Biography of Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton

The Triumphs and Tragedies of a Founding Father

In January 2015, the musical, Hamilton, premiered on Broadway to wide praise and unimaginable sales. The musical once again propelled a forgotten American founder into the spotlight. Alexander Hamilton was once again a part of the American conversation, 211 years after his untimely death. Hamilton lived a triumphant life moving from extreme poverty to the pinnacle of American power, but ultimately his life was cut short in a political duel that robbed the United States of his aid in its earliest days. Dying at the age of 49, Hamilton had achieved many things in his life.

Alexander Hamilton’s early life was filled with both triumph and tragedy. Hamilton was born on the island of St Croix. His mother, Rachel Faucette met a Danish man named Johann Lavien and they had a child, named Peter, in 1749. Later, Rachel ran away from her home and family. She then met James Hamilton. They had James, Alexander’s older brother, in 1753. Two years later, Alexander was born. Alexander was very ashamed of his birth since he was considered illegitimate. He only alluded to it in very cryptic letters. He once wrote tragically, “my birth is the subject of the most humiliating criticism.”[1]

In 1765, Hamilton’s father was given the job collecting money from a business on St Croix; he decided to bring his family with him. In 1766 James Hamilton abandoned his family forever for reasons unknown. Then, two years later, on February 19, 1768, Rachel Faucette died due to yellow fever. She was denied of burial in or near St John’s Anglican Church because of her children with James Hamilton.[2]

After the death of their mother, James and Alexander Hamilton went their separate ways. Alexander moved in with the Stevens family. The family consisted of Thomas Stevens, his wife, and five children. Edward, one of the Stevens’s children, was a year older than Hamilton. But that did not stop their close relationship. They were very similar in many ways. They had similar physical features that would later make people believe that they were brothers. They also had very similar interests, “Both were exceedingly quick and clever, disciplined and preserving, fluent in French, versed in classical history, outraged by slavery, and mesmerized by medicine.”[3] They quickly became friends. While living with the Stevens family, Hamilton started work at Beekman and Cruger which was a mercantile house. Working there was most likely the first time Alexander’s talents and ambition was rewarded by older more experienced men. This job gave Hamilton an insight into business life early on in his life. Working at Beekman and Cruger also showed Hamilton’s already high ambition to make something of his life.[4]

Alexander Hamilton was a very good writer. His writings would be one of his greatest triumphs. The first time Hamilton published anything was in The Royal Danish American Gazette in 1771. He published two poems but he did not publish anymore poems until a year later. This was probably because of the arrival of Henry Knox. After meeting Hamilton, Knox expressed his worry that Hamilton was too driven and prone to overwork, too eager to compensate for lost time. Knox said later that Hamilton had been “rather delicate and frail,” with an “ambition to excel,” and tended to “strain every nerve,” to be the best at whatever he was doing.[5]

 The night of August 31, 1772, a horrible hurricane hit St. Croix. Earlier that same day an earthquake shook the island.[6] After this, Hamilton must have attended a sermon by Henry Knox on September 6 of that same year. This most likely was the cause for him writing a lengthy letter describing the horrible events of the hurricane to his father. This letter showed the dark and gloomy thoughts of teenage Alexander while using beautiful writing. Hamilton showed Knox this letter, who convinced him to publish it in the Gazette. At first, Hamilton was reluctant to publish this letter. This was probably the last time Hamilton was hesitant about publishing any of his work. The tragedy of losing his family and the shame he felt at his birth were offset by the triumphs of his early exposures to business and his early fame as a writer. He wanted a bigger life and believed that could be found in the colonies to the north.[7]

Life in America was very different than the life that Alexander Hamilton had on St Croix. Life was a challenge, but in the first ten years of being in America his ambition, hard work, and ability to communicate in clear ways allowed him to enter into some of his most important triumphs. Because of his connection to Henry Knox, Hamilton started studying at a preparatory school on the Hudson called Elizabethtown Academy. While studying there, he learned Latin, Greek, and advanced math for college. He was a very quick study and only stayed in Elizabethtown for six months.[8] Hamilton originally applied to Princeton college. He possibly faked his age to have a better chance at getting in. But ultimately, he was denied. So instead, he went to King’s College, now known as Columbia University, in late 1773 or early 1774. At King’s College, Hamilton studied under one of the most avid Tories in the colonies, Dr. Myles Cooper, the President of the college. A Tory was someone who supported the British during the American Revolution.

