The Outsider: Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy Library of Congress)

On 11 January 1755 or 1757 (the date is uncertain, but for the sake of clarity we shall assume it is 1755) Alexander Hamilton was born to James Hamilton and Rachel Faucett on Nevis Island, a British territory  James was a Scottish merchant and Rachel the estranged wife of John Lavien. Rachel had met James in St. Croix and in 1753 their first child, James Jr., was born. Unfortunately, the two Hamilton children had difficult childhoods. James Sr. apparently couldn’t hold his job and Rachel had to go to work to supplement the family’s income. By 1766 young Alexander was also working. Shortly afterwards James Sr. abandoned his family. In early 1768 Rachel died of fever, leaving the two boys orphans. To make matters worse, Rachel’s ex-husband had taken all of the family’s belongings. However, their meager book collection was purchased by a family friend and given to Alexander, who showed a great interest in knowledge. James and Alexander were adopted by Peter Lytton, but when he committed suicide they were again on their own. Eventually Alexander was adopted, while James was apprenticed to a carpenter.

In 1772 the locals got together and decided to send Hamilton to the Thirteen Colonies where he could receive an education. He was showing promise and proving to be an intelligent lad. Upon his arrival in New England, Hamilton went to work brushing up on his education. He was soon accepted at King’s College (Columbia University today) in New York.

Hamilton had arrived at a tumultuous time. Relations between Great Britian and her colonies had been deteriorating for some time. Hamilton would see that explode into war within a few years. Already he was showing sympathies for the American cause by writing political pamphlets. While he did disapprove of what was happening in the government he wasn’t a hooligan. He considered mob rule a disgrace. In 1776 Hamilton received a captain’s commission in the New York Provincial Company of Artillery. Not long afterwards he became aide-de-camp to General George Washington and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. But Hamilton disliked his new position. There wasn‘t much of a chance of gaining fame while pushing a quill pen across a sheet of paper (much of his time was spent doing paperwork). Despite the drawbacks Hamilton was well-liked and had a number of friends among them the ill-fated John Laurens and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy Wikipedia)

In late 1777 Hamilton met the daughter of General Philip Schuyler, Elizabeth. They married on 14 December 1780 in Albany, New York. By now Hamilton was very set against spending anymore time behind a desk. But Washington wasn’t ready to let go of his brilliant aide. In early 1781 the two had a small quarrel and Hamilton resigned from Washington’s staff. When he couldn’t gain the much coveted field command he began threatening to resign altogether. Washington gave in within a few months and Hamilton got command of a battalion with the New York Second Brigade Infantry. At the Battle of Yorktown Hamilton managed to come out alive and in one piece after a bayonet fight with his opposition. There was one rather unflattering episode though. While arguing with Henry Knox, a British shell went sailing though the air and Hamilton jumped behind the enormous Knox, using the other man as a shelter.

Knox and Hamilton were united in action, however differing in word, for both got behind the blinds, and Hamilton to be yet more secure, held on behind Knox, (Knox being a very large man and Hamilton a small man.) Upon this Knox struggled to throw Hamilton off, and in the effort…[Knox] rolled over and threw Hamilton off towards the shells. Hamilton however scrabbled back again behind the blinds…It was now safe and soldier-like to stand out. “Now,” says Knox, “now what do you think, Mr. Hamilton, about crying shell—but let me tell you not to make a breastwork of me again.”

Just prior to this the two had been discussing whether it was very soldierly to yell “shell” (Hamilton thought it wasn’t) every time a bomb was spotted headed their way. This no doubt ended and decided the argument. Needless to say, if Hamilton needed any vindicating after this humorous incident he made good through his bravery when he and his men took Redoubt 10.

