Hamilton, Alexander (1755–1804)

Author:Gerald Stourzh

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Alexander Hamilton, American statesman, member of the Constitutional Convention (1787), coauthor of THE FEDERALIST, first secretary of the Treasury (1789?1795), and leading member of the Federalist party in New York, was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. He came to New York in 1773 and enrolled in King's College; he served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, from 1777 to 1781 as GEORGE WASHINGTON'S aide-de-camp. Hamilton was a leading member of the New York bar before and after he served in President Washington's cabinet.

During the prelude to independence, Hamilton participated in the pamphlet controversies between American Whigs and supporters of Britain. His most important pamphlet, "The Farmer Refuted" (1775), expressed a conventional natural rights philosophy. He asserted that "nature has distributed an equality of rights to every man." He also upheld the right to resort to first principles above and beyond the "common forms of municipal law." He subscribed to the theory of government as a social compact between ruler and ruled (a model used by WILLIAM BLACKSTONE rather than JOHN LOCKE) and, like JOHN ADAMS and THOMAS JEFFERSON, argued that the British king was "King of America, by virtue of a compact between us and the King of Great Britain."

Hamilton, who by origin was not rooted in any one of the thirteen states, became an early and perhaps the most outspoken advocate of a stronger and more centralized government for the United States. In 1780 he developed a far-reaching program of constitutional reform. First, he pleaded for a vast increase in the power of Congress and asked for a convention for the purpose of framing a confederation, to give Congress complete sovereignty in all matters relating to war, peace, trade, finance, and the management of FOREIGN AFFAIRS. Second, he called for a more efficient organization of the executive tasks of Congress. Individuals were better suited than boards of administration (with the possible exception of trade matters), because responsibility was then less diffused; "men of the first pretentions" would be more attracted to these tasks if offered individual responsibility. Hamilton developed

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his plea for strengthening Congress in "The Continentalist" (1781?1782) in which he revealed his future political program by pointing to the need "to create in the interior of each state a mass of influence in favour of the Foederal Government." As a delegate from New York to Congress (1782?1783), Hamilton criticized the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION. Only in September 1786 did he succeed having the Annapolis Convention endorse his resolution for calling a convention to meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 "to devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Foederal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union."

Hamilton took a strong stand during that period against New York state legislation discriminating against Loyalists. His "Letters of Phocion" (1784) defended individual rights and the rule of law against "arbitrary acts of legislature," as well as the supremacy of the state constitution over acts of the legislature. As counsel for the defense in the New York case of RUTGERS V. WADDINGTON (1784) Hamilton argued that the New York Trespass Act (1783), which enabled people who had fled New York when British forces occupied the city to recover damages from persons who had held their premises during the occupation, was incompatible with higher law?that of the law of nations, of the peace treaty, and of commands of Congress. The Court did not accept the argument for JUDICIAL REVIEW, but followed another of Hamilton's arguments: that the legislature could not have meant to violate the law of nations.

At the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION OF 1787, Hamilton was somewhat an outsider for two reasons. First, the other two members of the New York delegation, JOHN LANSING and ROBERT YATES, opposed a stronger central government. Second, Hamilton's views, presented to the Convention in a five-hour speech on June 18, were extreme on two counts: he advocated the abolition of states as states, favoring a system that would leave them only subordinate jurisdiction; and he advocated tenure during GOOD BEHAVIOR both...

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