Born into obscurity in the British West Indies, Alexander Hamilton made his reputation during the Revolutionary War and became one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers. He was an impassioned champion of a strong federal government, and played a key role in defending and ratifying the U.S. Constitution.
As the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Hamilton built a financial foundation for the new nation, against fierce opposition from arch rival Thomas Jefferson. The differences between the two men would help shape the nation’s first political parties. Hamilton’s outspoken, polarizing style of politics (and an embarrassing sex scandal) limited his later career prospects, and in 1804 he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, another longtime political foe.
Childhood in the Caribbean
Hamilton was born in either 1755 or 1757 on the Caribbean island of Nevis. His father, the Scottish trader James Hamilton, and mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien, weren’t married. Rachel was still married to another man at the time of Hamilton’s birth, but had left her husband after he spent much of her family fortune and had her imprisoned for adultery.
Hamilton’s father abandoned the family in 1766 and his mother died two years later. Hired as a clerk in a trading company on St. Croix when he was just 11, Hamilton gained wider attention after he published an eloquent letter describing a hurricane that had hit the island in 1772. Locals helped raise money to send him to America to study, and he arrived in New York in late 1772, just as the colonies were gearing up for a war for independence from Great Britain.
Rise from Obscurity
While studying at King’s College in New York (now Columbia University), Hamilton got involved in the colonial cause, writing pamphlets like “A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress,” in which he defended the First Continental Congress’s proposal to embargo trade with Britain. When the Revolutionary War began, he was commissioned to lead an artillery company in the Continental Army and fought bravely in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, among others. By 1777, he had captured the attention of the army’s commander-in-chief, General George Washington, who gave him a position on his staff.
Hamilton’s writing prowess and military skills helped him thrive as Washington’s aide-de-camp, and built his reputation in Revolution-era society. In 1780, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of a wealthy and influential New York landowner and military officer. They would go on to have eight children, and she remained a key source of loyalty and stability for him throughout the many tumultuous years to come.
Hamilton left Washington’s staff in 1781, but returned to the army briefly later that year when Washington gave him a field command at the Battle of Yorktown. In that decisive clash, Hamilton acquitted himself brilliantly, leading a successful assault that contributed to the surrender of British General Lord Charles Cornwallis.
Appointed by George Washington in 1781 to command a light infantry battalion in Marquis de Lafayette’s Division, Hamilton helped lead the attack at the Battle of Yorktown in Yorktown, Virginia, which would become the war’s last major land battle. The siege lasted from September 28 to October 19, 1781, with the French attacking the British fort at Redoubt 9 and Hamilton attacking Redoubt 10 simultaneously. The double-pronged advance led British General Charles Cornwallis to surrender.
“In Hamilton's day, showing courage on the field of battle was one of just a few ways for an unknown person to win fame,” says historian Michael E. Newton, author of Alexander Hamilton: The Formative Years. “Hamilton had a genius and was hard-working but did not come from an illustrious family like most of the Founding Fathers. He knew that winning glory in battle would make him famous and help him further his career.”
Brendan McConville, professor of history at Boston University, adds that Hamilton had always been sensitive about his humble roots so it was important to him to prove himself during the war. “He had been with Washington as a key aide throughout most of the war, but wanted glory on the battlefield,” he says. Hamilton “saw victory on the battlefield as a way to win reputation.”
Initially, according to Newton, command of the assault on Redoubt 10 was given to someone else. Hamilton objected, claiming it was his turn and that he had seniority. “When Washington overturned the previous decision and gave Hamilton the command, Hamilton rushed to his friend and second in command, Nicholas Fish, and exclaimed ‘We have it! We have it!’ ”
The Patriot strategy in the attack was to approach the redoubts “in silence with guns unloaded, encircle the enemy and force them to surrender quickly with few casualties,” according to Newton.
“It was a surprise night assault on a moonless night—they did not want to give themselves away with flashes and the sound of guns,” McConville adds. “Bayonets were to be used to avoid giving away specific locations and silence was ordered.”
The plan worked: Hamilton’s troops took control of the redoubt within 10 minutes and with few American deaths. And the victory earned Hamilton the reputation he sought.
“Hamilton's report of the assault on Redoubt 10 was published in newspapers around the country, but Hamilton made no mention of his own accomplishments that day despite heaping praise on those who served under him,” Newton says. “Lafayette's report of the assault was also printed in these newspapers and he heaped abundant praise upon Hamilton for his actions at Yorktown. As a result, the entire country heard about Hamilton's bravery and leadership.”
