ALEXANDER HAMILTON: THE MAN WHO MADE MODERN AMERICA

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

More than any other founder, Alexander Hamilton foresaw the America we live in now. He shaped the financial, political, and legal systems of the young United States. His ideas on racial equality and economic diversity were so far ahead of their time that it took the nation decades to catch up with them. Hamilton made the early republic work, and set the agenda for its future.

The Immigrant
Born in the West Indies, Hamilton witnessed the death of his mother and worked as a merchant's clerk before being sent to New York to be educated. He was soon caught up in the American Revolution. While his talents and ambition were perfectly suited to the burgeoning energy of New York, he envisioned a unified nation in a way that most of his contemporaries, rooted in home-state loyalties, did not.

Born in Nevis and raised in St. Croix, Hamilton grew up in the heart of the Caribbean sugar economy, which generated vast wealth from slave labor. Hamilton, recognizing the injustice, would become a leader in the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

The St. Croix-based merchant Nicholas Cruger hired young Alexander Hamilton to work for him as a clerk. For Hamilton, Cruger was a link to the world beyond the Caribbean.

As a fourteen-year-old orphan, Hamilton wrote this, his earliest surviving letter, to his friend Edward Stevens, who was studying at King’s College in New York.

“My Ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the grov'ling condition of a Clerk . . . I wish there was a War.”

Community leaders in St. Croix, recognizing Hamilton’s brilliance, collected a fund to send Hamilton to the North American colonies for his education.

Hamilton’s talents and ambition were perfectly suited to New York City, the second-largest town in the thirteen colonies. He enrolled in King’s College (later Columbia University), but his studies were cut short by the American Revolution.

Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780. “I have told you, and told you truly that I love you too much,” Hamilton wrote his bride-to-be. “I meet you in every dream.”

By marrying into the prominent Schuyler family of Albany, New York, Hamilton — who had come from humble origins in the West Indies — secured a place for himself in a world of wealth and power.

Read the full letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.

The Soldier
Hamilton spent much of his life in military uniform. From 1776 to 1781, he fought in seven major Revolutionary War battles as a captain of artillery, a colonel on George Washington’s staff, and a commander of light infantry. In the 1790s, Hamilton was called upon to help build an effective army for the new nation.

When Hamilton arrived in New York, the thirteen colonies had been protesting British taxes and commercial regulations for years. New York City was a hotbed of contending political factions, pitting patriots against pro-British loyalists.

While still a student at King’s College, Hamilton took up the patriots’ cause, writing his first political article in 1774 (he signed himself “A Friend to America”).

War came to New York not long after Hamilton did. In the spring of 1775, he joined a militia company of student volunteers. By March 1776, Hamilton was captain of a New York artillery company.

The company he commanded retreated from New York in the fall of 1776 with Washington’s army, but later fought victoriously at Trenton and Princeton.

This engraving recalls one Revolutionary War veteran’s memory of Hamilton.

“I saw a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender ... with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought.”

In March 1777 Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and appointed to George Washington’s staff. He performed essential tasks, saw firsthand the dire consequences of Congress’s inability to pay for adequate supplies or troops, and forged, with his commander in chief, the most important political bond of his life.

Though Hamilton’s work on Washington’s staff was stimulating and important, it was also confining. He longed to return to the battlefield to win still more glory.

Given a field command by General Washington, Hamilton led a decisive infantry charge at Yorktown, Virginia, against a British redoubt on October 14, 1781.

Five days later, on October 19, 1781, the British surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the war.

Washington and Hamilton desperately wanted to keep the unprepared nation out of the French Revolution in the 1790s.

Washington wrote (with Hamilton’s help) in his Farewell Address, “Why ... entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?”

To maintain neutrality and establish military strength, Washington and Hamilton joined forces to build an effective army.

Although Hamilton kept it secret, he was the ghostwriter for Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, as this draft fragment reveals.

In his Farewell Address, Washington stressed the blessings of the Union and the dangers that threatened it, especially in foreign affairs.

“The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.”

The Lawmaker
Hamilton worked as a lawyer, off and on, from the end of the Revolution until the last year of his life. He earned a living, sometimes made himself unpopular, and forged enduring principles of constitutional law. He lobbied for and then attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Through the Federalist Papers, Hamilton helped persuade a skeptical public to ratify the Constitution.

Hamilton’s wartime experience had shown him the need for a stronger central government. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Hamilton and other like-minded delegates produced a sturdy but flexible governmental structure.

During 1787 and 1788, Hamilton led the campaign to ratify it.

On his notes on the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention, Rufus King recorded snippets of what is otherwise lost: the arguments that the 55 delegates made behind closed doors.

King scribbled down what he could of Hamilton’s remarks in response to William Johnson of Connecticut and James Madison of Virginia on the vexed issue of proportional representation in Congress.

This copy of the first draft of the Constitution belonged to Pierce Butler, a delegate from South Carolina.

Between the first draft and the final version of the Constitution, a momentous change took place. The separate states became “We the People of the United States.” This was Hamilton’s idea.

To take effect, the Constitution had to be ratified by nine states. Hamilton initially planned 25 pro-Constitution essays, written by himself, James Madison, and John Jay, to appear anonymously in New York newspapers.

Eventually 85 essays appeared, known collectively as the Federalist Papers (Hamilton wrote 51, Madison 29, and Jay 5). Historians credit these essays with turning the tide in favor of ratification in New York and elsewhere.

The Economist
Building on his early commercial experience, Hamilton became a brilliant, self-taught economist. America needed him: its load of war debt was crushing. In 1789, Washington appointed Hamilton to be the first Treasury Secretary. By the time Hamilton retired in 1795, the United States, unlike most emerging nations, was fiscally sound and poised to become a major financial power.

