Although today, we usually remember the Founding Fathers for great speeches and battles, they faced personal triumphs and tragedies that shaped their lives and their legacies. From life-changing moments to personal letters dealing with love and grief, the materials in this exhibition humanize Alexander Hamilton in a way textbooks cannot.
The View from Fort Christiansvaern
Born in poverty on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton moved with his family to Christiansted, St. Croix, when he was ten. By the time Hamilton was thirteen, his father had deserted the family and his mother had died. Hamilton supported himself by working as a clerk for a trading company in Christiansted.
Prospect of Christiansted, ca. 1800
The beautiful island of St. Croix was ravaged by a hurricane on August 31, 1772. It began at sundown and raged for six hours. Gale-force winds tore down trees, destroyed buildings, and flung boats inland. The widespread devastation crippled the Danish colony and left the residents without food. Benefactors in the mainland colonies sent food to the island.
Alexander Hamilton’s Description of the Hurricane
In a letter to his father, which was published in the Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3, 1772, Hamilton wrote a dramatic description of the hurricane. In addition to reporting the events, he demonstrates his eloquence at an early age: “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground.”
Supporters Send Hamilton to New York
Hamilton’s letter impressed many readers. Some of them decided to help further his education. In 1773, they took up a collection and sent Hamilton to schools in New Jersey and New York. There, his talent as a writer helped him play an important part in the coming revolution.
During the American Revolution, George Washington and his army set up winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey. Hamilton, as a military aide-de-camp to Washington, met many influential people. Here, at the home of Doctor Jabez Campfield, Hamilton courted Elizabeth Schuyler in February 1780.
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton
Elizabeth Schuyler was born to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in New York. She had seven brothers and sisters. The romance between Schuyler and Hamilton moved quickly. Within a month of meeting, they decided to marry. Some have speculated that Hamilton had ambitious reasons for marrying into the powerful family, but his letters to “Betsey” prove otherwise.
Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, October 5, 1780
In October of 1780, Hamilton wrote this passionate letter to his Betsey: “You engross my thoughts too entirely to allow me to think of any thing else. You not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream – and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetnesses. ’Tis a pretty story indeed that I am to be thus monopolized, by a little nut-brown maid like you – and from a statesman and a soldier metamorphosed into a puny lover.”
At Washington’s headquarters in Morristown, Hamilton conducted business for the army.He wrote letters and orders for General Washington, helped with strategic planning, and obtained supplies for the army. Hamilton also conducted personal business. He frequently wrote letters to Elizabeth Schuyler and her family.
The Formidable Catherine Schuyler
Catherine Schuyler, Elizabeth’s mother, was a formidable woman. As the British approached her property in 1777, she purportedly burned her wheatfields rather than have the food fall into enemy hands. In April 1780, Hamilton wrote to Catherine Schuyler to assure her of his affection for Elizabeth. He had not yet met Mrs. Schuyler and hoped to convince her that he was worthy of her daughter.
Alexander Hamilton to Catherine Schuyler, April 14, 1780
Hamilton wrote this letter to to Mrs. Schuyler regarding “my union with your daughter.” The formal tone of the letter is meant to impress his future mother-in-law. “I leave it to my conduct rather than expressions to testify the sincerity of my affection for her, the respect I have for her parents, the desire I shall always feel to justify their confidence and merit their friendship ... though I have not the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you, I am no stranger to the qualities which distinguish your character.”
After the surrender of the British forces to General George Washington at Yorktown, Hamilton returned home to the Schuyler mansion in Albany, New York. Hamilton turned his attention to his law practice and political career. It was here that he learned of the death of his best friend, John Laurens.
In August 1782, John Laurens commanded a small group of men near Charleston, South Carolina. Technically, the hostilities had ended at Yorktown in 1781, but the official peace treaty still needed to be signed. Laurens ignored orders and attacked a group of British soldiers who were gathering rice. He was killed during this rash assault and became one of the last casualties of the American Revolution.
Nathanael Greene and Alexander Hamilton Mourn Laurens
Writing to Nathanael Greene, Hamilton expresses his despair. “I feel the deepest affliction at the news we have just received of the loss of our dear and inestimable friend Laurens. His career of virtue is at an end. How strangely are human affairs conducted, that so many excellent qualities could not ensure a more happy fate? ... I feel the loss of a friend I truly and most tenderly loved.”
In 1799, Hamilton and his wife purchased land to build a country house in what is now upper Manhattan. Construction soon began on the Grange, named after his family’s ancestral estates in Scotland and the Caribbean. The quiet house was a refuge from the crowded city and provided him with a place to spend more time with his family.
On November 24, 1801, the Hamiltons’ nineteen-year-old son Philip was killed in a duel with George Eacker. Philip’s death devastated the family. Elizabeth was three months pregnant and doctors feared her grief would cause a miscarriage. Daughter Angelica was very close to her older brother and suffered a nervous breakdown. After the funeral, the Hamiltons retreated to their peaceful home, the Grange, to mourn and try to rebuild their lives.
Benjamin Rush to Alexander Hamilton, November 26, 1801
In this letter to Alexander Hamilton, the Philadelphia physician and reformer Benjamin Rush expresses deep sorrow over the death of Philip Hamilton. “Permit a whole family to mingle their tears with yours upon the late distressing event that has taken place in your family. It may perhaps help to soothe your grief when I add to that united expression of Sympathy, that your Son had made himself very dear to my family during his late visit to Philadelphia ... You do not weep alone. Many, many tears have been Shed in our city upon your Account.”
Developed by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.