James Madison and Alexander Hamilton


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Alexander Hamilton (left) and James Madison

It is often the case in revolutions that many who take a lead role in shaping the new society are not those who instigated revolution in the first place. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton were both too young to be revolutionary instigators (they were just 14 and 10 respectively when the Stamp Act was passed) but by the 1780s they had risen to prominent positions within the new nation. Both would contribute to the Revolutionary War, Madison as a state assemblyman and Hamilton as a soldier, and both would earn selection to the 1787 Philadelphia convention. Each would play a lead role in determining the political make-up of the new nation: Madison as a political philosopher and architect of the Constitution; Hamilton as a forceful advocate for centralised political and economic power. Both were nationalists, envisaging the great potential for the future United States; both were at the forefront of the Federalist movement.


James Madison was physically an unremarkable figure, barely 158 centimetres tall, pale-skinned and sickly looking, with a high-pitched voice that was often inaudible in public meetings and assemblies. He was quite anti-social, disliking company and crowds, though those with whom he did mix described him as an erudite conversationalist. Madison had entered the Virginia assembly in 1776 and proved something of a junior Thomas Jefferson. There his hard work and attention to detail earned him considerable respect, despite his young age. Like many of this colleagues he was alarmed at the social disorder permitted by the watery Articles of Confederation, so he eagerly accepted a nomination to attend Philadelphia. There he tabled his famous ‘Virginia Plan’ for a three-branch federal political system, combining existing ideas (such as the British political system and the separation of powers theorised by Montesquieu) with his own innovations, guided by his keen knowledge of political philosophy and his precise attention to detail. Though his model was subsequently amended by the convention, Madison would later earn the epithet ‘father of the Constitution’, though it was a title he spurned. And while he opposed the inclusion of specific individual rights into the Constitution, when this concession was made to the anti-Federalists Madison alone drafted the Bill of Rights. Madison later went on to become fourth president of the United States between 1809-17.

“Madison summarised the experiments in government conducted in America since [July 1776]. The thirteen independent sovereign states had quarreled with each other, defied federal measures and violated solemn international agreements. Imperative national measures, such as internal improvements and the regulation of commerce were thwarted by the ‘perverseness of particular States’. The states, as Shays’ Rebellion showed, were without federal help, prey to internal violence and subversion. Furthermore, numerous confusing and unstable statutes passed by the states brought all law into disrepute.”
Ralph Ketcham, historian

Alexander Hamilton, unlike his fellow politicians, had no allegiance to any colony or state – he had been born illegitimately in the West Indies and didn’t arrive in America until 1772. As a young man he supported the revolution and wrote lengthy tracts criticising British policy, however he condemned all acts of mob violence and disorder. Hamilton joined the Continental Army, rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and for a time served as Washington’s aide-de-camp. He resigned his commission and was elected to the Confederation Congress in 1782, however he hated this time in service, finding Congress too slow to reach decisions and too reliant on state funding (around this time he famously wrote “I hate Congress; I hate the Army; I hate the world”). Hamilton craved a strong central government that could lead the states rather than follow them; and a national bank to enable financial and currency regulation. He encouraged and perhaps dealt secretly with the Newburgh conspirators, believing that their actions might force a strengthening of Congress’ power. He left Congress in 1783 after calling for revision of the Articles of Confederation, returning to his state legislature in New York, however he returned to serve at the Constitutional Convention. It was here he suggested that the president sit for life, and although this was rejected, Hamilton became a fervent supporter of the Constitution and one of the leading Federalist writers. Hamilton served as Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury until 1795.


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