Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757 – July 12, 1804) was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He was a leader during the American Revolutionary War and participated in the Constitutional Convention that created the U.S. Constitution.
Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Charlestown, Nevis in the West Indies. He was orphaned as a child and later immigrated to New York in 1772, where he received an education and eventually entered Columbia University. He was an influential figure in the Revolutionary War through his service as George Washington’s aide-de-camp as well as his military leadership at crucial battles.
After the war, Hamilton served as the first Secretary of the Treasury under President Washington. He instituted financial policies that strengthened the federal government and remain influential today, including the establishment of a national bank. Along with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers, which helped secure ratification of the Constitution.
Hamilton was involved in bitter political rivalries throughout his career and his life ended abruptly when he was killed in an infamous duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804 at the age of 47 or 49. Hamilton’s vast contributions have secured his legacy as one of the most important Founding Fathers of America.
Early Life in the Caribbean
Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, the second of two boys. His exact birth year is unclear, with historical records pointing to both 1755 and 1757 as possibilities. Hamilton himself maintained that 1757 was his year of birth.
His parents were Rachel Faucette, who was of French Huguenot descent, and James Hamilton, the fourth son from a Scottish noble family. Because Rachel and James were not legally married, Alexander was denied many privileges and faced social barriers as a child born out of wedlock.
When Hamilton was 10, his father abandoned the family. Just two years later, his mother died of fever, leaving Alexander and his older brother James Jr. orphaned. After a brief period living with relatives, the two boys were essentially left to fend for themselves. They performed odd jobs and other work before their relatives arranged for family friends to look after them.
The Early Challenges Hamilton Faced
- Born out of wedlock, facing social stigma
- Father abandoned the family when Hamilton was 10
- Mother died two years later when Hamilton was 12
- Hamilton and older brother left orphaned and without family resources
- Faced period of hardship and instability before taken in by family friends
This childhood of loss, dislocation and overcoming adverse circumstances shaped Hamilton’s scrappy, ambitious nature and drove him to make his mark on the world.
Adolescence and Education
The tragedy of his youth inspired Hamilton to better himself. As a bright, driven teenager engaged in trading commodities throughout the Caribbean, he longed for a more promising future than Nevis could offer.
At around 17 years old, Hamilton impressed St. Croix community leaders with an eloquent speech describing a ferocious hurricane that had struck the island in 1772. Impressed locals, spearheaded by Presbyterian minister Hugh Knox, took up a collection to fund Hamilton’s travel to North America for education.
Arriving in New York in late 1772, Hamilton enrolled at Elizabethtown Academy in New Jersey. He was self-conscious about his foreign status and humble roots but his intellectual brilliance shone through. After just one year, he applied to and was accepted at King’s College, known today as Columbia University.
Revolutionary War Service
While a student at King’s College in 1775, tensions erupted between American colonists and the British government. Against these brewing revolutionary stirrings, Hamilton penned essays and pamphlets articulating American rights and condemning British tyranny. He soon became deeply involved with New York’s early revolutionary activities.
When armed conflict broke out in the Battle of Lexington in April 1775, Hamilton joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Hearts of Oak, achieving the rank of Lieutenant. Eager for action and glory, he petitioned New York colonial authorities for a field command in the Continental Army.
Rebuffed because of his youth and inexperience, Hamilton pushed for a solution by writing to prominent New York politician and Continental Congress delegate John Jay. Jay introduced him to George Washington, commander of the Continental forces, who invited Hamilton to become part of his military “family” staff in 1777.
Hamilton’s Early Military Service
- Joined New York volunteer militia in 1775
- Petitioned for Continental Army command at age 21, denied due to youth
- Joined George Washington’s staff in 1777 at age 22
- Served as Washington’s aide-de-camp and confidante throughout war
As Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton handled the general’s correspondence and authored many influential letters and reports. This role exposed him to high-level discussions of strategy and command.
Eager to see combat rather than just write about it, Hamilton was granted command of a New York artillery company in early 1777. He led bold assaults at Trenton and Princeton, where his troops captured enemy cannons. After months of petitioning, he was finally given approval to lead infantry troops at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778.
Frustrations and Turning Points
Hamilton long aspired to greater glory than his staff position could provide. He wrote to Congress and political elites like Jay for support in obtaining a field command, at times to Washington’s annoyance.
His opportunity emerged when political rival General Charles Lee’s disastrous retreat at Monmouth infuriated Washington. When Lee disparaged Washington’s leadership and demanded an apology, Hamilton staunchly defended his commander.
With Lee disgraced, Hamilton aimed for the vacant Major General post but was passed over due to his youth and lack of combat leadership. Incensed, he threatened to resign but Washington convinced him to stay, assuring Hamilton he would have opportunities.