After Yorktown, Hamilton resigned from the army and joined Congress. It was the beginning of a very active political future. As opposed to many of his former comrades-in-arms, Hamilton didn’t do poorly financial-wise. While others languished in debt or in debtor’s prison Hamilton flourished. As a successful lawyer Hamilton made a point of defending Loyalists and their property. When the time came to reconstruct the government, Hamilton supported the US Constitution wholeheartedly and was instrumental in helping gain it’s acceptance (he was one of the writer’s of the famed “Federalist Papers”). During his political career Hamilton gained numerous enemies and was sometimes accused of being a monarchist, which he wasn’t. Because of Hamilton’s ‘foreign’ heritage, he was sometimes viewed as an outsider and susceptible to corruption. But if anyone wanted what was best for the fledgling nation it was Hamilton. In 1789 Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of Treasury of the United States by President George Washington, a position he would resign from in 1795. Among many other thing Hamilton helped to get the US Mint started.

The Hamilton’s had a large family. In all they would have eight children. But the family’s relative complacency was about to be shattered. Philip, the eldest of the Hamilton children, was killed in a duel. He and a friend had gotten into an argument with a Thomas Jefferson supporter (Hamilton and Jefferson didn’t see eye to eye) and in the end, Philip had challenged the other man to a duel. He died after suffering hours of agonizing pain. Hamilton himself was involved in a scandal which ruined his reputation when it came to light. It had been made public in 1797 and Hamilton was forced to reveal all in an effort to save what remained of his good reputation. In 1802 the family moved to their new home “The Grange”, named after Hamilton’s Scottish ancestral home. During the Quasi-War Hamilton was made major-general of the American army. But that came to an end soon when President John Adams reached an agreement with France and the army was no longer needed. Hamilton resigned from his position in June 1800. Around this time Hamilton renewed his connection with the Anglican Church and became a fervent Christian.

Alexander Hamilton (Courtesy Library of Congress)

In 1804 Hamilton’s political opponent, Aaron Burr, challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton had said some unflattering things about Burr at a dinner party and Burr wanted satisfaction. On July 11, the pair met at Weehawken, New Jersey (the same area where Philip had met his death several years earlier). Burr’s bullet found it’s mark and Hamilton was left mortally wounded. He was taken back to New York, where lingered for more than a day, before dying on 12 July 1804.

Source: Hacker, Louis M. Alexander Hamilton in the American Tradition.

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40 thoughts on “The Outsider: Alexander Hamilton

  1. I always thought the fact that Hamilton died in a duel so sad,to have a life wasted like that is awful! You wrote his life up very well,thanks for sharing it with us. :)

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    • Yeah, his life was really cut short. Not to mention he left behind a big family. The youngest child was only about two years old when Hamilton died. Thanks for your comment, I’m happy you liked the post!

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  2. Fascinating … My ancestors were United Empire Loyalists living in the Albany area in the 1770s. This period of history has always fascinated me because of the impact on my own lineage. Thanks for sharing … Dorothy :-)

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    • That’s interesting! There was a book that came out last year, “Liberty’s Exiles” by Maya Jasanoff. I’ve been considering giving it a read. The plight of the Loyalists is a sad and fascinating part of history. Thanks for your comment.

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    • Yes, from what I know of my ancestors (the men in the family fought with Butler’s Rangers) it was a tough slog up to Upper Canada. … Have your read any of Kenneth Robert’s fantastic novels of that period and earlier in New England?

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    • Hello Alesia,

      Nevis is an island in the Caribbean (part of the Leeward Islands, which was mentioned in a previous post). If I recall correctly it ties in somewhere with the island of St. Kitts. Nevis still belongs to Britain, I think.

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  3. To our modern minds duels seem entirely ridiculous, don’t they? I know that slights had to be avenged back then (those sensitive men!) but surely there were better ways to settle their differences. I wonder how many people who had the potential to contribute much to society died in such a pointless way?

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    • Yep, ridiculous is the word. Not sure if this is true, but I had heard dueling was a very popular way to settle disputes in New Orleans, LA.

      That’s a thought provoker. Perhaps some obscure fellows were destined to become heroes or such, and ended up dying in duels? There were quite a few famous people killed in duels, Stephen Decatur for one. Thanks for your comment!

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  4. HI J.G., another great post. I learned so much – His son died in a a duel, in the same area – how strange. I didn’t know he defended loyalist property. That in itself would be a great post, if you haven’t done it already. I just learned last year that many of the loyalists moved to Canada. I always wondered what happened to them. The history books are a little secretive about that. What a great find! Love, love, love it. Marsha :)

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