Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers 10 and 51

By James Madison

Alexander Hamilton

We'll let Lin Manuel Miranda, leading Hamilton dude, start us off:

How did a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a
Forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence
Impoverished in squalor,
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

In a lot of ways, it's a miracle that Alexander Hamilton survived long enough to make his mark…and ultimately his way onto the ten dollar bill and a hit Broadway musical.

He was born out of wedlock (when that was a huge no-no) on the small island of Naven in the British West Indies, with a father who left them flat when he was ten and a mother who died of illness two years afterwards.

He managed to get himself out of a tight situation by teaching himself as much law as he could from a small collection of books he managed to hold on to as he was bounced between guardian to guardian, until the island managed to collect money for the bright young man to make his way to the mainland.

Through his early life, he developed a sharp wit, a super-human work ethic, and a huge desperate need to prove himself and rise above his poor origins. He also developed a bit of an elitist streak, which would push him to support a strong Federal government with power concentrated at the top.

Rise to the Top

Upon his arrival to the North American colonies he finished his college requirements in New Jersey, then headed straight to New York City to blaze through King's College and plant himself at the heart of the American Revolution.

He served as Washington's aide-de-camp (or rather, his personal assistant/secretary) during the Revolutionary War, despite hungering for glory and the upward mobility that came with it on the front lines. He was present for the Battle of Yorktown, where the British were defeated and Hamilton got his chance to help shape the government that they had fought for.

Hamilton was a firm believer in a strong centralized government, with a national line of credit, unified currency, and legislative power over the other states in the Union. You know: all those things we currently have and associate with the government.

However, he also had Federalist policies that were more extreme than those in the Constitution—for example, he proposed that the President should have supreme power, and the position should be life-long. (Hmm…)

He wasn't without his enemies, and his vocal support of almost excessively strong Federalist policies pushed those who opposed him to organize their own opposition, which pretty much created the American two party system. The Federalists would rally around Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans, who supported the rights of individual states and individual citizens, would rally around Thomas Jefferson. Madison himself would eventually be alienated by Hamilton's policies, and join the Democratic-Republican Party himself.

With the Federalist Papers, Hamilton desperately wanted to prove to the United States that a centralized government would work better, and even protect the liberties they had earned, than a loose confederacy between the states.

Hamilton was really out to prove something with the Federalist Papers—they were his idea to begin with, and ended up writing the vast majority of them single-handedly. He is also Sir Not-Actually-Writing-Anything-In-This-Study-Guide—Federalist Papers 10 and 51 were both likely written by James Madison.

Have it All, Lose it All

Hamilton's political career took a sharp nosedive after the end of Washington's presidency, as his hot-headed workaholic nature that had gotten him so far got him into a whole heap of trouble. The newly-elected John Adams, the only other major Federalist at the time, kicked him right out of the Cabinet, calling him the "bastard brat of a Scottish peddler."

Classy, Adams.

The ensuing verbal smackdown between the two men pretty much destroyed the entire Federalist Party, leaving Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans a shot for the presidency. That wasn't quite enough for Jefferson—he was furious at the Federalists' gross overuse of power, especially the Alien and Sedition Acts, and he got a whiff of Hamilton's dirty laundry and decided to take him down. Hamilton was already destroying his own political career, and Jefferson wanted to give him an extra push.

Jefferson's pal Monroe had been in charge of an investigation of Hamilton's finance books, sensing that the man was up to something. He and his partner Frederick Muhlenberg confronted Hamilton about the corruption, where Hamilton had to come clean: he was having an affair with Maria Reynlolds, and was paying her husband blackmail money to keep his mouth shut.

They dropped the corruption charges—Hamilton may have been funding a secret affair, but he wasn't using federal funds to do so—but Monroe spilled the dirt to Jefferson, and Jefferson spilled the beans to the public. Copies of the love letters Hamilton sent to Maria Reynolds were published in the newspaper by James Thomson Callender, and the cat was out of the bag.

Hamilton challenged the man to a duel—a duel that was ironically stopped by Aaron Burr—but the damage to his rep was done. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, who when accused of an affair by the press kept his mouth shut about it, Alexander Hamilton published a ninety-five page pamphlet coming clean about the affair, but denying any embezzlement.

Yikes.

The Election of 1800

After four more years, Hamilton had more or less faded into the background. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson stepped back into the election ring, against John Adams' reelection bid and newcomer Aaron Burr.

Since Adams had run his presidency into the ground, it was basically a race between Jefferson and Burr that ended in a stalemate. It was up to the House of Representatives now, and Hamilton stepped back into the fray. Considering the long, bitter relationship that Jefferson and Hamilton had over the years, it was obvious who Hamilton would show his support for.

He supported Jefferson.

Wait, what?

Yes—he didn't only support Jefferson in the race, but he began a furious letter-writing campaign to his fellow Federalists, urging them to support Jefferson, of all people.

His reasoning for this massive eleventh-hour plot twist decision was:

Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government – Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself – thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement – and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands […] (Source)

Burr would end up losing to Jefferson, which was too much for him to bear. He accused Hamilton of slander, and when Hamilton blew off his accusation he challenged him to a duel, and shot Hamilton dead in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Unlike the other Founding Fathers, Hamilton didn't get to live long enough to enjoy a cushy retirement. However, his vision for the United States financial system and economic structure was so solid that Jefferson, who had opposed him all his life, couldn't overturn it when he had the chance, and its foundations still remain strong today.

His story lives on, especially now that it's been publicly revisited through the musical about his life, as one of the first American stories of an immigrant starting out with nothing and rising up to the top.

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