Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton


The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton has long been renowned as one of America's Founding Fathers, but he hasn't received quite as much attention in history as fellow founders. One reason Hamilton has had less recognition may be because many of his colleagues (and occasional political enemies) went on to serve as presidents of the United States, while Hamilton did not. Of course, the legacy of Alexander Hamilton has experienced an astounding revival thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical, Hamilton.

The musical, which premiered in 2015, has become a cultural touchstone of our time, opening eyes and showing the powerful impact Hamilton had on the foundation of the United States. He was an enormously fascinating and complex figure. While Hamilton is an extraordinary musical that has brought history to the stage (and to Disney+), in many ways, it has only scratched the surface of Hamilton's real history. This is the tragic real-life story of Alexander Hamilton.


Contents

Hamilton was not born in the United States. He was from the Caribbean island of Nevis. His father was James Hamilton and his mother was Rachel Fawcett Lavien. Hamilton's mother had a child from a previous marriage that she left behind when she moved to Nevis. At the time, she was still married to another man. This meant that Hamilton was illegitimate. He was very sensitive about this fact. His father had left him as a child. Two years after this tragedy both Hamilton and his mother became sick. Hamilton recovered, but unfortunately his mother died. He was grief-stricken and moved in with his cousin. His cousin committed suicide.

In 1772 Hamilton went to New York to continue his education. He attended Kings College, now called Columbia University, until 1776.

Early in the American Revolution Hamilton was an artillery officer. Later he served on George Washington's staff. Hamilton believed by the late 1780s that the Articles of Confederation made a government that was too weak to work well, and he supported drafting a new document. He was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and he was a signer of the Constitution. In 1789 he was co-author of the Federalist Papers, a series of letters written by Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison under the name "Publius." [1] Hamilton wrote about two-thirds of the essays. [1] They were published in newspapers in New York and supported the new Constitution. [1] These writings are usually thought of as being one of the most important American works on politics and government. They are still widely read today. [1]

George Washington, who became President in 1789, chose Hamilton to be the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. [2] While in this job, he supported a national bank and invented a way to pay the debt that the country owed for the Revolutionary War. [ source? ] He helped start the Federalist Party. John Adams was a member, and Washington supported the party though he was not a member. After being Secretary of the Treasury he worked as a lawyer and continued to lead the Federalist Party.

Hamilton said he was very anti-slavery. Along with John Jay he was a leader of the New York Manumission Society. The society worked to end slavery in New York by getting slave owners to choose to free their slaves. However, he bought and sold slaves for himself, his family, and his friends. [3]

Hamilton also had great respect for the small Jewish community in America and was a major supporter of religious freedom. [ source? ]

In 1800 Hamilton's political rival Thomas Jefferson beat the Federalist John Adams. Jefferson and Hamilton had very different ideas about the direction the new country should take, although both were important founding fathers.

Hamilton had a long-time rivalry with Jefferson's vice president Aaron Burr. This resulted in the Burr–Hamilton duel of 1804 in which Burr killed Hamilton. Hamilton kept Burr from being re-nominated for Vice President. [4] He also kept him from becoming Governor of New York. [4] Burr responded by challenging Hamilton to a duel. [4] They agreed to meet July 11, 1804 at Weehawken, New Jersey. [5] Dueling was illegal in New York which is why they chose Weehawken. [6] It was also the site where Philip Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton's son, had been killed in a duel three years earlier. [6] The night before the duel, Hamilton wrote his will, letters to friends, and finally a letter to his wife. [7] At dawn the next morning the two met at Weehawken. Without any discussion, the two men took their positions. [7] Unusual for a duel of this kind, the two fired about 4–5 seconds apart. [7] Who fired first is not known today. Burr's bullet struck Hamilton and knocked him down. [7] Then Burr promptly turned and left. The bullet went through Hamilton's ribs, and damaged his lungs and liver. Hamilton was taken to a friend's house in Manhattan where his wife and children joined him. [7] He asked two ministers to give him Communion but was refused. [7] Finally the Episcopal Bishop Benjamin Moore gave him the sacrament. [7] Hamilton died the next morning. [7]

Hamilton is shown on the face of the U.S. 10 dollar bill. Hamilton is one of only two non-presidents honored on commonly used notes. [8] Some of Hamilton's words are still quoted. For example,

"I never expect a perfect work from imperfect man." -The Federalist #25 [9]

Hamilton was the founder of the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which in 1915 became the United States Coast Guard. [10] For that reason, he is considered the father of the United States Coast Guard. [10] He was a staunch constitutionalist who, unlike several of the founding fathers, believed in a strong central government. [11] During his life he was involved in nearly every major political event from the Revolution to the election of 1800. [12] His writings fill a staggering 27 volumes. [12] Yet he is probably the least well understood of any of the founding fathers. [12] By the time of Hamilton's death, the Federalist Party he had helped start was in decline. [13] Hamilton and the Federalists had convinced Washington to create a central bank, assume the debts of the states and pass tax laws. [13] There is little doubt these moves helped save the new democracy. [13]

Hamilton is the subject of the 2015 Broadway Musical, Hamilton. It was written by and stars Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role. [14]


Alexander Hamilton

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. Rachel's father was a Huguenot physician and planter. While very young, she had been married to and divorced from a Danish proprietor on St. Croix. After her divorce, the court prohibited her remarriage. The marriage to James Hamilton was acceptable socially in the West Indies, but not elsewhere. The union resulted in the birth of two sons, but 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 &mdash but the boys were virtually orphans before they were even teenagers.

At the age of 12, Hamilton began work as a clerk in a general store, but the boy had a keen intellect and ambitious goals. He was an excellent writer, in French as well as English. By 1772, his aunts scrimped and saved to send the young intellectual to New York for formal education.

An 1859 print of King's College,
as it appeared in 1756

In 1773 was entered at King's College (Now Columbia). Even as a young man he had a strong grasp on political issues concerning 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.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) in the Uniform of the New York Artillery
Alonzo Chappel

In 1775 he withdrew from his college studies and founded a volunteer military company. On March 14, 1776, Hamilton was commissioned Captain of the New York Provincial Company of Artillery. He exhibited great skill and intelligence in his duties with artillery, and Nathanael Greene noticed. He was asked to serve on the staff of Lord Stirling, which he declined, and continued his career with artillery at Long Island, Harlem Heights, White Plains, and saw action at Trenton and Princeton in the New Jersey campaign.

Washington recognized Hamilton's leadership abilities, as well as his extraordinary talent for writing. Hamilton was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and made his aide-de-camp on March 1, 1777. Just twenty years old at the time, Hamilton had already made remarkable accomplishments.

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.

Portrait of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton
Ralph Earl, circa 1787
Painted while Earl was in the
New York City Jail

On December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general, and Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler. Both the Schuylers and Rensselaers were very wealthy and prominent New York families. It was a happy marriage that produced eight children.

