Arriving in the American colonies in 1772 from the Caribbean island of St. Croix, Alexander Hamilton found himself in the midst of the tumult of the Revolutionary War. Early in the war, he wrote several pamphlets and essays favoring independence. He was commissioned to command an artillery company in the Continental Army in 1776 and eventually served as George Washington’s aide de camp from 1777-81, and as such he saw firsthand the weaknesses of Congress in funding and maintaining a viable military. These lessons would be the basis of Hamilton’s views regarding governance throughout his career. As a member of Confederation Congress, he wrote to George Washington on 17 March 1783 noting that, “There are dangerous prejudices in the particular states opposed to those measures which alone can give stability & prosperity to the Union. There is a fatal opposition to Continental views . . . I fear we have been contending for a shadow.” Throughout the 1780s Hamilton’s concerns about national financial viability persisted. In a speech in the New York Assembly on 15 February 1787, Hamilton asked “what will be the situation of our national affairs if they are left much longer to float in the chaos in which they are now involved. Can our national character be preserved without paying our debts? Can the union subsist without revenue? . . . If these states are not united under a federal government, they will infalliably have wars with each other; and their divisions will subject them to all the mischiefs of foreign influence and intrigue.
In September 1786 at the Annapolis Convention representatives from five states hastily concluded in a report penned by Hamilton that the defects of the Articles of Confederation “were greater and more numerous” and so serious as “to render the situation of the United States delicate and critical.” Against the backdrop of agrarian unrest, Congress considered the Annapolis report and on 21 February 1787 called for the states to appoint delegates to convene in Philadelphia in May. For those who had advocated for a stronger central government, Philadelphia would be a critical moment. Hamilton, committed to a consolidation of the states under a central government, would tender a series of proposals during the proceedings. Perhaps most notable was his 18 June 1787 speech in which he advocated for a national government where “All laws of the particular states contrary to the constitution or laws of the United States to be utterly void. And the better to prevent such laws being passed the Governor or President of each state shall be appointed by the general government and shall have a negative upon the laws about to be passed in the state of which he is governor or President.”
Hamilton’s desire for a strong central government continued albeit muted throughout the ratification debates. As Antifederalists warned the American people about the dangers of the national government under the proposed Constitution, Hamilton was forced to curb some of his consolidationist views. Writing as Publius, he would advocate in The Federalist 11 for a “vigorous national government” that would “baffle all the combinations of European jealousy to restrain our growth.” But in The Federalist 28 Hamilton would also assure the critics of the Constitution that their fears of tyranny were misplaced since “State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security of invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”
After the ratification of the Constitution, Hamilton continued writing polemics of a decided nationalist bent. Both the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793 and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 provided additional opportunities for Hamilton to weigh in on the nature and extent of the powers of the national government. Reading broad executive powers into the Constitution, Hamilton suggested that “The President is the constitutional EXECUTOR of the laws. Our Treaties and the laws of Nations form a part of the law of the land. He who is to execute the laws must first judge for himself of their meaning. In addressing the rebels in western Pennsylvania, Hamilton warned on 26 August 1794 that it was the intention of the national government “to begin by securing obedience to our authority, from those who have been bold enough to set it at defiance.”
While many Founders were content to envision an America that would compete as an equal among the nations of the world, Isaac Kramnick has suggested that Hamilton “had a grander vision for the American state, a call to greatness . . . Hamilton’s horizons were dazzling.” For his critics both then and now, they were terrifying.