Today is the 261st birthday of founding father Alexander Hamilton. He is on the ten dollar bill, he died from injuries sustained in a duel and has a highly successful hip hop broadway musical named after him. You know that I am endlessly fascinated with the arc of people’s lives and his is a great one. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: Alexander Hamilton
OCCUPATION: Political Scientist, Government Official, Journalist, Military Leader, Economist, Lawyer
BIRTH DATE: c. January 11, 1755
DEATH DATE: July 12, 1804
EDUCATION: Columbia University, King’s College
PLACE OF BIRTH: Nevis, British West Indies (Caribbean Islands)
PLACE OF DEATH: New York, New York
BEST KNOWN FOR: Alexander Hamilton was born circa January 11, 1755 or 1757 (the exact date is unknown), on the island of Nevis, British West Indies. In 1777, Hamilton became General George Washington‘s assistant. In 1788, he convinced New Yorkers to agree to ratify the U.S Constitution. He then served as the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, from 1789 to 1795. On July 12, 1804, in New York City, Hamilton died of a gunshot wound that he sustained during a duel with Aaron Burr.
Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was born circa January 11, 1755 or 1757 (the exact date is unknown), on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. Hamilton was the product of an adulterous affair. His mother, a Frenchwoman named Rachel Fawcett Lavine, was married to someone else when Hamilton was born.
When Rachel’s husband threw her out of the house, she moved in with Hamilton’s father, a Scottish trader named James. But the living arrangement did not last long. James abandoned the family when Hamilton was still a baby, leaving him and his mother impoverished. John Adams would one day come to illustrate Hamilton’s rise from humble beginnings by describing the young Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a Scottish peddler.”
Determined to improve his lot in life, Hamilton took his first job at the tender age of 11. Working as a clerk in an accounting firm in St. Croix, the bright and ambitious young lad quickly impressed his employer. Hamilton’s boss, businessman Nicolas Cruger, pooled his resources with a minister named Hugh Knox to send Hamilton to America for an education.
In 1773, when he was around 16 years old, Hamilton arrived in New York, where he enrolled in King’s College (later renamed Columbia University). Despite his gratitude toward his generous patrons, with the American colonies on the brink of a revolution, Hamilton was drawn more to political involvement than he was to academics. In 1774, he wrote his first political article defending the Patriots’ cause against the interests of pro-British Loyalists.
A quick learner, Hamilton deemed himself quite capable of becoming a self-made man. Intent on learning through hands-on experience, he left King’s College before graduating to join forces with the Patriots in their protest of British-imposed taxes and commercial business regulations.
In 1775, when the Revolutionary War began, Hamilton became part of the New York Provincial Artillery Company and fought in the battles of Long Island, White Plains and Trenton.
In 1777, after Hamilton fought in that year’s battles of Brandywine Creek, Germantown and Princeton, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the Continental Army. During his early service in the fight for American independence, he caught the attention of General George Washington, who made Hamilton his assistant and trusted adviser. For the next five years, Hamilton put his writing skills to work. He wrote Washington’s critical letters, and composed numerous reports on the strategic reform and restructuring of the Continental Army. Around the same time, Hamilton married Elisabeth Schuyler, who was from an affluent New York family.
Growing restless in his desk job, in 1781, Hamilton convinced Washington to let him taste some action on the battlefield. With Washington’s permission, 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 (not to be confused with the 1919 peace treaty ending World War I). These treaties and several others comprise the collection of peace agreements known as Peace of Paris, officially marking the end of the American Revolutionary War.
While serving as an adviser for George Washington, Hamilton had come to realize Congress’ weaknesses, including jealousy and resentment between states, which, Hamilton believed, stemmed from the Articles of Confederation. (He believed that the Articles — considered America’s first, informal constitution — separated rather than unified the nation.) Hamilton left his adviser post in 1782, convinced that establishing a strong central government was the key to achieving America’s independence. It would not be the last time that Hamilton worked for the U.S. Army.
In 1798, Hamilton was appointed inspector general and second in command, as America geared up for a potential war with France. In 1800, Hamilton’s military career came to a sudden halt when America and France reached a peace agreement.
Hamilton left his position as an adviser to George Washington to study law. After completing a short apprenticeship and passing the bar, he established a practice in New York City. The majority of Hamilton’s first clients were the widely unpopular British Loyalists, who continued to pledge their allegiance to the King of England. When British forces took power over New York State in 1776, many New York rebels fled the area, and British Loyalists, many of whom had traveled from other states and were seeking protection during this time, began to occupy the abandoned homes and businesses.
When the Revolutionary War ended, nearly a decade later, many rebels returned to find their homes occupied, and sued Loyalists for compensation (for using and/or damaging their property). Hamilton defended Loyalists against the rebels.