On February 16, 1781, Hamilton quarreled with Washington, and their relationship was forever soured. He describes the incident in a letter to his father-in-law dated February 18, 1791:

. . . Two days ago, the General and I passed each other on the stairs. He told me he wanted to speak to me. I answered that I would wait upon him immediately. I went below, and delivered Mr. Tilghman a letter to be sent to the commissary, containing an order of a pressing and interesting nature.

Returning to the General, I was stopped on the way by the Marquis de La Fayette, and we conversed together about a minute on a matter of business. He can testify how impatient I was to get back [. . .] I met him [Washington] at the head of the stairs, where, accosting me in an angry tone, "Colonel Hamilton," said he, "you have kept me waiting at the head of the stairs these ten minutes. I must tell you sir, you treat me with disrespect. I replied without petulancy, but with decision: "I am not conscious of it, sir, but since you have thought it necessary to tell me so, we part." "Very Well, sir," said he, "if it be your choice," or something to this effect, and we separated. I sincerely believe my absence, which gave so much umbrage, did not last two minutes.

Attempts at reconciliation were not successful. Several months later, in July, Hamilton was given command of a battalion of Lafayette's Division in Moses Hazen's Brigade. He led a successful attack at Yorktown, contributing to the final American victory 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.


Alexander Hamilton

James Monroe, Henry Lee, John Marshall, Alexander Hamilton, and Marquis de Lafayette were some of the Continental Army officers who served George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Of these rising stars, Alexander Hamilton overcame the greatest odds, including impoverishment and illegitimacy, in obtaining his position as aide-de-camp to General Washington. For approximately the next twenty years, Hamilton and Washington would work with each other during the Revolutionary War, the framing of the Constitution, and Washington's Presidency of the United States. The period of 1777-1778, however, pivotal to the success of the Continental Army, and ultimately that of the Continental Congress, also was important for Hamilton, for during this time, he rapidly proved his worth on a national basis.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the West Indian Island of Nevis. His father, of Scottish ancestry, remained in Scotland during Hamilton's childhood due to a debt, forcing his mother to rely on friends and relatives for financial support. Around the age of ten the family moved to the nearby island of St. Croix where his mother died soon after. Friends and relatives took an interest in the future of the young Hamilton by encouraging him to work as a mercantile clerk and to read and write, activities at which he excelled despite his lack of proper schooling. Hamilton's formal education began after Reverend Hugh Knox, a Presbyterian minister, gave a sermon so inspiring that Hamilton wrote a description of it for the Royal-Danish American Gazette. When a group of readers found out that the words were those of an under-privileged fifteen-year-old they decided to sponsor his way to the American Colonies to receive his first formal education.

Hamilton attended King's College (now Columbia University) located outside of what was then 18th century New York City. In this prime location, Hamilton was surrounded by talk of rebellion, as well as arguments against it. Events and issues were leading up to the Battle of Lexington and Concord in but a few months although outright rebellion and war against the mother country was unthinkable, a war of words was reality. The radical politics of New York (and other colonies) were expressed by way of pamphlets. A particular New York Loyalist in favor of England's crown policy, known as 'the Farmer' in his sympathetic writings, favored royal British authority in the American colonies and denounced all actions of a colonial American congress. 'The Farmer' received several responses from Hamilton and other rebellious spirited Whigs. 'Friend to America,' an assumed name of Hamilton's, responded to 'the Farmer' in his pamphlet. He defended the American congress, writing in reference to members of parliament on December 15, 1774, ". That they are enemies to the rights of mankind is manifest, because they wish to see one part of their species enslaved by another. That they have an invincible aversion to common sense is apparent in many respects: They endeavor to persuade us, that the absolute sovereignty of parliament does not imply our absolute slavery".1 Hamilton continued to write in defense of colonial-American rights throughout the war.

With war pending, Hamilton immersed himself in the study of artillery tactics and military maneuvers. In March of 1776, he joined the New York Artillery, and was recommended for an officer's commission by General Alexander McDougall. He was thereby given the title "Captain of the Provincial Company of Artillery." As noted by a top scholar, "Hamilton's abilities as a conscientious and business-like leader were evident from his earliest days of military service. He not only had to recruit and train his own men he also had to see that they were fed, clothed, and paid. While many young New Yorkers may have fought the enemy as bravely as Hamilton did, few battled the local authorities so stubbornly to provide for their troops."2 In May of 1776 Hamilton wrote to the New York provincial congress regarding the condition of his men. He was concerned because the men in his company of artillery were not quite at full strength. Hamilton had an additional problem because his men were paid less than other artillery companies and their duties were the same. There was only so much the New York provincial congress could do, however. British and Hessian troops under General William Howe disembarked from Halifax for New York City during the summer of 1776. Meanwhile, General Washington marched his army from Boston, and proceeded to strategically fortify the main waterway approaches to New York City.

Hamilton's New York Artillery Company was used in strategic areas in New York City. Upon losing successive battles in the city of New York, he covered the Continental Army's rear in a number of the withdrawals. Initially, Hamilton's company was placed at Fort George on the waterfront of Manhattan. During the Battle of White Plains Hamilton placed his cannon in such a place as to turn back a significantly sized Hessian advance. This decisive movement left a good impression of Hamilton among the American high command and delayed in part the British offensive, thus giving the Continental Army preciously needed time to perform an orderly retreat. When the Continental Army evacuated New York City, Forts Washington and Lee fell to a victorious British force. With much of the army's enlistment expiring at the beginning of and throughout December, Washington led a desperate retreat through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Hamilton's artillery company was specifically selected to cover the hasty retreat from New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The victory at the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, distinguished Hamilton in a Continental Army that gained a newfound hope in fending off the British incursion into Philadelphia. General Howe posted troops throughout New Jersey to liberate Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in 1777 from rebel leaders. Washington recognized Howe's tactic in attempting to demoralize the cause, and found it absolutely necessary to establish a newfound hope with his army. During the night of the surprise attack on Hessian soldiers at Trenton, Hamilton's skill and experience were crucial. Serving in Lord Stirling's brigade, Captain Hamilton and Captain Forrest's artillery companies were assigned to cover King Street and the parallel Queen Street. Hamilton and Forrest were well equipped each had two six-pound cannon, while Forrest also had a pair of Howitzers. With both streets covered by the artillery, Hessian commander Colonel Johann Rall, decided to form up his infantry and artillery and march on the Americans from King Street. "No sooner had the Hessians stepped off, however, when the round-shot from Hamilton's battery tore through their ranks," according to a recent book entitled Battles of the Revolutionary War. 3 The Hessians under Rall retreated in the opposite direction, and many ended up surrendering because of the effective rounds discharged from Hamilton's artillery company. General Hugh Mercer placed his American infantry between houses from the direction of Queen Street on the right flank of Colonel Rall's Hessians. The effective rounds discharged from Hamilton's artillery combined with the musketry of Mercer's troops, and devastated the Hessian ranks with casualties. This caused a general retreat among the Hessian troops many of them were enfolded and forced to surrender to the victorious Continentals.

