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Alexander Hamilton

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



As Madison and Monroe are best considered when viewed as protegés of Jefferson, so Alexander Hamilton should be grouped with Washington. In Hamilton's well-cut and intelligent features General Washington saw a lieutenant whom he loved and trusted, on whom he could lean with confidence. And it is possible that the people, deeming the Chief to be above criticism, dealt out a double portion to the active and powerful Minister who shrank so rarely from animadversion and dealt as heavy blows on his enemies as he received from them. It is possible that Hamilton is still praised too highly by one class of thinkers, and denounced unjustly by another.

Alexander Hamilton was born obscurely on the very small English island of Nevis, near St. Christopher's, in the West Indies, January 11, 1757. Unaided by fortune or birth, a stranger in a strange land, practically murdered by Aaron Burr at the early age of forty-six, he was still able, by virtue of a handsome exterior and astonishing mental gifts, to take his place second in the counsels of the early Republic, dooming to temporary obscurity intellects no less magnificent than Jefferson's. Around the memory of Hamilton there has massed a great political movement and solidarity, with populous societies taking his name, treasuring his monuments, and ex-tolling his theories. He represented the proud State of New York at a time when any champion from that region would have gathered the suspicion of Virginia, for the interests of a colonial plantation, on the one hand, and a colonial market-place, on the other, were essentially hostile. The transfer of a stock-market from Amsterdam and Lombard Court to the coffee-houses of Wall street, with the "paper fortunes" following on the promotion of a new Nation, were causes of deep jealousy in Virginia. It should be said, too, in justification of Hamilton, that what his political adversaries most bitterly opposed in his acts—the institution of a national bank and the exercise of the power of the Treasury to collect duties on imports—they themselves were forced, at a later date, to accept as necessary policies.

Denunciation of Tories during the Revolution had exercised men well in invective, and personal feeling was more marked before political parties were formed than afterward. Although no other man of the times falls so heavily under the ban of Jefferson's ill-will, still Hamilton seems withal to be the best-praised stateman of that era. Orators have exhausted their eloquence upon him. "He," said Daniel Webster, "smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams of revenue burst forth. He touched the dead corpse of public credit, and it sprang upon its feet."

Alexander Hamilton, a lad of fifteen, remarkable for his precocity, arrived at Boston in October, 1772, and went thence to New York, where he was put in a suburban grammar school, friends having interested themselves in his education. He then entered King's College. His dark skin proclaimed a tropical birth and he was called "the young West Indian." In 1774 he visited Boston, where he gathered his first ideas of "sedition"--for New York was a Tory town. The opponents of the English policy in New York were of the poorer classes, and Hamilton first attended their meeting in the fields July 6, 1774, where he made bold to ascend their rostrum and inform the multitude as to what was taking place at Faneuil Hall and in the Old South Church of Boston. In the autumn of that year the lad published several patriotic pamphlets and be-came a voluminous contributor to the press, with the idea of forcing New York into the Continental Congress. When the war began at Boston, the student, like Mon-roe at the Williamsburg College, joined a military company of patriots, and was the hero of a number of exploits that reflected credit on his courage, dignity, and humanity. In 1776 the New York Convention gave him permission to raise a military company of his own, and the captain drilled his men so well that he rose to the favorable notice of General Greene, who, in turn, introduced him to General Washington. So bravely did Captain Hamilton deport himself during the continuous retreats of the patriot army, and so marked was his facility as a writer, that General Washington appointed him one of his aides, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, March 1, 1777, when he was barely twenty years old. He now took charge of Washington's cor-respondence, and for years filled the arduous, and, as he believed, not sufficiently glorious post of military secretary. After the great success of General Gates at Sara-toga Colonel Hamilton was sent north to persuade or command General Gates to detach some of his troops for the succor of the main army, and succeeded. He was on other occasions a trusted messenger and envoy of Washington. When Major Andrè fell into the toils that sometimes close around a spy, Colonel Hamilton exerted himself to save the unfortunate man.

