Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757 – July 12, 1804) was a founding father, soldier, economist, political philosopher, one of America’s first constitutional lawyers and the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.
As Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was the primary author of the economic policies of the George Washington administration, especially the funding of the state debts by the federal government, the establishment of a national bank, a system of tariffs, and friendly trade relations with Britain. He became the leader of the Federalist Party, created largely in support of his views, and was opposed by the Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Hamilton served in the American Revolutionary War. At the start of the war, he organized an artillery company and was chosen as its captain. He later became the senior aide-de-camp and confidant to General George Washington, the American commander-in-chief. He served again under Washington in the army raised to defeat the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt of western farmers in 1794. In 1798, Hamilton called for mobilization against France after the XYZ Affair, and secured an appointment as commander of a new army, which he trained for a war. However, the Quasi-War, although hard-fought at sea, was never officially declared. In the end, President John Adams found a diplomatic solution that avoided war.
Of illegitimate birth and raised in the West Indies, Hamilton was effectively orphaned at about the age of 11. Recognized for his abilities and talent, he came to North America for his education, sponsored by people from his community. He attended King’s College (now Columbia University). After the American Revolutionary War, Hamilton was elected to the Continental Congress from New York. He resigned to practice law, and founded the Bank of New York.
Hamilton was among those dissatisfied with the first national constitution, the Articles of Confederation, because it lacked a president, courts, and taxing powers. He became a driving force behind the Annapolis Convention, which successfully called on Congress to issue a call for the Philadelphia Convention to create a new constitution. He was an active participant and played a major role in the ratification process by writing half of the Federalist Papers, to this day the single most important source for Constitutional interpretation. In the new government under President George Washington, he was appointed the Secretary of the Treasury. An admirer of British political systems, Hamilton was a nationalist who emphasized strong central government, and successfully argued that the implied powers of the Constitution could be used to fund the national debt, assume state debts, and create the government-owned Bank of the United States. These programs were funded primarily by a tariff on imports and later also by a highly controversial excise tax on whiskey.
Embarrassed when an extra-marital affair with Maria Reynolds became public, Hamilton resigned from office in 1795 and returned to the practice of law in New York. However, he kept his hand in politics and was a powerful influence on the cabinet of President Adams (1797–1801). Hamilton’s opposition to John Adams helped cause Adams’ defeat in the 1800 elections. When Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the Electoral College, Hamilton helped defeat his bitter personal enemy Burr and elect Jefferson as president. After opposing Adams, the candidate of his own party, Hamilton was left with few political friends. In 1804, as the next presidential election approached, Hamilton again opposed the candidacy of Burr. Taking offense at some of Hamilton’s comments, Burr challenged him to a duel and mortally wounded Hamilton, who died within days.