After Hamilton's gallantry and heroic accomplishment displayed at the crucial engagement at Trenton, he was appointed an aide to General Washington. In this position his writing skills and keen sense of judgement would prove essential to the highest command in the army. The 1777 winter encampment at Morristown, New Jersey, found Hamilton with an army of well under 10,000. The army, however, was reinforced steadily as the winter progressed into spring. During this time Hamilton recorded, "the many deserters coming in from the enemy showed them to be in desperate straits. Since the possibility that the French might enter the war in Europe would disincline the British from sending reinforcements overseas"4. General Howe's army made a feint into northern New Jersey in the spring of 1777 to draw the Continental Army out of the highlands of Morristown. Nevertheless, it would be weeks before it became a certainty that Howe's intention was Philadelphia. During that time, Hamilton received on-the-job training and became accustomed to the cramped living style as a part of General Washington's staff.

While the Continental Army awaited the approach of General Howe and the British Army in Wilmington, Delaware, Hamilton described the atmosphere before the Battle of Brandywine. On September 1, 1777, he wrote of General Howe's slovenly movements, the Continental Army's morale, and of the surrounding landscape. "He still lies there [Greys Hill, Pennsylvania] in a state of inactivity in a great measure I believe from the want of horses, to transport his baggage and stores. It seems he sailed with only about three weeks provendor and was six at sea. This has occasioned the death of a great number of his horses, and has made skeletons of the rest. He will be obliged to collect a supply from the neighboring country before he can move. This country does not abound in good posts. It is intersected by such an infinity of roads, and is so little mountainous that it is impossible to find a spot not liable to capital defects. The one we now have is all things considered the best we could find, but there is no great depindence [sic] to be put on it. The enemy will have Philadelphia, if they dare make a bold push for it, unless we fight them a pretty general action. I opine we ought to do it, and that we shall beat them soundly if we do. The militia seem pretty generally stirring. Our army is in high health & spirits. We shall I hope have twice the enemy's numbers. I would not only fight them, but I would attack them for I hold it an established maxim, that there is three to one in favour of the party attacking. "5 Among the dispatches arriving at the Ring House were conflicting reports concerning the right flank of the Continental Army. The secretive movements made by Howe and Cornwallis had couriers bringing reports in all morning. One of Hamilton's duties at the home of Benjamin Ring was to establish the immediate importance of incoming dispatches. After deciding to reinforce the right flank of the Continental Army with Nathanael Greene's Brigades, General Washington and Lafayette, along with Washington's staff, rode along with Greene's troops. Upon the scene of the battle they tried to rally the Continentals of Stephen's and Stirling's divisions. The American stand at Brandywine Creek almost proved fatal, but there was no other alternative for Washington. During the nine months that remained in the 1777-78 Philadelphia Campaign, Hamilton was deployed on missions of major importance on the request of General Washington.

When General Washington decided to keep his army between Howe and the Continental Army's supply line deeper in Pennsylvania, he sent Hamilton on a mission to destroy a supply of flour and prevent other supplies from falling into British hands as they marched toward Philadelphia. Hamilton now led a group of eight cavalrymen which included Captain Henry Lee, and was about to burn the mill at the small village of Valley Forge when two sentries fired warning shots from their posts. The force of British Cavalry, largely outnumbering Hamilton's force, at first chased Captain Lee who took flight across the millrace with a pair of mounted American cavalry. The British dragoons gave up the chase with Lee and went after Hamilton. While Hamilton attempted to cross the Schuylkill River in a scow, the green-coated dragoons fired numerous volleys at him and the remainder of his party. The musketry wounded one man, killed another, and crippled Hamilton's horse. Hamilton had no choice but to swim to the other side of the river whereafter he wrote to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, the British had potential to be in Philadelphia that evening. Upon returning to Washington's headquarters, Hamilton was chagrined to find out that he had been given up for a casualty by word of Lee. Meanwhile, the Continental Congress and Philadelphia patriots were in a panic, securing valuables, and leaving the city.

The British did not enter the city that night, or within even within the next week. Hamilton's next mission was to go into Philadelphia and obtain shoes, blankets, clothing, and other important supplies for the Continental Army. On September 26, the British under Howe finally marched into Philadelphia. Hamilton's missions were not completely over, however, and after the Battle of Germantown was fought in October 1777, he was sent north to New York. General Horatio Gates was the recent victor of Saratoga, where he defeated British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne. Gates was reluctant to send reinforcements to Washington, and when Gates would not acknowledge Washington's request through dispatch, Hamilton was hurried into negotiations. By the time reinforcements had arrived to bolster Washington's numbers, Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer had fallen into British hands, and the Royal Navy had complete access to the Delaware River and could supply the occupying army at Philadelphia shipping ports. Hamilton would spend the remainder of the winter at Valley Forge in Washington's Headquarters at one of the homes of Isaac Potts, next to where he experienced the near deadly encounter with green-coated British dragoons the previous autumn.

After the trying winter at Valley Forge and the formal alliance with France, Hamilton observed the Continental Army as it became nearly victorious over the Redcoats at the Battle of Monmouth. Hamilton and Lafayette were close behind General Washington on the battle line as he rallied the Continentals to near victory. Hamilton was described during the battle as ". incessant in his endeavors during the day in reconnoitering the enemy, in rallying, and in charging. "6 During the remainder of the time he served the position of aide-de-camp, Washington would not allow Hamilton to independently command a force of troops, because it would be unfair to other Continental Army officers who surpassed him in seniority. General Washington and Colonel Hamilton had a falling out in the spring of 1781, and Hamilton resigned as an aide to the Commander-in-Chief. Eventually he was given an independent command and during Yorktown campaign, he commanded the capture of a strategic fortification (redoubt #10), at the siege of Yorktown, Virginia.

Following the capitulation of General Cornwallis and his army at Yorktown, Hamilton was appointed a member of Congress. He worked closely with fellow New Yorker, Gouveneur Morris, in financing the fledgling national government. Hamilton's steady work with the colonial assembly in congress sums up his wartime activity. His rapid advancement from the Caribbean islands, to college in New York, and the experience he obtained in the Continental Army (especially as an aide to Washington) continued with his tremendous influence during the framing of the Constitution, and beyond. The extraordinary achievements he made during the War for American Independence impressed not a few. Alexander Hamilton's contributions to the United States during this early period will not be forgotten any time soon.


