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Alexander Hamilton
(1755 or 1757 - 1804)


Alexander Hamilton is best known for his contribution to The Federalist Papers, his support for ratification of the Constitution, his military service, his service as the Secretary of the Treasury and, of course, for his death in a duel with Aaron Burr. However, he primarily earned his livelihood as a New York lawyer.

Born on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton was orphaned at a very young age. He went to work in a counting house. The owner was impressed with his skills and joined with a local minister to fund Hamilton’s college education at King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City. 

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton, Alexander. 13" x 16". 2016. Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada.

Military Career and Early Involvement in Politics

Hamilton became involved in politics early on, supporting the patriots against the British who sought to tax and regulate the colonies. He left King’s College to join the New York Militia, fighting in Long Island and in New Jersey. In 1775, he was promoted to Lieutenant General in the Continental Army and became a trusted advisor to George Washington. After war drew to a close, Hamilton left to study law and apprenticed to become a lawyer.

In 1782, Hamilton was appointed as the New York representative to the Congress of the Confederation, which briefly served as the governing body of the United States. However, after an angry mob of unpaid soldiers demanded their pay from the U.S. government, it became clear that the Articles of Confederation, which laid the foundations for the current government, required revisions. Hamilton called for the first of these, which included provisions for a strong central government with the ability to raise an army and to collect taxes.

Work as an Attorney

Hamilton became a successful attorney in Manhattan. Surprisingly, many of his early clients were Loyalists still pledging their allegiance to the King of England. Just as John Adams before him, Hamilton represented the British, asserting their rights to due process despite widespread unpopularity.

Hamilton's defense during the Rutgers v Waddington case also helped create the doctrine of judicial review.

During one of his earliest and most influential cases, Hamilton defended Joshua Waddington against Plaintiff Elizabeth Rutgers, who sought damages under New York’s recently established Trespass Act. The Trespass Act permitted business owners who had abandoned businesses during the British Occupation of New York to claim damages from pursuant to the authority of the British Commissary general. Hamilton asserted that the Trespass Act was inconsistent with the country’s obligations under the 1783 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain. The Court agreed and held that state legislation in conflict with the provision of a United States Treaty was void. 

Hamilton's defense during the Rutgers v Waddington case also helped create the doctrine of judicial review, which states that under the Constitution, “the interpretation of laws is the proper and peculiar province of the Courts.” This power was formally established in law by the 1803 Supreme Court case Marbury v Madison.

Impact on the American Financial System

In 1784, Hamilton assisted with the founding of The Bank of New York, writing its Constitution and guiding it through its early stages. The Bank of New York remained in operation until its 2007 merger with Mellon Bank.    

Hamilton was named Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, serving until 1795.  As Secretary,  Hamilton organized the Federal Banking system,  nationalized the states’ war debts and created the U.S. Mint.  He also established a force of “revenue cutters” – armed patrol boats to intercept smugglers along the East coast-- which eventually became the United States Coast Guard.

Death by Duel

Hamilton's famed death in the 1804 duel with Aaron Burr was preceded by a long-standing political rivalry between the two. This tension came to a head when Hamilton strongly campaigned against Aaron Burr, both during his presidential campaign in 1800 and the 1804 gubernatorial race in 1804. 

Shortly after Burr’s defeat in the latter, a letter surfaced in which Hamilton castigated Burr. Burr, outraged by the attack on his honor, demanded a duel. Hamilton accepted the challenge, although there is some support for the theory he did not intend to fire at Burr. 

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