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When historians write about the most important founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton always appears in the first rank with George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Of those men, Hamilton was the least likely to achieve greatness, had by far the greatest obstacles to overcome, and some of whose achievements set the course America would follow even to this day. His life was filled with controversy and contention; his death in a duel followed his longtime instruction to his sons to control their passions and never accept a challenge of honor in succumbing to the “code duello.”
Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean to a Scottish merchant. His mother Rachel was prohibited by law to marry after divorcing her previous husband. Because he was considered illegitimate, Hamilton was barred from the local Anglican school but his mother saw to his training by hiring tutors and teaching him French, herself being of French Huguenot parentage. Alexander, for all practical purposes, was orphaned at age eleven when his mother died. A relative purchased his mother’s modest library and gave it to Alexander when Rachel’s first husband cleaned out her estate, leaving the children with nothing. At twelve years old, the autodidactic Hamilton became a clerk in a general store in Christiansted, St. Croix.
Providence afforded young Alexander Hamilton a future far from the dead end life that seemed to becloud his future. Articulate, a good writer with a colorful imagination, fluent in French, Hamilton came to the attention of local merchants who read an article he wrote describing the aftermath of a devastating hurricane that had swept through the Caribbean. With their help and the support of his aunts, Alexander matriculated at The King’s College in New York (later Columbia) where he settled in as a burgeoning scholar in 1773. Within two years, at the age of seventeen, Hamilton had organized a volunteer militia company and had penned several tracts against British tyranny, showing in his writing and conduct “moderation and maturity.”
Hamilton was awarded the captaincy of the Provincial Company of the New York Artillery in March of 1776, commanding ninety three gunners in the Battles of Long Island, Harlem Heights and White Plains in the disastrous campaign that almost ruined Washington’s army and ended the war. General Nathaniel Greene was so impressed with Captain Hamilton’s skills he introduced him to General Washington. His work in the New Jersey Campaign so impressed the commander that he made the twenty year old Hamilton a Lieutenant Colonel and a member of his personal staff, an honor bestowed on very few and which required the highest standards of leadership, loyalty, and penmanship.
While Hamilton became one of George Washington’s most trusted advisors for more than four years, and drafted a number of important papers on improving the military system as well as “invigorating the government,” he also revealed a negative side of his personality. Hamilton ambition for higher command came out in letters to his confidant, John Laurens. General Washington had rewarded others of his staff in that way but apparently valued Hamilton too highly to let him go. He denied him field command and Hamilton could not abide the frustration. After a brief confrontation with the commander in chief, Hamilton resigned from the staff in a pique. Even so, both men continued to respect one another and Hamilton got his command, leading the final charge in person at Yorktown. He left the service as a breveted Colonel.
Most Americans know Alexander Hamilton in terms of his post war career in politics. He served a year in Congress, drafted the report that led to the Constitutional Convention and became one of the chief advocates of a strong central government, even suggesting that Washington become king. He was a major contributor of essays arguing the case for the Constitution. As a leading Federalist, Hamilton led the ratification of the Constitution to success in the New York convention.
President George Washington selected Hamilton for Secretary of the Treasury where his policies served to solve the monumental debt problems incurred by the states and the federal government in the course of the War for Independence. He created a national bank, established the U. S. Mint, and succeeded in getting an excise tax passed by Congress. Hamilton proved a lightning rod for his opposition, Thomas Jefferson and his ilk and from their opposition came political parties, much to the disapproval of President Washington. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans took the part of the countryside, opposed banks and cities, and admired France. Hamilton’s Federalist followers kept close ties to Britain, encouraged American urban manufacturing, and found their strength in northeastern cities.
In his younger days, Hamilton had been known as a ladies man and while secretary of Treasury got caught up in a romantic tryst. He resigned from his position in 1795, was forgiven by his wife, but never again held public office. He assisted Washington in writing his farewell address and served as Major General during the Quasi War with France. In 1804 as a result of public insults related to elections that year, Alexander Hamilton fought a duel with the former Vice-President and political enemy Aaron Burr and died from the resulting gunshot wound. His death was unmourned by his political enemies yet his ideas and influence did not die with him.
Hamilton’s reputation for seeking the expansion and power of big government and government control of the financial institutions has appealed to twentieth and twenty first century historians and politicians. His political heirs of the nineteenth century include Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln. Of all the founders, no man started out with as little in material and family wealth and prospects and no man achieved more in influence, power and legacy than Alexander Hamilton.
Suggested further reading:
Encyclopedia of the American Revolution by Mark M. Boatner III
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
George Washington’s Indispensable Men by Arthur S. Lefkowitz