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About the year 1730, “ Alexander Hamilton, of Grange,” in Ayrshire, Scotland, married Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Pollock, by whom he had several children. James, the father of the subject of the present sketch, was the fourth son. Being brod a merchant, he emigrated to the West Indies in search of fortune; but, through a too liberal and "easy temper," met with severe reverses, and subsequently lived in pecuniary dependence. He married a daughter of Faucette, one of the Huguenots who fled from France on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and had several sons, of whom Alexander was the youngest.
Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, one of the British West Indian islands, on the eleventh of January, 1757. On the decease of his mother, which occurred while he was quite young, he was placed with one of her relatives, who resided at Santa Cruz. Here he acquired the rudiments of the French and English languages, the former of which he afterwards wrote and spoke with the ease and fluency of a native. He early displayed an ardent fondness for literary pursuits, became a lover of books, and devoted his hours to miscellaneous reading, under the guidance of Doctor Knox, a respectable Presbyterian clergyman, “who, delighted with the unfolding of his mind, took a deep interest in his welfare."
In 1769 he was placed in the counting-room of Mr. Nicholas Cruger, a wealthy and most worthy merchant of Santa Cruz. In this capacity he manifested the greatest fidelity and attention, which soon attracted the attention of his patron. But he aspired to a loftier position. The “inward promptings of his mind” looked far beyond the details of his avocation. In a letter to one of his schoolfellows, written about this period, he said, “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 am confident that my youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate preferment, nor do I desire it; but I mean to prepare the way for futarity.” Such was the purpose of Hamilton at the age of twelve years. He continued his studies during the few leisure hours he could command from his laborious mercantile duties, perfecting himself in mathematics, ethics, and general biography. Among his favorite authors were Pope and Plutarch, on the last of which he prepared several curious notes and observations. He also often exercised his powers in composition on various subjects. On the occasion of the terrific hurricane which swept over the Leeward Islands, in the autumn of 1772, before its effects had passed away, he prepared a description of the scene, which was published in the neighboring island of St. Christopher's, where it excited universal attention, and finally led to his future preferment. His friends and patrons, on learning that he was the author of the “elegant and precise description,” determined to send him to New York for the purpose of acquiring a more thorough education. He left the West Indies a short time after, and arrived at Boston in the month of October, 1772. From thence he proceeded to New York, where he at once entered into the society of its most learned and distinguished families.
Soon after he was placed in the celebrated grammar school at Elizabethtown, New Jersey, which was then under the patronage of Governor Livingston and Elias Boudinot, and the immediate supervision and instruction of Francis Barber, afterwards a distinguished and accomplished
officer in the American army. Finishing his preparatory studies, ho entered King's (now Columbia) College, where he soon "gave extraordinary displays of richness of genius and energy of mind."
While in college Hamilton continued his habit of composition with great application and success. Some of his poetical productions are still extant, and evince no ordinary merit. His talent for satire was also exercised at this time. “John Holt, who then published a Whig paper in New York,” says Troup, "had, by his zeal in the American cause, drawn upon himself the invectives of all the ministerial writers; these invectives Hamilton burlesqued in doggrel rhyme, with great wit and humor. He also presented me with a manuscript of fugitive poetry, which I considered as a strong evidence of the elasticity of his genius, and have often lamented that it was lost with my books and papers duriig the war.”
On the sixth of July, 1774, "the great meeting in the fields" was holden, to consider the rights of the colonies, and resist the tyranny of the Boston Port Bill, the earliest manifestation of the British Ministry's policy of compulsion. Here Hamilton appeared and first took part in the public deliberations. “The novelty of the atteru )t," says his son, "his youthful countenance, his slender and diminutive form, awakened curiosity and arrested attention. Overawed by the scene before him, he at first hesitated and faltered; but as he proceeded, almost unconsciously, to utter his accustomed reflections, his mind warmed with the theme, his energies were renewed, and after a discussion clear, cogent, and novel, of the great principles involved in the controversy, he depicted, in glowing colors, the long-continued and long-endured oppressions of the mother country; he insisted on the duty of resistance, pointed to the means and certainty of success, and described the waves of rebellion sparkling with fire, and washing back on the shores of England the wrecks of her power, her wealth, and her glory. The breathless silence ceased as he closed, and the whispered murmur, 'It is a collegian! it is a collegian!' was lost in loud expressions of wonder and applause at the eloquence of the young stranger.” In the winter of 1774 and early part of the year 1775, he published, anonymously, some powerful arguments favoring the pacific measures of defence recommended by Congress, and encouraging the policy of domestic manufactures as the means of rendering less necessary the use of foreign commerce. He also insisted upon the rights of the colonies to constitutional freedom, trial by jury, and freedom from taxation, except by their own consent. In this discussion he was opposed by Dr. Cooper, the President of the college of which he was a member, and many other wits and politicians of the ministerial side of the question, all of whom pronounced it absurd to suppose that so young a man as Hamilton could be their opponent. He was thenceforward the oracle of the patriots, and as such was beloved and honored by them.
