Alexander Hamilton

 

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Alexander HamiltonHamilton, ALEXANDER, statesman; born in Nevis, W. I., January 11, 1757. His father was a Scotchman; his mother, of Huguenot descent. He came to the colonies in 1772, and attended a school kept by Francis Barber at Elizabeth, New Jersey, and entered King's (Columbia) College in 1773. He made a speech to a popular assemblage in New York City in 1774, when only seventeen years old, remarkable in every way, and he aided the patriotic movement by his writings. In March, 1776, he was made captain of artillery, and served at White Plains, Trenton, and Princeton; and in March, 1777, became aide-de-camp to General George Washington, and his secretary and trusted friend. He was of great assistance to Washington in his correspondence, and in planning campaigns. In December, 1780, he married a daughter of General Schuyler, and in 1781 he retired from General Washington's staff. In July he was appointed to the command of New York troops, with the rank of colonel, and assaulted and captured a redoubt at Yorktown, October 14, 1781. After the surrender of Cornwallis he left the army; studied law; was a member of Congress (1782-83), and soon took the lead in his profession. He was a member of the New York legislature in 1787, and of the convention at Philadelphia that framed the new Constitution. With the aid of James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton put forth a series of papers in support of the Constitution, which became knows as The Federalist. Hamilton wrote the larger part of that work. He was called to the cabinet of George Washington as Secretary of the Treasury, and was the founder of the economic system of the republic. Having assisted in setting up the government of the United States, and seeing it in successful working order, he resigned, January 31, 1795, and resumed the practice of law; but his pen was much used in support of the policy of the national government. When, in 1798, war with France seemed probable, and President Adams appointed George Washington commander-in-chief of the armies of the republic, Hamilton was made his second in command, with the rank of major-general. On the death of Washington (December, 1799), Hamilton succeeded him as commander-in-chief, but the provisional army was soon disbanded.

On September 3, 1780, Hamilton wrote to Duane, a member of Congress from New York, and expressed his views on the subject of State supremacy and a national government. He proposed to call for a convention of all the States on November 1 following, with full authority to conclude, finally, upon a general confederation. He traced the cause of the want of power in Congress, and censured that body for its timidity in refusing to assume authority to preserve the infant republic from harm. "Undefined powers," he said, "are discretionary powers, limited only by the object for which they were given." He said that "some of the lines of the army, but for the influence of Washington, would obey their States in opposition to Congress. . . . Congress should have complete sovereignty in all that relates to war, peace, trade, finance, foreign affairs, armies, fleets, fortifications, coining money, establishing banks, imposing a land-tax, poll-tax, duties on trade, and the unoccupied lands." He proposed that the general government should have power to provide certain perpetual revenues, productive and easy of collection. He claimed the plan of confederation then before Congress to be defective, and urged alteration. "It is neither fit for war," he said, "nor for peace. The idea of an uncontrollable sovereignty in each State will defeat the powers given to Congress, and make our union feeble and precarious." He recommended the appointment of joint officers of state—for foreign affairs, for war, for the navy, and for the treasury—to supersede the "committees" and "boards" hitherto employed; but he neither favored a chief magistrate with supreme executive power, nor two branches in the national legislature. The whole tone of Hamilton's letter was hopeful of the future, though written in his tent, in the midst of a suffering army.

Alexander Hamilton Feared Democracy

Hamilton was afraid of democracy. He wished to secure for the United States a strong government; and in the convention at Philadelphia in 1787 he presented a plan, the chief features of which were an assembly, to be elected by the people for three years; a senate, to be chosen by electors voted for by the people, to hold office during good behavior; and a governor, also chosen to rule during good behavior by a similar but more complicated process. The governor was to have an absolute negative upon all laws, and the appointment of all officers, subject, however, to the approval of the Senate. The general government was to have the appointment of the governors of the States, and a negative upon all State laws. The Senate was to be invested with the power of declaring war and ratifying treaties. In a speech preliminary to his presentation of this plan, Hamilton expressed doubts as to republican government at all, and his admiration of the English constitution as the best model; nor did he conceal his  preference for monarchy, while he admitted that, in the existing state of public sentiment, it was necessary to adhere to republican forms, but with all the strength possible. He desired a general government strong enough to counter-balance the strength of the State governments and reduce them to subordinate importance.

Debt from the Revolutionary War

The first report to the national Congress by the Secretary of the Treasury was waited for with great anxiety not only by the public creditors, but by every thoughtful patriot. It was presented to the House of Representatives January 15, 1790. It embodied a financial system, which was adopted, and remained the financial policy of the new government for more than twenty years. On his recommendation, the national government assumed not only the foreign and domestic debts of the old government, incurred in carrying on the Revolutionary War, but also the debts contracted by the several States during that period. The foreign debt, with accrued interest, amounting to almost $12,000,000, was due chiefly to France and private lenders in Holland. The domestic debt, including outstanding Continental money and interest, amounted to over $42,000,000, nearly one-third of which was accumulated accrued interest. The State debts assumed amounted in the aggregate to $21,000,000, distributed as follows: New Hampshire, $300,000; Massachusetts, $4,000,000; Rhode Island, $200,000; Connecticut, $1,600,000; New York, $1,200,000; New Jersey, $800,000; Pennsylvania, $2,200,000; Delaware, $200,000; Maryland, $800,000; Virginia, $3,000,000; North Carolina, $2,400,000; South Carolina, $4,000,000; Georgia, $300,000. Long and earnest debates on this report occurred in and out of Congress. There was but one opinion about the foreign n debt, and the President was authorized to borrow $12,000,000 to pay it with. As to the domestic debt, there was a wide difference of opinion. The Continental bills, government certificates, and other evidences of debt were mostly held by speculators, who had purchased them at greatly reduced rates; and many prominent men thought it would be proper and expedient to apply a scale of depreciation to them, as in the case of the paper money towards the close of the war, in liquidating them.

