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Alexander Hamilton was born in Charlestown, Nevis, in the West Indies on January 11, 1757 (or 1755)*, to James Hamilton, a Scottish merchant of St. Christopher and Rachel Fawcett. (Note that 1757 is the year Hamilton claimed he was born; however, some experts believe he was born in 1755.) Rachel’s father was a Huguenot physician and planter. She had previously been married to a Danish proprietor on St. Croix very young which ended in divorce where the court then prohibited her remarriage. The marriage to James Hamilton was acceptable socially on Nevis (West Indies), but not elsewhere. The union resulted in the birth of two sons. It was not a very successful marriage either. they were living apart less than 10 years later. Rachel and her boys lived on St. Croix, dependent on her relatives. She passed away in 1768. His father survived until 1799 but the boys were virtually orphans before they were even teenagers.
Alexander was educated early by his mother and as well as a presbyterian clergyman on St. Croix. He was employed at the age of 12 as a clerk in a general store and was found to be quite exceptional in his job as well as in his writing. He could speak French fluently. He had a strong desire to go to college and by 1772, his aunts scrimped and saved to send him to New York.
He started school in Elizabethtown NJ, but by 1773 was entered at Kings College (Now Columbia). He was quite a mature young man, with a strong grasp on political issues with a working knowledge of British and American government which he exhibited in a series of anonymous pamphlets so discerning, they were attributed to John Jay. He was only 17 at the time.
In 1775, discontinuing his education, he founded a volunteer military company and on March 14, 1776, was commissioned Captain of the Provincial Company on New York Artillery. He exhibited great skill and intelligence in his duties with artillery, and Nathanael Greene noticed. (It may have been Greene who introduced Alexander Hamilton to George Washington). He was asked to serve on the staff of Lord Stirling, which he declined, and continued his career with the artillery effectively at Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains. as well as seeing action at Trenton and Princeton in the New Jersey campaign.
Washington recognized Hamilton’s leadership abilities, as well as his writing ability. Hamilton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and made his aide-de-camp on March 1, 1777. His position was one that could have hardly been achieved by an artillery commander he was only twenty years old! Hamilton had embarked on a four and a half year career as a military secretary. He was an advisor to Washington, as well as an innovator of military design: he designed reports on the defects and how they could be improved in the military. It was here that his political thoughts and theories began to grow and take fruit.
Hamilton spent the winter of 1777-1778 with Washington and the Continental Army at Valley Forge. It was during this winter that Brigadier General Horatio Gates tried unsuccessfully to incriminate Hamilton during the Conway Cabal.
On December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler from a very wealthy and prominent New York family. It was a happy marriage that produced eight children. Supposedly, Washington and Hamilton had a “run-in” on February 16, 1781 which resulted in a “parting of the ways” for both men. Attempts at reconciliation were not successful, and Hamilton’s wish was to simply continue his duties until a replacement could be found. Several months later, in July, Hamilton was given command of a battalion of Lafayette’s Division in Moses Hazen’s Brigade. He was quite successful in leading an attack at Yorktown and aided in the success of the surrender there. He continued in the military for a couple of years when he was made Colonel on September 30, 1783. He left the service by the end of the year.
His career path turned down the road to politics. He spent a year in Congress from 1782-1783 and then spent time working as a lawyer in New York. At the Convention in Annapolis, Maryland in 1786, he authored a draft of a report which resulted in the Constitutional Convention a year later. He also authored more than half of the Federalist papers, while being an advocate for a strong central government and working towards seeing the Constitution ratified. He became an important member of the first Cabinet of the first President as the first Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795). The financial situation of the country after the Revolution was the primary problem facing the new nation, and Hamilton developed the “Hamiltonian system”. He became a leader in the Federalist Party (advocates of a strong central/federal government). The Democrat-Republican Party, more commonly known as the “Republicans”, were their opponents, was led by Thomas Jefferson .
After this, Hamilton’s career was not very illustrious. It seems that Hamilton was guilty of exposing Cabinet secrets to Major George Beckwith from Britain (who was involved with Benedict Arnold in his treason). Hamilton was very deceptive and dishonorable in his dealings with other government officials, discrediting some of his contemporaries in order to see that his plans, ideas and policies were successful. The ideas of other visionaries like Thomas Jefferson were doomed to failure as a result. In their correspondence, George Beckwith referred to Hamilton as “Number 7” in order to enshroud their dealings in secrecy. Other people involved in the affair were Senator William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut and Philip Schuyler, Hamilton’s father-in-law from New York.
Hamilton resigned at the end of January in 1795, primarily because he found he could not live off of his $3,500 salary. He returned to the practice of law, mainly cases relating to money/commerce and insurance, which brought him $12,000 a year. He remained an advisor to Washington, even aiding the writing of his Farewell Address, but he did not render civil service to his country again. He was instrumental, however in the elections of 1796 as a leader of the Federalist Party. His dealings permanently alienated John Adams. Hamilton urged the other Federalist party members to vote for Thomas Pinckney as Vice-President, hoping that Presidential hopeful John Adams would become Vice-President and Pinckney would become President. The plan backfired and ultimately Thomas Jefferson became Vice-President and Thomas Pinckney did not fit into either role. Taking on a different tactic, Hamilton tried to exert his influence over the new secretary of State, Timothy Pickering and secretary of Treasury, Oliver Wolcott in Adams’ new Cabinet. He was successful until the President discovered his dealings and reorganized his cabinet.
In July of 1798, Hamilton was commissioned Major General when war threatened to break out with France. He served once more in the military for almost two years. His feud with Adams exploded in 1800 when Hamilton an attack on Adams’ presidency was published. He worked furiously in the elections of 1800, but both Federalist candidates were defeated. When Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the elections that year, Hamilton cast his influence in his political party to Thomas Jefferson which was stupefying in the fact that Hamilton disliked Jefferson more than he disliked John Adams! Four years later, he helped defeat the Burr campaign once more when Burr tried to become governor of New York.
Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton had been on friendly terms for years, but after fifteen years of having every political aspiration thwarted by Hamilton, Burr was seething with anger and itching for revenge. When Burr read statements published by Hamilton to the effect of: he is “a dangerous man and one who ought not to be trusted with the reins of government”, it was the final straw. Ultimately, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. On July 11, 1804, Hamilton was mortally wounded and he died the following afternoon in extreme pain at the age of 47.
* Hamilton was born on January 11, but the year is uncertain. Hamilton claimed that 1757 was his birth year when he first arrived from Nevis. However, probate papers filed upon his mother’s death assert that he was 13 at the time, making his birth year 1755. Hamilton himself was vague about his age throughout his life.
Courtesy National Center for the American Revolution/Valley Forge Historical Society