On February 16, 1781, General Washington sent for Colonel Hamilton to come to him, and, believing that his aide had not hastened, rebuked him for a lack of respect to his commander. "I am not conscious of it, sir; but since you have thought it, we part." General Washington strove to quiet the young man's resent-ment, and ever looked upon him with most favoring eye. It is said that all the army officers who were friendly to Washington, particularly the French, were unequivocally fond of Hamilton. Doubtless the young Colonel desired a command rather than a clerkship, and, his withdrawal secured it, for in the seventh year of the war he was in the army again as a General, and at York-town was given charge of the assault on one of the re-doubts. He went forward impetuously at the head of his men and had possession in less than ten minutes of gallant fighting. The French were not so expeditious, and the honors of the day went to Hamilton, thus contributing greatly to his standing in Revolutionary councils.

After his retirement from the army, he was the author of several striking treatises looking to a correction of the evils from which he had seen the patriot army suffer so cruelly. "We must have a government of more power," he wrote. "We must have a tax in kind. We must have a foreign loan. We must have a bank on the true principles of a bank. We must have an Administration distinct from Congress, and in the hands of single men under their orders."

While he was General Washington's aide, Hamilton married General Schuyler's daughter Elizabeth, and at the close of the war had for his fortune wife, child, arrears-of-pay, and ambition. He made a preparation for the bar almost as hasty as that of Patrick Henry, and was admitted to-practice at New York in the summer of 1782. At the same time his friend Robert Morris appointed him Federal Tax Collector at New York. Hamilton next attended the Legislature at Poughkeepsie, argued, lobbied, pleaded, and did all he could to sweep away the nerveless forms of public business, but with little success at the time. The Legislature, however, appointed him a member of Congress, and he resigned his Collectorship. In the Congress of 1782 he met Madison, his great parliamentary antagonist. Through that year and into 1783 he labored, as he had always done, to bring the country to a sense of its indebtedness to the army, but the Rhode Islanders and others could not see their way clear to allow a general or continental procedure and were inclined to choose repudiation. General Washington calmed the army, and doubtless moderated the sentiments of his young ad-mirer. McHenry wrote to Hamilton that if he (Hamilton) were ten years older and twenty thousand pounds richer Congress would have believed all his advice good. The young Congressman retired defeated at every point, and attributed his lack of success to the existence of thirteen democracies that could not long survive under the strain of their local jealousies, injustices, and in-gratitudes, as expressed toward the gallant army that had shed its blood so copiously for them. In the practice of his profession at New York he took the case of a Tory who had been sued for damages inflicted under the British occupation of New York. The patriots were all on the side of the plaintiff, whom Hamilton defeated. The Legislature and the people were very angry, and Hamilton, in taking the English side of the construction of the treaty of peace, further alienated himself from the favor of the masses, for whose opinion he evidenced growing indifference. He next provoked criticism by aiding the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati, whose members were to perpetuate their association by inheritance in the first-born male descend-ants. Yet while separating himself further and further from the affections of the masses, Hamilton was not the less busy with thoughts of getting the Nation together into coherent form. He first tried a State bank. When Madison left Congress to see what he could do in one State alone, he found Maryland surprisingly ready to debate the same questions of commercial taxation that were pressing. The first meeting led to a larger one. Then the Annapolis Convention was formally called, and to this Alexander Hamilton came, full of hope and fer-tile with plans to set up a stable central authority. It was he who wrote the Address of that rump convention—for only five States sat—and that Address proved to be the formal call for the Constitutional Convention of the United States of America—the only one ever held by this Nation. Therefore it cannot be amiss, by way of emphasis, to repeat that Alexander Hamilton wrote the call for the Constitutional Convention, and that it was the outcome of all his hopes for many years.

Hamilton then entered the Legislature of New York, where he was again defeated at every point in his at-tempt to subserve the government, or any part of the government, of New York to the Nation. When it came to the appointment of delegates to the Constitutional Convention, only three were chosen, and although Hamilton was included in the small delegation, his voice was lost through the association with him of Yates and Lansing, who were sure to vote against him. The course of the New York Legislature, however, had given the last blow to the old Confederation of Samuel Adams, and there was no central bureau toward whom a majority of the States looked with respect or from whose officers they received directions without ridicule.

