Alexander Hamilton was the embodiment of the Federalist party, the centrist party that grew out of the debates over the Constitution. He was a walking contradiction insofar as he appeared to champion the tenets of a democratic republic and yet, ever just below the surface, were his tendencies toward the aristocratic. While his contribution to the embryonic political discourse of our country is undeniable, nearly twenty years of teaching American history has made one thing clear about Hamilton above all others—he is decidedly my least favorite of the Founding Fathers. He is the quintessential loudmouth of early American history, a trait which would land him in trouble on more than one occasion.
For all the elitism he espoused in adulthood, his beginnings were inauspicious to say the least. He was born out of wedlock in either 1755 or 1757, to James A. Hamilton and Rachel Faucette, on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. James abandoned them both allegedly to escape a charge of bigamy, as Rachel was married. She took young Alex and his half-brother, but later died of yellow fever. A wealthy New York merchant later took him in. Hamilton proved a capable clerk in his firm, but was denied education in the church schools run by the Anglican Church due to the illegitimacy of his birth. Private tutors were hired to round out his education, and he read on his own as well.
Young Hamilton entered study at Kings College—now Columbia—in New York as a private student in the fall of 1773. Here he was not only studious but also exposed to the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment. Hamilton and many of his fellow students also joined the militia in anticipation for the coming conflict with the British. He was forced to discontinue his studies in 1774 when the college closed as a result of the British taking and occupation of the city. Upon the conclusion of the Revolutionary War Hamilton successfully passed the bar exam in 1782 and entered into a law practice.
During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served with distinction in a number of engagements including the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. He fought in both infantry and artillery units of the various New York guards. As Hamilton’s talents brought him to the attention of the upper echelons of the Continental Army, he was offered a number of posts as aide to generals such as Greene and Washington. However, he knew if his aspirations were to carry him to his lofty goals, Washington’s was the invitation he could not refuse, and thus accepted the position with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Serving alongside other aides, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens, Hamilton handled correspondence with Congress, diplomacy, and other such tasks as Washington needed. What he desperately wanted was a field command, and when Washington refused, Hamilton threw a temper-tantrum and threatened to resign, going so far as to write a letter of resignation with his commission enclosed, all for which Washington reprimanded him. Washington gave him new orders in the summer of 1781 and he finally did command in the field, perhaps most notably at the Battle of Yorktown in the fall of 1781.
Hamilton likely would have been more happy in the Early Republic had it not been for his main point of contention with his new country. His own words best express this in an observation of the Congress under the Articles of Confederation: “The fundamental defect in Congress is a want of power.” That just about sums up Hamilton: never enough central power. He made vocal his critiques of the lack of centrism in the new government. During the early 1780s Hamilton did articulate, amongst other things, two behemoth challenges to the new nation. For one, the Articles of Confederation were wholly inflexible as a system of laws. Secondly, paying soldiers who fought in the war their due pensions was critical, but the country was plunged into depression because of the absence of standardized currency, its overprinting, the sale of bonds that could now not be paid back, and the crushing debt of the states (and in 1784 Spain closed off access to New Orleans to American merchants, fearing the westward movement of the country).
In 1782, Hamilton went back to New York, where he undertook a number of enterprises, including the law. In the ensuing years he served in the New York county and state legislatures, founded the Bank of New York, and reopened Kings College as Columbia University. The state legislature chose him as delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Here Hamilton wasted no time in making his monarchist ideas plain, by early on making a speech to the convention in which he advocated a president and senators be elected for life, contingent on their good behavior. By his own admission Hamilton felt that the English hereditary model was the best, and the one the country should follow, an “elective monarchy.” Having fought just that system, needless to say most present did not favor such extravagant and arepublican sentiments.
During the course of the convention, Hamilton aligned with the partisans known as Federalists, who favored a strong central government over strong state governments. Along with John Jay and James Madison, he wrote the Federalist Papers, a collection of articles defending the Constitution. Upon completion of the Constitution, Hamilton thought it incomplete but signed it anyway, thinking it superior to the previous Articles of Confederation. The Anti-federalists, such as Patrick Henry, insisted that the document needed a Bill of Rights to ensure individual rights were proteted, which it did receive.