 While at King’s College, Hamilton was a very quick study. He could often be found talking to himself as if he was unable contain his thought. Even though he spent a full two years at college, he never formally graduated because of the Revolutionary War.[9]

He was appointed artillery captain on February 23, 1776, at the age of 21. He soon became a popular military leader.[10] He fought very hard to get the same pay and rations for his men as the men in the Continental army. Hamilton was a firm believer in meritocracy, and he favored promotion from within his company. His subordinates remembered him as a tough but fair-minded person. Later on in his life, after becoming a lawyer, one of his ex-soldiers said to him, “I served in your company during the war and I know you will do me justice in spite of my rudeness.”[11]

He also always wanted his men to be properly dressed. His men always wore blue coats with brass buttons and buff collars, plus white shoulder belts that were strapped diagonally across the men’s chests. It was once said that, “as soon as his company as raised, he proceeded with indefatigable pains to perfects it in every branch of discipline and duty and it was not long before it was esteemed the most beautiful model of discipline in the whole army.”[12]

A year after becoming an artillery captain, on March 1, 1777, Alexander Hamilton became George Washington’s aide de camp. The relationship between Washington and Hamilton was more of mutual respect than that of actual affection. Washington was a great judge of character and had a clear sense of purpose, but would easily take offence. Thomas Jefferson later said, “ His temper was naturally irritable and high-toned, but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bond, he was most tremendous in his wrath”.[13] But Hamilton was an administrative expert and knew military policy better than anyone else in the military.

 Washington had been planning a siege of New York City until early August, 1781. But in mid-August Washington was told by Lafayette that General Cornwallis was in Yorktown, surrounded by water on three sides. Washington did not know if he could move his hungry and dirty troops to Yorktown without the British uncovering his plans. Washington was able to move his troops to Virginia.[14]  The Battle of Yorktown began and, Hamilton pleaded with Washington to let him lead one of the two attacks on the British. Washington decided that Hamilton was an unstoppable force and should lead the American troops. Nicholas Fish, who was sharing a tent with Hamilton, remembers him bursting with glee after a visit with Washington. Shouting “We have it!”[15] Hamilton commanded three battalions. Washington decided to attack the British forts, nine and ten by bayonets. The French attacked from the left while Hamilton’s troops attacked from the right. After the French fired several consecutive shells into the air, Hamilton and his men ran out of the trenches and towards the British with their bayounts raised. While dodging fire, they gave out loud war cries which startled the enemies. One Hessian soldier recalled, “they made such a terrible yell and load cheering, that one believed the whole wild hunt had broken out.”[16] Hamilton jumped onto the back of a kneeling soldier and onto the British barrier. The whole operation took less than ten minutes and Hamilton’s troops suffered very few casualties. Though the French were not so lucky. On October 17, a red-coated drummer boy, waving a white handkerchief. Cornwallis surrendered. After a meeting with Washington, Hamilton resigned from the army. He preserved his rank yet surrendered “all claim to the compensations attached to my military station during the war or afterwards.”.[17] Because of Hamilton’s performance at Yorktown he was remembered as a hero. Without the siege of Yorktown, Hamilton would not have been remembered as a hero, but as only the most important of Washington’s aides.[18]

After the Revolutionary War, Hamilton entered into his most challenging stage. The Constitutional Convention was held starting on May 25, 1787. Delegates from all thirteen states joined together in Philadelphia. Hamilton was one of the three delegates from New York. Robert Yates and John Lansing were the other two. During this convention, two plans were put forward. The Virginia plan made by James Madison and the New Jersey plan made by William Paterson. Hamilton thought neither of these plans would work for America. So he created his own plan. His plan included a President, a Senate, and a House of Representatives. This plan had aspects of aristocracy and democracy. The Senate, under his plan, would have been elected for life. While the House of Representatives would be elected by white men every three years. The President, which like the Senate would be elected and have the job on good behavior for life, would be the middle ground. It would be an elective monarch, which is different from a King or Queen. Hamilton said, “There ought to be a principal in government capable of resisting the popular current.”[19] Along with these three, Hamilton’s plan included a Supreme Court that would serve for a lifetime on good behavior. This plan ultimately did not pass. Though it is thought that many thought it would be good, just that America might not be ready for it. After a six hour speech about this plan, Hamilton basically went silent. He went back and forth between his home and Philadelphia for a while. He was the only New York delegate to sign the Constitution on September 17, 1787. One of Hamilton’s greater triumphs was helping ratify the Constitution on June 21, 1888.[20]

