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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Alexander Hamilton

Today marks the birthday of Alexander Hamilton, America's first Treasury Secretary, and the man who hoped that his adopted hometown, New York, would be the capital of the United States.

Hamilton was born on January 11, 1757 (though some sources argue for 1755), on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. In 1773, Hamilton began attending classes at King's College in New York (which would change its name after the American Revolution to Columbia College). When the Revolution began two years later, Hamilton joined the New York militia and soon rose to become one of George Washington's most trusted aides.

During the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, Hamilton saw the value of moving the fledgling country's seat of government to New York, which was fast becoming its largest city and biggest port. As we write in Inside the Apple:
In May 1787, the Constitutional Convention began in Philadelphia, which...had long served as America’s political center. But congress itself had not been meeting in Philadelphia since June 20, 1783, when the State House had been surrounded by mutinous Pennsylvania soldiers looking for their Revolutionary War back pay. Under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government lacked the power to disburse the mob—and Pennsylvania’s executive committee refused to do so—forcing congress to flee to Princeton, New Jersey. Over the next two years, the seat of congress moved a few times until finding a home in New York City. 
As part of the new Constitution, the states agreed to have a capital city that was not governed by a state, thus heading off another Pennsylvania debacle, and Alexander Hamilton’s preference was for that city to be his own. Pierre L’Enfant, who would achieve great fame as the master planner of Washington, D.C., remodeled the old British City Hall on Wall Street to serve not only as the meeting place for congress and the new chief executive but also continue to house New York City’s government office....
Washington initially made only three cabinet appointments: General Henry Knox became Secretary of War, Thomas Jefferson—still serving in France as America’s foreign minister—became Secretary of State, and Hamilton was appointed Secretary of the Treasury and de facto Prime Minister. When Jefferson returned to America in 1790, he hurried to New York to assume his post—and to see what damage of Hamilton’s he could undo. He vehemently opposed Hamilton’s ideas regarding a central United States bank and a federal assumption of the debts the states had incurred during the war. But, it seems, he opposed locating the nation’s capital in New York even more. 
On June 20, 1790—exactly seven years after the Pennsylvania militia had forced the Continental Congress to flee Philadelphia—the capital was forced to move again, this time at a dinner party. At the dinner, which was hosted by Jefferson and James Madison at Jefferson’s home on Maiden Lane, the two Virginians told Hamilton that they wielded such sway in Congress that they could block Hamilton’s controversial banking measures. Conversely, they promised to ensure Hamilton’s bills went through as long as he didn’t oppose their quest to move the federal capital to the South. Hamilton, realizing that the needs of the Treasury Department outweighed his New York City pride, acquiesced. In August 1790, congress met for the last time on Wall Street.
What most people remember about Hamilton today is not how he lived but rather how he died, slain in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr. If you want to pay your respects to this New York founding father, you can head downtown to Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he is buried, or head uptown to Harlem, where his home, Hamilton Grange, is open for visitation.

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Read more about Alexander Hamilton in
Inside the Apple
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The office building at 59 Maiden Lane has a plaque on the wall near the entrance memorializing it as the site where Jefferson lived.

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