Alexander Hamilton has gained new popularity in recent years, in large part due to the 2015 Broadway musical “Hamilton” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
What’s the real story behind this enigmatic Founding Father?
Birth of Alexander Hamilton
Hamilton was born in Charlestown, Nevis, in the Caribbean, out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette, of British & French Huguenot descent. She had been married to and had a son with Johann Michael Lavien when she fell in love with the Scottish James Hamilton. She left her husband and their son and moved in with James Hamilton, where she lived with him in Nevis and on St. Croix. Alexander took his natural father’s surname.
Though he owned his paternity of Alexander, his Scottish father had abandoned them when Alexander was around ten when he’d learned her original husband intended to divorce her on the grounds of “adultery and desertion,” hoping to “spare her the charge of bigamy.” His mother ran a small provisions shop operated by the five female slaves she owned. When she died of yellow fever when he was 13, she left him 34 books, and he was primarily self-educated.
Education of Alexander Hamilton
He became an accounting clerk with a local import-export firm and later apprenticed with a merchant. He became good enough as a trader to run the firm for five months in 1771. Denied an education in a church school due to his illegitimacy, the young Hamilton had caught the attention of the local Presbyterian minister and occasional doctor, Hugh Knox. The minister noticed his ambition and intelligence and mentored him with a firm intellectual and spiritual grounding, adding classics, literature, and history from his vast library.
With the help of wealthy local citizens, enough money was raised to send him to the mainland, hopefully to study medicine. Though he passed the entrance exams for Princeton, he decided instead to attend King’s College in New York City, now Columbia University.
Hamilton became interested in revolutionary politics, meeting other men with similar sympathies and writing anonymously against Loyalist pamphlets. But his education was cut short when British troops occupied the city, and the college closed its doors.
Precocious, vigorously outspoken, and limitlessly ambitious, Hamilton polarized the opinions of his contemporaries. He joined the New York volunteer militia along with some of his classmates. He was self-taught in military history and army tactics and was quickly promoted with his company becoming an artillery unit.
Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution
Hamilton, still in his twenties, was among the inner circle of General George Washington‘s army during the American Revolutionary War and the subsequent early National period. He became Washington’s aide-de-camp as a Lieutenant Colonel and was in charge of correspondences with Congress and writing orders for the Continental Army.
After four years in the role, he expressed to Washington his intention to return to active combat duty; but Washington was promoting other officers with more field experience and higher rank.
Hamilton eventually sent a letter to Washington resigning his commission if he did not get a field command. Washington acquiesced and gave him a battalion of light infantry to command.
Hamilton distinguished himself, gaining the glory that he thought would only come with battle, at the Storming of Redoubt #9 and #10, where, along with French support, he took the fortifications at the Battle of Yorktown.
The British General Cornwallis surrendered there, and the war was essentially over. Hamilton retired with the rank of Major General.
Alexander Hamilton: Founding Father?
Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, Alexander Hamilton, spends a lot of time on his youth and how it impacted his later life. While ambitious and accomplished, Hamilton had not been born into the upper-class planter society like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. He became friends with John Jay and James Madison, but few others of the other Founders.
And as we’ve seen, although his parentage was British, French, and Scottish, rumors persisted during his lifetime that he was of mixed blood. Contemporaries like John Adams called him a “creole bastard.”
Alexander Hamilton’s Career and Congress
Hamilton practiced law successfully in New York City. While serving, he called for the funding of the national government by the states and the assumption of state debts by the federal government. He drafted a call to revise the existing Articles of Confederation, the first documents of the U.S. government after the Revolutionary War, which Hamilton considered too weak for current needs.
His writing contained many elements that would appear in the U.S. Constitution, including a robust federal government that had the power to collect taxes and fund the army and the separation of powers feature of the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the government.
Alexander Hamilton’s Part in The Federalists Papers
While serving as an Assemblyman in the New York State Legislature, he was chosen as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He called the United States “a Hercules in the cradle,” believing in a strong central government and in curbing States’ rights.
