Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was also a soldier, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional attorneys, and the first Secretary of the Treasury for the United States of America.
Alexander was born January 11, 1757 or 1755 in Charlestown, Nevis, Leeward Islands, British West Indies. He was born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette Buck, a married woman of partial French Huguenot descent, and James A. Hamilton, the fourth son of the Scottish laird Alexander Hamilton of Grange, Ayrshire. Rachel had been married previously to Johann Michael Lavien of St. Croix, a merchant planter who was much older than she. Rachel was not happy in the marriage and left her husband and eldest son in order to travel to St. Kitts in 1750. She met Hamilton there, and the two of them moved to Nevis where Rachel was born and had inherited property from her father. Rachel and James were parents of two sons, James, Jr. and Alexander.
Alexander Hamilton was denied membership in the Church of England and education in the church school because his parents were not married. He received private tutoring and attended classes in a private school led by a Jewish headmistress. He supplemented his education by reading the books in the family library – thirty-four books, including Greek and Roman classics.
Hamilton’s father James abandoned Rachel and their two sons, supposedly because he learned that her first husband “intend[ed] to divorce her under Danish law on grounds of adultery and desertion.” Rachel supported her family in St. Croix by working at a small store in Christiansted, but she died of a severe fever on February 19, 1768, 1:02 a.m., leaving Hamilton alone without mother or father at age 11. This probably caused him some emotional problems. Rachel’s first husband went to probate court; he “seized her estate” and took the few valuables Rachel had owned, including some household silver. Many of Rachel’s belongings were auctioned off; a friend who purchased the family books later returned them to Hamilton.
Hamilton started clerking at a local import-export firm. A cousin, Peter Lytton, adopted Alexander and his older brother James, but the brothers were separated when Lytton committed suicide. James apprenticed with a local carpenter while Alexander was adopted by a Nevis merchant, Thomas Stevens. The two boys looked alike and shared similar interests while also speaking fluent French.
Alexander continued clerking. While already an avid reader, he developed an interest in writing as well as a desire to leave his small island. He wrote an essay published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette, a detailed account of a hurricane that had devastated Christiansted on August 30, 1772. His essay illustrated his talents and abilities. Community leaders were so impressed that they decided to become his sponsors; they collected enough money to send him to the North American colonies to be educated.
Hamilton entered the American Colonies in Boston, Massachusetts and arrived at Elizabethtown Academy, a grammar school in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, in the autumn of 1772. He prepared for college by studying with Francis Barber in 1773, and he was greatly influenced by William Livingston, a leading intellectual and revolutionary with whom he lived for a time. Hamilton applied to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and asked to accelerate his studies in order to complete them in a shorter period of time. His request was denied by the college’s Board of Trustees so he made a similar request to King’s College in New York City (now Columbia University). King’s College accepted his request, and Hamilton started college there in late 1773 or early 1774.
The next year Samuel Seabury, a clergyman for the Church of England, published a series of pamphlets in support of the Loyalist cause. As a supporter of the cause of Patriot liberty, Hamilton responded with his first political writings: “A Full vindication of the Measures of Congress” and “The Farmer Refuted”. He also published two additional essays attacking the Quebec Act and fourteen anonymous installments of “The Monitor” for the New York Journal. Hamilton saved his college president Myles Cooper, a Loyalist, from an angry mob on May 10, 1775, by speaking to the crowd long enough for Cooper to escape.
Alexander was active in many areas of the founding of the United States. He served in the military several times. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, he organized an artillery company and served as its captain. He declined invitations to become an aide to Nathanael Greene and to Henry Knox because he wanted the glory of the battlefield. He did however accept an invitation that he could not refuse and became the senior aide-de-camp and confidant of General George Washington. He held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served four years as Washington’s chief of staff.
In this position Hamilton “handled letters to Congress, state governors, and the most powerful generals in the Continental Army; he drafted many of Washington’s orders and letters at the latter’s direction; he eventually issued orders from Washington over Hamilton’s own signature. Hamilton was involved in a wide variety of high-level duties, including intelligence, diplomacy, and negotiation with senior army officers as Washington’s emissary. The important duties with which he was entrusted attest to Washington’s deep confidence in his abilities and character, then and afterward. At the points in their relationship when there was little personal attachment, there was still always a reciprocal confidence and respect.
While serving honorably and well as General Washington’s chief of staff, Hamilton also longed to return to active combat in a command position. He threatened to resign his position if he did not receive a command position, and Washington finally relented on July 31, 1781. Hamilton was assigned as commander of a New York light infantry battalion. “In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions, which were to fight in conjunction with French troops in taking Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions fought bravely and took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets in a nighttime action, as planned. The French also fought bravely, took heavy casualties, and successfully took Redoubt No. 9. This action forced the British surrender of an entire army at Yorktown, effectively ending major British military operations in North America.”
Hamilton also served with Washington when an army was raised to defeat the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt of western farmers in 1794. He called for military mobilization against France in 1798 after the XYZ Affair. He commanded and trained a new army for the Quasi-War, which was never officially declared. Although there were some hard-fought battles at sea, President John Adams found a diplomatic solution to avoid war.
