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Alexander Hamilton

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Important Terms, People, and Events

Alexander Hamilton was most likely born on January 11, 1757, although the exact year of his birth is unknown. Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis or St. Kitts to Rachel Fawcett and James Hamilton, but he spent the majority of his youth on the island of St. Croix. His formal education as a child was minimal. When his mother died in 1768, Hamilton took his first job as a clerk in the offices of merchant Nicholas Cruger, keeping Cruger's business records, and coordinating business efforts between the merchant ship captains, government officials, and planters. Cruger and a local Presbyterian minister, Reverend Hugh Knox, recognized Hamilton's genius and persuaded him to leave St. Croix for New York City. Alexander left the island in 1772, never to return again.

In New York, Hamilton attended several preparatory academies and schools to prepare himself for college. He interviewed with John Witherspoon of the College of New Jersey, which is now known as Princeton, but eventually enrolled in King's College, which is now known as Columbia. In 1776, Hamilton withdrew from King's College and joined a local New York militia to fight in the American Revolution against the British. During his first year of service, Hamilton served as an artillery captain, but quickly moved up in the ranks and eventually became one of General George Washington's military aides. Hamilton spent four years as Washington's attaché and participated in several battles, including the Battle of Yorktown and the Battle of Monmouth.

Hamilton left the military in 1781. He had recently married Betsey Schuyler, and worked diligently for several months to pass the New York bar exam. Hamilton served as one of New York's most prominent lawyers in the early 1780s, and also began his political career, serving first as a national tax agent, and then as one of New York's representatives at the national Congress in Philadelphia. In 1786, Hamilton was chosen to represent New York state at a national convention held in Annapolis, Maryland, to amend the Articles of Confederation. When only a few of the delegates from the other states bothered to attend, Hamilton called for a second convention to be held in Philadelphia in 1787. This time, the delegates took the invitation more seriously, and created the outline for a new government by drafting the Constitution.

Although Hamilton attended most of the proceedings at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, he did not actually participate much in the drafting of the new document. Hamilton argued that a new and stronger central government was needed to correct the mistakes made in the government outlined in the Articles of Confederation, but many of the other delegates felt his ideas were too radical and labeled Hamilton an extremist.

Nevertheless, when the new Constitution was presented to the delegates at the convention, Hamilton signed the document. He believed the Constitution was a step in the right direction, and also believed that if it was not approved, the entire union could collapse. With this in mind, Hamilton returned to New York, where he published a series of essays to encourage the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. Hamilton co-authored the essays with John Jay and James Madison under the pseudonym "Publius," and the collection came to be known as the Federalist Papers. The essays succeeded in convincing Americans to ratify the Constitution.

When George Washington became the first President of the United States in 1790, he selected Alexander Hamilton to be his first Secretary of the Treasury. Although Hamilton served in Washington's cabinet for only five years, many historians regard him as the greatest and most influential Secretary of the Treasury in U.S. history. As Secretary, Hamilton wrote five key reports that established American economic policy. The first and last of these reports were his Reports on the Public Credit in which Hamilton argued that the United States government should assume the debts of all the state governments. Hamilton also encouraged Congress to pay the interest on the debts the country owed, not just the principle. He believed that these measures would give credibility and stability to the American economic system. Hamilton also wrote a report to convince Congress to establish a national bank to control the country's finances, and followed this up with a report encouraging Congress to draft a Mint Act to create a national mint and stable national currency.

Hamilton also wrote the prophetic On the Subject of Manufactures, which argued that the United States should shift the bulk of its economy from agriculture to industry. Hamilton believed that manufacturing would bring more money into the country, but Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson disagreed with this argument, and believed that a nation based on business would jeopardize the republican ideals the nation was founded upon. Hamilton and Jefferson differed on other issues, most notably in their interpretations of the Constitution. Hamilton followed a loose interpretation of the Constitution, which he believed permitted everything that it did not expressly forbid. Jefferson, on the other hand, was a strict constructionist who believed that the Constitution forbade everything it did not expressly permit. Jefferson and Hamilton's battles spread throughout the nation and laid the foundations for the first political parties.

As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton also became involved in foreign policy. He encouraged President Washington to send John Jay to England in 1794 to negotiate a settlement to end a dispute between the two countries. In 1797, Hamilton also asked President John Adams to send Jay to Paris for the same reason. Hamilton resigned from his position in Washington's cabinet in 1795 and returned to his law practice. Hamilton did not remain entirely out of the political world after his resignation, but his involvement in politics after the late 1790s did his cause more harm than good. In the election of 1800, for example, Hamilton inadvertently split the Federalist Party to allow his rival, Thomas Jefferson, to become President of the United States.

In 1804, Hamilton wrote a series of essays against another rival, Aaron Burr that was partly responsible for Burr's loss in that year's New York gubernatorial race. Burr blamed Hamilton for his loss and challenged Hamilton to a duel in which he shot Hamilton. Hamilton died the next day on July 11, 1804, at the age of forty-seven.

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