Seven States met at Philadelphia, with General Washington sitting in the chair and giving continental dignity to the deliberations. Hamilton made a speech of six hours, early in the Convention, and then, as he was certain to be outvoted as one of the three delegates from his State, he absented himself much of the time from the sessions. He took the British institutions of King, Lords, and Commons, as "the best models in existence." He boldly outlined his plan, so that there could be no mistake as to his meaning. He desired to effectually cripple the power of the States and "establish an aristocratic Republic as distiguished from a democratic Re-public." A certain amount of property should entitle an elector to vote for President and Senators, who were "to hold office during good behavior." The President was to appoint the Governors, and they were to wield a veto-power over all legislation. This was a duplication of the Engish monarchy, with the omission of a few de-tails that must follow. The Senatorial rank' would sup-ply the nobility and the electoral franchise would carry with it the advantages of an aristocracy. Hamilton's plan served as the tentative proposition of the ultra-conservatives; had they started nearer to the base-line of democracy, they would have been compelled to concede more than they did. As it was, their President, with his vast appointive power, reëligible for life, seemed a veritable monarch to Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe. Hamilton's Constitutional labors lay in writing the call; in laying down the extreme proposals of the "monocrats," as they were then called, and in his return to New York and valiant service as an advocate of the Constitution that had passed the Convention, New York State being averse to its acceptance, or, in fact, to entrance into any Union. "Publius" was Hamilton's pen-name, and his articles in the Federalist were hailed with enthusiasm by all who were under the influence of General Washington. Despite the opposition of Governor Clinton, a Constitutional Convention for New York (to debate the proposed federal instrument) was called, but Clinton was its President, with 46 out of 65 votes. 'Two-thirds of the convention and four-sevenths of the people are against us," wrote Hamilton. Yet so masterly was his leadership of the minority of nineteen with which he entered the body, that he came out of it with a majority of three, and the State signed the Constitution. The Commonwealth could not then foresee the leading position it was to have in the Great Republic. This was the last parliamentary contest of magnitude which Hamilton personally led. It was a victory which has filled his eulogists with justifiable pride. He was elected to Congress, and carried to Philadelphia tidings which gave his patron, General Washington, no ordinary satisfaction. But he was soon defeated at many other points. lie could not prevent the ten amendments demanded by Patrick Henry, and he could not withstand the power of Clinton in New York, who took him out of Congress. In urging the interests of the Schuyler family, he would make no terms with the Livingstons, demanding too much, and thus he finally lost influence in the United States Senate, for, though he was able to at first control both the Senators and secure Federalists (that is, sup-porters of the Constitution), he alienated the Livingstons and raised up Burr against him. This Burr; in the end, was to avenge his own defeat by the murder of his political vanquisher.

When Congress next met, there was a President of the United States. But it was early in the autumn before there was a law for a Treasury Department. Hamilton, at thirty-two, was chosen for this office, with a salary of only $3,500 a year. His financial expectations at the bar were very great, and these he was called upon to renounce. Congress at once asked him to report, and he did report, upon the public credit; on the collection of the revenue, including the construction of revenue cutters; on estimated income and expenditure; on the regulation of the thirteen currencies; on navigation laws and coasting trade, with a bill properly drafted; on West Point academy; on public lands; on the post office, with a new bill; on government claims. He therefore im-pressed the nation-makers with the feeling that he was the only man with inventive ideas, and he soon gave the country plenty to think about. His main point was to get rich men to invest their money in the Government, and when it became evident that this was sure to be done, an enormous speculation set in in government paper of all kinds. Under the tonic which he administered to the national credit, those who had parted with their certificates had the unhappiness to see the scrip-buyers realizing undreamed-of profits, and among the chief sufferers were the very soldiers whom Hamilton had striven all his life to see paid. There was about fifty-four millions of public debt and twenty-five millions of State debts. Revenues must be raised on tea, wines, and spirits, and an excise tax must be levied. To get the rich men interested in the public debt, Hamilton offered them the tempting bait of a so-called national bank, which was to be of private ownership and profit. To quiet the State debts, which were outstanding specters, always likely to frighten away credit, the Nation must assume them, an act very satisfactory to debtor-States, and equally unjust to creditor-States. This could be done only by "log-rolling" with Jefferson, and giving him the Capital for Virginia soil. Hamilton's was a truly enthusiastic nature. He was ready to borrow money on his own credit in order to establish the feeble Treasury which was to become the richest public chest in the world; he was glad to labor with prodigious activity and speed to satisfy Congress; he was not averse to any accommodation which would withdraw opposition to his plans, for he thought he saw that without him the confederation would again fall into contempt. But for the fact that the very things he wanted to do had been ordained, he would again have been outvoted, but his time had come. General Washington had no option but to support his Secretary. Any other course would have been a nullification of the Fed-eral compact, for Hamilton's Treasury Department was all there could be seen of a real central Government, and its surprising success as an inspiration to investors was the first real encouragement the new Nation had by itself ever received outside of France. He next established a mint with the double standard, following the example of all the European nations. He made a report on manufactures which the protectionists are to-day tempted to regard as containing the kernel of their doctrine. When he had funded the Revolutionary debt into short-time bonds at high interest and long-time bonds at low interest, and when he had aroused the spirit of gain in the bankers of Europe and at home, he had in fact established at the National Capital an authority that could arm and clothe enough soldiers to guarantee self-protection; for experience had proved that a poor Nation could not be as warlike as it would be if enriched, with hundreds of millions of cash at its disposal.

