Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton Headshot

“… there are few men to be found, of his age, who has a more general knowledge than he possesses, and none whose Soul is more firmly engaged in the cause.” (1781, George Washington)

“Without numbers, he is a host within himself.” (1795, Thomas Jefferson)

Biographical Information

Born on Nevis, Leeward Islands, British West Indies. Came to America in 1772. Entered King’s College (Columbia), 1773. Wrote pamphlets and newspaper essays favoring independence, 1774-75. Commissioned by Second Provincial Congress to command artillery company, 1776. George Washington’s aide-de-camp with rank of lieutenant colonel, 1777-81. Married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Philip Schuyler, 1780. Led attack on redoubt at Yorktown, 1781. Settled in Albany, studied law, and admitted to bar, 1782. Member, Confederation Congress, 1782-83, 1788. Opened law office in New York City, 1783. Argued case of Rutgers v. Waddington, 1784. A founder of Bank of N.Y., 1784. Delegate to Annapolis Convention, 1786; drafted report of Convention. Member, state Assembly, 1787. Delegate to Constitutional Convention, 1787; signed Constitution as only N.Y. delegate. Published attack on Gov. George Clinton, 21 July 1787. Possible author of “Cæsar” essays, 1787. Co-author of “Publius”: The Federalist, 1787-88. Member, New York Convention, 1788; voted to ratify Constitution. U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, 1789-95. Leader of Federalist Party. After retirement from Treasury, returned to New York City to practice law; remained active in politics. Major General (second in command) of Provisional Army raised to meet potential threat from France, 1798. Opposed Aaron Burr’s election as U.S. Senator, 1797, as President, 1800-1801, and as governor of N.Y., 1804. Killed in duel with Burr.

Descriptions of Alexander Hamilton:

George Washington to John Sullivan, 4 February 1781

How far Colo. Hamilton, of whom you ask my opinion as a financier, has turned his thoughts to that particular study I am unable to answer because I never entered upon a discussion on this point with him; but this I can venture to advance from a thorough knowledge of him, that there are few men to be found, of his age, who has a more general knowledge than he possesses, and none whose Soul is more firmly engaged in the cause, or who exceeds him in probity and Sterling virtue.

William Pierce, “Character Sketches”, 1787

Colo. Hamilton is deservedly celebrated for his talents. He is a practitioner of the Law, and reputed to be a finished Scholar. To a clear and strong judgment he unites the ornaments of fancy, and whilst he is able, convincing, and engaging in his eloquence the Heart and Head sympathize in approving him. Yet there is something too feeble in his voice to be equal to the strains of oratory,— it is my opinion that he is rather a convincing Speaker, than a blazing Orator. Colo. Hamilton requires time to think—he enquires into every part of his subject with the searchings of philosophy, and when he comes forward he comes highly charged with interesting matter, there is no skimming over the surface of a subject with him, he must sink to the bottom to see what foundation it rests on.—His language is not always equal, sometimes didactic like Bolingbroke’s at others light and tripping like Stern’s. His eloquence is not so defusive as to trifle with the senses, but he rambles just enough to strike and keep up the attention. He is about 33 years old, of small stature, and lean. His manners are tinctured with stiffness, and sometimes with a degree of vanity that is highly disagreeable.

“A Citizen and Real Friend”, 21 March 1788

The publications of Col. Hamilton, in defense of the liberties of America previous to the late war, when a youth in the college of New York; his great military services, and the confidential line in which he stood with that good and great man General Washington, during that war, are indubitable proofs of his virtue. As a lawyer, a politician, and a statesman, Col. Hamilton is certainly great; as a public speaker he is clear, pointed and sententious; he excels most men in reply, being possessed of the powers of reasoning in an eminent degree, and he is endowed with a most benevolent and good heart.

Samuel Blachley Webb to Catherine Hogeboom, 27 June 1788

We have been entertained for upwards of two hours this morning by Colonel Hamilton in one of the most elegant speeches I ever heard. He is indeed one of the most remarkable genius’s of the Age, his Political knowledge exceeds, I believe, any Man in our Country, and his Oratorial abilities has pleased his friends and surprised his Enemies.

Melancton Smith to Nathan Dane, 28 June 1788

Hamilton is the champion, he speaks frequently, very long and very vehemently—has, like Publius, much to say not very applicable to the subject—

Louis Guillaume Otto, “Biographies”, Fall 1788

Great orator, intrepid in public debates. Zealous partisan, to an extreme over the new Constitution, and declared enemy of Governor Clinton, whom he had the courage to attack publicly in a newspaper without any provocation. He is one of those rare men who have distinguished themselves equally on the field of battle and at the bar. He owes everything to his talents. An indiscretion got him into trouble with General Washington for whom he served as confidential secretary; other indiscretions obliged him to leave Congress in 1783. He has a little too much pretension and too little prudence.

Here is what M. Luzerne said about him in 1780: “Mr. Hamilton, one of the aides de camp of General Washington who has the most influence with him, man of spirit, of a mediocre integrity; he left the English territory where he was born of low extraction . . . Also a favorite of M. de Lafayette. Mr. Conway thinks that Hamilton hates the French, that he is absolutely corrupted and that the connections that he will appear to have with us will never be anything but deceptive.”

