Alexander Hamilton was born in the West Indies on January 11, either in 1755 or 1757. He was an illegitimate child, and when his mother died he was orphaned at a young age. Community leaders in his hometown Christiansted sponsored his education in the colonies, and he eventually went to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York. He fought in the Revolutionary War and served for several years as Washington’s chief of staff. After the war, he was briefly a delegate to the Continental Congress from New York. He became increasingly dissatisfied with the weak powers of the national government and its inability to raise revenues or an army, and he took a leading role in calling for the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There, he proposed a plan to elect the President and Senators for life, but this was not considered seriously by the other delegates. After the Convention, he helped lead the effort to defend ratification in New York, and he recruited John Jay and James Madison to write The Federalist in defense of the proposed Constitution. Washington appointed Hamilton secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795) in his administration. He had strong influence over Washington’s policies and helped to establish the American financial system—especially by assuming the states’ debts, founding a national bank, and maintaining trade with Britain.
Opposition to Hamilton’s national economic policies and dispute over whether to favor the British or the French in foreign policy soon led to an increasing partisan divide, with Hamilton leading the Federalist Party against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s Republic Party. The Republicans challenged the constitutionality of the bank, but Hamilton argued that the power to establish a bank was implied by the Constitution’s Necessary and Proper Clause. Under the name Pacificus, he also defended Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality in the conflict between Britain and France, as well as the executive’s constitutional power to take measures to preserve peace until war is declared. Under John Adams’s presidency, Hamilton developed the national army as its senior officer, and he hoped to lead a war against France, but Adams resolved the so-called Quasi-War diplomatically. Hamilton pursued a career as one of the country’s leading attorneys, remaining active in partisan intrigues, opposing both the Democratic-Republicans and Adams in his own party. He was mortally wounded in a famous duel with Aaron Burr, one of his political enemies. He died on July 12, 1804, in New York.
John Jay was born on December 12, 1745, in New York City. He studied at King’s College (now Columbia University), and then practiced law. He was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses, and he eventually supported American independence. During the Revolutionary War, he served as Minister to Spain, and he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris of 1783 that concluded the war with Great Britain. Under the Articles of Confederation, he was secretary of Foreign Affairs (1784-1790). He defended the ratification of the Constitution and was recruited by Hamilton to help write The Federalist, but he fell ill and managed to contribute only a handful of the papers. Under the new Constitution, he served as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1789-1795). During that time he negotiated what came to be called the Jay Treaty—the Treaty of London of 1794—to ease hostilities with the British over trade issues. It helped avert war, but became a major partisan issue—the Federalists supported it, but the Republicans opposed it for strengthening commercial ties with Britain. Jay retired from the Supreme Court after being elected Governor of New York (1795-1801). There, he helped lead the fight against slavery, and signed a gradual emancipation act in 1799. Jay died on May 17, 1829, in Bedford, New York.
James Madison, Jr. was born at Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia on March 16, 1751. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). He served in the Virginia House of Delegates (1776-1789) and then the Continental Congress (1780-1783) during the Revolutionary War, and then in the Virginia House (1784-1786). The behavior of the states’ governments under the Articles of Confederation alarmed him, and he helped lead the effort to organize the Constitutional Convention to strengthen the national government. Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, which directed the agenda for the Convention and offered a rough template for the Constitution, although the final Constitution differed from it in important ways. Throughout the Convention, he was one of the most knowledgeable and influential members; for his efforts, he is regarded today as the “Father of the Constitution.” His extensive notes on the Convention were published after his death. After the Convention, he championed ratification, joining Hamilton and Jay to write The Federalist, and he was instrumental in persuading the delegates to Virginia’s ratifying convention to support the Constitution. Under the new Constitution, he served as a Congressman from Virginia (1789-1797), and he sponsored the Bill of Rights as amendments to the Constitution.
Along with Thomas Jefferson, Madison helped form the Republican Party, in opposition to the Federalist Party led by Alexander Hamilton. His party tended to oppose efforts to further empower the national government, especially the establishment of a national bank, and it wanted foreign policy to favor the French, not the British. When the Washington Administration issued its Proclamation of Neutrality—announcing neutrality in the conflict between Britain and France—and Hamilton defended it in his Pacificus essays, Madison responded with his own essays under the name Helvidius, challenging Hamilton’s understanding of executive power and insisting that Congress had the ultimate authority over foreign affairs. He served as Secretary of State (1801-1809) under Thomas Jefferson, and in 1808 was elected President (1809-1817). Later in life, he served as the Rector of the University of Virginia (1826-1836). He was the last of the living Founding Fathers, and died on June 28, 1836, at his home Montpelier in Virginia.