The Federalist Papers | Study Guide

Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton | Biography


Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton was born January 11, 1755 or 1757, on the island of Nevis in the West Indies. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died in 1768, his mother's relatives took custody of the teenager. Following studies at a preparatory school in New Jersey, he attended King's College (later Columbia University) in New York. A fervent supporter of the American Revolution (1775–83), he obtained a military commission in 1776 and participated with courage and initiative in the Revolutionary War conflict with the British at the Battle of Trenton (1776). General George Washington invited Hamilton to become an aide-de-camp in 1777, and Hamilton served with distinction throughout the war, leaving active military duty in 1781.

Hamilton studied law in Albany, New York, and in 1782 was both admitted to the practice of law in New York and chosen as a delegate from New York to the Continental Congress. Later, the legislature chose Hamilton as a delegate to the 1786 Annapolis Convention, a regional meeting held in Maryland where Hamilton proposed a national convention to amend the Articles of Confederation. He was also a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia (1787). In all these capacities, Hamilton argued forcefully for a strong national government.

In New York, opponents of the new Constitution, who were called Anti-Federalists, attacked the plan regularly in the newspapers. Leading them was the powerful and popular state governor, George Clinton (1739–1812). Hamilton organized the counterthrust known as The Federalist Papers, each signed with the ancient Roman pseudonym Publius. In fact, Hamilton authored over half the papers (51); James Madison contributed 29 essays and John Jay 5. Afterward, each man served in the national government with great distinction: Hamilton as the first secretary of the treasury; Madison as a member of the House of Representatives, as secretary of state, and as president; and Jay as the first chief justice of the United States.

Hamilton's views on the necessity for a strong, energetic national government complemented his conviction that the United States was destined to become a manufacturing nation—an industrial powerhouse, in fact, that would capture world attention through its economic might. This opinion was by no means shared by everyone: Thomas Jefferson, for example, was entirely happy with the vision of a virtuous nation of farmers. As secretary of the treasury, Hamilton voiced his financial and economic beliefs in a number of eloquent, influential reports: Reports on the Public Credit (1790), Report on a National Bank (1790), and Report on Manufactures (1791).

Although Hamilton left the cabinet in 1795, he remained active in politics and as an unofficial adviser, especially to Washington, for whom he drafted the greater part of his farewell address, delivered in September 1796. Some of Hamilton's activity was exceedingly controversial; for example, his efforts to prevent his fellow Federalist John Adams's reelection to the presidency in 1800. Hamilton also opposed Aaron Burr's campaign for governor of New York. In 1804 Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel because of some derogatory remarks Hamilton had allegedly made about Burr at a party. The two men met in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804, and Hamilton died of his wounds on July 12, 1804.

Hamilton has remained an enigma to many historians, who have been captivated by his fiery brilliance, his spirit of innovation, his ambition, and his eloquent powers of persuasion. The most recent showcase for Hamilton's compelling personality is Hamilton: An American Musical (2015), which has been an enormous popular success on Broadway.

John Jay

John Jay, born in New York City on December 12, 1745, graduated from King's College (now Columbia University) and was admitted to the bar in 1768. Although he had apprehensions at first about the Revolutionary War, he ended up strongly supporting it. He lobbied for the approval of the Declaration of Independence (1776) in New York, helped draft that state's first constitution, and was elected the state's first chief justice.

In 1779 during the Revolutionary War, Jay was sent on a diplomatic mission to Spain; in 1782 he joined inventor, writer, and politician Benjamin Franklin and statesman and eventually the second president of the United States John Adams in Paris as a negotiator for peace with the British after the war.

During the mid-1780s, Jay became ever more convinced that newly independent America needed a strong central government. Thus, he collaborated with Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in the series of papers titled The Federalist Papers (though Jay wrote only 5 of the 85 essays because of ill health). In 1789 President George Washington nominated Jay as the first chief justice of the United States, a role for which Jay seemed admirably equipped. He served in this office for nearly six years.

In 1794 Washington sent Jay as a special envoy to Great Britain to try to avert war over commercial disputes. Jay's treaty enjoyed the support of both Washington and Hamilton, and it was ratified by the Senate in mid-1795. Nevertheless, it was extremely unpopular with the Jeffersonians and Anti-Federalists. Historians consider that the unpopular treaty killed whatever chances Jay may have had for the presidency. However, he was elected governor of New York in 1795, serving until 1801. He spent the rest of his life in retirement and died May 17, 1829, in Bedford, New York.

James Madison

James Madison, born March 16, 1751, came from aristocratic roots in Virginia, where he maintained a house and estate (Montpelier) throughout his life. He was educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he completed the four-year course in two years, despite poor health. Early in his career he formed a political alliance and a close friendship with his fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who was eight years his senior.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison vigorously supported a strong national government. The convention's proceedings were held behind closed doors, but Madison kept extensive daily notes of the debates in his own shorthand. Historians generally regard these notes as the most comprehensive, reliable records of the convention available. Madison constructed the Virginia Plan, the starting point for the convention's deliberations. After the convention, although he had no journalistic experience, Madison consented to join Hamilton and Jay in writing The Federalist Papers, a task that consumed more than seven months. Madison is believed to have authored 29 of the 85 papers, or about one-third of the total. Madison penned two of the most widely cited papers, Essay 10 and Essay 51.

For the next three decades, Madison dominated the political scene in one capacity or another: as a leading member of the House of Representatives, who shepherded the Bill of Rights through that body until its ratification in 1791; as Jefferson's secretary of state (1801–09); and as the fourth president of the United States (1809–17). In 1794 he married a widow, Dolley Payne Todd, who became one of the most vivacious and energetic first ladies in White House history. During his presidency, he had to deal with the relatively brief but still controversial War of 1812 with Great Britain.

Madison spent his final years managing his farm and engaging in projects like the founding of the University of Virginia, an endeavor he undertook with Jefferson, where he served as rector, or chief officer. In his old age, the pace of his writing barely slowed down, as he vigorously opposed the doctrine of nullification whereby states claimed the right to cancel federal laws. Madison, now regularly called "the father of the Constitution," died June 28, 1836.

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