Alexander Hamilton and the Bill of Rights

It’s hard to imagine the U.S. Constitution today without the Bill of Rights trailing right behind those first seven articles that outline the structure of our government. Even when the first drafts of the new constitution were being written, adding a list of protections against government over-reach was a top priority for many of the framers. The Constitution solidified a federal government with the authority to collect taxes, raise an army and a navy, and enforce national laws. Our original constitution, the Articles of Confederation, did not allow the federal government to do any of these things. It was necessary for the survival of the young nation then to rewrite it’s laws to allow for an active central government which would unite the states. Despite this need, many Americans were distrustful of centralized power. Coming off the rule of a king who enacted laws on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean which they were subject to, ordinary citizens were skeptical of giving even an independent government too much power. Many people living in America at that time had made the three month journey across the ocean to escape the prejudiced laws of Europe and it’s rulers. They didn’t trust authority. Suspicion was in their blood. Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, didn’t quite have that same suspicion of outsiders in his DNA. While he fought for American independence from the British Crown, he was also one of General George Washington’s closest advisers. He learned to trust authority. Being from the Caribbean, Hamilton didn’t have the same experiences with the burdensome laws of King George that many main-landers had. He knew America’s great potential, but only believed it would be realized through a united effort orchestrated from the top-down.

Hamilton started his journey to the main-land when he was 15. In 1772, the bright and ambitious young man landed in Boston and eventually headed south to New Jersey to attend grammar school. Three years later he moved to New York City to continue his studies in college. In the midst of his course-work, and shortly after the first Revolutionary battles in Massachusetts in 1775, Hamilton volunteered for the New York state militia. He gradually worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant and led his company in battles with the British throughout the New York area. Only a year later the young whipper-snapper was promoted to the Continental Army to be one of George Washington’s aides. Young Alexander spent six years in the service of one of the greatest military leaders of all-time and was again promoted to the rank of Colonel. Even after Hamilton quit Washington’s “family” (his close-knit group of top military advisers), he re-joined the war effort less than half a year later to command three New York battalions. The efforts of his outfits in the summer of 1781 led to the surrender of the British at Yorktown which put an end to the Crown’s resistance of America’s drive to independence.

Following his military service, Hamilton was appointed to the newly established Congress of the Confederation as a representative from New York. Frustrated by the national government’s lack of authority to raise money for an active military, Hamilton advocated a nation-wide tax on imported goods. This is exactly what the people were afraid of. They had been taxed enough already by the King of England. To military men like Hamilton however, the ability of the government to raise money for an army and pay it’s war debt was a necessity. The states showed almost no willingness to pay their debts though, because their people didn’t want to raise taxes. As a result, active-duty soldiers still in defensive position against another British attack began to pay for supplies out of their own pocket. This was unacceptable for a country with as many resources as America had. The import-tax proposal failed in Congress though, thanks to the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Pass a federal law (such as a tax) required a constitutional amendment that had to be approved by all thirteen states individually! In this particular case, Rhode Island objected and the proposal was defeated. Eventually, the situation got so bad that soldiers began to revolt against the government. In June, 1783, a mob of military men from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, marched on the capitol in Philadelphia to demand their pay. Congress fled the city and relocated to Princeton, New Jersey. Hamilton had had enough with an inept Congress that couldn’t even provide for it’s own soldiers. He resigned a month later and returned to New York to study law.

Following his studies and eventual admission to the New York bar, Hamilton opened a law firm in downtown Manhattan. One of the most important cases that he tried during this period was a 1784 lawsuit (Rutgers v. Waddington) by a land-lady who had to abandon her property after the British occupation of New York during the war. Under state law, property owners were allowed to sue for any damages that were done. This law contradicted with the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris which officially settled the peace between the United States and the British Crown. Hamilton represented the defendant in the case and argued that state law could not over-rule agreements made between independent nations. Around the same time, he started the Bank of New York, the oldest bank in America.

Despite the success of his private law and financial businesses, the multi-talented Hamilton still had an itch for public service. In 1786, a convention of the states was called to meet in Annapolis, Maryland, to discuss the country’s commercial trade policy. Although representatives from only five states were present, it was agreed that a larger convention would be called to discuss reform of the Articles of Confederation. Hamilton served as a delegate to the small Annapolis convention but he had more ambitious political aspirations. He knew the great potential which united States had. Under the Articles of Confederation the states were only loosely tied. As it stood in 1786, the Union was bound to fail as a result of weak federal laws. The states would either end up fighting each other or a foreign power would invade and easily annex the country that didn’t even have the means to defend itself. It was a matter of American life or death for Hamilton, and there wasn’t much time left to solve the problem.

A constitutional convention was called and held at Philadelphia the following May in 1787. Hamilton had been working on a plan to restructure the federal government. His version reminded some of the old monarchist system in Great Britain. With the goals of unity and stability in mind, Hamilton outlined a government with a “supreme executive”, who would serve as the head of government for life and with the power to veto any law that came across the desk. All state laws that contradicted federal law would be voided, and governors would have the authority to veto their state’s laws without consequence. In addition to promoting executive authority, Hamilton’s “Plan of Government” prohibited all state militias. Every military branch would be under the authority of the federal government. For Col. Hamilton, all things must be organized under the umbrella of a higher authority for the “greater good”, because individual people were, “ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious”. In order for a national government to be effective, people must sacrifice some freedom. This was Hamilton’s thought process in regards to a bill of rights. In a letter to the President of Pennsylvania four years before the Philadelphia convention, Hamilton wrote that, “the rights of government are as essential to be defended as the rights of individuals.” While the agreed upon framework for the new federal government satisfied Hamilton’s ultimate goal of a stronger national government, it didn’t really state any of the “rights” of government itself. It merely outlined a structure and purpose. To then attach a list of specific “rights” of the people would tip the scales back in the favor of individuals and their greedy ambitions.

