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The parentage of Alexander Hamilton is given by his son and biographer as of mingled Scottish and French ancestry--Scottish on the father's side, Huguenot on the mother's. Students of the doctrine of temperaments may find something to ponder over in such a fusion under the genial ray of the southern sun. Given the key, they may unlock with it many cabinets in the idiosyncrasy of the future Hamilton; Scottish perseverance and integrity, French honor and susceptibility, tropical fervor. Be that as it may, Alexander Hamilton first saw the light in the West India island, St. Christopher, January 11, 1757. His father was a trader or captain, sailing between the islands of the archipelago, whose business brought him into relation with Nicholas Cruger, a wealthy merchant of Santa Cruz, in intimate relation with New York, in whose counting-house the son was placed at the age of twelve. He was a boy of quick intellect, in advance of his years, and had already made much of limited opportunities of instruction, as we may learn from an exceedingly well-penned epistle, addressed thus early to a school-fellow who had found his way to New York. In this remarkable letter, the boy seems to have written with prophetic instinct. "To confess my weakness, Ned," he says, "my ambition is prevalent, so that I contemn the grovelling condition of a clerk or the like, to which my fortune condemns me, and would willingly risk my life, though not my character, to exalt my station.... I mean to prepare the way for futurity.... I shall conclude by saying, I wish there was a war." This may be regarded as a boyish rhapsody; but all boys are not given to such rhapsodies.
The clerk had his hours for study as well as for the counting-room, and doubtless practised his pen in composition, for we hear of his writing an account of a fearful hurricane which visited the island, a narrative which appears to have been published, since it attracted the attention of the governor. These evidences of talent determined his friends to send him to New York to complete his education. He came, landing at Boston in the autumn of 1772, and was received at New York by the correspondents of Dr. Knox, a clergyman who had become interested in his welfare in Santa Cruz. He was immediately introduced to the school of Francis Barber, at Elizabethtown, where he enjoyed the society of the Boudinots, Livingstons, and other influential people of the colony. He studied early, and at the close of the year presented himself to Doctor Witherspoon, at Princeton, with a request to be permitted to overleap some of the usual collegiate terms according to his qualifications. As this was contrary to the usage of the place, he entered King's College, now Columbia, in New York, with the special privileges he desired. In addition to the usual studies, he attended the anatomical course of Clossey. Colonel Troup, at this time his room-fellow, testifies to his earnest religious feeling, a very noticeable thing in a youth of his powers. He wrote verses freely--among them doggerel burlesques of the productions of the ministerial writers of the day.
The Revolution was now fairly getting under way, and in the opening tumultuous scenes in New York, strong hands were wanted at the wheel. Hamilton, at the age of seventeen, in 1774, did not hesitate in making his decision. He entered the field against the dashing young president of the college, Myles Cooper, of convivial memory, in a reply in Holt's Gazette to some Tory manifesto of that divine. About this time, after the adjournment of Congress, at the close of the year, he also published a pamphlet in vindication of the measures of Congress, against the attacks of Seabury and Wilkins. The contest, however, was one which was not to be decided by the pen alone. The old prerogative lawyers and divines were not to be shaken out of their seats by the constitutional arguments of such young counsellors as Hamilton and Jay. The hard hands of the committee of mechanics were much more demonstrative. Myles Cooper, Seabury, and their brethren very naturally suspected the logic, and laughed at the novel measures of the day by which the popular party in their restrictive, non-importation measures proposed to dispense with the wisdom of Lords and Commons, and starve themselves into independence. It is well sometimes to look at that side of the question, too.
But all the pooh-poohing in the world over the best wine in the colony, was not to stop the affair which had commenced. Volunteers were drilling, men of sound heads and stout hearts were getting ready for action. There were certain cannon to be removed from the Battery; Hamilton was engaged in the duty with his comrades, "Hearts of oak" they called themselves; a boat approached from the man-of-war Asia, in the harbor; the citizens fired; the fire was returned from the ship, and one of Hamilton's company was killed. The Liberty Boys spread the alarm and gathered in a mob, threatening to attack the college and seize its president, Myles Cooper. Hamilton, who was no friend to riot, little as he was afraid of discussion or of force, interposed with a speech from the college steps, while the president, roused from his bed, half naked, took refuge on the shore, wandering over the island in the night to the old Stuyvesant mansion, whence he was the next day finally removed from America in his Majesty's vessel, the Kingfisher. The royal governor, Tryon, took refuge in the Asia shortly after.
