was born in 1757 on the island of Nevis, in the Leeward group,
British West Indies. He was the illegitimate son of a common-law
marriage between a poor itinerant Scottish merchant of aristocratic
descent and an English-French Huguenot mother who was a planter's
daughter. In 1766, after the father had moved his family elsewhere
in the Leewards to St. Croix in the Danish (now United States)
Virgin Islands, he returned to St. Kitts while his wife and two sons
remained on St. Croix.
who opened a small store to make ends meet, and a Presbyterian
clergyman provided Hamilton with a basic education, and he learned
to speak fluent French. About the time of his mother's death in
1768, he became an apprentice clerk at Christiansted in a mercantile
establishment, whose proprietor became one of his benefactors.
Recognizing his ambition and superior intelligence, they raised a
fund for his education.
In 1772, bearing letters of introduction,
Hamilton traveled to New York City. Patrons he met there arranged
for him to attend Barber's Academy at Elizabethtown (present
Elizabeth), NJ. During this time, he met and stayed for a while at
the home of William Livingston, who would one day be a fellow signer
of the Constitution. Late the next year, 1773, Hamilton entered
King's College (later Columbia College and University) in New York
City, but the Revolution interrupted his studies.
Although not yet 20 years of age, in 1774-75
Hamilton wrote several widely read pro-Whig pamphlets. Right after
the war broke out, he accepted an artillery captaincy and fought in
the principal campaigns of 1776-77. In the latter year, winning the
rank of lieutenant colonel, he joined the staff of General
Washington as secretary and aide-de-camp and soon became his close
confidant as well.
In 1780 Hamilton wed New Yorker Elizabeth
Schuyler, whose family was rich and politically powerful; they were
to have eight children. In 1781, after some disagreements with
Washington, he took a command position under Lafayette in the
Yorktown, VA, campaign (1781). He resigned his commission that
Hamilton then read law at Albany and quickly
entered practice, but public service soon attracted him. He was
elected to the Continental Congress in 1782-83. In the latter year,
he established a law office in New York City. Because of his
interest in strengthening the central government, he represented his
state at the Annapolis Convention in 1786, where he urged the
calling of the Constitutional Convention.
In 1787 Hamilton served in the legislature,
which appointed him as a delegate to the convention. He played a
surprisingly small part in the debates, apparently because he was
frequently absent on legal business, his extreme nationalism put him
at odds with most of the delegates, and he was frustrated by the
conservative views of his two fellow delegates from New York. He
did, however, sit on the Committee of Style, and he was the only one
of the three delegates from his state who signed the finished
document. Hamilton's part in New York's ratification the next year
was substantial, though he felt the Constitution was deficient in
many respects. Against determined opposition, he waged a strenuous
and successful campaign, including collaboration with John Jay and
James Madison in writing The Federalist. In 1787 Hamilton was again
elected to the Continental Congress.
When the new government got under way in 1789,
Hamilton won the position of Secretary of the Treasury. He began at
once to place the nation's disorganized finances on a sound footing.
In a series of reports (1790-91), he presented a program not only to
stabilize national finances but also to shape the future of the
country as a powerful, industrial nation. He proposed establishment
of a national bank, funding of the national debt, assumption of
state war debts, and the encouragement of manufacturing.
Hamilton's policies soon brought him into
conflict with Jefferson and Madison. Their disputes with him over
his pro-business economic program, sympathies for Great Britain,
disdain for the common man, and opposition to the principles and
excesses of the French revolution contributed to the formation of
the first U.S. party system. It pitted Hamilton and the Federalists
against Jefferson and Madison and the Democratic-Republicans.
During most of the Washington administration,
Hamilton's views usually prevailed with the President, especially
after 1793 when Jefferson left the government. In 1795 family and
financial needs forced Hamilton to resign from the Treasury
Department and resume his law practice in New York City. Except for
a stint as inspector-general of the Army (1798-1800) during the
undeclared war with France, he never again held public office.
While gaining stature in the law, Hamilton
continued to exert a powerful impact on New York and national
politics. Always an opponent of fellow-Federalist John Adams, he
sought to prevent his election to the presidency in 1796. When that
failed, he continued to use his influence secretly within Adams'
cabinet. The bitterness between the two men became public knowledge
in 1800 when Hamilton denounced Adams in a letter that was published
through the efforts of the Democratic-Republicans.
In 1802 Hamilton and his family moved into The
Grange, a country home he had built in a rural part of Manhattan not
far north of New York City. But the expenses involved and
investments in northern land speculations seriously strained his
Meanwhile, when Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied
in Presidential electoral votes in 1800, Hamilton threw valuable
support to Jefferson. In 1804, when Burr sought the governorship of
New York, Hamilton again managed to defeat him. That same year,
Burr, taking offense at remarks he believed to have originated with
Hamilton, challenged him to a duel, which took place at present
Weehawken, NJ, on July 11. Mortally wounded, Hamilton died the next
day. He was in his late forties at death. He was buried in Trinity
Churchyard in New York City.