Hamilton declared such a course would be dishonest and impolitic, and that the public promises should be met in full, in whatever hands the evidences were found. It was the only way, he argued justly, to sustain public credit. He proposed the funding of the public debt in a fair and economical way by which the creditors should receive their promised 6 per cent. until the government should be able to pay the principal. Congress also authorized an additional loan to the amount of $21,000,000, payable in certificates of the State debts. A system of revenue from imports and internal excise, proposed by Hamilton, was also adopted.

Conflict Between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton

The persistent and sometimes violent attacks upon the financial policy of the government, sometimes assuming the aspect of personality towards Hamilton, that appeared in Freneau's National Gazette in 1792, at length provoked the Secretary of the Treasury to publish a newspaper article, over the signature of "An American," in which attention was called to Freneau's paper as the organ of the Secretary of State, Mr. Jefferson, and edited by a clerk employed in his office. This connection was represented as indelicate, and inconsistent with Jefferson's professions of republican purity. He commented on the inconsistency and indelicacy of Mr. Jefferson in retaining a place in the cabinet when he was opposed to the government he was serving, vilifying its important measures, adopted by both branches of the Congress, and sanctioned by the chief magistrate; and continually casting obstacles in the way of establishing the public credit and providing for the support of the government. The paper concluded with a contrast, as to the effect upon the public welfare, between the policy adopted by the government and that advocated by the party of which Jefferson aspired to be leader. Freneau denied, under oath, that Jefferson had anything to do with his paper, and declared he had never written a line for it. To this " An American " replied that "actions were louder than words or oaths," and charged Jefferson with being "the prompter of the attacks on government measures and the aspersions on honorable men." The papers by "An American" were at once ascribed to Hamilton, and drew out answers from Jefferson's friends. To these Hamilton replied. The quarrel waxed hot. Washington (then at Mount Vernon), as soon as he heard of the newspaper war, tried to bring about a truce between the angry Secretaries. In a letter to Jefferson, August 23, 1792, he said: "How unfortunate and how much to be regretted it is that, while we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing out our vitals." He portrayed the public injury that such a quarrel would inflict. He wrote to Hamilton to the same effect. Their answers were characteristic of the two men, Jefferson's concluding with an intimation that he should retire from office at the close of Washington's term. Hamilton and Jefferson were never reconciled; personally there was a truce, but politically they were bitter enemies.

Duel of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

The Duel Between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr

In the winter of 1804 Hamilton was in Albany, attending to law business. While there a caucus or consultation was held by the leading Federalists. It was a secret meeting to consult and compare opinions on the question whether the Federalists, as a party, ought to support Aaron Burr for the office of governor of the State of New York. In a bedroom adjoining the closed dining-room in which the caucus was held one or two of Burr's political friends were concealed, and heard every word uttered in the meeting. The characters of men were fully discussed, and Hamilton, in a speech, spoke of Burr as an unsuitable candidate, because no reliance could be placed in him. The spies reported the proceedings, and on February 17 a correspondent of the Morning Chronicle wrote that at a Federal meeting the night before the "principal part of Hamilton's speech went to show that no reliance ought to be placed in Mr. Burr." In the election which ensued Burr was defeated, and, though Hamilton had taken no part in the canvass, his influence was such that Burr attributed his defeat to him. Burr, defeated and politically ruined, evidently determined on revenge - a revenge that nothing but the life of Hamilton would satisfy. Dr. Charles Cooper, of Albany, had dined with Hamilton, where Hamilton spoke freely of Burr's political conduct and principles only, to which he declared himself hostile. Dr. Cooper, in his zeal, just before the election, in published letters, said: "Hamilton and Kent both consider Burr, politically, as a dangerous man, and unfit for the office of governor." He also wrote that Hamilton and Kent both thought that Burr ought not to be "trusted with the reins of government," and added, "I could detail a still more despicable opinion which Hamilton had expressed of Burr." The latter made these private expressions of Hamilton concerning his political character a pretext for a challenge to a duel; and, seizing upon the word " despicable," sent a note to Hamilton, demanding " a prompt and unqualified acknowledgment or denial of having said anything which warranted such an expression." Several notes passed between Hamilton and Burr, through the hands of friends, in one of which Hamilton frankly said that "the conversation which Dr. Cooper alluded to turned wholly on political topics, and did not attribute to Colonel Burr any instance of dishonorable conduct, nor relate to his private character; and in relation to any other language or conversation of General Hamilton which Colonel Burr will specify, a prompt and frank avowal or denial will be given." This was all an honorable man could ask. But Burr seemed want Hamilton dead, and he pressed him to fight a duel in a manner which, in the public opinion which then prevailed concerning the "code of honor," Hamilton could not decline. They fought at Weehawken, July 11, 1804, on the west side of the Hudson River, and Hamilton, who would not discharge his pistol at Burr, for be did not wish to hurt him, was mortally wounded, and died the next day. The public excitement, without regard to party, was intense. Burr fled from New York and became a fugitive from justice. He was politically dead, and bore the burden of scorn and remorse for more than thirty years.

 

 

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