Hamilton now turned his attention in earnest to military affairs, making choice of the artillery service, in which he gained some instruction from a British soldier, and by aid of the popular leader, McDougal, received from the convention the appointment of captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery. He had only recently completed his nineteenth year. It was early, but not so very early for a man of genius; for the child in such cases is the father of the man, and youth is an additional spur to exertion. But this was not all. The young captain was engaged, not only in the gymnastics of drilling recruits, but he was reading, thinking, and working out problems in political economy for himself--and the future. Dr. Johnson said that he learned little after eighteen; Hamilton would seem to have laid the foundation at least, of all his knowledge before twenty. "His military books of this period," says his son, "give an interesting exhibition of his train of thought. In the pay-book of his company, amid various general speculations and extracts from the ancients, chiefly relating to politics and war, are intermingled tables of political arithmetic, considerations on commerce, the value of the relative productions which are its objects, the balance of trade, the progress of population, and the principles on which depends the value of a circulating medium; and among his papers there remains a carefully digested outline of a plan for the political and commercial history of British America, compiled at this time." There is the germ in all this of the Secretary of the Treasury.
The battle of Long Island now ensued on the vain attempt to resist the landing of Howe and his British troops, followed by the masterly retreat of Washington, in which Hamilton brought up the rear. The subsequent American proceedings in the evacuation of the city, the passage from the island to Westchester, and the subsequent retreat before Cornwallis through the Jerseys under Washington, if they had little of glory, at least required their full share of military determination and endurance. Hamilton was active throughout the campaign. At White Plains and on the Raritan, at Trenton and Princeton, his artillery did good service. When he entered Morristown, his original company of a hundred was reduced by the accidents of war to twenty-five. Here, on March 1, 1777, leaving the line of the army, he became attached to the staff of Washington as his aid. This was the commencement of that half military, half civil relation which identified Hamilton in joint labors and councils with the Father of his Country.
Hamilton became, in fact, the right-hand man of Washington, not only during the war, but throughout his subsequent political career, and no better proof than this can be had at once of the sagacity of Washington in selecting his instruments, and of the honor and worth of Hamilton in so long and so successfully maintaining this distinguished position. In the staff of the commander-in-chief, Hamilton, we are told, acquired the title, "The Little Lion." His spirit and courage were shown in numerous instances, particularly in the battle of Monmouth, where Lee exposed bravery to such violent hazards, an affair out of which grew a duel between that officer and Colonel John Laurens, one of Washington's aids, in which Hamilton was the second of his friend and associate. Nor was Hamilton's counsel less serviceable in interviews with the French officers, and those frequent negotiations with the different portions of the army, and with Congress, which were among the hardest necessities of Washington's campaigns.
The relation of Hamilton to Washington, as a member of his military family, was suddenly brought to a termination at head-quarters on the Hudson, in February, 1781. The difference arose in a momentary forgetfulness of temper on the part of Washington. For some purpose of consultation he required the presence of Hamilton, who was detained from keeping the appointment on the instant, for it appears to have been a delay of but a few moments. Washington, however, was impatient, and meeting Hamilton at the head of the stairs, angrily exclaimed, "Colonel Hamilton, you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes; I must tell you, sir, you treat me with disrespect." Hamilton firmly replied, "I am not conscious of it, sir; but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part." "Very well, sir," said Washington, "if it be your choice," or something to that effect, and the friends separated. Washington immediately opened the way for the Secretary's continuance at his post, but, without any feeling of asperity, the overture was declined. Hamilton, however, proffered his services and counsel. With no other man than Washington, indeed, could the subordinate relation have continued so long, and Hamilton had often thought of renouncing it; but he saw in Washington the man for the times, the great representative of a great cause, for which minor considerations must be sacrificed. Writing at this moment to Schuyler, he says, "The General is a very honest man; his competitors have slender abilities and less integrity. His popularity has often been essential to the safety of America, and is still of great importance to it. These considerations have influenced my past conduct respecting him, and will influence my future. I think it is necessary he should be supported."
Hamilton was now desirous to resume active service in the line, and after some discussion as to rank, received the command of a New York battalion of light infantry, which he led right manfully at the siege of Yorktown. He was anxious to signalize himself at this crowning act of the war by some distinguished exercise of bravery, and when, at an advanced period of the approaches, a redoubt was to be stormed, he eagerly solicited the forlorn hope from Washington. Advancing to the charge with characteristic spirit, at the point of the bayonet, exposed to a heavy fire, he struggled through the ditch, and surmounting the defences, took the work in the most brilliant manner. He gallantly arrested the slaughter at the first moment, and thus placed his humanity upon a level with his bravery.
