7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Alexander Hamilton
7 things you (probably) didn’t know about Alexander Hamilton
Born on the remote Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804) rose from an impoverished upbringing to become one of the founding fathers of America. Today, he is best known for featuring on the $10 bill in the United States and as the subject of the hugely successful musical theatre production, Hamilton. During the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), he became aide-de-camp to George Washington, before gaining military glory at the battle of Yorktown in 1781, a final victory for the American colonies over the British
Alexander Hamilton was a key figure in the ratification of the US constitution and a prolific writer in its defence, and later he served as the first treasury secretary of the United States during Washington’s presidency. He died in 1804 following an infamous duel with sitting vice president Aaron Burr.
As the statesman who laid the foundations of the US government’s financial mechanisms and systems, Alexander Hamilton is a hugely important figure in American history; the impact of his political rivalry with Thomas Jefferson is still seen today. Here, Jem Duducu shares seven facts about Alexander Hamilton…
Alexander Hamilton was a fighter
From virtually the first shots fired in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Hamilton was a volunteer in the rebel militia. By 1776, he had raised a company of artillery in New York and was elected its captain. At the end of the war he had fought in eight separate battles, seven of them between 1776 and 1778, when he became a lieutenant colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington.
As the war rumbled on, Hamilton became frustrated that he was no longer involved on the front lines. That changed when a reprimand by Washington, which in no way spelled disaster for his military career, was used by Hamilton as an excuse to leave Washington’s personal staff to become a frontline officer again. The decision allowed him to fight alongside French units at the siege of Yorktown in 1781. This battle was to be the final victory of the American rebels and French forces over the British in the American fight for independence.
When George Washington became the first president of the United States, he made Hamilton the country’s first secretary of the treasury. This meant that Hamilton was the man who laid the foundations of the US government’s financial mechanisms and systems, including the establishment of a national bank and the US mint.
All governments need to raise revenues through taxation and, as the revolution had shown, Americans didn’t like paying taxes (who does?). One of Hamilton’s earliest tax targets was whiskey (both domestic and imported), which he saw as preferable to taxing land. But the tax was unpopular from the start, especially in rural America where farmers often produced their own whiskey, and opposition became increasingly fierce.
The Whiskey Rebellion lasted for three years from 1791 and forced President George Washington out of military retirement in order to lead troops to quell the uprising. The climax came in July of 1794 at the battle of Bower Hill in Pennsylvania, where hundreds of tax rebels clashed with government troops. Washington and Hamilton both believed that it was imperative to the future of government funding that US troops enforce the government’s authority to collect taxes, and the defeat of the rebellion demonstrated that the government was willing and capable of stopping resistance to the law. Only a handful of people died, but the long, drawn-out affair and its violent climax were due solely to Hamilton’s tax.
Hamilton (and the Americans) didn’t always pay their bills
The French contribution to the rebel cause during the American Revolution wasn’t just another excuse for the French to annoy the British: the help came at a cost. Therefore, after independence had been achieved, France expected America to pay its bills. As the first secretary of the treasury, Hamilton ensured that America honoured its debt.
However, by 1798, two things had changed: firstly, Hamilton was no longer in charge of the treasury; secondly, and more importantly, the French regime that had come to the aid of the rebels had changed. Even after the French monarchy had been overthrown, the United States had continued to pay its debts. Revolutionary France received money from revolutionary America, but by 1798, it had dawned on America that it was honouring a debt that – technically speaking – didn’t exist anymore.
Unsurprisingly, the French saw things differently and when the money stopped coming, the so-called Quasi-War followed. This was a period (1798-1800) under the presidency of John Adams, when French and American ships fought unofficial naval battles in the Atlantic. Although he saw no action, Hamilton came out of retirement and was one of the leaders of the American forces during this period of uncertainty and violence. The reality was that France had bigger fish to fry (such as fighting the Royal Navy threat in the Mediterranean) and hostilities had petered out by 1800, when it was Napoleon who wanted to end what had become an annoyance. The conflict came to an end when both sides signed the Convention of 1800.
Hamilton was an intellectual
Hamilton was a key contributor to the brand-new Constitution of the United States, but almost as importantly, he initiated a project called ‘The Federalist Papers’. This was a collection of essays to explain and support the provisions of the historic document.
During the writing of the Constitution, Hamilton had argued for the president and the senators to have lifetime tenure. This made James Madison, the future president, suspicious of Hamilton, arguing that he was trying to introduce monarchy to the fledgling republic. The debates, while heated, were constructive and as a result, Hamilton signed the final draft and argued eloquently for its implementation.
Along with laying the foundations of US financial institutions, Hamilton established the Revenue Cutter Service to protect the country’s coasts from smugglers who were thwarting another revenue stream for the government; the service was later to become the United States Coast Guard. Starting all of these from scratch, as well as being a vital contributor to the country’s Constitution, shows a remarkably sharp intelligence.
Hamilton was a media mogul
So far we have looked only at Hamilton’s astonishing achievements while he was in government, but he kept himself busy in retirement too. In 1801 he managed to secure $10,000 from a group of investors to fund the launch of the New York Evening Post. Although the name has since changed to the New York Post, it is America’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper.
Hamilton’s motives in starting the newspaper were not entirely philanthropic, and he used the paper to push his political agenda. In 1804, there were a number of articles attacking vice president Aaron Burr. These regular verbal muggings enraged Burr so much that they led to one of the most bizarre moments in American history…
It is not beyond reason to think that the founder and first secretary of the treasury and America’s sitting vice president would be able to have an intelligent conversation about their differences. But that is not what happened in the summer of 1804, when Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton himself said he was “strongly opposed to the practice of duelling”, but Burr had no such qualms and seems to have been intent on killing Hamilton.
The two men met on 11 July 1804, at Weehawken, New Jersey. Burr fatally wounded Hamilton, but he lived long enough to receive a final communion and died in the presence of his friends and family. Hamilton is buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, Burr was charged with murder in the states of New York and New Jersey, but neither case was heard. The vice president of the United States got away with murder… literally. Unbelievably, this wasn’t Burr’s most controversial moment: shortly after leaving his role as vice president, he was tried for treason. He was said to be the head of a conspiracy whose goal was to create an independent country in the heart of the North American continent and part of present-day Mexico. Burr’s version was that he intended to take possession of a farm of around 40,000 acres in the Texas territory, land that had been released to him by the Spanish crown.
Despite no firm evidence, president Thomas Jefferson ordered Burr to be arrested and indicted for treason. While the true intentions of the plan will never be known, Burr was eventually acquitted of the charge, but the accusation of treason, as well as the duel with Hamilton, destroyed his political career.
Hamilton is on the money
The debate about which historic figures should appear on currency is an argument that never pleases everyone. Though Hamilton was undoubtedly a key figure in shaping America and its constitution, and the country’s financial system owes him a huge debt of gratitude, he was not that well remembered in America prior to the hit musical which opened in New York in 2015. He had been on the $10 bill since 1928 but, by the new millennium, this was seen as a rather old-fashioned choice, and the decision was made to replace him with a woman. However, the currency decisions were taking place at the same time as Hamilton the musical was becoming a monster hit. Therefore, in 2016 it was announced that he would remain where he had been and that a woman from American history would appear on the $20 bill instead (bad news for president Andrew Jackson).
Alexander Hamilton was a founding father, statesman, veteran, political intellectual, economist and media tycoon. While all of this is impressive, it may seem like none of it screams ‘hit Broadway musical’. But the rest, as they say, is history.
Jem Duducu is author of The American Presidents in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016). You can find Jem on Twitter and Facebook.
This article was first published by History Extra in September 2017