While serving as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler on December 14, 1780, at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York. Elizabeth was the daughter of Philip Schuyler, a general and wealthy landowner from one of the most prominent families in New York. Elizabeth’s older sister, Angelica, eloped with John Barker Church, an Englishman who made a fortune in the American colonies during the Revolution and took her back to London with him after the war. Alexander and Elizabeth became the parents of Philip (born January 22, 1782, and killed in 1801 in a duel with George I. Eacker, whom he had publicly insulted in a Manhattan theater), Angelica (born September 25, 1784), Alexander (born May 16, 1796), James Alexander (April 14, 1788-September 1878), John Church (born August 22, 1792), William Stephen (born August 4, 1797), Elizabeth (Eliza) Hamilton Holy (born November 26, 1799), and Philip (“Little Phil”; born June 2, 1802, right after the first Philip was killed.). The family belonged to the Episcopalian religion.
Hamilton resigned his military commission after the Battle of Yorktown and was elected to the Congress of the Confederation in July 1782 as a representative of New York. He supported other congressmen – such as Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, his assistant Gouverneur Morris (no relation), James Wilson and James Madison – in an effort to provide an independent source of revenue to Congress lacking under the Articles of Confederation. He was well aware of the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation and had been frustrated during the war. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to collect taxes or to demand money from the states. This lack of a stable funding source made it difficult for Congress to provide the necessary provisions and pay to the soldiers of the Continental Army. During the war and even afterwards, Congress had to depend on subsidies from the King of France, European loans, and the meager amounts contributed by the states to pay expenses.
Thomas Burke proposed an amendment to the Articles in February 1781 to give Congress the power to collect a 5% impost, or duty on all imports; Rhode Island rejected the proposal in November 1782. A delegation was sent by Congress to Rhode Island, but the negotiations ended when Virginia rescinded its ratification of the proposal.
Congress was unable to pay its commitments to the soldiers who were buying much of their own supplies. After Valley Forge, officers had been promised pensions of half their pay when discharged. General Henry Knox organized a group of officers who sent a delegation to Congress under the direction of Captain Alexander MacDougall. Known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, the officers had three demands: the Army’s pay, their own pensions, and commutation of those pensions into a lump-sum payment.
Hamilton, the Morrises, and other congressmen tried to leverage these demands to secure independent support from the states and in Congress for funding the confederated government. They encourage MacDougall in his aggressive approach and even contacted General Knox to suggest civil disobedience. Hamilton sought support from General Washington who declined and warned of dangers of using the army as leverage. Washington defused the situation on March 15 by speaking to the officers, and Congress ordered the army to officially disband in April 1783. The Continental Congress made other attempts to secure funding but was never able to secure full ratification for back pay, pensions, or its own independent sources of funding.
A different group of unhappy soldiers marched from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Philadelphia in June 1783 demanding their back pay. There were attempts to intercept the men, but the mob arrived in Philadelphia and “proceeded to harangue Congress for their pay.” Congress adjourned to Princeton, New Jersey.
Hamilton was frustrated with the weakness of the central government and drafted a call to revise the Articles of Confederation. His resolution included “many features of the future US Constitution, including a strong federal government with the ability to collect taxes and raise an army. It also included the separation of powers into the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.”
Hamilton resigned from Congress and returned to New York where he proceeded to educate himself about the law. He was admitted to the New York Bar in July 1983 and practiced law in New York City in partnership with Richard Harrison. He specialized in defending Tories and British subjects.
In 1784, Hamilton founded the Bank of New York, which is now the oldest ongoing bank in the United States. King’s College had been suspended since 1776 and severely damaged during the war; Hamilton was one of several men who restored it as Columbia College. Hamilton had long considered the Articles of Confederation weak, and “he played a major leadership role at the Annapolis Convention in 1786. He drafted its resolution for a constitutional convention, and in doing so brought his longtime desire to have a more powerful, more financially independent federal government one step closer to reality.”
Hamilton was serving as an assemblyman from New York County in the New York State Legislature in 1787 and was the first delegate chosen to the Constitutional Convention. The other two delegates from New York, John Lansing and Robert Yates, opposed Hamilton’s goal of a strong national government and voted against him when present. After they decided to leave the convention, Hamilton could not vote at all because each state needed two representatives to cast a vote.
I suppose that we are fortunate that Hamilton did not have much influence in the convention. Early in the process, Hamilton proposed electing a President and Senators who would serve for life and caused James Madison to consider him to be a “monarchist sympathizer”. Hamilton constructed a draft for the Constitution based on the debates in the convention but never presented it. His “draft had most of the features of the actual Constitution, including such details as the three-fifths clause. In this draft, the Senate was to be elected in proportion to the population, being two-fifths the size of the House, and the President and Senators were to be elected through complex multistage elections, in which electors would elect smaller bodies of electors; they would hold office for life, but were removable for misconduct. The President would have an absolute veto. The Supreme Court was to have immediate jurisdiction over all law suits involving the United States, and state governors were to be appointed by the federal government.”
For more on Alexander Hamilton, see part 2.