It is possible that he injured his political prospects by interposing his will at the State Department. While Washington followed the English policy which Hamilton so much desired, Virginia and the Massachusetts town meetings were alienated and Thomas Jefferson was put on the defensive. When Jefferson retired from Washington's Cabinet the Chief was able to see that Hamilton's policy had not increased the number of the administration's friends. When the stock speculation collapsed, the reaction was sufficient to cast obloquy for a time on the great financial work accomplished by the Secretary. Over the Cabinet as rearranged Hamilton held undisputed sway, and when he retired to his great law practice at New York he was still the counselor on whom John Adams' Cabinet Ministers, who had held over, sought advice instead of seeking to obey the President. When General Washington was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Provisional Army he sought to make General Hamilton his senior Major General, but by this time Jefferson's forces were so well aligned that Hamilton was given the junior position. War did not come on, but the incident filled Hamilton with fury, and it is alleged, on no very convincing evidence, that Hamilton "knifed" the second election of John Adams, and relegated the old patriot to private life as the penalty of not advancing the ex-Secretary's interests. When the election of Jefferson and Burr was thrown into the House, under the crude electoral system then in operation, it was Hamilton who absented Federalists enough to elect Jefferson, thus defeating the hopes of Burr, and in Burr's opinion betraying the interests of New York.

Hamilton lived at Washington Heights, now the corner of One Hundred and Forty-fifth street and Tenth avenue, New York City. The house, still standing, is a large frame structure with tall wooden columns. At the southeast corner are thirteen tall trees, planted by Hamilton to represent the thirteen States.

On the 4th of July, 1801, Philip Hamilton, a lad of eighteen years old, eldest son of the General, heard G. J. Eaker deliver an oration in which he spoke disparagingly of General Hamilton. A short time after-ward a personal affray resulted and a young friend of young Hamilton fought a bloodless duel with Eaker. On this young Hamilton challenged Eaker, and the principals met January 10, 1802, at Weehawken, N. J., where Eaker killed young Hamilton. General Hamilton, hurrying to prevent this tragedy, fainted on the way. That the father should fall fatally wounded on this very spot under the Weehawken ledge has evoked for the widow and mother the tenderest sympathies of mankind.

Both Hamilton and Burr were deeply disappointed men who did not quietly submit to misfortune. When Jefferson was at the crest of success, General Hamilton wrote, February 27, 1802, to Gouverneur Morris: "Mine is an odd destiny. Perhaps no man in the United States has sacrificed or done more for the present Constitution than myself; and contrary to all my anticipations of its fate, as you know, from the beginning. I am still laboring to prop the frail and worthless fabric. Yet I have the murmurs of its friends no less than the curses of its foes for my reward. What can I do better than withdraw from the scene? Every day proves to me more and more that this American world was not made for me."

