Before you start reading about Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Dwyer recommends a great musical about his life, based on a biography by historian Ron Chernow. Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards, the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In addition, if after learning about the life of this patriot, you want to continue reading about American financial titans, go to Andrew Carnegie. For now, let’s start.
Alexander Hamilton was born in Charlestown in the Leeward Islands, where he spent part of his childhood. Hamilton was born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette, a married woman, and James A. Hamilton, the fourth son of the Scottish laird Alexander Hamilton of Grange. Rachel had been married previously to Johann Michael Lavien of St. Croix, and in 1750 moved to St. Kitts, where she met James Hamilton. Because his parents were not legally married, the Church of England denied him membership and education in the church school. Hamilton received “individual tutoring” and classes in a private school led by a Jewish headmistress. Hamilton supplemented his education with a family library of 34 books. After James Hamilton abandoned Rachel, she supported her children in St. Croix, keeping a small store in Christiansted, where she contracted a severe fever and died in 1768. Then, in probate court, Faucette’s “first husband seized her estate” and obtained the few valuables she had owned. The family books were purchased by a friend of his mother and returned to the young Hamilton.
Hamilton became clerk at a local import-export firm, but remained an avid reader, later developing an interest in writing, and began to desire a life outside the small island where he lived. He wrote an essay published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette, a detailed account of a hurricane which had devastated Christiansted on August 30, 1772, and the essay impressed community leaders, who collected a fund to send the young Hamilton to the North American colonies for his education.
In 1773 at the age of 16, he arrived in New York, where he enrolled in King’s College. There, he was more interested in politics than he was in academics. One year later, he wrote his first political article defending the Patriots’ cause against the interests of Loyalists. And after discovering he was a quick learner, Hamilton decided he was capable of becoming a self-made man, intending on learning through hands-on experience. He left King’s College before graduating to join forces with the Patriots in the Continental Army, in their protest of British imposed taxes and commercial business regulations.
When the Revolutionary War began, he became part of the New York Provincial Artillery Company being part of many battles. In 1777, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the Continental Army, and caught the attention of General George Washington, who made Hamilton his assistant and trusted adviser. For the next five years, he wrote Washington’s critical letters, and composed numerous reports on the strategic reform and restructuring of the Continental Army. And in 1781, Hamilton led a victorious charge against the British in the Battle of Yorktown. Cornwallis’s surrender during this battle would eventually lead to two major negotiations in 1783: the Treaty of Paris between the United States and Great Britain, and two treaties signed at Versailles between France and Britain and Spain. These treaties officially marked the end of the American Revolutionary War.
Following the war, Hamilton studied law and married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of General Philip J. Schuyler, head of a prominent New York family. He served in the Articles of Confederation Congress and later developed a successful law practice. Hamilton wrote a series of newspaper articles calling on fair treatment for Loyalists who had remained in America. He worked hard in the constitution, and although the final result fell short of Hamilton’s hopes, he actively supported ratification in his home state. The New York convention was initially heavily opposed to the new document, but Hamilton exhibited tremendous powers of persuasion and carried the day.
Secretary of the Treasury
In 1789, Hamilton was appointed the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury, a position from which he issued bold ideas and a string of deeply insightful reports. His Report on Public Credit was followed by examinations of revenue generation, and the establishment of a central bank. During his office, he submitted various financial reports to Congress. Among these 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. So, the great enterprise in Hamilton’s project of an administrative republic is the establishment of stability.
In 1804, for political reasons Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to a deadly duel, which he begrudgingly accepted, believing that in doing so he would assure his ability to be in useful in the future. Hamilton was fatally wounded, and died the next day, in on July 12.