Your guide to Alexander Hamilton, plus 6 fascinating facts about the founding father

Alexander Hamilton (1755/7–1804) rose from an impoverished upbringing to become one of the founding fathers of America. Today, he is best known for featuring on the $10 bill in the United States and as the subject of the hugely successful musical theatre production, Hamilton. Read on for a brief biography of Hamilton, and the real story of the duel in which he was killed. Plus, Jem Duducu shares six fascinating facts about Hamilton…

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Published: December 22, 2020 at 4:05 am

As the statesman who laid the foundations of the US government’s financial mechanisms and systems, Alexander Hamilton is a hugely important figure in American history the impact of his political rivalry with Thomas Jefferson is still seen today.

Alexander Hamilton: a biography

Born: c1755, the island of Nevis, British West Indies

Died: 12 July, 1804, as the result of an infamous duel with vice president Aaron Burr

Parents: James Hamilton and Rachel Faucette (the pair were unmarried, making Alexander’s birth illegitimate)

Spouse: Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Schuyler Hamilton

Children: Eight. Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, was also killed in a duel.

Known for: Alexander Hamilton was an indispensable aide to George Washington during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Later he was the principal author of the Federalist Papers, becoming a key figure in the ratification of the US constitution and a prolific writer in its defence. He was the nation’s first treasury secretary and a key architect of the modern financial system.

Hamilton was also a central figure in what is commonly referred to as ‘America’s first political sex scandal’, after he was blackmailed by the husband of his mistress, Maria Reynolds. He has since become the subject of an eponymous musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and based on a successful biography by Ron Chernow, in which he is portrayed as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant.

The Hamilton-Burr duel of 1804: what happened and when?

The unique event took place at 7am on 11 July, 1804: the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed a former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamliton, in a duel. Bitter political rivals, Burr read that Hamilton had uttered a “despicable opinion” of him (Hamilton had previously called Burr a cheat, an adulterer, corrupt, and unprincipled), and challenged his longtime enemy. Hamilton, combative, foolishly headstrong and fatally obsessed with honour – a product of his illegitimacy – accepted, despite several opportunities to back down. The evening before the duel he wrote to his wife, “rather I should die innocent than live guilty”. Intent only on defending his honour, not on settling scores, Hamilton declared he would “reserve and throw away my first fire” to allow Burr, an expert shot, “to pause and to reflect”.

The duelists, after they “exchanged salutations”, chose their flintlocks, measured their paces, and fired almost simultaneously. Aiming wide, Hamilton probably fired first, but Burr’s reply tore through his target’s liver and diaphragm, embedding itself in his spine. Hamilton, writhing in agony, cried “I am a dead man”, and collapsed. He was taken to Manhattan, where, drugged with laudanum to soothe the pain, he lived for 31 hours. “If they break this union [of states],” he murmured near the end, “they will break my heart”. As for Burr, he did his best by later hatching a bizarre plot to conquer the southwest and set himself up as a king. He stood trial for treason, but was acquitted, and died in 1836, aged 80 and unlamented.

Listen: Ron Chernow, biographer of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, profiles the man whose life story has become a Broadway smash on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

Here, Jem Duducu shares six surprising facts about Alexander Hamilton…

Alexander Hamilton was a fighter

From virtually the first shots fired in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Hamilton was a volunteer in the rebel militia. By 1776, he had raised a company of artillery in New York and was elected its captain. At the end of the war he had fought in eight separate battles, seven of them between 1776 and 1778, when he became a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington.

As the war rumbled on, Hamilton became frustrated that he was no longer involved on the front lines. That changed when a reprimand by Washington, which in no way spelled disaster for his military career, was used by Hamilton as an excuse to leave Washington’s personal staff to become a frontline officer again. The decision allowed him to fight alongside French units at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. This battle was to be the final victory of the American rebels and French forces over the British in the American fight for independence.

Hamilton’s taxes started a rebellion

When George Washington became the first president of the United States, he made Hamilton the country’s first secretary of the treasury. This meant that Hamilton was the man who laid the foundations of the US government’s financial mechanisms and systems, including the establishment of a national bank and the US mint.

All governments need to raise revenues through taxation and, as the revolution had shown, Americans didn’t like paying taxes (who does?). One of Hamilton’s earliest tax targets was whiskey (both domestic and imported), which he saw as preferable to taxing land. But the tax was unpopular from the start, especially in rural America where farmers often produced their own whiskey, and opposition became increasingly fierce.

The Whiskey Rebellion lasted for three years from 1791 and forced President George Washington out of military retirement in order to lead troops to quell the uprising. The climax came in July of 1794 at the battle of Bower Hill in Pennsylvania, where hundreds of tax rebels clashed with government troops. Washington and Hamilton both believed that it was imperative to the future of government funding that US troops enforce the government’s authority to collect taxes, and the defeat of the rebellion demonstrated that the government was willing and capable of stopping resistance to the law. Only a handful of people died, but the long, drawn-out affair and its violent climax were due solely to Hamilton’s tax.

In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s eponymous musical, the founding father is remembered as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant, a hero of the American dream. But is the musical a realistic portrayal of Alexander Hamilton? Tom Cutterham argues that the real Alexander Hamilton was an elitist anti-democrat, who used violence to crush dissent…

Hamilton (and the Americans) didn’t always pay their bills

The French contribution to the rebel cause during the American Revolution wasn’t just another excuse for the French to annoy the British: the help came at a cost. Therefore, after independence had been achieved, France expected America to pay its bills. As the first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton ensured that America honoured its debt.

However, by 1798, two things had changed: firstly, Hamilton was no longer in charge of the treasury secondly, and more importantly, the French regime that had come to the aid of the rebels had changed. Even after the French monarchy had been overthrown, the United States had continued to pay its debts. Revolutionary France received money from revolutionary America, but by 1798, it had dawned on America that it was honouring a debt that – technically speaking – didn’t exist anymore.

Unsurprisingly, the French saw things differently and when the money stopped coming, the so-called Quasi-War followed. This was a period (1798–1800) under the presidency of John Adams, when French and American ships fought unofficial naval battles in the Atlantic. Although he saw no action, Hamilton came out of retirement and was one of the leaders of the American forces during this period of uncertainty and violence. The reality was that France had bigger fish to fry (such as fighting the Royal Navy threat in the Mediterranean) and hostilities had petered out by 1800, when it was Napoleon who wanted to end what had become an annoyance. The conflict came to an end when both sides signed the Convention of 1800.

Hamilton was an intellectual

Hamilton was a key contributor to the brand-new Constitution of the United States, but almost as importantly, he initiated a project called ‘The Federalist Papers’. This was a collection of essays to explain and support the provisions of the historic document.

During the writing of the Constitution, Hamilton had argued for the president and the senators to have lifetime tenure. This made James Madison, the future president, suspicious of Hamilton, arguing that he was trying to introduce monarchy to the fledgling republic. The debates, while heated, were constructive and as a result, Hamilton signed the final draft and argued eloquently for its implementation.

