Hamilton, Alexander (Treasury Secretary)

Born: 1755-01-11 Charlestown, Saint Kitts and Nevis

Died: 1804-07-12 New York, New York

Born out of wedlock, Alexander Hamilton spent his childhood in the West Indies. After his mother's death in 1768, Hamilton apprenticed with an import-export company, showing such business acumen that he was soon managing the firm. In 1772, Hamilton moved to North America to further his education. After a brief stint at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), he matriculated at King's College (Columbia). Tensions between the American colonies and the British Parliament interrupted his studies, and in the winter of 1774-75 Hamilton spoke at public gatherings and published political pamphlets defending the colonists. In 1775, he joined a New York volunteer militia company, and a year later raised a artillery company and received a captain's commission in the Continental Army. In 1777, Hamilton accepted George Washington's invitation to become his aide-de-camp. He continued to served on Washington's staff until February 1781, when Washington relented to Hamilton's request for a combat command. Hamilton resigned his commission in 1782, devoting himself to reading law, and in October received admittance to the New York bar. In July 1782, the New York Legislature appointed Hamilton to represent the state in the Confederation Congress. As a congressman, he worked to amend the Articles of Confederation to strengthen the national government and improve the nation's finances. In 1783, Hamilton left Congress to practice law in New York City, where he battled Aaron Burr to become the city's leading attorney. Still dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton attended the Annapolis Convention, convincing delegates to pass a resolution calling for a convention to revise the federal government. Hamilton was a delegate to Constitutional Convention, but he played a limited role in the deliberations. Hamilton was the principle author of the Federalist Papers, which defended the proposed constitution and played an influential role in the debate over ratification. In September 1789, President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the nation's first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton's views on constitutional authority, public debts, banks, tariffs, manufacturing, and trade became the guiding policies of the Washington administration. Thomas Jefferson opposed Hamilton, convinced that Hamilton's policies subverted the Constitution and threatened the republic. Conflict over the French Revolution deepened the chasm, dividing the political elite into Federalist and Jeffersonian factions. Hamilton became the leader of the Federalist Party. In March 1795, Hamilton resigned as secretary of the treasury, but he remained in public life, composing most of Washington's Farewell Address. Hamilton supported John Adams for president in 1796, and he exerted influence over Adams' cabinet. During the Quasi-War (1798-1800), Adams appointed Hamilton a major general of the army, but stymied Hamilton's plans to reorganize the army and foment war with France. Hamilton opposed Adams' re-election in 1800, and Jefferson's victory lost him clout in the Federalist Party. In 1804, Hamilton campaigned against Aaron Burr's candidacy for New York governor, and in the aftermath, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. He reluctantly agreed, and Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton, who died thirty-hours later.

Forrest McDonald, "Hamilton, Alexander," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9:905-10; Forrest McDonald, Alexander Hamilton: A Biography (New York: Norton, 1979); Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (New York: Penguin, 2004).