The war being now brought to an end, Hamilton turned his attention to the law, and in a few months' ardent devotion--the devotion of Hamilton was always ardent--at Albany to the study with the aid of his friend, Colonel Troup, and the stimulus of his recent marriage, qualified himself thoroughly for the practice of the profession. He was admitted to the Supreme Court at its July term, 1782. About the same time, at the solicitation of Robert Morris, the financier of Congress, he accepted the appointment of receiver of the continental taxes in the State of New York, with the understanding that his exertions were to be employed in impressing upon the Legislature the wants and objects of the Government. In pursuance of this, he urged resolutions which were unanimously adopted in July, 1782, recommending the call of a convention for the purpose of revising and amending the Articles of Confederation. He was also elected by the Legislature of this year a member of Congress. He bore an active part in its debates, and was greatly employed in its important financial measures.
On the final departure of the British from New York, in 1783, Hamilton became a resident of the city with his family, and devoted himself assiduously to the practice of his profession. He was constantly, however, looked to as a public man. We find him, in 1784, appealing to the public under the signature of Phocion, in favor of more liberal and enlightened views in regard to the loyalists of the late Revolution, and their rights of property. In 1786 he is a member of the State Assembly, and in September of the same year among the delegates of the five States which, at the instance of Virginia, met at Annapolis to confer on the commercial interests of the country; a too limited representation, indeed, to achieve the objects in view, but the precursor of the great Federal Convention at Philadelphia of the following year.
We have seen Hamilton's early studies of the theoretical workings of government. His practical experience, in the army of Washington, of the imperfections of Congress and the defects of the old confederation, was not likely to let him forget the subject. Authority in government, rules in legislation, financial measures, taxes, loans, and a bank, were topics constantly before his mind. The Convention of 1787 gave him, at length, the wished-for opportunity to enter upon a full discussion of his plans in a cause and before an audience worthy of his powers. Washington was the presiding officer, Franklin was in attendance; it was a congregation of notables--Rufus King, Oliver Ellsworth, Roger Sherman, William Livingston, Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, John Dickinson, Luther Martin, James Madison, George Wythe, John Rutledge, and others as worthy. Much has been said of Hamilton's course in this Convention, and of his advocacy of monarchical views. It is true that a plan of government which he supported in a speech of length and eloquence, provided several features, as the life tenure of the President and senators, and the appointment of State officers by the General Government, which, in the interpretation of some minds, as Patrick Henry used to express it, "was an awful squinting toward monarchy;" but, on the other hand, it should be remembered that the Convention was a meeting for consultation, with closed doors, in a committee of the whole, in which perfect freedom in the interchange of views was desirable; that, in the view of our own day, other members displayed heresies quite as obnoxious, and that in the final resolves of the Constitution, Hamilton, with the others, yielded his prejudices, and became the firm defender of the instrument as it was adopted, and substantially now stands.
Remember the age of Hamilton at this time--twenty-nine; a greater prodigy in the Convention at Philadelphia than the youth in the army of Washington. To no one probably are we more indebted for the Constitution than to Hamilton. The Convention which laid the instrument before the country for its adoption had scarcely adjourned, when, in company with Madison and Jay, he took up the pen in its explanation and defence, in the celebrated series of papers, "The Federalist," originally published in the New York Daily Advertiser. Hamilton began and closed the work. Of its eighty-five papers much the greater portion, it is believed, were written by him.
The discussion of the financial and military powers, the executive and the judiciary, fell to his pen. In the New York Convention he was again the efficient advocate of the adoption of the Constitution. In a separate series of papers, signed Philo Publius, published in another journal, Hamilton, assisted by his friends, met various objections, the discussion of which would have marred the unity of "The Federalist," which was thus left a classical commentary upon the Constitution.
Having been thus instrumental in forming the Constitution, Hamilton was destined to be one of the most active agents of its powers. When the new government went into operation, under its provisions he was summoned by Washington, to the discharge of one of the most onerous duties of the department, in his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. He continued in office six years, marking his administration--for such it was in his province--by his report and measures for the funding of the public debt, the excise revenue system, which he was called upon to assert in arms during the insurrection of Western Pennsylvania, and the creation of a National Bank. His reports on these subjects, and on manufactures, in which he advocated protection, are among the most important contributions of their kind to our national archives. In allusion to the financial measures of Hamilton, and their success at the time in the welfare of the country, Daniel Webster, in a speech at New York, half a century afterward, exclaimed: "He smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the public, and it sprung upon its feet."
