Childhood & Early Years
Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Charlestown, the capital of the island of Nevis, in British West Indies. His father, James Hamilton, was a Scottish trader and his mother, Rachel Fawcett Lavien, was a married woman of British and French Huguenot descent.
There is an ambiguity about the year of Alexander’s birth. Although he himself listed his birthday as January 11, 1757 a probate paper drafted after his mother’s death in 1768, listed him as 13 years old, making 1755 the year of his birth.
Younger of his parents two sons; he had an elder brother called James Hamilton. He also had a half brother called Peter, born out of his mother’s marriage to John Michael Lavien.
In 1765, as Alexander turned eleven, the family moved to St. Croix. Very soon their father abandoned the family, ostensibly to save Rachel from a charge of bigamy. Living in the lowest rung of white society, Rachel began to run a store in Christiansted while Alexander took up a job.
By then, Lavien had posted a public summon for her to appear before a divorce court. In it, he declared her a whore who had given birth to illegitimate children. It made them subject of malicious gossips and made life all the more difficult.
In early 1768, Rachel contracted a severe fever and died on February 19, 1768, leaving her children orphaned. Her husband then came forward to take control of her assets, thus depriving the two brothers, whom he called ‘sons of a whore’ of their inheritance.
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On His Own
Soon after Rachel’s death, Alexander Hamilton found home with Thomas Stevens, a merchant. According to many, Stevens might have been Hamilton’s biological father because Hamilton had a striking resemblance with Stevenson’s son, Edward. That only Alexander was given a home, not James, could be another reason for this assumption.
Sometime now, Alexander found employment with Beekman and Cruger, an import-export firm owned by a New Yorker called Nicholas Cruger, while his brother, James, became an apprentice with a local carpenter. Eventually the two brothers separated and never met again.
Cruger instantly took a liking to young Hamilton and began to give him instruction in global finance. Very soon, the young boy was inspecting cargoes, preparing bills of lading and advising captains. As the company also dealt in slaves, he also came in contact with the darker side of life.
After work, Hamilton spent his time reading in the library of Reverend Hugh Knox, gaining extensive knowledge in literature, history and science. Concurrently, he also started publishing an occasional poem in the local paper. In 1772, he impressed his readers with a vivid account of the hurricane.
In Mainland America
In October 1772, Cruger and Knox pulled in their resources to send young Hamilton to Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Here, living with William Livingston, at that time a leading intellectual, he enrolled at Elizabethtown Academy and concentrated on filling the gaps in his education.
In 1773, Hamilton was sent to New York City, where he enrolled at King’s College to study medicine as a private student, officially matriculating in May 1774. Although his mentors had hoped that he would return to St. Croix to set up his own practice it was not to be.
In September 1774, as the First Continental Congress was being held in Philadelphia, Hamilton began to take interest in its proceeding. Very soon he started supporting the Patriots against the Loyalists, convinced that they had valid grudges against England.
In December 1774, 17 year old Hamilton wrote his first published article in support of the Patriots’ cause against Samuel Seabury’s pamphlets supporting the Loyalist view points. Entitled ‘A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress’, it consisted of 35 pages.
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His second article, ‘The Farmer Refuted’ was published in February 1775. He also wrote two articles attacking Quebec Act of 1774. Fifteen installments of ‘The Monitor’, published anonymously in New York Journal might have also been written by him.
Although he supported revolutionary cause, he was against attacking the Loyalist. On May 10, 1775, as an angry mob came to attack Myles Cooper, the then President of King's College, Hamilton is believed to have helped him to escape by keeping the mob engaged with his talk.
In 1775, Alexander Hamilton, along with fellow students, formed a volunteer militia company called the Corsicans, renamed later as Hearts of Oak. Before classes they would practice drills in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Chapel. Hamilton, always an avid reader, also studied military history and tactics.
In August 1775, Hamilton’s militia company took part in its first expedition, when it successfully raided the British canons in the Battery, the southern tip of Manhattan Island in New York City After this, the volunteer company was made an artillery company.
In 1776, Hamilton was commissioned as Captain and instructed to raise the New York Provincial Company of Artillery to protect Manhattan Island. He quickly raised a troop of 60 men and began to take part in different campaigns around the city.
On 27 August 1776, when the Battle of Long Island broke out and Hamilton’s troops fought side by side with Washington’s Army. Later they took part in the Battle of the White Plain (October 28, 1776), the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776) and Battle of Princeton (January 3, 1777).
