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Hamilton, Alexander (1755-1804).

statesman, essayist. Born in the West Indies to James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett Lavien, he was sent to North America for education in 1772. He studied at King's College (now Columbia University) and wrote pamphlets and articles espousing the colonial cause. Two of the pamphlets--A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress from the Calumnies of Their Enemies and The Farmer Refuted: or a More Comprehensive and Impartial View of the Disputes Between Great Britain and the Colonies--were first thought to have been written by John Jay or another leader, so great was the understanding they showed of the issues in question.

Early in 1776 Hamilton was given a commission as commander of an artillery company, and during the remainder of that year he fought with Washington in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton. In 1777 he was made an aide-de-camp to Washington and promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was a valued advisor to his commander, but desiring a more active role, he resigned in 1781.

He was elected a member of the Continental Congress in 1782, but found the Congress disorganized and inefficient; he retired after a year to practice law, but did not give up his interest in government. In 1786 he was a delegate from New York to the Annapolis convention, at which he proposed that a convention meet the following May in Philadelphia to draft a constitution. Although his contributions to the Constitutional Convention were slight, he helped secure ratification of the Constitution in New York, even though two-thirds of the delegates had initially opposed it. Even more important was his work with John Jay and James Madison on <IR> THE FEDERALIST </IR> (1787-88), the most important and influential work of the post-Revolutionary era; Hamilton contributed more than two-thirds of the essays. The Federalist expressed the fundamental principles behind the Constitution and argued for a government based on centralization, conservatism, and unity.

The Department of the Treasury was established by Congress in 1789, and Hamilton was immediately asked to be Secretary. With his characteristic ability to quickly find the root of a problem he began to organize the Treasury, made plans for establishment of a mint and bank, arranged for the government to take over state debts, and set up a system of taxation. His Report on Industry and Commerce (1791) showed his grasp of the economic and financial problems of the time. Although Hamilton presented his plan for a national bank in 1790, the bank was not established until 1792; the constitutionality of the bill had been challenged by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In answer to their arguments, Hamilton presented his doctrine of the implied powers and of the loose construction of the Constitution, an interpretation since proven to be one of the cornerstones of American government.

Hamilton resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1795 and returned to his law practice, but continued his interest in government and used his influence to throw the disputed election of 1800 to Jefferson rather than <IR> AARON BURR </IR> . Although Burr, like Hamilton, was a Federalist, Hamilton distrusted the man, believing him to be dangerous. When Hamilton again opposed Burr's candidacy for governor of New York in 1804, Burr challenged him to a duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded.

Although Hamilton's financial policies have often been criticized as overly stringent or favoring commerce and industry at the expense of agriculture, his contribution to American government remains on a par with that of the other great statesmen of the Republic. His distrust of the common people and their ability to rule themselves, his desire for a strong central government, and his general political philosophy, which was based on aristocracy, power, and wealth, needed the counterbalance offered by the philosophies of Jefferson and Madison--in the same way Jefferson's agrarianism and democratic idealism needed the political realism of Hamilton.

A dramatic study of Hamilton was made in Gertrude Atherton's novel <IR> THE CONQUEROR </IR> (1902), based on a careful study of sources. He appears frequently in other historical fiction, including Jeremiah R. Clemens' The Rivals (1860), Charles F. Pidgin's Blennerhassett (1901), Joseph Hergesheimer's Balisand (1924), and Howard Fast's The Unvanquished (1942).

As a political economist, Hamilton was strongly influenced by Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) and Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (1776). He was a clear, concise, logical, and convincing writer on economic subjects, in the form of reports and letters. He wrote most masterfully in The Federalist papers and undoubtedly provided ideas and phrases for Washington, as in the <IR> FAREWELL ADDRESS </IR> . Important collections of Hamilton material have been gathered for the Library of Congress and for the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Hamilton's papers have been published under the editorship of Harold C. Syrett (22 volumes, 1961 and after). Studies include Broadus Mitchell's Alexander Hamilton, The Revolutionary Years (1970) and Gerald Stourgh's Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (1969).
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Publication:Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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