Mr. Hamilton has done nothing that could justify this last opinion; he is only too impetuous and because he wants to control everything, he fails in his intentions. His eloquence is often out of place in public debates, where precision and clarity are preferred to a brilliant imagination. It is believed that Mr. Hamilton is the author of the pamphlet entitled The Federalist. He has again missed his mark. This work is of no use to educated men and it is too learned and too long for the ignorant. It has, however, made him a great celebrity and a small frigate has been named Hamilton which was pulled through the streets of New York during the great federal procession. But these parades only make a momentary impression here and as the Antifederalist party is the largest in the state, Mr. Hamilton has lost more than he has gained by his zeal on this occasion.

A stranger in this state, where he rose by benevolence, Mr. Hamilton has found the means to run off with the daughter of General Schuyler,* a great proprietor and very influential. After being reconciled with the family, he now possesses the esteem of his father-in-law.

John Adams to John Trumbull, 25 April 1790

Our Secretary [of the Treasury] has however I think good Abilities and certainly great Industry. He has high minded Ambition and great Penetration.–He may have too much disposition to intrigue.–If this is not indulged I know not where a better Minister for his Department could be found. But nothing is more dangerous, nothing will be more certainly destructive in our Situation than the Spirit of Intrigue.

Samuel Johnston to James Iredell, 25 February 1790

The great difficulty seems to rest on the ways and means; but your favorite, the Secretary of the Treasury, whose application is as indefatigable as his genius is extensive, encourages us to hope that they may be found.

George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 2 February 1795

After so long an experience of your public services, I am naturally led, at this moment of your departure from office—which it has always been my wish to prevent—to review them.

In every relation, which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions and integrity, has been well placed. I the more freely render this testimony of my approbation, because I speak from opportunities of information which cannot deceive me, and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 21 September 1795

Hamilton is really a colossus to the antirepublican party. Without numbers, he is an host within himself. They have got themselves into a defile, where they might be finished; but too much security on the Republican part, will give time to his talents & indefatigableness to extricate them. We have had only middling performances to oppose him. In truth, when he comes forward, there is nobody but yourself who can meet him. His adversaries having begun the attack, he has the advantage of answering them, & remains unanswered himself. . . . For god’s sake take up your pen, and give a fundamental reply to Curtius & Camillus.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 9 January 1797

Hamilton I know to be a proud Spirited, conceited, aspiring Mortal always pretending to Morality, with as debauched Morals as old Franklin who is more his Model than any one I know. As great an Hypocrite as any in the U.S. His intrigue in the Election I despise. That he has Talents I admit but I dread none of them. I shall take no notice of his Puppy head but retain the same Opinion of him I always had and maintain the same Conduct towards him I always did, that is keep him at a distance.

John Beckley to Ephraim Kirby, 25 October 1799

The turbulent and intriguing spirit of Alexander Hamilton, has again manifested itself, in an insidious publication to defeat Mr. Adams’s election, and in a labored effort to belittle the character of the president, he has in no small degree belittled his own. Vainly does he essay to seize the mantle of Washington, and cloak the moral atrocities of a life spent in wickedness and which must terminate in shame and dishonor. His career of ambition is passed, and neither honor or empire will ever be his. As a political nullity, he has inflicted upon himself the sentence of “Aut Caesar, aut Nullus.”*

*Either Caesar or nothing; either first or nothing.

Robert Troup to Rufus King, 31 December 1800

The current of public opinion still sets strongly against the discretion of Hamilton’s late letter respecting the character and conduct of Mr. Adams. I do not believe it has altered a single vote in the late election. . . . The influence however of this letter upon Hamilton’s character is extremely unfortunate. An opinion has grown out of it, which at present obtains almost universally, that his character is radically deficient in discretion, and therefore the Federalists ask, what avail the most preeminent talents—the most distinguished patriotism—without the all important quality of discretion? Hence he is considered as an unfit head of the party—and we are in fact without a rallying point.

John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 25 January 1806

Although I read with tranquility and suffered to pass without animadversion in silent contempt the base insinuations of vanity and a hundred lies besides published in a pamphlet against me by an insolent coxcomb who rarely dined in good company, where there was good wine, without getting silly and vaporing about his administration like a young girl about her brilliants and trinkets, yet I lose all patience when I think of a bastard brat of a Scottish pedlar daring to threaten to undeceive the world in their judgment of Washington by writing an history of his battles and campaigns. This creature was in a delirium of ambition; he had been blown up with vanity by the tories, had fixed his eyes on the highest station in America, and he hated every man, young or old, who stood in his way or could in any manner eclipse his laurels or rival his pretensions.

James Kent, “Memoirs”

Colonel Hamilton was indisputably pre-eminent [at the bar]. This was universally conceded. He rose at once to the loftiest heights of professional eminence by his profound penetration, his power of analysis, the comprehensive grasp and strength of his understanding, and the firmness, frankness, and integrity of his character.

He generally spoke with much animation and energy and with considerable gesture. His language was clear, nervous [i.e., strong, powerful], and classical. His investigations penetrated to the foundation and reason of every doctrine and principle which he examined, and he brought to the debate a mind filled with all the learning and precedents applicable to the subject. He never omitted to meet, examine, and discover the strength or weakness, the truth or falsehood of every proposition with which he had to contend. His candor was magnanimous and rose to a level with his abilities. His temper was spirited but courteous, amiable and generous, and he frequently made pathetic [i.e., emotional] and powerful appeals to the moral sense and patriotism, the fears and hopes of the assembly, in order to give them a deep sense of the difficulties of the crisis and prepare their minds for the reception of the Constitution.