I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 70 books on history and various topics.
Early Life in the Caribbean
Alexander Hamilton, the youngest of the founding fathers, was a political scientist, lawyer, economist, journalist, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a major author of the Federalist Papers, and the United States' first Secretary of the Treasury.
Hamilton was born of illegitimate birth to Noble Scottish man James Hamilton and his married French mistress, Rachael Faucett on January 11, 1755 (some historians argue the year of his birth and set it at 1757), on the British Isle of Nevis in the West Indies. Although his father was a wealthy trader, he abandoned his son, and Alexander received none of the comforts to which a child of his station would have been entitled.
In 1765, his mother moved the family to the island of St. Croix where the young Alex would soon begin work as a clerk. The owner, Nicholas Crueger, was so impressed with the young boy that he decided to personally finance his education. In 1768, both Alex and his mother contracted Yellow Fever, he recovered, but the illness claimed her life, leaving the young boy orphaned. He continued his work as a clerk until the age of 18, when he was sent to attend a grammar school in New Jersey by his benefactor and employer, Crueger.
The Revolutionary War
A year after arriving in New York, Alexander enrolls and begins to study law at Kings College, which would later be known as Columbia University. At the time, New York City was alive with political activity, and the young scholar, eager to prove himself publishes “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress” signed, “A Friend to America." The pamphlet was intended to persuade readers that the Continental Congress had the right to authorize a trade boycott of England. Barely a year later, on April 19, 1775, his studies are abruptly interrupted by the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. The Revolutionary War had begun. Hamilton promptly joins the New York State Provincial Militia. By March of the following year, he becomes captain of the 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Unit (The unit is still in operation today as the oldest in the U.S. Army and the only one remaining from the Revolution).
He soon distinguishes himself by aiding George Washington’s retreat through New York. On July 9th of 1776, the Declaration of Independence is read for the first time in New York, and five days after it is adopted by the Second Continental Congress. As Hamilton continues to fight alongside Washington, the commander’s faith in his abilities grows to the point where he is elevated to Lieutenant Colonel and is designated the Aide-de-Camp, making him Washington’s lead administrator throughout the rest of the war.
As the battle raged on and the casualties began taking their toll four years into the war, Alexander suggests that the Continental Army begin enlisting slaves in exchange for their freedom. There was always staunch opposition to the arming of slaves even though nearly 5,000 black soldiers fought in both segregated and integrated units. Hamilton believed slavery to be a waste of human potential and those views would manifest themselves throughout his public life.
In the winter of 1780, Alexander is reacquainted with Elizabeth Schuyler and falls deeply in love, they are married in December of that year. He continues to lead his troops and is able to secure a key victory on October 14 of 1781 by leading a successful charge against the British in Yorktown, Virginia. The English commander, Charles Cornwallis would surrender on the 19th of that month. He soon returns to civilian life and is admitted to the New York Bar, made the receiver of the Continental taxes for New York and elected as the representative for the state in the Continental Congress.
September of 1783, the Treaty of Paris is signed, bringing the Revolutionary War to its official end with all British troops withdrawing over the course of the next 60 days. A new phase of establishing the nascent begins.
Building a New Nation
Over the first few years, much of Hamilton’s work is confined to shaping the state of New York. In a relatively short time, he helped set up the New York Society for Promoting Manumissions of Slaves, with the goal of working towards freedom for the growing southern slave population. He successfully fights a series of cases against the Trespass Act, which forced Tories to pay damages to those whose homes had been seized during the war. His apt ability in those trials gained him recognition as a gifted orator. He opens the Bank of New York and is elected to the state legislature.
As we approach 1786, the messy work of nation-building begins a more concerted effort at establishing a centralized government. Hamilton is appointed to a delegation in Maryland where he is the key author in drafting a report calling for a convention in Philadelphia to work towards the formation of such a government. That following year The Constitutional Conventions convenes, and Hamilton is in attendance as one of the three New York delegates. He finds himself in the minority as a supporter of a strong federal government.
The committee works through the summer to complete the Constitution and begin the process of ratification. Ever the persuasive voice, Hamilton along with colleagues, James Madison and John Jay, take to their pens and ink out the Federalist Papers. Hamilton himself would author 51 out of the 85 essays that were distributed through newspapers throughout the states. The papers staked out the various benefits of forming a federal government and encouraged the states to ratify the Constitution. New York is the eleventh state to ratify making the Constitution into law and creating a new government for the people by the people.
