Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Charlestown, Nevis. He was orphaned as a child and taken in by a prosperous merchant. When he reached his teens, he was sent to New York to pursue his education. He took an early role in the militia as the American Revolutionary War began. In 1777, he became a senior aide to General Washington in running the new Continental Army. After the war, he was elected as a representative from New York to the Congress of the Confederation. He resigned to practice law and founded the Bank of New York before entering politics. Hamilton was a leader in seeking to replace the weak confederal government under the Articles of Confederation; he led the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which spurred Congress to call a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. He helped ratify the Constitution by writing 51 of the 85 installments of The Federalist Papers, which are still used as one of the most important references for Constitutional interpretation.
Hamilton led the Treasury Department as a trusted member of President Washington’s first Cabinet. Hamilton successfully argued that the implied powers of the Constitution provided the legal authority to fund the national debt, to assume states’ debts, and to create the government-backed Bank of the United States (the First Bank of the United States). These programs were funded primarily by a tariff on imports, and later by a controversial whiskey tax. He opposed friendly relations with the French revolutionaries. Hamilton’s views became the basis for the Federalist Party, which was opposed to the Democratic-Republican Party led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1795, he returned to the practice of law in New York. He called for mobilization against the French First Republic in 1798–99 under President John Adams, and became Commanding General of the U.S. Army, which he reconstituted, modernized, and readied for war. The army did not see combat in the Quasi-War, and Hamilton was outraged by Adams’ diplomatic approach to the crisis with France. His opposition to Adams’ re-election helped cause the Federalist party defeat in 1800. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied for the presidency in the electoral college, and Hamilton helped to defeat Burr, whom he found unprincipled, and to elect Jefferson despite philosophical differences.
Hamilton continued his legal and business activities in New York City, and was active in ending the legality of the international slave trade. Vice President Burr ran for governor of New York State in 1804, and Hamilton campaigned against him as unworthy. Taking offense, Burr challenged him to a duel on July 11, 1804, in which Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the following day. Hamilton is generally regarded as an astute and intellectually brilliant politician and financier, if often impetuous. His ideas are credited with laying the foundation for American government and finance.