason for the creation of political parties in America. Those who supported Hamilton's policies became known as Federalists, and those that opposed them became known as Democratic-Republicans. In general, the Federalists were centered more in the North and believed in a stronger centralized federal government, whereas the Democratic-Republicans were centered more in the South and championed state's rights over a strong central government.

Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in early 1795 in order to be closer to his wife Elizabeth who had just suffered a miscarriage. 

Hamilton's Final Years and Death

After leaving President Washington's Cabinet, Hamilton returned to New York City to be with his wife and began practicing law. Although away from the Federal government, Hamilton remained deeply involved in its proceedings. Hamilton even tried to scheme for a way for the the Federalists to retain power in 1796, but to prevent John Adams from becoming president. Adams and Hamilton had a difficult relationship, as they were political allies and leaders of the Federalist party but had a mutual personal dislike of one another. Hamilton's plan failed however, Adams became President and did his best to shut out Hamilton from power as payback for the scheme. 

However, when John Adams and his presidency became entangled in a Quasi-War with France, Adams did name Hamilton a Major General in the United States Army. This was done largely out of Adam's respect for George Washington, since Adams had convinced Washington to come out of retirement to lead the Army again, and Washington requested Hamilton as one of his Generals.

Hamilton served as Inspector General of the United States Army from 1798-1800. With General Washington in poor health and largely remaining in Mount Vernon in Virginia, Hamilton was for all intents and purposes, the leader of the Army. After Washington's death in 1799, Hamilton was the most senior officer in the United States Army. Once the situation with France was resolved however, Adams no longer had a need for a standing army, and Hamilton was removed from his position.

In the election of 1800, Alexander Hamilton again found himself in a difficult position. Hamilton's main concern was the Federalist party remaining in power, but Hamilton had such intense dislike of John Adams (a fellow Federalist and the sitting President of the United States,) that Hamilton orchestrated a scheme that would cause John Adams to lose the presidency, while ensuring that another Federalist would take his place. Once again however, Hamilton's plans failed and this time they backfired.

Hamilton's actions against Adams only managed to split the party which cleared the way for the Democratic Republicans to grab power for themselves. The Democratic Republicans had issues of their own, however as both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr had tied in votes for the Presidency, and it was unclear who would become President. Hamilton once again became involved to his own detriment. Though politically opposed to both Jefferson and Burr, Hamilton spoke highly of Jefferson's character while he referred to Burr as a "mischievous enemy." This led to some Federalist throwing their support to Jefferson to break the deadlock, and making Jefferson America's third president.

These types of political schemes and backroom deals are big part of why Hamilton is such a fascinating historical figure. The political intrigue that surrounded Hamilton's life is a big reason why "Hamilton - The Musical" has become one of the biggest hits in the history of Broadway. But while they make for a fascinating story, these types of deals rarely worked out in Hamilton's own life. But no scheme worked out worse for Hamilton than his attempted character assassination of Aaron Burr. 

This attack on Burr's character made during the 1800 election was not be the last Hamilton made. A few years later, as Burr ran for Governor of New York, Hamilton again attacked his character. This eventually led to an ever-escalating feud in which Hamilton refused to apologize and eventually led to their famous duel.

On July 11, 1804, in a small New Jersey town across the Hudson River from New York City named Weekawken, Hamilton met Burr for a duel. Before the duel, Hamilton wrote that he felt that dueling went against his moral code, but that he could not in good conscience apologize to Burr, as he felt everything he said was true. Hamilton also wrote that he intended to "throw his shot" which was when a dueler refused to actually shoot at the person he was dueling. In duels, it was not uncommon for both parties to "throw their shot," and these duels in which no one was actually shot at, represented a type of way to defend one's honor without harming another man. But Burr was apparently uninterested in throwing his shot in return. Both men fired, but whereas Hamilton shot the tree above Burr's head, Burr fatally wounded Hamilton. It is still unknown today who fired first and exactly what their intentions were, but Hamilton was paralyzed by his wounds and after over a day of terrible pain, Hamilton succumbed to his wounds on July 12, 1804 in Manhattan.

Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia

Hamilton spent many years in Philadelphia while the city served as the capital of the United States. Hamilton first lived in Philadelphia while a member of the Continental Congress at the end of the Revolutionary War, during this time Hamilton worked at Independence Hall. Hamilton returned to Independence Hall in 1787 to help draft and sign the United States Constitution. While working on the Constitution, Hamilton stayed in a boarding house operated by Miss Dailey, located at the corner of 3rd and Market Streets. Hamilton again lived in Philadelphia while he served as Secretary of Treasury under George Washington. During this time Hamilton created The First Bank of the United States and the United States Mint. The First Bank still stands, and while the original mint is no longer standing, there is a current United States Mint still located in Philadelphia today. While none of the residences Hamilton lived in during his many years in Philadelphia still stand today, a property on the 200 block of Walnut Street has a large plaque commemorating the location of where Alexander Hamilton once lived with his wife Elizabeth. 


Plaque Commemorating location of Alexander Hamilton Residence in Philadelphia

Today, you can also see a statue commemorating Hamilton for his role in the creation of the United States Constitution in the Signers' Hall exhibit of the National Constitution Center. Signers' Garden pays tribute to the Founding Fathers, including those such as Hamilton who signed the Constitution of the United States. Today, The First Bank of the United States, The United States Mint, The National Constitution Center, Independence Hall and Signers' Garden are all stops visited along The Constitutional Walking Tour!
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