The American Revolution through the Eyes of Hamilton

The American Revolution provided Alexander Hamilton with an opportunity to excel. He made speeches and published pamphlets, fought in the army, and assisted General George Washington.  He was an active participant in both the politics and the war that created the United States.

St. Croix

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. The white building on the right is the Danish colony’s original church and the yellow building is a warehouse similar to the one owned by the company Hamilton worked for.

View of Harbor Square in Christiansted (Danish Archives) (12/19/1904) by Beenfeldt, Henrik GottfredThe Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Hamilton’s Early Life in Christiansted

This 1815 print of Christiansted shows the city as the active commercial port where Hamilton lived and worked in his teens. The two buildings in the foreground and the fort on the top right still exist today. Hamilton was not content with the life of a clerk in this town, and saw few opportunities for himself if he stayed there.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Edward Stevens (Courtesy of the Library of Congress) (1769-11-11) by Hamilton, Alexander (ca. 1757-1804)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Hamilton Expresses His Ambitions

In the eighteenth century, the military provided men with a way to improve their standing in society. In 1769, Hamilton wrote to his friend Edward Stevens, “My Ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the groveling condition of a Clerk...I wish there was a war.”

New York, NY

City Hall Park (New York Public Library) (1905-01-27)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

City Hall Park (formerly the Commons)

The Commons was an open meeting space near present-day City Hall in New York City. Americans gathered here to listen to speeches and and discuss politics. In this public arena, Alexander Hamilton debated ideas and argued for revolution long before the military campaign began.

A Plan of the City of New York & Its Environs (1775) by Montrésor, John (1736-1799)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Shaping the Revolutionary Message

This map shows New York City in 1775, when it was the second largest city in the thirteen colonies. At the left is Fort George overlooking the North or Hudson River. The green triangle on the top right is the Commons.

The Farmer Refuted (New-York Historical Society) (February 23, 1775) by Hamilton, Alexander (ca. 1757-1804)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Hamilton’s War of Words against the Crown

As a college student, Hamilton was one of many patriots who participated in a “pamphlet war” with loyalists. In 1775, he published The Farmer Refuted, in which he argues that Parliament’s actions were “subversive of our natural liberty.” The pamphlet circulated throughout the colonies, reaching a wide readership.

Philadelphia, PA

Independence Hall

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was centrally located in the North American colonies. In May 1775, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress met here at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. The Battle of Lexington and Concord in April had effectively started the American Revolution. While the Continental Congress attempted to negotiate with the British government, they also prepared for war.

A Plan of the city and environs of Philadelphia (11/11/1904) by Faden, William (ca. 1750-1836)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The State House in Philadelphia, 1777

Over the next year, the delegates gradually moved toward a desire for complete separation from Great Britain. In June 1776, a committee of five men—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman—met and began to draft a document calling for independence. Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence, which was presented to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1823) by Stone, William J. (d. 1865)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence sets forth the revolutionary ideas that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even before independence was declared, Hamilton joined the military as captain of an artillery company.

Washington Crossing, PA

On Christmas Day in 1776 the American Revolution was on the verge of collapsing. Since declaring independence, the American forces had been driven from New York to Pennsylvania. Washington knew that a victory was needed to raise the Americans’ morale and turn the tide of war. With winter setting in and thousands of enlistments expiring, Washington’s time was running out. He decided to attack Trenton, New Jersey, a nearby town guarded by only fifteen hundred Hessians, German mercenaries fighting for the British. The Battle of Trenton was one of the major American victories that Hamilton took part in as a soldier.

Washington Crossing the Delaware (Metropolitan Museum of Art) (1/24/1905) by Leutze, Emanuel (1816-1868)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

On December 25, 1776, ice floes and a brutal winter storm made the Delaware River almost impassable. Hamilton served in the artillery and helped to transport cannon across the river in the boats. Once Washington’s troops reached New Jersey, hail and high winds pounded them as they marched to Trenton. Hamilton was ill but forced himself out of bed to participate in the important battle.

George Washington's orders to attack Trenton (December 25, 1776) by Knox, Henry (1750-1806)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Washington’s Orders for the Battle of Trenton, New Jersey

These detailed orders outline the troop movements to Trenton. Washington planned each detail of the march and gave his men permission set houses on fire if they met with resistance. Washington underscores the severity of the situation by warning his troops to exercise “a profound silence” and remain in their ranks “on pain of Death.” Washington’s victory at Trenton gave American troops a huge lift in morale. Soon after this battle, Hamilton was promoted to lieutenant colonel and joined Washington’s staff.

Albany, NY

The Schuyler Mansion

On December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler. In 1781, he was given command of an infantry battalion under the Marquis de Lafayette and headed south to Virginia with the army to confront British General Cornwallis. Although it was common for wives to follow their husbands in the army, Hamilton instructed Eliza to stay here, at her family’s home in Albany.

Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler (August 25, 1781) by Hamilton, Alexander (ca. 1757-1804)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, August 25, 1781

As Hamilton left for the Southern Campaign, he not only had a wife to worry about, but as this letter reveals, a baby on the way. He asks Eliza to forgive him for not taking her on the expedition with him. “Don’t think me unkind for not talking of your making a journey to the Southward. It would put us to a thousand inconveniences and would in fact be of no avail; for while there I must be engrossed in my military duties. Heaven knows how much it costs me to make the sacrifice I do.”

Yorktown, VA

Yorktown Battlefield

In September 1781, Washington’s army and a French fleet trapped British General Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown, Virginia. Cornwallis expected reinforcements from New York, but they never arrived. The Siege of Yorktown lasted for three weeks and ended with the surrender of Cornwallis’s forces. The American victory was the last major battle of American Revolution. The fortification shown here is a recreation of Redoubt 9. The wall of the fortification was once protected by chevaux de frise (sharpened trees to impale attackers). Redoubt 10, attacked by Hamilton, was nearby.

Map of Yorktown [Detail of Redoubt 10] (February 1782) by Bauman, Sebastian (1739-1803)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Hamilton’s Charge on Redoubt 10

This map drawn after the victory marks the location of each American unit and the British fortifications. Colonel Alexander Hamilton was charged with the attack on Redoubt 10, marked “K” on the map, near the York River. Hamilton led 400 men, armed with bayonets, up and over the wall of the fortification.

Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette (Library of Congress) (October 15, 1781) by Hamilton, Alexander (ca. 1757-1804)The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Hamilton’s Report on the Battle of Yorktown

The day after the battle, Hamilton reported on the bravery of the men under his command and their actions in the attack on Redoubt 10. This humble report does not adequately capture the frenzied attack that Hamilton and his troops made on the British stronghold. On October 14, 1781, Hamilton finally won the glory in battle that he had sought twelve years before.

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