On the commencement of the war in 1775, Hamilton was among the first to turn his attention to active military service. While yet a collegiate, he joined a body of volunteer militia in New York, and reduced his knowledge of the art of war to practice. In March, of the following year, having been appointed captain of a company of artillery, he entered the service and soon after attended at the battle on Long Island. His conduct at the action at White Plains, on the twenty-eighth of October of the same year, won the applause of Washington, and after the battles of Trenton and Princeton, in which he displayed unusual military talent and ry, he was appointed to his staff, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He remained in the family of Washington until the spring of 1781, and during that severe and eventful period became the commander-in-chief's "principal and most confidential aid.” He was a welcome associate with the officers of the army, and by his brilliant genius, the frankness of his disposition and the kindness of his heart, won the esteem and admiration of all around him. During this period, a principal portion of the correspondence of Washington devolved upon Colonel Hamilton. "The pen for our army," says Troup, “was held by Hamilton; and for dignity of manner, pitl of matter and elegance of style, General Washington's letters are unrivalled in military annals.”
After the surrender of Burgoyne, in the fall of the year 1777, Hamilton was depatized to proceed to Albany, to procure from General Gates a reinforcement of troops, then necessary to roduce General Howe, who at that time held possession of Philadelphia. This negotiation he
consummated with the greatest ability and judgment. At the battle of Monmouth, which occurred in the month of June following, he was on the field under the Marquis Lafayette, and displayed the greatest activity, skill and courage. The same year he was selected to meet the British commissioners for consultation respecting a general exchange of prisoners.
Hamilton now turned his attention to the finances of his country, which had become involved in great disorder. The depreciation of paper money, which had been issued in enormous quantities, destroyed public faith and credit, and the government and army were reduced to the severest distress and want. This pressure was more severely felt at hcad-quarters. Hamilton's position in the family of Washington gave him an opportunity of judging of its effect upon his chief, and he realized the necessity of immediate and decisive relief. In this situation he addressed an anonymous letter to Robert Morris, one of the first commercial gentlemen of the period, and then a delegate to Congress from Pennsylvania, in which he suggested a plan to place the financial affairs of the country upon a firm basis. The restoration of depreciated paper money, the currency and good faith of the country was to be brought about in a foreign loan, to the extent of two millions sterling, assisted by a vigorous taxation, and a United States Bank, to be supported by foreign as well as by domestic loans in the depreciated currency at a very low ratio. This bank was to be continued ten years, and was to rest on the basis of public and private faith—was to form the medium of circulation, absorb the depreciated paper, and supply the requisite loans to the government. This plan was in part adopted by Congress, through the agency of the Bank of Pennsylvania, a voluntary institution, which on the twenty-second of June, 1780, was reported to Congress and received their patronage. About this time Hamilton addressed a letter to Mr. Duane, a member of Congress from New York, in which he suggested the idea of a general convention for the reorganization of the government, and indicated the mode of urging its necessity upon the minds of the people, by “sensible and popular writings, which should conform to the views of Congress :” thus hinting at the idea which originated the Federalist, whose far-reaching views on national polity so eminently aided in the adoption of the present Federal Constitution. This is, without doubt, the ablest production on the affairs of the Union that appeared during the Revolution.*
Colonel Hamilton married the second daughter of General Schuyler on the fourteenth of December, 1780, and from that time became a citizen of the State of New York. In the following February he left the family of General Washington, but still continued in the army. Being now relieved from the duties of an aid, he again turned his attention to the situation of the country, which was then encompassed with difficulties and dangers. The public credit was hastening to an unfavorable termination. In this crisis he submitted the plan of a national bank to Mr. Morris, the superintendent of finance, as the only alternative that could give a sound paper credit to government and render it successful and safe. This plan was laid before Congress on the seventeenth of May; on the twenty-sixth it was adopted, and soon after incorporated under the name of the Bank of North America. That institution, with the aid of the Bank of Pennsylvania, which had been established during the previous year, was of inestimable service in restoring the credit of the country, developing its resources, and carrying on the concluding scenes of the war. This year Hamilton commenced a series of essays, under the title of The Continentalist, in which he examined and discussed the features of the original confederacy, and enumerated the powers with which it ought to be clothed. The later numbers of this series were not prepared until after the siege of Yorktown, at which Colonel Hamilton was present.