George Washington becomes the first president of the United States in 1789 and nominates Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury. He is confirmed without protest. He immediately begins to work towards the mandate to support the public credit. He argues for the federal assumption of all state debts to stimulate the economy and strengthen the Union. He manages to secure a deal with Madison to secure the debt in exchange for placing the state capital in Philadelphia for ten years and then moving it to the banks of the Potomac River in Maryland. Once he is satisfied that his measure would protect the fragile states, he set out to further strengthen the union by calling for a National Bank. Here is where he would create a fracture between the Federalists and his opposition which would later call themselves the Republicans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph were increasingly concerned about the concentration of power. They openly opposed any new formation of powers for the Federal Government which they considered unconstitutional and an extension of powers.
In a blow to Hamilton’s support, Aaron Burr defeats his incumbent father-in-law, Phillip Schuyler, for the New York Senate seat. Despite growing opposition, Hamilton generates several reports in favor of a federal mint. He eventually pushes through with his idea and has Washington sign it into law.
In a letter to his friend Edward Carrington, in May 1792, Hamilton declared that he is “unequivocally convinced of the following truth: That Mr. Madison cooperating with Mr. Jefferson is at the head of a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and actuated by views in my judgement subversive of the principles of good government and dangerous to the union, peace and happiness of the country.” These claims were not completely unfounded, as the Republican faction did perceive Hamilton as a threat to the young country. He remained in his seat until 1795, when he submitted his final financial papers to congress and returned to New York to practice law, as the work in government could not meet all his family’s financial needs.
A Restless Retirement
In private life, as much as in public, Hamilton continues to use his pen to sway the momentum of politics. As he is aiding his friend, outgoing President George Washington, in his acceptance speech, he is also actively lobbying strongly against Adams and Jefferson. Unfortunately, his favored candidate loses, and he becomes a known agitator.
The rumors of the scandals that began while he was in office are published in a pamphlet in 1797 by James Callender. The claims of financial and marital impropriety stick, prompting an angry and candid response from Hamilton "My real crime," Hamilton admits, "is an amorous connection with his wife for a considerable time." He denies the claims of financial corruption. Despite printing the love letters, he had exchanges with his lover, Maria, and attempting to keep the entire scandal transparent, he does not escape unscathed. His wife is humiliated, and his political career is forever damaged. George Washington did continue to support him, an act that deepened their friendship. George would pass away in 1799 to which a mourning Hamilton would lament, “Perhaps no friend of his has more cause to lament on personal account than myself."
Duel With Aaron Burr
The next elections take shape in 1800 with Adams running for reelection against Jefferson and Aaron Burr running as a Republican for the vice presidency. Hamilton again takes up his pen and argues fervently against Adams and leaves the seat open to Jefferson and Burr. He writes a damning letter "If there is a man in the world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson. With Burr, I have always been personally well." But Hamilton considers Burr to be immoral, animated solely by personal ambition, and dangerous, so he promotes Jefferson, which unleashes a flurry of letters from others supporting his claim by stating that Burr "has no principle, public or private," and is in fact "one of the most unprincipled men in the United States."
Burr has a great deal of difficulty recovering from this slight and does not seek public office again until 1804. Staunch opposition to him by both Jefferson and Hamilton cost him the New York Senate seat by a wide margin. He publishes a letter accusing Hamilton of expressing a despicable opinion and demands a response. Hamilton does not respond, saying that he cannot answer to a specific insult that Burr cannot provide. This leads to a public exchange of letters that raise tensions and arrangements are made for a duel to be held in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804.
The two meet at the grounds and Hamilton famously shot his piston into the sky with Burr taking direct aim at him. He is mortally wounded and dies the next day. The duel effectively ended Burr’s political career and was absorbed into Hamilton’s legacy.
Alexander’s death was particularly difficult on his family, as he was never a very wealthy man, they now risked losing everything. His wife could find some financial relief after the passing of her father, Phillip Shcuyler, the following year and she petitioned Congress to reinstate her husband’s military pension to support her family. She would live to be 97 years old.
The amazing story of this very young founding father has continued to capture the imagination of generations. His life is the subject of the most recent Broadway hit, of the same name, Hamilton, which serves as an unconventional but intricately accurate portrait of an incredible American story of a poor immigrant coming to America to make himself into a legend.
- Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books. 2004.
- West, Doug. Alexander Hamilton: A Short Biography. C&D Publications. 2016.
© 2016 Doug West
Megan on September 08, 2017:
I think that this website could have been broken up more for more convenient browsing. Other than that, good article.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on December 06, 2016:
Thanks. Alexander Hamilton lived in very interesting times.
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on December 05, 2016:
Interesting biographical overview.
Readmikenow on December 05, 2016:
Great article. Lots of things I didn't know. Enjoyed reading it.