In honor of the television debut of one of history’s favorite Broadway stars, this Edition for Educators explores how the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Member of the Continental Congress, intersected with the early history of the House of Representatives.
Use People Search to explore biographies of the Members who served with Hamilton in the Continental Congress, as well as those who served from the 1st to the 8th Congresses (1789–1805) during Hamilton’s time as Treasury Secretary, and later when he returned home to New York to practice law.
Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis, British West Indies, on January 11, 1757. He immigrated to the United States in 1772, where he received educational training in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, and King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City. Hamilton entered the Continental Army in New York in 1776 as Captain of Artillery and he was appointed aide-de-camp to General George Washington on March 1, 1777, serving in that capacity until February 16, 1781.
Hamilton was a Member of the Continental Congress in 1782, 1783, and 1788. He also served in the New York state assembly in 1787 before becoming a member of the Constitutional Convention that same year. Hamilton was a signatory to the U.S. Constitution and a member of the New York state ratification convention in 1788.
Hamilton studied law and practiced in New York City. He served as Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington from 1789 to 1795. Hamilton returned to New York and resumed his law practice until he was mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey. He died in New York City on July 12, 1804.
Madison was born in Port Conway, King George County, Virginia, on March 16, 1751. He studied under private tutors and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1771. Madison was also a member of Virginia’s first general assembly in 1776.
Madison served as a Member of the Continental Congress from 1780 to 1783 and 1787 to 1788. The Virginian was also a Delegate in the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and signed the Constitution. Madison won election to the House of Representatives in the 1st through 4th Congresses, serving from March 4, 1789, to March 3, 1797.
In 1799, he again served as a member of the Virginia Assembly from Orange County until he was appointed Secretary of State by President Thomas Jefferson on March 5, 1801; Madison served in this capacity from his swearing-in on May 2, 1801, until March 4, 1809. James Madison was elected President of the United States in 1808 and re-elected in 1812. At the end of his second term, Madison, a slaveholder, retired to his plantation, "Montpelier," in Orange County, Virginia, and lived there until his death on June 28, 1836.
Looking for Aaron Burr? The “prodigy of Princeton College” served in the U.S. Senate and can be found in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
Hamilton served in the Continental and Confederation Congresses, the precursors to the modern Federal Congress. These legislative bodies managed the Revolutionary War, set the groundwork for what would become a new nation, and, following the end of hostilities with Great Britain, authored a limited central governing structure in the Articles of Confederation. When the Articles proved incapable of meeting the needs of the young country, states sent Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Alexander Hamilton was among those who drafted a new, stronger governing document, creating the United States of America and its federal legislature, including the House of Representatives.
Learn more about the meeting places, leadership, and participants in the Continental and Confederation Congresses. Also read about the Delegates who ultimately signed the United States Constitution.
Two portraits in the House Collection have hung together in the House Chamber since the early nineteenth century: one of the Marquis de Lafayette—a Revolutionary War ally from France and the first foreign dignitary to address the House of Representatives—and one of the first President George Washington.
The full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette was presented to the House by French artist Ary Sheffer in honor of the occasion of his address to the House in 1824. During his visit, Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, was received by crowds throughout the United States to great acclaim. The portrait hangs near the rostrum, to the Speaker’s left, as it has since the opening of the current House Chamber in 1857.
John Vanderlyn, a leading American portrait artist in the first half of the nineteenth century, was commissioned in 1834 to paint the George Washington portrait as a companion piece to Sheffer’s portrait of Lafayette. In addition to showing a reliable likeness, Vanderlyn’s composition depicts the first President as a statesman, with sheathed sword at this side, indicating his retirement from military leadership and the hope of a peaceful future for the nation.
Want more from the first President? The House Collection also includes the seal given to Washington to commemorate the laying of the U.S. Capitol’s cornerstone and one of hundreds of Washington busts commissioned to commemorate the first President’s 200th birthday in 1932.
Alexander Hamilton played a key role in the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, the site of Britain’s ceremonial surrender on October 19, 1781. One hundred years later, Members of Congress traveled to Yorktown to commemorate the event. In 1880, Congress created the Joint Select Committee on the Yorktown Celebration, composed of one Representative and one Senator from each of the original 13 colonies, to organize the centennial ceremony. Participants in the celebration included President Chester A. Arthur, Virginia Governor F. W. M. Holliday, the Congressional Commission, the President’s Cabinet, the diplomatic corps, the family of the Marquis de Lafayette, and foreign dignitaries.
Origins and Development: From the Constitution to the Modern House explores the framers’ vision for the House of Representatives and subsequent major institutional developments. This section includes essays exploring the powers and duties of the House of Representatives. Many of these powers find their origins in the Federalist Papers, penned in part by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
On July 16, 1790, President George Washington signed into law the Permanent Seat of Government Act, which established the location of the new federal city. The law moved the United States capital from New York City to a new federal district, “not exceeding ten miles square . . . [to] be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac,” or approximately the boundaries of present-day Washington, DC. In a compromise brokered by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the capital moved to a southern location and, in exchange, southern Representatives dropped their opposition to Hamilton’s program to have the federal government assume the states’ Revolutionary War debt.
On February 8, 1791, Jefferson’s congressional ally, James Madison, made good on his promise. The House of Representatives passed a bill establishing the first Bank of the United States. Hamilton argued that a national bank was “a political machine, of the greatest importance to the state.” He asserted that a national bank would facilitate the payment of taxes, revenue for which the federal government was desperate after the Revolution.
In the event that the Electoral College is deadlocked or if no candidate receives the majority of Electoral College votes, the election of the President goes to the House of Representatives. Each state delegation casts one vote for one of the top three contenders to determine a winner. Only two Presidential elections (1800 and 1824) have been decided in the House.
The 1800 presidential election tested the presidential selection system when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied at 73 electoral ballots each. After six days of debate and 36 ballots, Jefferson won 10 state delegations in the House and was named President.
Congress passed, and the states ratified, the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution in time for the 1804 election. The amendment stipulated that the electors would cast two votes: one for President and the other for Vice President.
Alexander Hamilton died on July 12, 1804, a day after his longtime political opponent, Vice President Aaron Burr, shot him in a duel. In the following years, Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth (daughter of Philip Schuyler), twice petitioned Congress to award her Hamilton’s military pension. Part of the official Records of the House of Representatives, her petition included this statement of Hamilton’s property and debts, written in his own hand shortly before his death. He estimated his worth to be £10,000, a substantial amount of money, yet he worried that it might not cover his debts “if an accident should happen to me.” Initially unsuccessful in 1810, Elizabeth Hamilton again petitioned Congress in 1816. She was granted five years’ pay—the amount of a full pension.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory