Biography: Alexander Hamilton (United States, 1755-1804)

Figure 1.--.

Alexander Hamilton is one of the least discussed of the founding father's, but after Washinton, perhaps the most important. He was a war hero and perhaps the leading voice for the ratification of the Constitution. In the new Federal Government it was Hamilton who devised a plan to establish the credit of the government and a sound fiscal system. It is Jefferson who has a momunent on the Mall and who is often seen as founding spirit of the nation with his image of an agrarian utopia. Hamilton it turned out was usually correct in his many debates with Jefferson. It was Hamilton who conceived of a new nation people with the woken an Europe and financed wih European capital.


Hamilton's father was James Hamilton. John Adams described Hamilton as, "a base born brat of a Scottish pedler". His father was actually the fourth son of a Scottish lord. As he was not in line to inherit the family wealth, he had to earn his living. He went to the Caribbean to make money as a merchant. John Hamilton was not a suuceesful merchant. He reportedly charming, but not especially competent. When his wife learned that her first husband had not secured a divore, he abandoned her and the children. Alexander's mother was Rachel Faucett Lavien, a Huguenot. She was the daughter of a French Hugenot who had fled France because of the supression of French Protestants.


Alexander was born on Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. No one is certain about hi birthdate, but it wa probably some time in 1755. He was the youngest of two illegitimate boys. His father deserted the family when Alexander was only 9 years old. His mother brought Alexander and his brother James to St. Croix, a Danish island. They lived there with little money and without social status, except that they were whire on an island populated with black slaves.

Rachel spportd herself and her two boys by opening a store. She used Alexander as a clerk and bookkeeper. Her he began to lean about finance on a small, but very practical terms. He was also old enough to be aware of malicious whispers about his mother and thus him. Rachel's husband even had her imprisoned in Christiansted for a breif time, accusing her of adultery. The family was not acceptable to polite society.


Alexander's mother died whe he was 13 of yellow feaver. Her husband sued for her property, leaving James and him with nothing.

Nicholas Cruger, a New Yorker ran a business centered on St. Croix hired Hamilton who because of his training by his mother and quick intelligence proved a very valuable employee. The young teenager oon found himself inspecting cargoes for Cruger and preparing legal documents such as bills of lading. He was even advising wenzied ships' captains usede to commanding men. Cruger's took aliking to Alexander who for his part got avery practical education in global trade and finase. He not infrequently filled in when Cruger was sick or away. He learned about money, accounting, and smuggling. Avoiding the Spanish authorities was a serious problem. Spain outlawed trad with English merchants and hips. All of this was quite a background for a man who became the first Tax Collector the city of New York and first United States Secretary of the Treasury. Young Alexander without a family to fall back on, had to work. He thought he was doomed to work on a stool at low wage in a counting house. The Caribbean was emensely important to the international economy of 18th century. St. Croix and its economy based on slavery and sugar was one of the many Caribbean island that generated enormous profits. The port thus bustled with activity and provided Hamilton a view of the world of trade and finance. Hamilton also grew up exposed to slavery, unlike many whites in the Caribbean, he developed a profound hatred of the institution of slavery. He was later to co-found an abolitionist society in New York City.


Another St. Crox resident took an interest in the young Hamilton. Reverend Hugh Knox guided his spiritual side as Cruger instructed him in ractical matters. provided him with a strong spiritual and intellectual grounding. Knox, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, discented from the Presbyterian belief in prdestination. He believed in free will. For a youth like Hamilton who seemed predestined to a meagre existence on a small island, Knox's philosophy was very appealing. Knox also tutored Alexander on academic subjects, the humanities and sciences. Alexander made us of Knox's library.


Alexander had very limited formal ducation. He had, however, a keen mind and was a fast learner. When his moher took him to St. Croix, as he was iligitimate, he could not attend the establihed school. St. Croix was part of the Danish Virgin Islands. The school was run by the Calvinist Danish Reform Church and iniligitimate children were not allowed in the school. He attended a small alternative school primarily for the small number of Jewish children on the island. His mother taught him French which was to become very useful in the Revolutionary War. He became, for example, a close friend of Lafayette. Cruger and Knox provided money for Hamilton to study medicine in America (1773). They both hoped he would return to St. Croix, perhaops as a doctor. He told a friend that he wish for a war in which he could make his mark. at the Elizabethville Academy which was the preparatory school for Princeton University. He wanted to persue an accelerated program, but the headmaster would not allow it. So he decided to move on to New York and study at King's College which of course after the War became Columbia College and eventually university.

New York

Hamilton arrived in New York at the eve of the Revolution. He had no sympathy for the British. King's College was known at the time for its loyalist staff. Mant of the students came from wealthy families, many of whom also were loyalists. At the time, the Continental Congres was meeting to discuss how the Colonies should respnd to British policies. Hamilton'sNew York benefactors, the Elias Boudinot family, like Knox were Presbyterians with independent views. They were early supporters of independence. He visited Boston and came to strongly support independence. The debate in New York was heated as there strong loyalists and patriot supporters. Hamilton wrote anti-British pamflets. No one suspected that such a young person was writing them. He organized the first militia group in New Yor City.

Revolutionary War

Hamilton proved to be one of the most dashing young officers in the Revolution. Hamilton was not a brilliant math student, but some basic trignometry helped him operate his two cannon which he used to cover the retreat of Washington's Continental Army fron New York through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Hamilton's small unitwas probably the most proffesional artillery unit in the Continental Army. It was at this time that he came to Washington's attention. Washington first noticed him as Hamilton used his cannon to cover the retreat across Rearatin River. Hamilton destinguished himself in the fighting around Trenton and Princeton. His almost rekless bravery may be do in part to the need to demonstrate his chracter after enduring the apersions to the cgaracter if his mother and his illigitimacy. At Princeton, Hamilton used his cannon to take dead aim on Nassau Hall. The marks of the cannball can be seen to this day. Te British commander surrendered. Washington appointed him aide-de-camp. Washington was to busy to write endless letters and hus would tell Hamilton and others what he wanted ans expcted them to write out te orders. He would them a cursory look and sign them. Hamilton took on many other responsibilities. He managed 200 secret agents and negotiated prisoner of war exchanges. He arranged for the release of Ethan Allen among others. He was absolutely loyal to Washington, helping to defuse apossible mutiny that Gates was plotting. Hamilton wanted a field comand and when Washington would not give him one, saying he needed him at jis side, Hamilton resigned. He came back to the army and Wagington gave jhim command of alight infantry corps. He got the last major assignment of the War--the seizure of Redoubt 10 at Yorktown.


As a young man with no money and no family connections, Hamilton knew that he would have to marry well. He married Elizabeth Schuyle. Betsy was the daughter of a wealthy partroon family. It was not a love match. Hamilton was after the family connection. He never took a cent from her family. They were married during the Revolutionary War. She was not cut out to be an officer's wife and was constantly going back home to live with her family. Her major concern was the children. There were eight children in all, but little love.

After the War

After the War he began studing law. He found there wa no basic textbook. So he wrote on that is still used today, Funamentals of New York Law.

Constitutional Convention

Governor Clinton had packed the New York delegation to the Constitutional Convention. Clinton did not want a strong central government. Hamilton's vote at the Convention had little importance. The vote was by state and the other two New York delegates were Clinton supporters. Hamilton was also often absent seeing to his legal business

Federalist Papers

While Hamilton plasyed at limited role at the Convention, he played a major role in the ratification process. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay wrote a series of letters to New York newspapers that have come down to us as the Fedralist Papers. Most were writtn by Hamilton. He wrote 51 of the 85 essays that help to bring about ratification. {Randall] Madison's articles were philosophical. Hamilton's articles were very practical and prived convincing. Despite Clinto, New York ratrified the Constitution.

Secretary of the Treasury

American money was virtually worthless after the War, the expression, "Not worth a Continental" developed at this time. It was money printed by the Continental Congress. But paper money is based on trust. [Goodwin] Wahington appointed Hamilton the first Secretay of the Treasury. He issued a series of reports (1790-91), he addressed the financial problem. The program he proposed was designed not only to stabilize the young country's finances, but one designed build a mighty, industrial nation. This concept brought him into conflict with Jefferson and other Amerivans with a more agarain view for the new nation. The first step was to establishing trust in the currency. He not only proposed assuming the entire debt of the Continental Cogress and Army to the states s well. It was a brilliantprogram, because in immdiately fused the interests of the many holders of Continentals with the new national government. Hamilton studied the French and British banking and financial system. He conceived of a sinking fund to use a portion of the national income to retire the debt. Jefferson and the planter class were opposed to the idea seeing the developmebt of a powerful financial capital in the North, but accepted it when Hamilton proposed locating a new capital in the South. In creating the Nationl Bank of the United States, Hamilton in essence founded the first modern corporation. Until this, companies were formed by closed group of investors. The new Bank was open to any vestors and the names of those investors were not made public. One was the wife of Benedict Arnold. The directors received immunity from procecution. Hamilton. He also came up with idea of coins with a serated edge that could not be clipped. Hamilton's program also promoted manufacture.

National Debt

The United States after the Revolutioinary War was saddled with a huge debt. The debts were contracted by the Continental Army, the Continental Congress, and te debts of the various states. The debt totaled about $76 million which in 2002 would have to be increased by a factor od more than 40. This has to be seen in terms of a country where the total revenue was only about $1 million a year. Hamilton's plan was to turn the debt into an assett.


Hamilton apparently had an eyefor the ladies. Martha He was blackmailed about it and


Hamilton had a reputation as a lady's man. Martha Washington noticed this she was at Washinton's headquarters. She reportedly named a Mount Vernon tomcat, Hamilton And a hansome, powerful war hero appealed to the ladies. This was still the case when he was married. Hamilton apparenly had a affair with his wife' sister. His account books are strong evidence of this. This was not, however, his most notorious afair. While Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton began an affair with Maria Reynolds, also married. The affair is one of the most famous in American history. When her husband learned of this, instead of defending his honor, he sought to profit and blackmailed Hamilton. Some historians believe his political enemies hoped to force him to embezzle goverment money as Secretary of the Treasury. [Randall] Here future president James Monroe was envolved. Hamilton paid hush money to keep the public and his wife of learning about the affair. The hush up began to unravel when Reynolds was arrested fior of all things counterfeiting. To stay out of jail, he offered the Jeffersonians information about Federalist corruption. The inference was that Hamilton was using Government funds for the hush money. This proved not to be the case. Hamilton eventually confessed to the affair in great detail, in part to prove that he had not used Government monies. He never again held office, but this was largely beczause the Federalists were losing elections. He continued to be important in New York politics.

Political Parties

Hamilton played a major role in the development of the American politiucal party system. He helped found the Federalist Party, but became an eneny of President Adams. Hamilton opposed the reelectio of Preident Adams in 1800. His efforts against Adams were a major reason for Preident losing his reelection bid.


Vice President Aaon Burr ruined his political career when he did not voluntarily step aside in Electoral College voting. Seeing his career slip away, he bcame embittered. He was deply offened at some of Hamilton's remarks. Here Hamilton appeared to have gone far beyond political charges. It is not clear just what Hamilton said, but some reports suggest that he charged that Burr violated his daughter. Modern pundits complain about modern mus-slinging, but the press attacks of the early Republic were even worse. Even by the standards of the day, this charge was clearly beyond the pale and led to one of the great American tragedies. An outraged Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton did not want to fight, but the asperions he endured since childhood did not allow him to back away on questions of honor. The duel occurred at what is now Weehawken, New Jersey (July 11, 1804). Hamilton apparently had decided to fire high. Burr shot to kill. Hamilton fill mortally wounded and died the next day. He was not yet 50, but had played an incalcuable role in the foundation of the United states.


Betsy Schuyle lived 50 years, desrtoyed her ltters, searched for a biograher. The family had extensive land, but limited income fom them. Hamilton had been born in the Caribbeam, but was opposed to savery. His wife did. I am not sure to what exent they discussedthe issue. Hamilton was, howevr, a strong poponent of America developing with free labor. His wife soent the rest of her life making him ino a hero, somewhat surprising as he had been an unfaithful husband. His son John Church Hamilton wrote a biography. Years after Hamulton's death, President Monroe tried to pay her a coutesy visit. She refused to receive him. Monroe had been the man in th carriage in the famed infidelity investigation.


Hamilton's reputation used to be much greater than the case today. His principal rival Jefferson and other advocating the agrarian ideal have always been more loved in the American pantheon of heros. One major reason, especially, in the 20th century, has been the Depression which brught into question capital and Wall Street. It was Hamilton, however, who had the more accurate vision of the American future and laid the solid fiscal basis to help bring it about.


Goodwin, Jason. Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America.

Randall, Willard Sterne. Alexander Hamilton: A Life


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Created: Feruary 2, 2003
Last edited: 8:10 AM 6/23/2011