In 1784, Hamilton took on the Rutgers v. Waddington case, which involved the rights of Loyalists. It was a landmark case for the American justice system, as it led to the creation of the judicial review system. He accomplished another history-making feat that same year, when he assisted in founding the Bank of New York. In defending the Loyalists, Hamilton instituted new principles of due process.
Hamilton went on to take an additional 45 trespass cases, and proved to be instrumental in the eventual repeal of the Trespass Act, which had been established in 1783 to permit rebels to collect damages from the Loyalists who had occupied their homes and businesses.
Being a lawyer drew Hamilton further into politics, as he used his profession as a vehicle for achieving his political goals. After serving as secretary of the treasury from 1789 to 1795, he returned to his law practice in Manhattan, distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most prestigious attorneys. Throughout his law career, Hamilton remained actively involved in public and political affairs and ranked among U.S. presidents’ most sought-after advisors.
Hamilton’s political agenda entailed establishing a stronger federal government under a new Constitution. In 1787, while serving as a New York delegate, he met in Philadelphia with other delegates to discuss how to fix the Articles of Confederation, which were so weak that they could not persist in keeping the Union intact. During the meeting, Hamilton expressed his view that a reliable ongoing source of revenue would be crucial to developing a more powerful and resilient central government.
Hamilton didn’t have a strong hand in writing the Constitution, but he did heavily influence its ratification, or approval. In collaboration with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton wrote 51 of 85 essays under the collective title The Federalist (later known as The Federalist Papers). In the essays, he artfully explained and defended the newly drafted Constitution prior to its approval. In 1788, at the New York Ratification Convention in Poughkeepsie, where two-thirds of delegates opposed the Constitution, Hamilton was a powerful advocate for ratification, effectively arguing against the anti-Federalist sentiment. His efforts succeeded when New York agreed to ratify, and the remaining eight states followed suit.
When George Washington was elected president of the United States in 1789, he appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first secretary of the treasury. At the time, the nation was facing great foreign and domestic debt due to expenses incurred during the American Revolution.
Ever a proponent for a strong central government, during his tenure as treasury secretary, Hamilton butted heads with fellow cabinet members who were fearful of a central government holding so much power. Lacking their state loyalties, Hamilton went so far as to turn down New York’s opportunity to house the nation’s capital in favor of securing backing for his economic program, dubbed the “dinner table bargain.”
It was Hamilton’s belief that the Constitution gave him the authority to create economic policies that strengthened the central government. His proposed fiscal policies initiated the payment of federal war bonds, had the federal government assume states’ debts, instituted a federal system for tax collection and would help the United States establish credit with other nations.
State loyalists were outraged by Hamilton’s suggestions, until a compromise was reached during a dinner conversation between Hamilton and Madison on June 20, 1790. Hamilton agreed that a site near the Potomac would be established as the nation’s capital, and Madison would no longer block Congress, particularly its Virginia representatives, from approving policies that promoted a more powerful central government over individual states’ rights.
Hamilton stepped down from his position as secretary of the treasury in 1795, leaving behind a far more secure U.S. economy to back a strengthened federal government.
During the 1800 presidential elections, Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic Republican, and John Adams, a Federalist, were vying for the presidency. At the time, presidents and vice presidents were voted for separately, and Aaron Burr, intended to be Jefferson’s vice president on the Democratic-Republican ticket, actually tied Jefferson for the presidency.
Choosing Thomas Jefferson as the lesser of two evils, Hamilton went to work supporting Jefferson’s campaign, and in so doing undermined the attempts of Federalists to garner a tie-breaking win for Burr. Ultimately, the House of Representatives chose Jefferson as president, with Burr as his vice president. However, the standoff had damaged Jefferson’s trust in Burr.
During his first term, Jefferson often left Burr out of discussions on party decisions. When Jefferson ran for re-election in 1804, he decided to remove Burr from his ticket. Burr then opted to run independently for the New York governorship, but lost. Frustrated and feeling marginalized, Burr hit his boiling point when he read in a newspaper that Hamilton had called Burr “the most unfit and dangerous man of the community.”
Burr was infuriated. Convinced that Hamilton had ruined yet another election for him, Burr demanded an explanation. When Hamilton refused to comply, Burr, further enraged, challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton begrudgingly accepted, believing that in doing so he would assure his “ability to be in [the] future useful.”
The duel, which began at dawn on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey, would rob Hamilton of that ability entirely. When both men drew their guns and shot, Hamilton was fatally wounded, but Hamilton’s bullet missed Burr. Hamilton, injured, was brought back to New York City, where he died the next day, on July 12, 1804.