The measures of Hamilton, however, were not adopted without opposition. Jefferson was their persistent opponent; local interests and State pretensions arose to thwart the measures of Government, and gave birth to the party feuds of Federalism and its opponents. A growing element of disaffection was added to the political caldron in the relations with England and the disturbing influences of the principles of the French Revolution. Hamilton bore the brunt of much of this popular opposition, which came to a crisis in the discussions attending the British Treaty of Jay, in 1794, as he defended its provisions in the papers signed "Camillus," while it was before the country, and advocated its leading neutrality principles in "The Letters of Pacificus," published by him the previous year. When France had wearied out all indulgence by her aggressions on the high seas, and by her treatment of our ministers at Paris, and Washington was again called to the field in anticipation of an expected invasion, Hamilton was appointed second in command, and now employed himself in the organization of the army. On the death of Washington he became commander-in-chief. On the conclusion of a treaty with France the army disbanded.
In the intervals of these public duties, Hamilton was actively employed in his profession in the higher courts of the State. The late Chancellor Kent afterward recalled his "clear, elegant, and fluent style and commanding manner. He never made any argument in court without displaying his habit of thinking and resorting at once to some well-founded principle of law, and drawing his deductions logically from his premises. Law was always treated by him as a science, founded on established principles. His manners were gentle, affable, and kind. He appeared to be frank, liberal, and courteous in all his professional intercourse."
The last important trial in which Hamilton was engaged, the case of the People against Harry Croswell, in the Supreme Court, a few months before his untimely death, is memorable also for his maintenance of the right of juries to determine the law as well as the fact in cases of libel.
The party politics of the time had been broken up in the simplicity of their outline by the administration of John Adams. Aaron Burr was the most prominent intriguer in the field. He had attained the vice-presidency, and the choice hung for a while suspended between him and Jefferson for the presidency. Between the two, Hamilton, who had formed an unfavorable opinion of the character of Burr, preferred his old antagonist, Jefferson, and cast his influence accordingly. When Burr afterward sought the office of Governor of New York, in a contest with a member of his own Republican party, in which he relied upon the support of the Federalists, he was defeated by Hamilton, who made no secret of his opposition. Smarting under the failure of his intrigue, Burr determined to challenge the honest man who stood in his way to power. He had no ground of personal offence bringing Hamilton within any justifiable pretensions even of the lax code of the duellist. The expressions which he called upon him to avow or disavow, were vague, and were based upon the report of a person who specified neither time, place, nor the words. It was a loose matter of hearsay which was alleged--evidently a wanton provocation to a murderous duel. Burr demanded so broad a retraction from Hamilton of all he might have said, that compliance was impossible. It was an attempt to procure an indorsement of his character at the cost of the moral character of the indorser. Hamilton despised the manoeuvre, but perceiving that a meeting was forced upon him, and unhappily determining, contrary to his better judgment, that his usefulness would be destroyed in the public affairs of the times if he avoided the contest, fell into the fatal snare.
He executed his will, in which he made provision for his family and creditors, thinking tenderly of his wife, enjoining his children to bear in mind she had been to them the most devoted and best of mothers. On the night preceding the appointment he wrote a paper declaring his intention to throw away his fire, and acquitting himself before the world of the malice of the duellist, while he rested his conduct upon his usefulness to his country. The next morning, July 11th, they met at Weehawken; the weapons were pistols, the distance ten paces. The duel was fought within a few feet of the shore, in a woodland scene beneath the cliff opposite the present inhabited portion of New York, at a spot now traversed or closely approached by the river road, but then readily accessible only by water. Hamilton fell at the first fire, mortally wounded, his pistol-shot striking at random a twig some seven feet above the head of his antagonist. Burr fled, a wanderer over the earth. Hamilton was carried across the river, supported by Pendleton and Dr. Hosack, to the house of his friend, Mr. Bayard, at Greenwich. He was there enabled to take farewell of his family, and receive the last consolations of religion from the hands of Bishop Moore. He died on the afternoon of Thursday, July 12, 1804.
The reception of the fatal news sent a thrill of horror through the community. The brilliant, fiery youth of Hamilton, which had lighted his countrymen to victory and a place among the nations--Hamilton, the counsellor of Washington, the consummate statesman of the Constitution, the reliance of the State, the hope of the future: visions such as these were contrasted in the popular mind with his wretched fall. We perhaps darken the shades of the picture, for time and proof have added to the greatness of Hamilton, and Burr waited not for death to exhibit the penury of his fame. But the men who knew the heart of Hamilton, who saw in him the bulwark of the State, his contemporaries, wept his fate with no common lamentation. New York gave her public honors to his grave. Gouverneur Morris, with strenuous words, delivered the funeral oration by the side of his bier, under the portico of old Trinity; and Mason, the pulpit orator of his time, thundered his strong sentences at the crime which had robbed the world of Hamilton.