A year later, in September 1789, Hamilton entered into the most triumphant time of his life when he became the first Secretary of Treasury. Another year later, Thomas Jefferson became the first Secretary of State on March 22, 1790. These two men had only one thing in common, that was that they both respected George Washington.[21] But other than that, they did not really get along well. Jefferson even said to a friend, we were “daily pitted in the cabinet like two cocks”[22] They were both vital parts of the creation of the new nation. Jefferson’s ideas and Hamilton’s administrative techniques together made a nation were freedom and stability could work simultaneously.[23] Their beliefs differed in many ways. A prime example of this is Jefferson’s belief in independent powers for the states. Hamilton, however, believed in a centralized government. This is most likely the cause of Hamilton creating his national debt plan. This plan created a national bank that would fix the debt issues caused by the Revolutionary War. Hamilton’s plan included taxing items that would pay for foreign debts. He wanted to put taxes on wines, coffee, tea, and spirits. Other people, such as James Madison, wanted to only tax salt. But once Jefferson joined the opposition in 1792, he expressed that Hamilton’s plan would destroy everything they had fought for in the Revolution. Jefferson even said that Hamilton’s plan was unconstitutional and gave Congress too much power. Though Hamilton proclaimed that “If all the public creditors receive their dues from one source, their interest will be the same. And having the same interest, they will be united in support of the fiscal arrangements of government.”[24] Though many people opposed it, the plan passed in 1791. During the election of 1800, after Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson’s tie, Hamilton believed that his opinion was needed and shared who he believed would be a better President. He chose Thomas Jefferson, despite his many years of disagreeing with him. “If there is a man in this world I ought to hate, it is Jefferson. With Burr I have always been personally well. But the public good must be paramount to every private consideration.”[25]

This was most likely one of the causes of the famous duel of 1804. The duel was in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. William P. Van Ness and Nathaniel Pendleton, the seconds, had been in contact since June 23, though. Hamilton was the one to bring the doctor. Dr. David Hosack was a family physician for Hamilton. He also was the one to bring the pistols. It was decided that Hamilton would get to pick his position, which was facing the east. He wrote before the duel that he was very opposed to the practice dueling. He told John Mason, “It was always against my principles, I went to the field determined not to take his life.” While Hamilton’s bullet hit a nearby tree, Burr’s hit Hamilton’s right side. Puncurting his liver and hitting his spine, paralyzing him. Hamilton spent his last dying moments with his family before he died on Thursday, July 12 at about 2 o’clock.[26] Thus, his life ended in the cruelest tragedies of all[27]

From his earliest days as a child and teen, to his education and service in the colonial military, to his work on the Constitution and in Washington’s administration, to his untimely death, Hamilton’s life was filled with triumph and tragedy that he was forced to live with as he helped found the United States.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

This was a letter to a childhood friend, Edward Stevens. In this letter, young Hamilton confides in his friend about wanting to leave the island they grew up and wanting to do something important. This letter shows that he wanted to do something with his life and was very ambitious from his early on in his life.

This letter starts with Hamilton talking about how Colonel John Laurens was heading to South Carolina to acquire two to four battalions made up of slaves that were freed for The Revolutionary war. Hamilton expresses that he wants this in the letter. He believed that they had the same level of ability to be as good of as a soldiers as a white man. He said in the letter that if they fought for their country, then they would basically be free.

This letter shows how even when he was only an aide de camp to Washington, he was worried about finances and the future of the soon to be independent government. In this letter Hamilton asks Washington to deal with the finances in the government and take more authority in the army.

This letter is sent while the war is ending. Soon Washington would be resigning from his position in the army. The letter talks about the different views that people in America have at the moment. Some who go toward the British side and some that go to the French side. Hamilton said that they should be focusing on America’s interests though. Washington agreed with him. Hamilton also talked about continental views. Meaning he wanted America to be a single powerful United States.

This letter states that Hamilton believes the Convention won’t do what is necessary for America. He talks about talking to residents of Jersey on their opinions on the matter.

This letter states that Washington is already President. The letter is just Hamilton talking to Washington about the government.

  • “Angelica Church.” Letter to Philip Schuyler. July 11, 1804. Accessed November 27, 2018. www.gilderlehrman.org

This letter shows the hope that Hamilton’s family had that he would survive his wound from Aaron Burr.

Secondary Sources

  • Chan, Michael D.. “Alexander Hamilton on Slavery.” The Review of Politics, Vol. 66, No. 2(Spring, 2004), pp. 207-231.

This article starts by discussing Hamilton’s principles and how they seemed to go along with more traditional natural law theories. Then it goes on to state that hamilton understood the natural rights of man included everyone, meaning there needed to be an end to slavery. The article then goes on to explain to us about Hamilton’s endorsement of a compensated emancipation and his opinions of the Constitution.

