Alexander Hamilton helped shape the United States as one of its Founding Fathers. This lesson explores his role in creating and supporting the Constitution, as well as his controversial role as a Federalist.
What Is a Federalist?
A federalist is someone who supports federalism, which is the distribution of power between national and state governments. They each have some separate powers, as well as some shared, or concurrent powers. Federalists were also the initial supporters of the U.S. Constitution. They favored a strong central government, rather than a government in which power rested primarily with the states. The Federalists were also a political party, founded by Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton Pens Federalist Papers
As a state representative from New York, Alexander Hamilton took part in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. During this meeting, held in Philadelphia, a new plan for government was formed - the Constitution. Hamilton strongly supported adopting the Constitution and replacing the Articles of Confederation, the United States' existing plan for government. According to Hamilton, the Articles placed too many limitations on federal power and gave too much power to the individual states.
Once the Constitution was finalized, nine of the thirteen states had to ratify it to make it the official new plan for government. Opponents to the Constitution's adoption felt that it gave too much power to the central government. They were known as Anti-Federalists. Hamilton was a Federalist, supporting the approval of the Constitution. He set out to convince New York legislators to approve it as well. Hamilton and two others, John Jay and James Madison, published a series of essays in New York newspapers known as the Federalist Papers. These papers made strong arguments in support of the Constitution. Hamilton himself was responsible for fifty-one of the eighty-five essays. Perhaps influenced by these essays, New York became the eleventh state to ratify the Constitution.
Secretary of Treasury
With the Constitution up and running, the nation moved forward under the leadership of its first president, George Washington. When choosing members of the first cabinet, Washington turned to people he trusted and respected. He chose Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State and Henry Knox as Secretary of War. He offered the job of Secretary of Treasury to Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had been Washington's Lieutenant Colonel during the Revolutionary War, and he knew he could count on him as a trusted adviser.
As the nation's lead financier, Hamilton faced the tough task of organizing the nation's messy economic situation. By 1790, he had developed an economic plan, which consisted of three main parts:
- Number one was to pay off war debt: After the costs of the Revolutionary War, the United States was $52 million in debt. They borrowed from countries, such as France, the Netherlands, and Spain, as well as from private citizens. Hamilton was adamant to secure future relations with these lenders by paying off debt.
- Number two was to raise government revenues: Hamilton suggested imposing tariffs, or taxes, on imports. He wanted to raise money as well as encourage Americans to buy American products.
- Number three was to create a national bank: Having a national bank would protect federal funds and enable the government to issue loans. The bank would also issue paper money.
Hamilton's plan had many opponents. For example, some felt the federal assumption of all state debts gave the central government too much power. To gain support from the South, Hamilton asked Thomas Jefferson for assistance. Jefferson agreed to publicly support the national repayment of debts only if Hamilton supported his idea to move the state capitol from New York City to a spot along the Potomac River in the South. Hamilton agreed.
Still, when Hamilton's national bank idea came to light, Jefferson and his fellow Virginian politician James Madison, were outright opposed to that idea. They felt as though Hamilton was acting outside his rights outlined in the Constitution. They claimed it did not say anywhere that a national bank could be developed.
First Two Political Parties
Madison and Jefferson watched warily as Hamilton's decisions resulted in a more active role for the federal government. By the time Washington's second term came to an end, tensions had built greatly amongst the men. By 1796, the two groups formed opposing political parties. Hamilton and his allies formed the appropriately named Federalist Party. Jefferson and Madison headed the Democratic-Republican Party.
Let's take a look at the differences between them:
|Led by VA reps Madison & Jefferson
|| Led by Hamilton, who was from NY
| Strict interpretation of Constitution
|| Flexible interpretation of Constitution
| Limited federal power
|| Strong central government
| Opposed national bank
|| Favored national bank
| Economy of farming
|| Economy of trade & manufacturing
| Supported by farmers and planters
|| Supported by lawyers, merchants, manufacturers
Differing opinions on government continued to grow, especially when the two political parties supported their own candidates in elections. Eventually, political conflict and ill will led Hamilton face to face with rival Aaron Burr in a duel. Hamilton arrived with the intention of refusing to duel and shot into the air. Burr, however shot Hamilton. The next day, July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton died, bringing an end to the life of an accomplished and influential man in America's history.
In summary, Hamilton's role in shaping the country in its infancy was highly influential. He was a supporter of a strong central government and voiced his views during the Constitutional Convention. As a New York State representative, he helped pen the Federalist Papers to vehemently support the ratification of the Constitution. As Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, he developed plans to bring the economically damaged country to its feet. His decisions weren't always accepted, though, and opponents of his policies formed the Democratic-Republican political party. Hamilton and his allies responded with a political party of their own, the Federalists. This Two-Party System would shape politics for more than two centuries to follow.
When you've thoroughly studied the lesson on Alexander Hamilton, it will be time to:
- Remember the definition of the term 'federalist'
- Understand Alexander Hamilton's role in the Constitutional Convention
- Appraise Hamilton's success as Secretary of the Treasury
- Discuss his founding of the two-party system as we know it today