In November 1787, George Washington received a package at Mount Vernon from his former aide Alexander Hamilton. It contained the first essays of The Federalist, a work written in defense of the Constitution by the anonymous author Publius. Nine months later the entire two-volume set of essays, known today as The Federalist Papers, arrived at Mount Vernon. Hamilton admitted that he was one of the work's authors along with James Madison and John Jay.
Hamilton had sent the essays to Washington as part of his campaign to convince his former commander to become the first President of the United States. Hamilton explained that he thought Washington was "indispensable," and reminded him that, "It is to little purpose to have introduced a system, if the weightiest influence is not given to its firm establishment in the outset."1 Washington thanked Hamilton for The Federalist, a work that he believed would "merit the notice of posterity," but reminded him that his "great and sole purpose" in life was "to live and die, in peace and retirement, on my own farm."2
Washington overcame his reluctance to leave Mount Vernon, and was elected President in 1788, appointing Hamilton to his cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury. The two had first met in 1777 when Hamilton, then a twenty-two year old artillery officer, joined Washington's staff as his secretary. Born the illegitimate son of a Scottish peddler on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton was apprenticed to a merchant house on St. Croix at just nine years of age. Hamilton had overcome much in his young life to become a member of Washington's military family.
Wealthy benefactors later financed Hamilton's education at Princeton and King's College. Hamilton became an early supporter of the American Revolution and joined a militia company in New York City. Here he met General Nathanael Greene who recommended that he join Washington's staff. While his intelligence and mastery of languages proved invaluable to his commander, Hamilton longed to serve on the battlefield. Hamilton finally got his chance at Yorktown when he led the charge against the last British redoubt.
Hamilton and Washington parted company after the Revolution with Hamilton, eventually becoming a lawyer and serving as a representative to the Confederation Congress from New York. They met again at the Annapolis Convention in 1786 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Two years later, in December 1789, Hamilton joined President Washington's cabinet as the first Secretary of the Treasury. In a series of reports to Congress, Hamilton proposed funding the national and state debts through the sale of government bonds, establishing the Bank of the United States, and levying protective tariffs.
In 1796, Hamilton left the Treasury but continued to correspond with Washington who retired to Mount Vernon a year later. The last letter that Washington ever wrote was to Alexander Hamilton. Composed on December 12, 1799, two days before Washington died, the letter complemented Hamilton for his recommendations on establishing a national military academy. Hamilton died five years later on July 12, 1804, mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr.
Historian Ron Chernow discusses the similarities between Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.
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Mary Stockwell, Ph.D.
1. Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, 13 August 1788, Papers of Alexander Hamilton, Vol. 5, ed. Harold C. Syrett (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), 202.
2. George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 28 August 1788. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, et al, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2007-.
Brookhiser, Richard. Alexander Hamilton: American. New York: Touchstone, 2000.
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press, 2004.
Washington Presidential Library resources regarding Alexander Hamilton