  • Freeman, Joanne B. “Will the real Alexander Hamilton please stand up?” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer 2017, pp. 255-262

This article mainly talked about Hamilton’s legacy. It showed how he rose and fell throughout history, specifically talking about the years after his death. The article also explained how history sometimes over simplifies Hamilton. It doesn’t always show his flaws or it doesn’t show all of his good attributes. It also talked about how the musical, Hamilton: An American Musical, over simplifies it a tad. But it also discussed how the musical could change our view of him, and the people surrounding him.

  • Kapstein, Ethan B. “Hamilton and the Jeffersonian Myth.” World Policy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1(Spring 1997), pp. 35-43

The article begins with talking about how Jefferson and Hamilton didn’t always not get along. At the beginning of Washington’s term, they did get along quite well. But after Hamilton started pushing for a plan for a national bank, and then making a plan, they started to disagree. It then goes on to talk about some interactions between George Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson. This included letters that Jefferson sent to Washington, trying to give him as much evidence possible to make Washington dislike Hamilton’s plan. It also includes Washington asking Hamilton for evidence to support his plan because he wanted to see both sides off the argument.

  • Larson, Harold. “Alexander Hamilton: The Fact and Fiction of his early years” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2(Apr., 1952), pp. 139-151

This article begins with talking about hamilton’s mother’s upbringing and what happened between her and her first husband(A Danish man). It then discussed his early childhood and family. After talking about the absence of his father for most of his life, then talking about the death of his mother, it goes on to talk about his life while working on the island. This article also discusses(if only briefly) his friendships and how he got off the island.

  • Rorabaugh, W. J. “The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton.” Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No.1(Spring, 1995), pp. 1-23

This article discusses the event that happened during and after the duel of 1804. It discussed a few of the events that occurred before the duel took place, including the time hamilton spent with his family and the correspondence that happened between the seconds. This article also talks about who participates in duel, which were only gentlemen, and the requirements to be counted as a such. The article ends it with talking about the effects the duel left on history.

  • “The Hamilton-Jefferson Confrontation: Origins of the American Political System.” Social Science, Vol. 46, No. 3., June 1971, 139-46. Accessed November 26, 17. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41959520.
  • The article talks about the confrontation between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson during their time in Government service.
  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Press, 2004.
  • This book discussed the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton.
  • Johnson, Paul E. The Early American Republic, 1789-1829. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • This book talked about the national bank plan.

[1] Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books, 2005, p. 8.

[2] Chernow. Alexander Hamilton. p. 25

[3] Chernow. Alexander Hamilton. p.27.

[4] Alexander Hamilton to Edward Stevens, January 11, 1769, in Teaching American History, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-edward-stevens/

[5] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p.35.

[6] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p.36.

[7] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p.36

[8] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 46.

[9] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 72

[10] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 73

[11] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 73.

[12] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 73.; Alexander Hamilton to John Jay, March 1779, in Teaching American History, http:/teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/alexander-hamilton-to -john-jay/

[13] Chernow,Alexander Hamilton. p. 88.

[14] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 96

[15] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 163.

[16] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 163.

[17] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 165.

[18] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton; Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, February 13, 1783, in TeachingAmericanHistory, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/to-george-washington/

[19] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. p. 233; Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, May 5, 1789, in TeachingAmericanHistory, http://teachamericanhistory.org/library/document/alexander-hamilton-to-george-washington

[20] Chernow, Alexander Hamilton; Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, July 3, 1787, in TeachingAmericanHistory, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/alexander-hamilton-to-george-washington-3/

[21] Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, March 17, 1783, in TeachingAmericanHistory, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/alexander-hamilton-to-george-washington/

[22] Edward Schapsmeier, “The Hamilton-Jefferson Confrontation: Origins of the American Political System”, Social Science, Vol. 46, No. 3 (June 1971), p.140

[23] Edward Schapsmeier, “The Hamilton-Jefferson Confrontation: Origins of the American Political System”, p.139

[24] Johnson, Paul, The Early American Republic, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 12.

[25] Ethan Kapstein, “Hamilton and the Jeffersonian Myth”, World Policy Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, (Spring, 1997), p. 41

[26] Angelica Church to Philip Schuyler, July 11, 1804, in The Gilder Lehrman Collection, www.gilderlehrman.org

[27] W. Rorabaugh,”The Political Duel in the Early Republic: Burr v. Hamilton”, Journal of the Early Republic, Vol. 15, No. 1(Spring,1995)

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