In this gloomy letter to a French diplomat, Hamilton expresses frustration at Congress’s inability to raise funds for the army.

“The want of money makes us want everything else.”

Read the letter on the Gilder Lehrman website.

In 1784, Hamilton helped create the Bank of New York, one of the nation’s first private banks. He offered ideas, not money: he owned only one share of stock, but drafted the bank’s founding documents and served as its legal advisor.

In 1790, Treasury Secretary Hamilton presented to Congress two reports on public credit, one of which suggested the establishment of a national bank.

In the first report, shown here, Hamilton proposed a way to pay off America’s lingering war debts and to bring the nation into the modern financial era.

View the report on the Gilder Lehrman website.

Hamilton implemented a controversial law authorizing the federal government to assume debts that individual states had incurred during the Revolution. The assumption of the debts, a central plank in Hamilton’s economic reforms, was essential to the young nation’s fiscal health.

In their first years of independence, Americans conducted business with a bewildering array of coins and currencies. In his Report on the Mint (1791), Hamilton insisted on “the uniform preservation of the intrinsic value of the money unit.” He resolved the chaos into a single strong currency.

During Hamilton’s tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, America began striking its own coins in earnest, leading to greater political and economic unity.

The Futurist
Both intensely idealistic and acutely practical, Hamilton foresaw aspects of American life that lay far in the future. Though he devoted years to business and battle, his best work was the thinking, writing, and planning he did for his adopted nation. The America Hamilton came to was a land of farms, many of them worked by slaves. Hamilton had a different vision. He foresaw a diverse economy, offering opportunity for the full variety of human talents. He worked to end slavery. These visions, expressed during his life, would not be fulfilled until long after his death.

Unlike Jefferson, who idealized agrarian society, Hamilton argued that manufacturing and commerce were integral to modern economies. Hamilton believed that a diverse economy would make the nation wealthy and fulfill the potential of its citizens.

In 1791, Hamilton helped found the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which planned to make Paterson, New Jersey, a center of industry, producing everything from hats to iron wire.

Although this particular project failed, Hamilton led his contemporaries in envisioning industrial growth in America.

In Hamilton’s time, much of the labor of America, in the North as well as the South, was done by slaves. Hamilton wanted to end the pernicious and degrading institution of slavery.

Slavery, he wrote as early as 1774, “relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape.”

In 1785 Hamilton and 31 other prominent New Yorkers founded the New-York Manumission Society, dedicated to ending slavery.

The Society adopted this credo: “[T]hose, among us, who are held as Slaves ... are by Nature, as much entitled as ourselves” to liberty.

Shortly after its founding, the Manumission Society established the African Free School, which provided practical and moral education for African American children and, later, adults.

The Duel and Hamilton’s Legacy
Throughout his life, Hamilton overcame heavy odds. To put his projects into effect, he had to persuade or defy great but often uncomprehending colleagues — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. He was hampered by scandal and controversy, some of it his own fault. He was killed when he was only 49 in a duel. But through a combination of intelligence, hard work, and high principle, he served his adopted country brilliantly.

Affairs of honor,” disputes that sometimes ended in duels, were common in late 18th-century America. One signer of the Declaration of Independence and two signers of the Constitution were killed in duels.

Men fought duels when they felt their honor had been impugned, and though dueling was illegal, duelists were not prosecuted, since juries would not convict them.

Hamilton was a principal in seven affairs of honor in his life. Of the seven, one ended in a duel — and ended his life.

Hamilton and Aaron Burr had long been at odds. With Jefferson and Burr tied in the presidential election of 1800, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives, Hamilton urged Federalists to back Jefferson.

In this letter, Hamilton drops a political bombshell. “In a choice of evils ... Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr.”

Burr never forgot who had cost him the presidency.

Knowing the expected duel (sometimes referred to as an “interview”) could mean his death, Hamilton prepared a letter for his wife, Elizabeth.

“If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible.”

On July 11, 1804, Hamilton and Burr met at Weehawken, New Jersey, shortly after dawn. The pistols, which belonged to John Church, Elizabeth Hamilton’s brother-in-law, had been used in Hamilton’s son Philip’s fatal duel three years earlier.

Following protocol, Hamilton and Burr stood twenty paces apart, and fired at the command “Present.” Hamilton’s shot went high and wide. Burr’s pierced Hamilton’s abdomen and lodged in his spine. Hamilton was rowed to Manhattan, where he died the following day.

Hours after the duel, Angelica Church. Hamilton’s sister-in-law, wrote to her brother to break the news, expressing her hope for Hamilton’s recovery.

“I have the painful task to inform you that General Hamilton was this morning woun[d]ed by that wretch Burr but we have every reason to hope that he will recover.”

Her hasty scrawl reveals her distress. Read the entire letter at the Gilder Lehrman website.

Hamilton’s body was escorted through the streets of lower Manhattan to Trinity Church by military, political, and civic leaders, as well as the ordinary citizens of the city.

As this obituary from July 21 eloquently states, “Never was a death more sincerely and justly lamented; his loss will be sensibly felt throughout the entire United States.”

Burr outlived Hamilton by 32 years. He is remembered mainly for the duel with Hamilton, though he had a lengthy and complex political career, including a brief stint as vice president and a charge of treason.

Elizabeth survived her husband by a full fifty years. She spent those decades doing charitable work and laboring to preserve Hamilton’s reputation and secure his legacy. She co-founded and served as deputy director of New York’s first private orphanage. In 1848, she and Dolley Madison raised funds to build the Washington Monument.

Hamilton shaped the financial, political, and legal systems of the young United States. His ideas on racial equality and economic diversity were far ahead of their time. We live in the world he made.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Credits: Story

Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Adapted from Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America traveling exhibition. Based on the original exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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