After his retirement from the family of Washington, he was exceedingly solicitous to obtain & separate command in some light corps. This desire was at last gratified, and he was attached to the division under the command of his friend the Marquis Lafayette, and distinguished himself in leading a night attack upon the British redoubts at Yorktown. This was the last act of Colonel Hamilton's military life. On the termination of the active duties of the war, he commenced the study of the law, and in 1782 was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of New
• Life of Alexander Hamilton, by his son, vol. 1, pp. 284 805.
York. In the summer of the same year he was appointed a delegate to Congress, by the legislature of New York, and in the subsequent November took his seat in that body, where be continued until the autumn of the next year. In this station he manifested the strongest and most disinterested zeal for the welfare of the country, in upholding the honor of the government against the attacks of the discontents of the army and the clamor of public creditors. On the return of peace, and after the recovery of New York in the fall of 1783, he resumed the practice of law; but the public affairs still occupied his thoughts. In the latter part of the year 1784, his celebrated pamphlets, addressed “to the considerate citizens of New York," over the signature of Phocion, excited universal attention, and drew forth able replies, under the signatures of Anti-Phocionite, Mentor, and others.
Colonel Hamilton did not remain long out of public life. In 1786 he was elected to the General Assembly from the city of New York, and distinguished himself by his efforts to avert the dangers and evils that hung over the country. His services in settling the difficulties which existed at that time consequent upon the independence of Vermont, were eminent; and the devotedness he displayed in recommending the establishment of a federative republic, was prompt and energetic. He was appointed to attend the convention at Philadelphia in 1787, and after the adoption of the federal constitution by that body, he urged its ratification by an explanation and vindication of its principles, in that celebrated and immortal work, Tho Federalist.* On the meeting of the New York convention, Colonel Hamilton appeared as a member. The active part he had taken in the formation of the constitution, and his familiarity with its principles, rendered his situation one of great responsibility. This he sustained with the highest ability and success. His speeches on that occasion evince the wisdom of the commentator and the eloquence of the finished orator.
In 1789, Colonel Hamilton was placed at the head of the United States Treasury, where he remained until January, 1795. His success in restoring the public confidence, and placing the financial affairs of the nation upon a sure and solid foundation, is too well known to require notice here. “How he fulfilled the duties of such a place, at such a time," said the matchless Webster, “ the whole country perceived with delight, and the whole world saw with admiration. He smote the rock of the national resources, and abundant streams of revenue gushed forth. He touched the dead corpse of the public credit, and it sprung upon its feet. The fabled birth of Minerva, from the brain of Jove, was hardly more sudden or more perfect than the financial system of the United States, as it burst forth from the conceptions of Alexander Hamilton.”+
The war between England and the republic of France broke out during the period of Hamilton's secretaryship. As a member of Washington's cabinet, he advocated the proclamation of neutrality, and supported it in a series of vigorous and elaborate essays, under the signatures of No Jacobin and Pacificus. He also rendered signal service in advising the mission of Mr. Jay in 1794, and on the negotiation and completion of his treaty, he vindicated its wisdom and justice. He had now returned to the practice of his profession, and was enjoying an extraordinary share of business. As a commercial lawyer he was a great favorite with the New York merchants; and his profound knowledge in the law of nations, joined to his sterling qualities of mind and eloquence, placed him in the first rank of his profession.
In the early part of 1798, Colonel Hamilton again took up his pen in defence of his country. At this time he published a series of essays, under the title of Titus Manlius, in which he exposed the danger which was to be anticipated from the hostile position of France, and urged the necessity of determined resistance to the many depredations which were then committed upon American commerce, under the sanction and encouragement of that country. His suggestions were so correct, and his conclusions so just, that they were ultimately carried into execution, and won the applause of his countrymen. On the establishment of a provincial army
• Vide note at page 126.