Along with laying the foundations of US financial institutions, Hamilton established the Revenue Cutter Service to protect the country’s coasts from smugglers who were thwarting another revenue stream for the government the service was later to become the United States Coast Guard. Starting all of these from scratch, as well as being a vital contributor to the country’s Constitution, shows a remarkably sharp intelligence.

The long feud between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began in the 1790s, when the former was President George Washington’s secretary of state, and the latter his treasury secretary.

Read more about the Jefferson-Hamilton feud

Hamilton was a media mogul

So far we have looked only at Hamilton’s astonishing achievements while he was in government, but he kept himself busy in retirement too. In 1801 he managed to secure $10,000 from a group of investors to fund the launch of the New York Evening Post. Although the name has since changed to the New York Post, it is America’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper.

Hamilton’s motives in starting the newspaper were not entirely philanthropic, and he used the paper to push his political agenda. In 1804, there were a number of articles attacking vice president Aaron Burr. These regular verbal muggings enraged Burr so much that they led to one of the most bizarre moments in American history… in the summer of 1804, when Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton himself said he was “strongly opposed to the practice of duelling”, but Burr had no such qualms and seems to have been intent on killing Hamilton.

Hamilton is on the money

The debate about which historic figures should appear on currency is an argument that never pleases everyone. Though Hamilton was undoubtedly a key figure in shaping America and its constitution, and the country’s financial system owes him a huge debt of gratitude, he was not that well remembered in America prior to the hit musical which opened in New York in 2015. He had been on the $10 bill since 1928 but, by the new millennium, this was seen as a rather old-fashioned choice, and the decision was made to replace him with a woman. However, the currency decisions were taking place at the same time as Hamilton the musical was becoming a monster hit. Therefore, in 2016 it was announced that he would remain where he had been and that a woman from American history would appear on the $20 bill instead (bad news for president Andrew Jackson).

Alexander Hamilton was a founding father, statesman, veteran, political intellectual, economist and media tycoon. While all of this is impressive, it may seem like none of it screams ‘hit Broadway musical’. But the rest, as they say, is history.

Jem Duducu is author of The American Presidents in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016). You can find Jem on Twitter and Facebook.

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2017


Alexander Hamilton Facts: Early Life

  • Alexander Hamilton was born in and spent part of his childhood in Charlestown, the capital of the island of Nevis, in the Leeward Islands Nevis was one of the British West Indies.
  • Hamilton was born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette, a married woman of partial French Huguenot descent, and James A. Hamilton, the fourth son of the Scottish laird Alexander Hamilton of Grange, Ayrshire.
  • His mother moved with the young Hamilton to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, then ruled by Denmark.
  • It is not certain whether the year of Hamilton&rsquos birth was 1757 or 1755 most historical evidence after Hamilton&rsquos arrival in North America supports the idea that he was born in 1757, and many historians had accepted this birth date.
  • Hamilton listed his birth year as 1757 when he first arrived in the 13 original colonies. He celebrated his birthday on January 11.
  • Hamilton&rsquos mother had been married previously to Johann Michael Lavien of St. Croix. Rachel left her husband and first son, Peter, traveling to St. Kitts in 1750, where she met James Hamilton.
  • Hamilton and Rachel moved together to Rachel&rsquos birthplace, Nevis, where she had inherited property from her father. The couple&rsquos two sons were James Jr. and Alexander.
  • Because Alexander Hamilton&rsquos parents were not legally married, the Church of England denied him membership and education in the church school. Hamilton received &ldquoindividual tutoring&rdquo and classes in a private school led by a Jewish headmistress. Hamilton supplemented his education with a family library of 34 books.
  • James Hamilton abandoned Rachel and their sons, allegedly to &ldquospar[e] [Rachel] a charge of bigamy &hellip after finding out that her first husband intend[ed] to divorce her under Danish law on grounds of adultery and desertion.&rdquo Thereafter, Rachel supported her children in St. Croix, keeping a small store in Christiansted.
  • She contracted a severe fever and died on February 19, 1768, 1:02 am, leaving Hamilton orphaned.
  • In probate court, Rachel&rsquos &ldquofirst husband seized her estate&rdquo and obtained the few valuables Rachel had owned, including some household silver. Many items were auctioned off, but a friend purchased the family&rsquos books and returned them to the young Hamilton.
  • Hamilton became a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, which traded with the New England colonies he was left in charge of the firm for five months in 1771, while the owner was at sea.
  • He and his older brother James Jr. were adopted briefly by a cousin, Peter Lytton but when Lytton committed suicide, the brothers were separated.
  • James apprenticed with a local carpenter, while Alexander was adopted by a Nevis merchant, Thomas Stevens.
  • Hamilton continued clerking, but he 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 hit Christiansted hard on August 30, 1772. Hamilton&rsquos essay would be a turning point in his life. The essay impressed community leaders, who collected a fund to send the young Hamilton to the colonies for his education.

Alexander Hamilton Facts: Education

  • In the autumn of 1772, Hamilton arrived in the middle colony, New Jersey at Elizabethtown.
  • In 1773 he studied with Francis Barber at Elizabethtown in preparation for college work. He came under the influence of William Livingston, a leading intellectual and revolutionary, with whom he lived for a time at his Liberty Hall.
  • Hamilton entered King&rsquos College in New York City in the autumn of 1773.
  • In what is credited as his first public appearance, on July 6, 1774 at the liberty pole at King&rsquos College, Hamilton&rsquos friend Robert Troup spoke of Hamilton&rsquos ability to clearly and concisely explain the rights and reasons the patriots have in their case against the British.
  • Hamilton, Troup and four other undergraduates formed an unnamed literary society that is regarded as a precursor of the Philolexian Society.
  • When the Church of England clergyman Samuel Seabury published a series of pamphlets promoting the Loyalist cause in 1774, Hamilton responded anonymously with his first political writings, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress and The Farmer Refuted.
  • Seabury essentially tried to provoke fear into the colonies and his main objective was to stopgap the potential of a union among the colonies. Hamilton published two additional pieces attacking the Quebec Act and may have also authored the fifteen anonymous installments of &ldquoThe Monitor&rdquo for Holt&rsquos New York Journal.
  • Although Hamilton was a supporter of the American Revolution at this prewar stage, he did not approve of mob reprisals against Loyalists. On May 10, 1775, Hamilton won credit for saving his college president Myles Cooper, a Loyalist, from an angry mob by speaking to the crowd long enough for Cooper to escape.

10 Surprising Facts about Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

If you didn’t know who Alexander Hamilton was before 2015, you probably do now. After Lin-Manuel Miranda released his hit musical, theatre fans and non-historians alike now know more about our first Secretary of the Treasury than we ever did before.

Before 2015, many of us probably looked at the U.S. 10-dollar bill and never gave him a thought, or maybe said “Who’s this guy and why is he on our money?” Can you tell I’m a huge fan of the musical? Ok, onto better things! Let’s check out some interesting facts you may not have (or may have, depending on your historical background) known about Alexander Hamilton.