Aaron Burr, on his side, had many causes to hate General Hamilton. Beside the Presidential election, Hamilton had prevented Burr's appointment to a foreign mission. Then Burr stood for election as Governor of New York, but through Hamilton's interference Lewis, a Democratic rival of Burr, was elected. For fourteen years Hamilton had assailed Burr with all the bitterness of his nature. Both were now out of office—one was ex-Vice-President, the other ex-Secretary of the Treasury. Both were extremely ambitious, but Hamilton could not be President under the Constitution, being foreign-born. It is to be wondered at that Burr did not assail Jefferson rather than Hamilton, for Jefferson also regarded him with deep suspicion. Hamilton wrote of Burr as early as 1792: "Burr's integrity as an individual is not unimpeached. As a public man he is one of the worst sort—a friend to nothing but as suits his interest and ambition. Determined to climb to the highest honors of the State, and as much higher as circumstances may permit, he cares nothing about the means of effecting his purpose. 'Tis evident that he aims at putting himself at the head of what he calls the popular party as affording the best tools for an ambitious man to work with. Secretly turning liberty into ridicule, he knows as well as most men how to make use of the name. In a word, if we have an embryo Caesar in the United States, 'tis Burr."

It would seem that Hamilton, by a reiteration of these sentiments, had come to think that they were safe. And it seems that but for the intermeddling of one Dr. Charles D. Cooper, Burr might not have thought his honor as a fighting man had been put in jeopardy. At last Hamilton, in the presence of this Dr. Cooper, declared that "he looked on Mr. Burr as a dangerous man, and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government."

This statement of Dr. Cooper, coupled with other matters of a striking intermeddling and tell-tale character, was published in a newspaper, whereupon, on June i8, 18o4, Colonel Burr sent to General Hamilton by hand of W. P. Van Ness, a note as follows :

"SIR: I send for your perusal a letter signed Charles D. Cooper which, though apparently published some time ago, but very recently come to my knowledge. Mr. Van Ness, who does me the favor to deliver this, will point out to you that clause of the letter to which I particularly request your attention.

"You must perceive, sir, the necessity of a prompt and unqualified acknowledgement or denial of the use of any expression which would warrant the assertions of Dr. Cooper."

Mr. Van Ness pointed out to General Hamilton a clause by Dr. Cooper which read : "I could detail to you a still more despicable opinion which General Hamilton has expressed of Mr. Burr."

General Hamilton replied in a verbose note two days later. He did not consider the charge that he had expressed "a still more despicable opinion" as being sufficiently definite.

On the 21st Colonel Burr again addressed General Hamilton. Colonel Burr had found in the answer "nothing of that sincerity and delicacy" which Hamilton "professed to value." "The calumny had now first been disclosed" and "the effect was present and palpable." Colonel Burr required a definite reply.

General Hamilton's rejoinder was once more evasive, but this time brief. It was evident that he desired to avoid either a battle or an apology. The correspondence was then assumed by seconds—Van Ness for Burr, and Pendleton for Hamilton—each writing a somewhat wordy epistle. With that of Van Ness was inclosed the formal challenge. This letter of explanation or justification by Burr repudiated Hamilton's charge of "pre-determined hostility." It alleged "secret whispers and slanders publicly uttered." Colonel Burr, it said, felt "as a gentleman should feel when his honor is impeached or assailed." He was "without sensations of hostility or wishes of revenge," but he was "determined to vindicate his honor at such hazard as the nature of the case demanded."

Mr. Pendleton, having accepted the challenge, pre-pared another paper looking to an accommodation if Colonel Burr would retreat without an apology, but Mr. Van Ness would not receive it. The seconds were desirous of attaching the blame each to the other party. July 11th was fixed for the "interview."

July 5th General Hamilton wrote a letter for his wife, and on the 9th executed his will. On the loth he pre-pared a general statement, which was to immortalize him and condemn Burr to infamy. It seemed as if, brought face to face with the penalty of his unlicensed temper, General Hamilton had thrown off all the impetuosity of youth. In the paper he stated that he was "certainly desirous of avoiding this interview for the most cogent of reasons." (1) Moral and religious principles, and law-breaking; (2) Wife and children; (3) Creditors; (4) He was conscious of no ill-will to Colonel Burr; (5) He would hazard much to gain nothing; (6) He had held a low opinion of Colonel Burr; (7) A "judicious and moderate friend" could see no escape; (8) General Hamilton felt he had gone too far toward a reconciliation; (9) He expressed a repugnance to the act of killing Burr, and meant to reserve his fire; Lastly, in order to be useful, he accepted the challenge, because he thereby conserved his honor. "The ability to be in future useful, whether in resisting mischief or effecting good, in those crises of our public affairs which seem likely to happen would probably be inseparable from a conformity with public prejudice in this particular."

