Biography of Alexander Hamilton

This principal architect of the Federalist Papers is exceptional and enigmatic among figures of the revolutionary period. Belatedly and only grudgingly admitted to the canon of great American thinkers, Hamilton's importance as an early nationalist, a leading exponent of Federalism, and a political and financial visionary in the critical post-revolutionary years only fully came to light in the mid-twentieth century, as scholars viewing the financial and administrative histories of the early United States began to reconsider his achievements. He is best remembered as an outspoken proponent of strong central government and for his authorship of the Federalist Papers, but his many other achievements and characteristics make him a difficult figure to grasp. He was a brilliant, influential, and well-respected patriot, but he was also a fiercely ambitious self-promoter and opportunist, criticized for his arrogance as much as he was admired for his intellect and drive.

Born in the small Caribbean island of Nevis in 1755, then part of the British West Indies, Hamilton's humble origins made him an unlikely candidate for post-revolutionary prominence on the continent. His father's mediocrity in business and his mother's early death seemed to limit his possibilities, but his maternal relations' recognized the young man's promise at an early age, and afforded Hamilton enough support to relocate to Boston in 1772 at the age of 17. Shortly thereafter he moved to New York and enrolled in King's College, now Columbia University. His intellectual pursuits soon gave way to a desire to promote the revolution. "I wish there were a war," he confided in a letter to a friend. Between an inspirational speech he made in the "fields" of New York City (City Hall Park), and his authorship of two pamphlets decrying Loyalist arguments, a young revolutionary was born. When conflict broke out, he assumed the role of artillery captain and was noted for his service in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton. General Nathanael Green recommended Hamilton to George Washington, who in March 1777 took him on as an aide-de-camp and personal secretary. After a dispute with the commander-in-chief caused him to resign, he continued his distinction in service commanding infantry at the battle of Yorktown.

After the war ended, Hamilton settled in New York and embarked upon a distinguished legal career. In this period he completed a stint in the Continental Congress in 1782-3 and developed his law practice, but most notable was the key role he played in the 1786 Annapolis Convention which addressed issues in interstate commerce. It was his argumentation in the latter convention that highlighted the shortcomings of the government established under the Articles of Confederation. Importantly, it established his reputation as the foremost proponent of a strong central government for the newly independent colonies, paving the public intellectual foundation for the substantial architectonic changes he would engineer in the federal government while in office. He attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, but his outspoken support of strong government, particularly his proposition of electing a president for life, placed him in the minority. At any rate, the power of his two fellow New York delegates, both Anti-Federalists, ensured his inefficacy; they outvoted him two-to-one on nearly every issue.

In spite of his inability to effect much of an influence at Philadelphia, Hamilton nevertheless became the Constitution's most vocal supporter in New York during the ratification debates. Even though the document probably fell short of his desires, he spared no effort in promoting it during a critical period in arguably the most critical state. The primary means by which he did this was of course the publication of the Federalist Papers. Exactly how many of the anonymous letters comprising this work were written by Hamilton is in dispute, but it appears he wrote at least 51 of the 85 total tracts. The essays were less useful convincing voters directly of the Constitution's necessity, but they became a staple for public debaters in Virginia and New York. They clearly helped enhance the force of Federalist arguments in the key debates, bargains, and negotiations leading up to ratification.

It is in the Federalist Papers that the political pragmatism and nationalism of Hamilton are most evident. He makes his most convincing arguments for a strong American state here, and his commentary on subjects from foreign affairs to public administration. His ardent nationalism and occasionally dogmatic personality color his writings, which determine in large part the character of the entire document. Even though James Madison penned Federalist 10 and 51, perhaps the most famous essays in the collection, Hamilton's contributions to the volume's development were probably paramount. It was Hamilton who enlisted Madison and Jay to the task in the first place; when Madison and Jay departed from the project, Hamilton continued writing tirelessly. He probably exerted more influence on his companion's work than they upon him; the nature of his personality probably dictated the inevitability of such an outcome.

Following ratification, Washington appointed Hamilton the first Secretary of the Treasury. The nation's finances still in disarray after the war and independence, Hamilton's proposals to pay the foreign debt and improve public credit were hotly debated in Congress. Among them were certain provisions, particularly federal assumption of state debts and the establishment of a central bank, that drew considerable resentment for the extra short-term burdens they would place upon the recovery effort. The public's weak grasp of political economy must have made Hamilton's proposals appear unnecessarily difficult. In spite of this, the reforms ultimately won out. Historians have since pointed to them as key factors in helping sustain the early American state, particularly through its confrontation with Britain in the War of 1812.

The first Secretary of the Treasury also had considerable influence over foreign policy. He convinced Washington to adopt a policy of neutrality toward wars in Europe, in spite of strong public desires to support France. In addition, his instructions laid the groundwork for the 1794 agreement with England now known as Jay's Treaty, which settled longstanding disputes and provided for the evacuation of British troops on American borders. He was appointed Inspector General of the Army under President Adams, at Washington's urging. His disputes with Adams during this period were key causes of cleavages in the Federalist party and the party's subsequent defeat at the hands of the Republican party in the election of 1800.

Returning intermittently to his law practice through the 1790s, the hiatus from public life Hamilton took after the election of 1800 was cut short by an untimely and infamous death at the hands of Aaron Burr. Owing in part to Hamilton's electoral support of Thomas Jefferson over Burr, who he considered dangerous, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804 at Weehauken, New Jersey. Even though some evidence indicates Burr intended only to maim Hamilton, a mortal wound he dealt to the latter's midsection resulted in death on the following day.


Hamilton's legacy is most easily recognized in his authorship of the Federalist Papers. There, his role as a proponent for strong central government and his nationalistic fervor are most evident. But his contributions to public finance and public administration while Secretary of the Treasury, only recently rediscovered by scholars, must rank among his most important achievements. Historian of United States public administration Leonard D. White has called him "the greatest administrative genius of his generation in America, and one of the greatest administrators of all time." Perhaps begrudged a prominent place among the founding fathers for his attention to pragmatic concerns over ideals, Hamilton's role in ensuring the survival and prosperity of the early republic was clearly crucial.

In spite of this, Hamilton remains an elusive figure. Historians are often at a loss to explain his self-aggrandizing and opportunistic tendencies, qualities which do not flatter the statesman in the way his life achievements do. He left enormous volumes of letters, tracts, and personal papers with which historians have reconstructed his role in the early republic, but our understanding of Hamilton's psychology, the origins of his professional aspirations, and the nature of his intellectual prowess are less clear. Certainly a key personality in American history, Alexander Hamilton's personal life probably deserves more scholarly attention than it has received thus far.

Study Guides on Works by Alexander Hamilton