Hamilton’s Wartime Frustrations
- Aspired to field command glory, not just staff role
- Congress/Washington repeatedly denied him senior commands due to age and limited experience
- Furious when passed over for Major General post after defending Washington against Charles Lee
- Nearly resigned but Washington promised future opportunities
True to his word, Washington gave Hamilton command of a new light infantry corps in late 1779. Hamilton led daring raids like his victorious surprise attack on Redoubt No. 10 at Yorktown, underscoring his reputation for bravery bordering on recklessness. By war’s end, despite limited battlefield action, Hamilton was one of Washington’s most trusted advisors and effective commanders.
The New Nation
With independence won, Hamilton focused his prodigious talents on shaping the new United States government. His controversial policies and visions of federal power still impact America today.
Hamilton was selected as one of New York’s delegates to the momentous Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during summer 1787. There, he spent over 4 months passionately arguing for a strong centralized federal government empowered to collect taxes, raise armies, manage interstate affairs and global commerce.
Hamilton’s Constitutional Convictions
- Favored strong central government over states’ rights
- Wanted empowered federal taxation, military, judiciary and trade oversight
- Feared anarchy and collapse without unifying federal authority
- Sought American version of British political and economic system
Hamilton vocally opposed states’ rights advocates who prioritized local authority. He also rejected depicting slavery for representation purposes, compromising with the Three-Fifths Clause for taxation. While the Constitution did not wholly reflect his vision, its final form did allow the possibility for robust federal governance.
To support ratification of the proposed Constitution, Hamilton orchestrated the Federalist Papers project alongside John Jay and James Madison in 1787-88. The essays explaining and promoting this new governmental framework were enormously influential during the ratification debates in states across the country.
While his collaborative Federalist Papers were published anonymously at the time, Hamilton authored at least two-thirds of the 85 total essays. He was also elected as a New York delegate to ratify the Constitution after eight other states had already done so.
Hamilton’s Federalist Papers Role
- Co-authored the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) with Madison and Jay
- Wrote 51 of 85 total essays, over any other writer
- Papers explained the logic and benefits of the Constitution
- Proved hugely impactful in securing ratification nationally
With the Constitution ratified and George Washington assuming the presidency in 1789, Hamilton hoped for a powerful position molding the policies of the new federal government. Instead he received the disappointing appointment of Secretary of Treasury.
Hamilton, however, transformed the Treasury role into arguably the most influential Cabinet position. Among his major economic policies with enduring national effects.
Alexander Hamilton’s visionary leadership and prolific contributions were critical to both winning American independence and forming the governmental framework of the United States.
His extraordinary career was marked by overcoming significant childhood adversity, military valor, staunch Constitutional principles, transformative policymaking, and bitter personal rivalries. Hamilton profoundly shaped early America through his service in the Revolutionary War, Constitutional Convention, championing of ratification, co-authorship of the Federalist Papers, and tenure as the inaugural Treasury Secretary.
While Hamilton’s life met an abrupt end at age 47 in an infamous duel against the Vice President, his monumental historical impact lives on. From his central banking system to federal taxation powers, Hamilton’s actions strengthened the federal government in ways almost akin to a modern Prime Minister. Given his youthful immigrant background, the sheer scale of his contributions is even more astounding.
Alexander Hamilton was unquestionably an indispensable Founding Father, with few peers among even the greatest revolutionary American statesmen. His national financial architecture and vision for federal authority played pivotal roles in ensuring stability, unity and economic growth in the early United States that resonate over two centuries later.
Frequently Asked Questions About Alexander Hamilton
What is Alexander Hamilton best known for?
Alexander Hamilton is best known as one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers who served as a Revolutionary War aide to George Washington, authored the majority of the Federalist Papers, was the country’s first Treasury Secretary, and established crucial early economic policies that strengthened the federal government.
Why is Alexander Hamilton important?
As an early advocate for American independence, Hamilton’s prolific writings articulated colonial grievances and desire for sovereignty from Britain. During the Revolution, his leadership as Washington’s aide and military commander was indispensable.
His Federalist Papers essays and advocacy secured Constitutional ratification. As Treasury Secretary, Hamilton’s visionary fiscal programs provided credibility, tax revenue, and financial power to the young nation.
What was Alexander Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention?
Hamilton was an active delegate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He gave lengthy speeches calling for a strong centralized federal government empowered to levy taxes, regulate commerce, raise a national military, and oversee affairs in the states.
Hamilton opposed decentralization of power favored by Thomas Jefferson and opposed concessions permitting slavery. While the final document did not wholly reflect Hamilton’s preferences, it did allow for robust federal governance.
Was Alexander Hamilton a Federalist or Anti-Federalist?
Alexander Hamilton was one of the nation’s preeminent Federalists, favoring increased federal centralized power over state and local control. His essays written in support of ratifying the U.S. Constitution as part of the Federalist Papers furthered Federalist causes and policy visions of federal supremacy.
What was the cause of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr?
In 1804, after enduring years of criticism from Hamilton, Vice President Burr seized on comments at a dinner party that Burr alleged damaged his reputation. Burr demanded an apology, Hamilton refused, and Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel.
Hamilton met Burr at dawn in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11. Hamilton fired his pistol harmlessly into the air but Burr’s shot mortally wounded Hamilton, leading to Hamilton’s death the next day at age 47.