1. Hamilton is Not from the United States

Alexander Hamilton is an immigrant. Wait what? A founding father, an immigrant?! That’s right. Many people who helped shape the United States were immigrants like Marquis de Lafayette. Alexander though was the only Founding Father who was not born in the United States.

Hamilton was born on January 11, (his birth year is disputed as either 1755 or 1757) on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, otherwise known as in the Caribbean. After his mother died and his father had left long ago, he left for New York as a teenager.

2. Hamilton was a Revolutionary War Veteran

During the Battle of Yorktowne, he led a charged attack with the aid of his friends on a British redoubt. With that knowledge, you could say he was a key component in the United States gaining independence.

3. He Lied About His Age

The reason historians debate about when Hamilton was born is because early on he lied about how old he was. Shortly after he was born, his Scottish father James Hamilton left him, his brother, and his mother. The family was left in poverty and his mother, Rachel Fawcett, died when he was 13 after becoming sick.

Needing to work, he changed his age to look more promising as an apprentice and got a job as a clerk with a trading company in St. Croix.

That certainly helped him, since after he wrote a letter he was going to send to his father, it was published instead in a newspaper by editor Hugh Knox (yes, the same Knox who was ordained by Aaron Burr Sr.). After it was published, many businessmen came forward to ask the identity of the person who wrote the letter. Well, the rest is history since that collection is what sent Hamilton to America to get an education at King’s College (now Columbia University).

4. He was Mostly a Self-Taught Lawyer Who Graduated in Six Months

Today, that’s completely unheard of. Lawyers go through years and years of exams and training, but Hamilton did it in record time. While living in the Caribbean, he read law book after law book and studied law at King’s College.

His studies, however, were interrupted by the impending war with Britain. After the war, he left his post as Washington’s adviser and finished up his studies. It took him only 6 months to prepare for the New York Bar Exam and he passed with flying colors.

In 1782, after he passed the exam, Hamilton became a lawyer in New York City. And as the musical says: “I practiced law, Burr worked next door.” But we’ll get to more about Aaron Burr later. On a side note, he also studied with John Jay and William Paterson. If you don’t know who they are, they became two future Supreme Court Justices.

Federalist, on the New Constitution

5. One of His Legacies was The Federalist Papers

If you remember anything from American history, one of the things maybe the Federalist Papers. What were these papers? Well, these papers helped ratify the Constitution. At the time, the United States Constitution wasn’t well received. It was a mess and contradictory.

Along with John Jay and James Madison, they developed a plan to write 25 essays to newspapers to anomalously defend the Constitution, about 9 essays each. Well, that didn’t work out as planned.

In the end, 85 essays were written between October 1787 and May 1788. John Jay became ill and only wrote 5 essays. James Madison wrote 29, and Hamilton wrote the other 51. He really does write like he’s running out of time, doesn’t he? Thanks to their efforts, the Constitution became ratified on June 21, 1788, after 9 of 13 states approved it.

6. Hamilton was Involved in the United States’ First Sex Scandal

When it comes to 2020, a sex scandal isn’t all that shocking (sometimes) and you know, it’s been done throughout history. Hell, look at Bill Clinton. But this scandal was a little different. While Hamilton’s wife and children were on vacation with her family in upstate New York, Hamilton decided to stay behind because he had too much work to do.

He had a plan to get through to Congress after all. He was beaten, tired, and in need of a break. Well, one night a Maria Reynolds came to his door looking for help. She had said her husband, James Reynolds, abandoned her and she was in need of money to get to some family to stay with. Hamilton walked her home and gave her the money, and somehow they both ended up in her bedroom.

Next thing you know, Hamilton is having an extramarital affair for a few months. It wasn’t what everyone thought though. This blew into such huge proportions it made Hamilton write the Reynolds Pamphlet which cleared him of a national financial scam, but also exposed his infidelity. If he didn’t decide to piss off Thomas Jefferson, the whole thing would’ve probably remained a secret.

7. He Founded The New York Post

The newspaper wasn’t as we all know it today. During the 1800 election, Hamilton was angry that Thomas Jefferson was the Democratic-Republican candidate. He wanted then-President John Adams to win for the Federalist Party since Adams aligned more with his ideals. Well, we all know who won. In November 1801, Hamilton decided to create The New York Evening Post, which was anti-Democratic-Republican and consistently slandered Jefferson.

Today, we know the paper like The New York Post, which isn’t as reputable as a news source anymore. The paper was purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1976 and it’s only gone downhill from there. Sadly we’ll never know how Hamilton would have felt about his beloved paper and the content they print today.

Philip Hamilton

8. His Son Was Killed in a Duel

Philip Hamilton was killed in a duel long before his father. But that’s not the interesting part, or maybe it is. On July 4th, 1801, a lawyer named George Eacker gave a speech at Columbia University about Hamilton trying to take the presidency by force and preferred monarchy over democracy. Philip read about the speech in the newspaper and quite aptly, became angry his father’s name was being slandered with lies. Four months later, he and his friend Richard Price spotted Eacker in a box at the theatre. Well, Price and Hamilton supposedly drunk stormed the box to confront Eacker and insult him. Two wrongs don’t make a right…right?

Later, both Price and Philip sent a letter to Eacker challenging him to a duel. Two duels? Well, November 22nd, 1801 was the duel with Price. Both men missed their shot and honor was satisfied. The next day it was Philip’s turn. They met at the dueling grounds in Weehawken, New Jersey, and sadly, Philip was struck and died a day later, mostly due to infection. Here’s the kicker: the same place Philip died is where Hamilton chose his duel and died three years later.

9. He Left His Family in Debt

What? THE Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father, first Secretary of the Treasury, and a genius left his family in debt? It’s inconceivable! Ok, wrong story. After his death, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson started a rumor that Hamilton was corrupt and used his position as Secretary of the Treasury to make himself wealthy. Well, none of it was true. Hamilton never cheated the system and wasn’t corrupt. He created America’s economic infrastructure and Wall St…well, it’s hard to see that as a good thing right about now.

Serving as Secretary, he actually made less money than during his time as a lawyer. He may have even made more money if he wasn’t killed. Things got so bad for the Hamilton family is caused Eliza, his wife, to ask Congress for money and land that was given to him for his service in the Revolutionary War that he previously forfeited. Things eventually get better though. Eliza helped raise funds for the Washington Monument and started her own private orphanage in New York City.

Mrs. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

10. No One Knows What Really Happened

What does that mean? It means there are aspects of Hamilton’s dealings and life that no one knows for sure about. For a man who was constantly writing, there are still things left to ambiguity. A private dinner meeting between Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison occurred but we only have evidence of Jefferson’s account.

All we know is, the meeting led to the nation’s capital (Washington, D.C.) being placed in the South along the Potomac River, and Hamilton got his votes for his financial system passed through Congress. Yes, the same system we have today.

