A Reference Resource
Alexander Hamilton (1789–1795): Secretary of the Treasury
Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in either 1755 or 1757. He attended King’s College (now Columbia University) but did not earn a degree. He gained a reputation through his writing and oratory as a staunch advocate for American independence, and in March 1776, he became a captain of an artillery company formed by the New York Provincial Congress. He soon came to the attention of General Washington and, in January 1777, became an aide-de-camp. In that role, Hamilton distinguished himself by his tireless energy and ability to act as a surrogate for Washington on matters related to intelligence operations and in dealings with the French military. He led a critical charge at the Battle of Yorktown which helped to break the British lines and led to their surrender.
Hamilton’s military experience convinced him that the new nation needed a more centralized, energetic government. He led the call for the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which in turn led to the calling of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Hamilton was perhaps the most extreme advocate of consolidation at the convention, and despite many misgivings with the final document, he worked tirelessly to secure its ratification in his home state of New York. He organized and wrote the majority of The Federalist Papers, which would go on to be recognized as one of the most important documents of American political history.
Hamilton served as the first secretary of the treasury and helped place the finances and credit of the new government on a sound footing. He became President Washington’s most influential adviser and engaged in a series of bitter quarrels with Thomas Jefferson over foreign policy, the scope of presidential power, and the direction of the American economy. Washington generally sided with Hamilton in these disputes, and Jefferson eventually left the Cabinet, convinced that Hamilton was a pernicious influence on the President.
Hamilton emerged as the de facto leader of the Federalist Party but proved to be less adept as a political tactician than he was in handling economic or administrative matters. He became embroiled in a bitter dispute with President John Adams over the Quasi-War with France, and his actions contributed to the defeat of the Federalists and the election of his rival Thomas Jefferson as President in 1800. He spent the last years of his life practicing law in New York City, although he continued to write about the issues of his time. Hamilton died in 1804 after sustaining a fatal gunshot wound in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.