At daylight of July 11, 1804, Colonel Burr and Van Ness arrived first at the duelling-ground, by appoint-ment; then came General Hamilton, Pendleton, and Dr. Hosack, surgeon. The parties exchanged salutations. By lot, position and word both fell to Hamilton's second. The large pistols were loaded and the distance of ten paces measured. The second giving the word asked : "Are you ready?" The answer was "Yes." He cried, "Present!" and, by agreement, the two pistols were fired. General Hamilton almost instantly fell. Burr advanced, evidently to express his regret, but his second, fearing a recognition by the surgeon and approaching boatmen, hurried him off to the boat. The surgeon and Pendleton raised General Hamilton to a sitting posture, and he said : "This is a mortal wound," swooning away. As he was carried to the river-bank he said: "My vision is indistinct." He was found to be mortally wounded in the side. The house was not far away, but the wounded man suffered intensely on the journey, and confronted the distress of a wife and seven children on arrival. He was undressed and put in a dark room, and given heavy anodynes, to lessen his pain. The surgeons of the French frigates and the eminent medi-cal men of the city all hastened to the stricken home, but it was deemed unwise to increase the sufferings of a dying man. When he was able to speak he continually cried : "My beloved wife and Children!" When his seven children were brought to the bedside, he shut his eyes that he might dull the sharpness of his emotions. "As a proof of his extraordinary composure of mind," says the surgeon, "let me add that he alone could calm the frantic grief of their mother. 'Remember, my Eliza, you are a Christian!' were the expressions with which he frequently, with a firm voice, but in a pathetic and impressive manner, addressed her. His words, and the tone in which they were uttered, will never be effaced from my memory. At about 2 o'clock, as the public well know, he expired."

The funeral of General Hamilton took place with procession and imposing ceremonies, Saturday, July 14th. A platform was built in front of Trinity Church, Broadway, and Gouverneur Morris delivered the funeral oration to a vast concourse of grief-stricken people. Great multitudes had thronged to the city, and "the Nation seemed paralyzed with horror." Those who saw both obsequies and the grief of the people, likened the public manifestations at .Hamilton's death to those at Lincoln's. Resentment against Burr was universal. He was disfranchised in New York and indicted for mur-der in New Jersey. The Society of the Cincinnati took a stand against dueling. Burr fled for his life, but in England told Jeremy Bentham that he was sure he could kill him (Hamilton). He was afterward tried for treason, but acquitted, yet he had lived to justify Hamilton's allegation that he was a dangerous demagogue. He died very old and poor on Staten Island in 1836. The unfortunate Mrs. Hamilton, doubly a victim of "the code," lived no less than fifty years more, dying in 1854 at ninety-seven.

Alexander Hamilton was buried in the churchyard of Trinity. The corporation erected a monument over his grave, which fell into decay with age, and was restored by Alexander Hamilton, grandson, some years ago, by permission of the corporation.

The two dueling pistols of that fatal morning are preserved by a descendant of General Hamilton at Rochester, N. Y. The one that was fired by Burr is marked by a cross filed on the lower part of the barrel. They are sixteen inches long and formidable weapons, heavily and elegantly mounted with brass at great expense. They have flint-locks, but the flints are cut with the precision of the face of a diamond. The bullet to be fired was very large—fifty-six caliber. There were sights. It is certain that "the code" of those days was intolerant of bloodless duels.

We have been at pains to sketch the main details of this event, because it is one of the three great tragedies in American statesmanship, and because it is reckoned generally to be the most celebrated duel ever fought. Its unsatisfactory issue did much to fortify popular horror of "the code." Its victim became a great martyr, and his ancient home is daily visited by pilgrims who dwell with pride upon his public services to an adopted country, and his unhappy and unjust fate at the hands of a people for whom he had so courageously, so unremittingly, and so enthusiastically labored.

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