What’s the next one? No one knows the full account of Hamilton’s death. The only witnesses were their seconds, which are basically neutral parties to negotiate terms between the two dueling parties. Did Hamilton purposely misfire? Did the dueling code obligate Burr not to shoot? Well if that was the case Hamilton wouldn’t have died. All we know is yes, both parties fired in succession but the seconds disagree on the intervening time. So, it’s a case of Han Solo vs. Greedo and who shot first. We’ll just never know.

Portrait of an older Alexander Hamilton

References
DeConde, Alexander. “Alexander Hamilton.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Sept. 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Alexander-Hamilton-United-States-statesman.
Grimminck, Robert. “10 Fascinating Facts About Alexander Hamilton.” Toptenz.net, 6 June 2017, www.toptenz.net/10-fascinating-facts-alexander-hamilton.php.
History.com Editors. “Alexander Hamilton.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/alexander-hamilton.
NCC Staff. “10 Essential Facts about Alexander Hamilton on His Birthday.” National Constitution Center – Constitutioncenter.org, constitutioncenter.org/blog/10-essential-facts-about-alexander-hamilton/.
Staff, American History Central. “Hamilton, Alexander.” American History Central, R.Squared Communications, LLC, 27 Aug. 2019, www.americanhistorycentral.com/entries/alexander-hamilton/view/quick-facts/.

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New Research Suggests Alexander Hamilton Was a Slave Owner

For Jessie Serfilippi, it was an eye-opening moment. As she worked at her computer, she had to keep checking to make sure what she was seeing was real: irrefutable evidence that Alexander Hamilton—the founding father depicted by many historians and even on Broadway as an abolitionist—enslaved other humans.

“I went over that thing so many times, I just had to be sure,” recalls Serfilippi, adding, “I went in to this with the intention of learning about Hamilton’s connection to slavery. Would I find instances of him enslaving people? I did.”

In a recently published paper, “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” the young researcher details her findings gleaned from primary source materials. One of those documents includes Hamilton’s own cashbook, which is available online at the Library of Congress.

In it, several line items indicate that Hamilton purchased enslaved labor for his own household. While antithetical to the popular image of the founding father, that reference has reinforced the view held by a growing cadre of historians that Hamilton did actively engage in enslaving people.

“I didn’t expect to find what I did at all,” Serfilippi says. “Part of me wondered if I was even wasting my time because I thought other historians would have found this already. Some had said he owned slaves but there was never any real proof.”

One who is not surprised by the revelation is author William Hogeland, who has written about Hamilton and is working on a book about his impact on American capitalism.

“Serfilippi’s research is super exciting,” he says. “Her research confirms what we have suspected, and it takes the whole discussion to a new place. She’s found some actual evidence of enslavement on the part of Hamilton that is just more thoroughgoing and more clearly documented than anything we’ve had before.”

A 1784 entry from Hamilton's cash books documenting the sale of a woman named Peggy (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Hamilton’s connection to slavery is as complex as his personality. Brilliant but argumentative, he was a member of the New York Manumission Society, which advocated for the emancipation of the enslaved. However, he often acted as legal arbiter for others in the transactions of people in bondage.

Serfilippi points out that by conducting these deals for others, Hamilton was in effect a slave trader—a fact overlooked by some historians.

“We can’t get into his head and know what he was thinking,” she says. “Hamilton may have seen enslavement of others as a step up for a white man. That’s the way many white people saw it in that time period.”

Serfilippi works as an interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, New York, the home of Hamilton’s father-in-law Philip Schuyler, a Revolutionary War general and U.S. senator. Her paper came about as part of her research on the many African Americans enslaved by Schuyler. According to the mansion, Schuyler enslaved as many as 30 laborers between his two properties in Albany and Saratoga, New York. Sefilippi initially looked at Schuyler’s children, including Eliza, who married Hamilton in 1780, and as she examined the founding father’s cashbook, the evidence jumped out at her in several places.

One line item, dated June 28, 1798, shows that Hamilton received a $100 payment for the “term” of a “negro boy.” He had leased the boy to someone else and accepted cash for his use.

“He sent the child to work for another enslaver and then collected the money that child made,” Serfilippi says. “He could only do that if he enslaved that child.”

The smoking gun was at the end of the cashbook, where an anonymous hand is settling Hamilton’s estate following his death. That person wrote down the value of various items, including servants. It was a confirming moment for Serfilippi.

“You can only ascribe monetary value to a person you are enslaving,” she says. “There were free white servants who he hired but they were not included there.”

She adds, “Once you see it in his own handwriting, to me there’s really no question.”

An 1893 photograph of Hamilton's estate, the Grange (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In late-18th century New York, according to historian Leslie Harris, the words “servant” and “slave” were often used interchangeably—especially in New York, where enslaved workers were likely to be members of the household staff. Harris, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University, points out it is an important distinction in understanding the many guises of slavery in 18th-century America.

“In casual usage, enslavers used the term ‘servant’ to refer to people they enslaved, especially if they were referring to those who worked in the household—the idea of a 'domestic servant' could be inclusive of enslaved, indentured or free laborers,” she says. “So in reading documents that refer to people as servants, we have to be careful to find other evidence of their actual legal status."

Harris is impressed by the research in Serfilippi’s paper and how it is reshaping the way we view the founding father. “It’s clear that Hamilton was deeply embedded in slavery,” she adds. “We have to think more carefully about this [idea of Hamilton as] anti-slavery.”

Hamilton played an important role in the establishment of the American government and creation of many of its economic institutions, including Wall Street and a central bank. The illegitimate son of a Scot, he was born and raised in the Caribbean, attended college in New York and then joined the Continental Army at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. He eventually became aide-de-camp to General George Washington and saw action at the Battle of Yorktown.

Largely self-taught and self-made, Hamilton found success as a lawyer and served in Congress. He wrote many of the Federalist Papers that helped shape the Constitution. He served as the first Secretary of the Treasury when Washington became president in 1789 and was famously killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

Despite being on the $10 bill, Hamilton remained generally ignored by the public until the publication of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton. The bestseller was read by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who turned it into a watershed Broadway hit in 2015, winning 11 Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.

For the most part, Chernow and Miranda hewed to the accepted dogma that Hamilton was an abolitionist and only reluctantly participated in the sale of humans as a legal go-between for relatives and friends. Though Chernow states Hamilton may have owned slaves, the notion that he was ardently against the institution pervades his book—and not without some support. The belief is rooted in a biography written 150 years ago by Hamilton’s son, John Church Hamilton, who stated his father never owned slaves.

That idea was later refuted by Hamilton’s grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, who said his grandfather did indeed own them and his own papers proved it. “It has been stated that Hamilton never owned a negro slave, but this is untrue,” he wrote. “We find that in his books there are entries showing that he purchased them for himself and for others.” However, that admission was generally ignored by many historians since it didn’t fit the established narrative.