Hamilton’s letter to the head of Pennsylvania’s state legislature (“The President”) and even his “Plan of Government” were private documents at the time. His first and only public statement about a bill of rights was published in a series of essays designed to help gain support for the proposed constitution, which still had to be approved by nine of the thirteen states. These public essays were circulated in New York and titled, “The Federalist”. Because Hamilton didn’t get as strong a government as he wanted (no executive would be appointed for life), in the 84th essay of the Federalist he laid out his argument against a bill of rights. His argument had three main points: first, it was unnecessary because the original framework already provided rights and privileges of the people, such as the writ of habeas corpus (right to a trial) and trial by jury; second, it was dangerous because a list of rights would prohibit the government from making laws that it wasn’t authorized to make in the first place; third, the concept of a list of rights of the people was too abstract to express in a way that could be enforced. It just wasn’t practical.

When the time came for Hamilton’s state of New York to debate ratification of the proposed constitution, his side of the aisle (those who supported the new constitution) was badly outnumbered. The anti-federalists dominated New York under the leadership of Governor George Clinton. Despite the odds, Hamilton argued passionately to try and convince his fellow delegates to vote for approval. Hamilton pleaded that, “when you have divided and nicely balanced the departments of government, when you have strongly connected the virtue of your rulers with interest . . . you must place confidence, you must give power.” Almost echoing those words, the New York convention ended up approving the new U.S. Constitution in July of 1788 – the eleventh and last major state to give it’s endorsement. It was critical for the nation to be confident in it’s new government and that’s just what New York’s ratification helped do, thanks to Col. Hamilton.

Not only was the Constitution good for the country, it also ended up benefiting Hamilton’s professional career. General Washington was unanimously elected to head the newly created executive branch and he chose Hamilton to fill one the most important offices in his cabinet. As Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Hamilton handled all of the federal government’s finances. He had long been an advocate of the federal regulation of trade and a federal tax, and now he had a chance put his words into action. In 1790, only a year in to the Washington Administration, Secretary Hamilton suggested that the Treasury assume the states’ war debt. This would make a federal tax necessary, which would eventually give the national government the money to raise a full-time army and navy. Using the same thought process, Hamilton had another idea: why not just have the government create it’s own bank? Through the issuance of bonds, which individual investors could buy from the bank in exchange for interest paid over a period of time, the government could raise even more money for any projects it deemed necessary. Hamilton’s old friend James Madison, now one of the leaders in the House of Representatives, didn’t like this idea. He argued that it was unconstitutional and pleaded with President Washington to veto any legislation which authorized the charter of a national bank. Madison’s reasoning was straight-forward: the Constitution did not grant the government the authority to get into the banking business. Hamilton countered by contesting that there was nothing in the Constitution which prohibited the government from doing so. In fact, Hamilton argued, in Article I., Section 8, Congress is charged with the responsibility to, “pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare”, and may “borrow Money”. At the end of Section 8, the Constitution states that the government has the authority “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers”. Besides, they needed to fund a military expedition to the Northwest Territory to clear out the Native tribes for settlement. What better way to get money fast than to start your own bank? Congress went along with Hamilton’s recommendation to legislate a charter, Washington signed it, and by the end of 1791 the U.S. had a national bank. Hamilton was less than three years on the job and had already accomplished two of his major goals for U.S. fiscal policy.

The only thing left to do now, as far as money policy went, was to establish an independent U.S. currency. In 1791, he wrote the Report on the Establishment of a Mint, which proposed the creation of the dollar, along with smaller value coins ranging from one cent to fifty cents. Again Congress took Hamilton’s proposal to heart and passed the Coinage Act of 1792 a year later. America’s finances were finally stabilized and in good order. Not everyone agreed with the policies of the Treasurer however. Men such as Thomas Jefferson and again, James Madison, both of whom had supported the revised constitution, now opposed many of the policies it was allowing for. Jefferson in particular distrusted government becoming involved in the money game. The opposition to many of the Washington Administration’s policies started to rally together and became known collectively as the Democratic-Republicans. Supporters of the nationalist policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Vice-President John Adams were knows as the Federalists. They wanted to capitalize on the power that the Constitution gave the federal government. The Republicans wanted some of that power to remain with the individual states. After all, the Tenth Amendment states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States . . . or to the people.” Alexander Hamilton probably wouldn’t have voted for the Tenth Amendment if he had the chance, and neither would have most Federalists.

After resigning from the Washington administration at the beginning of 1795, Hamilton returned to New York and resumed his law practice. He remained in politics for the rest of his life though, supporting Federalist policies and campaigning for Federalist candidates, but it eventually got him killed. Hamilton had twice campaigned against Aaron Burr, once in 1800 for President, and again in 1804 when Burr ran for Governor of New York. Hamilton had defamed Burr’s character by calling him despicable, and not worthy of public office. Burr finally caught wind of Hamilton’s remarks which he had made in private letters and most recently in a bar and restaurant in upstate New York. After a correspondence between the two men in which Hamilton neither confirmed nor denied his criticisms, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel in New Jersey. On July 11, 1804, the two men met and exchanged shots, both missing. They re-loaded their pistols and fired again, and this time Burr hit his target and caught Hamilton in the stomach. He died the next day in New York. By this time however, the Republicans were in complete control of the government with Jefferson starting a second White House term in 1805, followed by eight years of a Madison presidency. The Federalists had accomplished what they had set out to do in the first twelve years under Presidents Washington and Adams though. The country was stronger and wealthier for it too, thanks in large part to Alexander Hamilton’s tenacity and dedication to an effective national government.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s