In March 1777, Hamilton was made a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and appointed aides-de-camp to General Washington. He spent four years, drafting Washington’s letters, composing reports on reforms, restructuring the Continental Army and also undertook various intelligence as well as diplomatic duties.
Eager to return to the battlefield, he was assigned to a New York light infantry battalion as its Commander on July 31, 1781. In October, he led a victorious charge in the Battle of Yorktown, which effectively finished off the War of Independence.
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In the Congress of the Confederation
After the war, Alexander Hamilton resigned his commission and in 1782 entered the Congress of the Confederation as a representative from New York. It was a tough period for the newly born state and he now proceeded to solve its teething problems.
By now, he had already been vocal about the decentralized nature of the Congress, which had no right to tax and was dependent upon the states not only for voluntary financial support, but on various other matters.
Hamilton drafted a resolution to revise the Articles of Confederation. It contained many features, which were later included in U.S. Constitution, created in 1787 and ratified in 1788. It included a strong federal government with the power to collect taxes and raise an army. It also proposed separation of powers into Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary.
In 1783, Alexander Hamilton left the Congress in frustration, returning to New York to study law, passing the examination by the end of the year. Thereafter, he set up his practice in New York City. Many of his clients were loyalist, who had been sued as trespassers.
Most significant of these cases was Rutgers v. Waddington (1784), in which he defended a British subject, who held a brewery during military occupation and now faced damages from its owner. He won the case, arguing that the Trespass Act violated the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Hamilton was equally active in the financial market. On June 9, 1784, he founded the Bank of New York, which opened with a capital of $500,000 in Lower Manhattan. It continued to function until it was merged with the Mellon Financial Corporation on July 2, 2007.
Alexander Hamilton was always for a strong federal government and throughout 1780s he continued to work in that direction, writing number of essays on it. Later as the new constitution was ready for ratification, he used his power of oratory to turn the tide of anti-federalism and have the constitution approved.
In 1789, as George Washington became the President of the United States, he appointed Hamilton as the first Secretary of Treasury. At that time, the financial condition of the federal government was in bad shape. He now crafted number of policies that saved the new-bon country from financial doom.
On January 31, 1795, Hamilton resigned from his position as First Secretary, leaving the federal government economically more stable. He now returned to New York to continue his legal practice. However, he remained closed to President Washington, writing drafts for the latter’s letters and addresses.
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During this period, he clashed repeatedly with several influential leaders like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Aaron Burr. In spite of that, when the quasi war broke out in 1798, John Adams, the then President of United States, appointed him a Major General.
From July 18, 1798, to June 15, 1800, Hamilton served as Inspector General; but was effectively the head of the United States Army. Then after Washington’s death, he became the Senior Officer of the United States Army, holding the position from December 14, 1799, to June 15, 1800.
Alexander Hamilton is best remembered as the builder of national infrastructure under a very difficult condition. He not only worked hard to create a strong federal government, but as the first Secretary of Treasury, he also contributed significantly to improve the financial condition of his country.
During his tenure as the Secretary of Treasury, he submitted various financial reports to Congress. Among these, most significant are the First Report on the Public Credit, Operations of the Act Laying Duties on Imports, Report on a National Bank, On the Establishment of a Mint, Report on Manufactures, and the Report on a Plan for the Further Support of Public Credit.
Personal Life & Legacy
On December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of Revolutionary War general, Philip Schuyler. They enjoyed a very close relationship, and had eight children; Philip, Angelica, Alexander, James, John, William, Eliza and Philip.
In the summer of 1791, Hamilton met Maria Reynolds, married to some James Reynolds. Eventually the two began an illicit affair that lasted until June 1792. The incident did not have any impact upon his marriage; but many believe it robbed him his chance to become the next US President.
On June 27, 1804, Hamilton was challenged in a duel by Aaron Burr, who felt the other man had insulted him. After a series of attempts to reconcile failed Hamilton decided to accept the offer, but throw away the shots.
The duel began at dawn on July 11, 1804, on the bank of the Hudson River in New Jersey. While Hamilton’s shot hit branches above his opponent’s head, Burr’s shot wounded him fatally and he died from it on July 12, 1804. He was later buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan.
Hamilton’s portrait is depicted on the front of the U.S. $10 bill since 1928. His statues, erected in different parts of the country, as well as buildings and geographic sites named after him continue to carry his legacy.