While he did not agree with all the Constitution’s elements, he nonetheless signed it and urged others to do the same. He recruited John Jay and James Madison to write essays defending the Constitution. These became known as The Federalist Papers; he wrote 51 of the 85 essays.
Alexander Hamilton’s Government Service
As the first Secretary of the Treasury from 1789, he was the principal driving force of Washington’s administration and the creator of the U.S. central banking system, the establishing of the U.S. Mint, and a “System of Cutters,” which became the birth of the U.S. Coast Guard. Along with Aaron Burr, Hamilton helped found the Bank of New York in 1784. After several mergers, it is now known as BNY Mellon.
Affair Scandal of Alexander Hamilton
“Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”
Their affair lasted for about a year. Her husband began to blackmail Hamilton, and he paid, lest exposure of the affair ruin his public reputation. Nevertheless, in 1797 a journalist exposed the affair leaving open the suggestion that Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury, used public funds to pay the blackmail. Hamilton published a 100-page booklet asserting that he had used his own private funds.
Alexander Hamilton: Abolitionist?
Much has been said of late about Hamilton’s interest in the abolition of slavery in America. Along with John Jay and Aaron Burr, he was among the founders of the New York Manumission Society in 1785, which established the New York African Free School in 1787 for poor and orphaned children of slaves and free people of color.
While the society was instrumental in having a New York state law passed in 1785 prohibiting the sale of slaves imported into the state, it did not accomplish the abolition of slavery. Most other Northern states had already banned the slave trade, with the notable exception of New Jersey. However, it would not be until 1807 that the Federal government would pass such a law. Nevertheless, this did not stop the practice of slavery.
It would not be until 1799 that John Jay, as Governor of New York State, signed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery into law. Yet this did not address what civil rights freed slaves might enjoy. There were over 30,000 slaves in New York; they would not enjoy emancipation until July 4, 1827, almost 36 years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation.
Alexander Hamilton’s Political Rivalries
As a leader in the Federalist political party, Hamilton opposed the Democratic-Republican candidates, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, for the 1800 election. Hamilton wrote a pamphlet intended only for fellow Federalists called a Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. President of the United States. However, it fell into the hands of the Democratic-Republican Party, both destroying Hamilton’s reputation among the Federalists and hurting John Adam’s election campaign, guaranteeing Jefferson’s candidacy.
In election ties like this, the law required the House of Representatives to decide on the issue, naming Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President. Nevertheless, the rivalry between Hamilton and Burr continued and escalated.
In 1804 a letter was published in the Albany Register opposing Burr’s candidacy for office, claiming
“General Hamilton and Judge Kent have declared in substance that they looked upon Mr. Burr to be a dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government.”
Burr demanded a public denial, Hamilton verbosely denied that he could not be responsible for the letter’s interpretation — though he did not fault it — and eventually, Burr formally challenged him to a duel, which he accepted. He determined in his own mind beforehand that he would “waste” his shot, not intending to kill Burr. He wrote before the duel:
Statement on Impending Duel with Aaron Burr in which he stated that he was “strongly opposed to the practice of dueling” for both religious and practical reasons. “I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire.”
Death of Alexander Hamilton
Staging the duel, not in New York but in New Jersey, which was less aggressive in prosecuting illegal duels, they arrived in Weehawken, a well-known dueling location. Indeed, Hamilton’s oldest son Philip had previously died in a duel on that site just a few yards away. Hamilton and Burr arrived separately at about 6:30 AM with their seconds. Who fired first is not ascertainable. Hamilton fired intentionally in the air into a tree. Burr’s shot struck Hamilton, mortally wounding him.
He was not yet fifty when he died in 1804. He was buried in Manhattan. Though Burr was charged with murder, it never reached trial. Initially, he fled to Georgia, but he returned to Washington, D.C., to finish his term as Vice President. His political career was ended.
Hamilton — The Musical
What about the Broadway show Hamilton? How accurate is it historically? I discuss that in my article History of Hamilton – The Musical.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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