With the election of George Washington in 1789 as president, Hamilton served as the first Secretary of the Treasury. His extreme Federalism stood in sharp contrast to the politics of Washington’s Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, which put them at odds for much of the time. Hamilton wasted no time in plying his ideas to solving the bleak financial woes of the country, proposing that a national bank be created to assume the debts of the individual states, and better manage them. This idea of course made the farming population and Jefferson’s followers reel, as they saw potential for a small group of elites taking control of the finances of the country to the detriment of the population. Even Washington was hesitant over the idea, but eventually signed it into existence. However, Hamilton illustrated his chronic inability to relate to the common American of the day in his over-arching economic solution, the Hamilton Plan. In order to pay off debts more quickly, the plan enacted a number of taxes which Hamilton considered innocuous. Now, if you were a big distiller, you would be less impacted, but if you’re a small farmer out on the frontier, distilling whiskey for personal and more importantly for taking to market (almost as currency itself), you’ll be much less apt to. After all, you just returned home from fighting a war largely over—you guessed it: TAXES. Now the government can’t pay your pension and they want you to pay a tax. How would you feel about Hamilton’s Plan? In 1794 farmers on the western Pennsylvania frontier revolted over this very issue, taking collectors captive, and organizing militia against the tax. Washington sent in federal troops and the rebellion ended without much bloodshed, but it fundamentally illustrates how ill-suited Hamilton was to the task. His support of expansive tariffs only further illustrates how removed his interests were from the 97% of persons in America who were farmers, whom tariffs helped but little.
As his allegiance and leadership in the Federalist party intensified, Hamilton found himself increasingly at odds with Jefferson. Jefferson wearied so of the conflict that he resigned his post in 1793. Hamilton continued to favor trade and increased relations with Britain, and eyed the French and their revolution with increasing suspicion. In 1795 he resigned from his post, pursuing his own political interests. In 1797 he was involved in America’s first sex scandal, whose roots went back to 1791, when he had an affair with one Maria Reynolds, who had come to him under the auspices of needing help to escape an abusive husband. James, the husband, was aware of the situation and used it to blackmail Hamilton for money. Several journals covered the story when the evidence was leaked.
As the century drew to a close, Hamilton was certainly still in the public eye. Indeed, President John Adams appointed him a Major General in the Army as the Quasi-War with the French escalated. In the election of 1800 he not only worked against his nemesis, Democratic Republican presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson, but sought to undermine John Adams as well, using newspapers and pamphlets to attack both. Adams’ standing amongst the Federalists was forever damaged as a result.
Thomas Jefferson was elected to the presidency in 1800, and it was actually under his presidency that the country righted itself economically. In 1803, in an unprecedented act of executive privilege, Jefferson discovered Napoleon was selling Louisiana (recently reacquired from Spain), and bout if for fifteen million dollars, more than doubling the size of the country. Fearing that this new portion of the country would draw farmers of the Democratic-Republican bent into its farthest recesses, and tilt the balance of power in their favor, a group of northern Federalists threatened to secede from the Union (yes, long before the southern states ever though about it) and form a new northern confederacy. They believed that the winner of the New York gubernatorial election of 1804 would likely be the president of the proposed northern confederacy. Morgan Lewis won, in no small part due to Hamilton, but Lewis’ opponent, Aaron Burr, believed Hamilton had besmirched his character. Aaron deemed it a matter of honor and demanded an apology from Hamilton, who claimed he could not recall the insult. A pistol duel ensued on July 11, 1804 on the west bank of the Hudson. Burr’s shot fatally wounded Hamilton, and he died the following day. Burr was charged with murder in New York and New Jersey, but neither charge stuck, and he completed his term as Vice President. This series of events, consequently, heralded the beginning of the end for Hamilton’s beloved Federalist party.
There endeth Alexander Hamilton. I don’t like him—I never have. He was an effete snob of a politician, despite having made some contributions to our national foundation. His elitist ideas and monarchial tendencies have left us with a national bank that indeed, is controlled by private interests to this day. Hamilton had no faith in the American people and felt unless they were governed with an iron hand, they would break down into a mob. His ambitions and beliefs certainly could have made him a tool in larger, more clandestine schemes to align the countries of the world under one banner. In the end I suppose his legacy is that he had a talent for ending up on the right side of American causes, and the wrong end of the political and economic trajectories of the country.