“I think it’s fair to say Hamilton opposed the institution of slavery,” Hogeland says. “But, as with many others who did in his time, that opposition was in conflict with widespread practice on involvement in the institution.”

A portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton's wife (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In an e-mail, Chernow applauds Serfilippi’s “real contribution to the scholarly literature” but expresses dismay over what he sees as her one-sided approach to Hamilton’s biography. “Whether Hamilton’s involvement with slavery was exemplary or atrocious, it was only one aspect of his identity, however important,” he writes. “There is, inevitably, some distortion of vising by viewing Hamilton’s large and varied life through this single lens.”

In her paper, Serfilippi cites the work of other historians who have similarly investigated Hamilton’s past as enslaver, including John C. Miller, Nathan Schachner and Sylvan Joseph Muldoon. Hogeland also cites a 2010 article by Michelle DuRoss, then a postgraduate student at the University at Albany, State University of New York, who claims Hamilton was likely a slave owner.

“Scholars are aware of this paper,” Hogeland says. “It’s gotten around. It predates Serfilippi’s work and doesn’t have the same documentation, but she makes the argument that Hamilton’s abolitionism is a bit of a fantasy.”

Chernow, however, holds steadfast on his reading of Hamilton. “While Hamilton was Treasury Secretary, his anti-slavery activities did lapse, but he resumed them after he returned to New York and went back into private law practice, working again with the New York Manumission Society,” he writes. “Elected one of its four legal advisers, he helped to defend free blacks when slave masters from out of state brandished bills of sale and tried to snatch them off the New York streets. Does this sound like a man invested in the perpetuation of slavery?”

For her part, Serfilippi is taking the attention she is receiving from historians in stride. At 27, she is part of a new breed of researchers who are reviewing now-digitized collections of historical documents to take a fresh look at what happened in the past. She is pleased her discovery is shedding new light on a familiar figure and adding insight into his character.

More importantly, she hopes it will help deepen our understanding of the difficult issue of slavery in the nation’s history and its impact on individuals—the slavers and the enslaved. The driving force for Serfilippi was to get to know and remember the people held in bondage by the founding father. She recounts one correspondence between Philip Schuler and his daughter and the potent impact of learning the name of one of Hamilton’s slaves.

“Schuyler, just in letters to other people, will casually mention enslavement,” she says. “In one letter he writes to Eliza in 1798, ‘the death of one of your servants by yellow fever has deeply affected my feelings.’ He goes on to identify the servant, a boy by the name of Dick.

“That was a shocking moment for me. This is the first and only name of somebody Hamilton enslaved that I’ve come across. It’s something I’ve never stopped thinking about.”

About David Kindy

David Kindy is a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.


Alexander Hamilton - History


Alexander Hamilton, 1805
by John Trumbull
  • Occupation: Lawyer, Politician, First Secretary of the Treasury
  • Born: January 11, 1755 or 1757 Charlestown, Nevis (now St. Kitts and Nevis)
  • Died: July 12, 1804 in Greenwich Village, New York
  • Best known for: One of the Founding Fathers of the United States

Childhood and Early Life

Alexander Hamilton was born on the Caribbean Island of Nevis. His mother and father never married and his father left the family while Alexander was still young. When Alexander was around eleven years old, his mother passed away leaving him orphaned.

Alexander eventually found a home with the merchant Thomas Stevens. He worked as a clerk at a trading firm where he learned a lot about business. When Alexander was fifteen, he wrote a letter describing a hurricane that had occurred on the island. The local leaders were so impressed with his writing they agreed to send him to New York for an education.

Once in New York, Hamilton attended King's College where he became involved in colonial politics. Hamilton often met with fellow patriots at the Liberty Pole at King's College, where they would discuss current issues. During this time, Hamilton also wrote his first political writings in which he defended the patriot's cause.


Alexander Hamilton in the Uniform
of the New York Artillery

by Alonzo Chappel

The Revolutionary War cut short Hamilton's education at King's College. The school was forced to shut down when the British Army took control of New York City. Hamilton decided to fight for the patriots. He joined the New York militia and served as an officer during the Battle of White Plains.

Hamilton's abilities were soon noticed by high ranking officials and he was offered a job as an aid for General George Washington. For the majority of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton served at George Washington's side. He sent letters and managed communications throughout the war, often getting involved in diplomacy and intelligence.

As the war came to an end, Hamilton wanted to once again command a fighting unit. Washington eventually gave Hamilton command of a battalion of light infantry. Hamilton's command played a key role in the victory at the Siege of Yorktown, which led to the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Hamilton left the army and went back to New York. He studied on his own for six months before passing the bar and becoming a lawyer. He also became a member of Congress where he became increasingly frustrated with the lack of power afforded the federal government in the Articles of the Confederation. After leaving Congress in 1783, Hamilton started his own law firm, founded the Bank of New York, and helped to form Columbia College.

The Constitution and the Federalist Papers

In 1787, Hamilton joined the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton's goal was that the Constitution would form a strong federal government. Although, Hamilton was not totally happy with the result, he urged his fellow members to sign the Constitution.

In order to help the states understand the need for the Constitution and to get the Constitution ratified, Hamilton (together with John Jay and James Madison) wrote a series of papers called the Federalist Papers. These papers contained 85 essays. Each essay defended a section of the Constitution. Hamilton wrote 51 of these essays. The Federalist Papers played an important role in the ratification of the United States Constitution.


The Constitutional Convention took place
inside Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Photo by Ducksters

Secretary of the Treasury

In 1789, Hamilton was appointed as the first Secretary of the Treasury by President George Washington. As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton helped to form the financial infrastructure of the United States Government. During his time as Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton established the First Bank of the United States and created plans for the United States Mint. He helped to establish revenue for the government through excise taxes and customs duties. He used this revenue to help pay off the debt the country owed from the Revolutionary War.

Hamilton resigned from the Secretary of the Treasury in 1795. He returned to New York where he worked at his law practice. He continued to remain close friends and an advisor to President Washington. When it looked like war would break out with France, Hamilton took the position as Major General in the army. However, he never led the army to war as peace was established with France.

During the 1804 election for governor of New York, Hamilton supported Morgan Lewis for governor. Morgan Lewis was running against Aaron Burr, who Hamilton did not like. After Morgan Lewis won the election, a newspaper reported that Hamilton had said some mean things about Aaron Burr. Aaron Burr demanded an apology. Hamilton refused to apologize. Each man felt their honor had been insulted. Aaron Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.

The two men met on July 11, 1804. They fought the duel with pistols. Each man fired. Hamilton's bullet hit a tree branch somewhere above Burr's head. Burr's shot hit Hamilton in the body. Hamilton died the next day.


Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
From a painting by J. Mund.

Watch the video: Alexander Hamilton