Work on the Constitution
After the war, Hamilton studied law, passed the New York bar and set up a practice as an attorney in New York City. In 1787, when a federal convention was held in Philadelphia to overhaul the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton was chosen as one of three delegates from New York. He famously made a six-hour speech about his own plan for a strongly centralized government, drawing criticism that he wanted to create a monarchy.
Though Hamilton ended up having little influence on the Constitution itself, he played an important role in its ratification. Along with James Madison and John Jay, Hamilton published a series of 85 essays defending the new document to the American people. Hamilton wrote no fewer than 51 of these Federalist Papers, and they would become his best-known writings.
Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury
In 1789, Washington was unanimously elected as the first president of the United States; he appointed Hamilton as the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Seeking to provide lasting financial stability for the new nation, Hamilton argued for the importance of a national banking system and the federal government’s assumption of state debts. Hamilton’s financial policies faced strong opposition from Madison and Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, who thought they put far too much power in the hands of the federal government.
Chartered in 1791 and modeled on the Bank of England, the First Bank of the United States succeeded in fueling economic growth and marked the high point of Hamilton’s influence on the new nation. Meanwhile, debate continued to rage within Washington’s cabinet over the balance of power between the federal government and the states. By 1793, when war broke out between Great Britain and France, the divide between Hamilton (who favored neutrality) and Jefferson (who wanted the United States to back France) had begun to shape the nation’s first political parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
Feud with Adams and the 'Reynolds Pamphlet'
Hamilton left his Treasury post in 1795 and returned to his law practice in New York. When Washington stepped down after two terms, Hamilton drafted the majority of his farewell address, which memorably warned about the dangers of excessive political partisanship and foreign influence. Hamilton continued to exert influence behind the scenes in the administration of Washington’s successor, John Adams, and the animosity between them would divide the Federalist party and help ensure victory for Jefferson in the 1800 presidential election.
Before that, any hope Hamilton had of ascending to the nation’s highest office himself had been dashed by his involvement in America’s first prominent sex scandal. In the infamous “Reynolds Pamphlet,” published in 1797, Hamilton went public with his affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, in order to clear his name from any suspicion of illegal financial speculation involving her husband, James.
Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, suffered far worse than this humiliation in 1801, when their eldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel he had entered to defend his father’s name. Philip’s opponent, George I. Eacker, had given a speech in which he accused Hamilton of being a monarchist.
Hamilton’s Rivalry With Aaron Burr
Even beyond his bitter feuding with Jefferson, Hamilton’s combative personality and policy-making style brought him into frequent conflicts. According to historian Joanne Freeman, he was involved in no fewer than 10 affairs of honor (or near duels) before the notorious 1804 duel that took his life.
Hamilton and Aaron Burr had been political opponents since the debate over the Constitution in 1789. Burr angered Hamilton further by running successfully against Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, for the U.S. Senate in 1791. “I fear [Burr] is unprincipled both as a public and private man,” Hamilton wrote in 1792, adding that “I feel it a religious duty to oppose his career.”
He made good on this in 1800, after Federalist divisions led to a tie between Jefferson and Burr, both Democratic-Republicans, in the 1800 presidential election. Even though Jefferson had long been his political rival, Hamilton helped sway Federalists in Congress to vote in Jefferson’s favor to break the tie and defeat Burr.
Largely sidelined by Jefferson as vice president, Burr decided to run for governor of New York in 1804. After he lost, largely due to the opposition of powerful party rivals, the frustrated Burr fixated on a newspaper article, published during the gubernatorial campaign, which claimed that Hamilton had insulted him at a private dinner. He wrote to Hamilton confronting him about the slight. When Hamilton characteristically refused to back down, Burr challenged him to a duel.
On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met on the dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey. Both men fired. Hamilton's shot missed, in fact, some historians believe Hamilton never intended to hit Burr, but meant to “throw away his shot.” Burr’s bullet, however, mortally wounded Hamilton, who died the next day of his injuries.
Centuries later, Hamilton's legacy rose in prominence with the debut of the groundbreaking musical, "Hamilton." The performance, written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, offered a new perspective on the Founding Father's biography by marrying hip-hop with Broadway. It dominated at the 2016 Tony's, winning 11 awards.
Ron Chernow, Hamilton (Penguin, 2004)
Time editors, TIME - Alexander Hamilton: A Founding Father’s Visionary Genius and His Tragic Fate (Time Incorporated Books, 2016)
Kieran J. O’Keefe, “Alexander Hamilton.” Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, Mount Vernon.
Alexander Hamilton, The Essential Hamilton: Letters and Other Writings. Edited with an introduction and commentary by Joanne Freeman (Library of America, 2017)