Alexander Hamilton's influence on American history and its institutions is profound. Remembered today for his tragic duel and death against Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey in July, 1804, Hamilton laid the groundwork for the financial success of the new nation through his vast knowledge of complex finance and sound adminstration. He was a proponent of a strong central government and was influential in creating a constitution and system of government that was vasty superior to the Articles of Confederation.
Hamilton was born on Nevis Island in the West Indies. His parents never married. His mother died when he was only 11. Hamilton's father worked at odd jobs and travelled thoughout the Carribbean with his son. The young Hamilton had the very good fortune of meeting a New York trader on St. Croix. The trader, a wise man, recognized the high intelligence of the boy and his ability to understand the complexities of commerce and accounting. His friends were impressed with the young man and arranged for him to study ( 1772-74) at a grammar school in New Jersey and then enter King's College ( now Columbia University)
Hamilton was an excellent student, but he was restless for adventure. In 1774 he attended a meeting about the ongoing crisis with England. When war broke out, he left college and became a captain of artillery, serving with distinction in the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Trenton and Princeton. His coolness under fire and his natural intelligence brought him to the attention of General Greene who introduced him to General Washington. He was made Washington's aide-de-camp. His adminstrative skills were immediately noticed. He learned a great deal under Washington but he longed for active service. A minor dispute with Washington led him to resign from the General's staff. He remained in the army and was able to command a regiment at the Battle of Yorktown, again serving with distinction.
In 1780 he married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of General Philip John Schuyler, a wealthy member of a New York family. He left the army and studied law.. Through hard work, he was admitted to the New York Bar and slowly built a reputation as one of the finest lawyers in New York City, practicing what we would now call complex business law and maritime law. His skills in the coutroom, his complete understanding of complex legal issues and his convincing arguments won him the praise and admiration among his brothers of the bar.
He represented New York in the Continental Congress of 1782. He and his young colleague, James Madison pushed for a strong central government. Their arguments did not win the day and Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton went back to New York and strove to build up his legal practice. In 1787, he, Madison and John Jay collaborated ( Hamilton being the main author) on a series of essays called "The Federalist Papers", calling for a strong central government. These essays still represent basic statements of United States political philosophy. It became apparent that The Articles of Confederation were too weak. The federal government had no real power to collect money for the defence of the country. The central government was weak in other ways. In 1787 Hamilton again served as a delegate to the second Convention. This time his arguments convinced the other members and a new constitution was written and eventually passed by the states. In 1789, George Washington, then president, asked Hamilton to become the country's first secretary of the treasury. Hamilton worked hard and was by and large successful in developing a sound economic system for the new country.
Rifts soon developed in the federal cabinet and political parties began to form. Hamilton and John Adams espoused the ideas of the Federalists--calling for a strong, central government, while Madison and Jefferson emphasized individual rights ( they formed the Democratic-Republican party). Jefferson and Hamilton would argue at cabinet meetings, finally coming to a deadlock. Hamilton retired from the cabinet and in 1795 returned to his lucrative law practice in New York. Hamilton worked on an important maritme case with Aaron Burr. They won the case for their clients. Hamilton accepted $1,500 for his professional services, but Burr took a larger fee. This upset Hamilton and rifts began to develop in their relationship. Hamilton began to see Burr as untrustworthy and venal.
Hamilton, although a private citizen continued to propose changes and improvements to the federal government. One, which still stands, is to divide each state into federal judicial districts on the trial level. Currently there are 94 federal districts. He made other important suggestions.
In 1800 Jefferson campaigned for president with Burr as his running mate. Burr and Hamilton received the same number of electoral votes. This was a problem because at that time all candidates ran for the presidency, the winner becoming president and the runner-up became the vice-president. Hamilton was an elector for New York and to everyone surprise, he voted for Jefferson, not Burr. Jefferson thus became President. This increased the emnity Burr felt towards Hamilton.
Things came to a head in 1804. Burr ran for governor of New York. Hamilton insulted him in print and Burr lost. Enraged, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton could have just apologized, but felt honor bound to accept the duel. The two men met in Weehawken ( the spot is identified by a marker today). It is said that Hamilton shot in the air on purpose ( there is some dispute about this). In any case Burr took dead aim and hit Hamilton in the lower chest. The bullet went through his liver and into his spine, a mortal wound. Hamilton died in great pain in New York City the next day, July 12, 1804. Knowing his wound was mortal, he managed to see his wife and children for the last time. He accepted his fate, trusting in a life after death. He was 3 years shy of his 50th birthday, although the exact year of his birth is not known.