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.
Alexander Hamilton: a biography
Born: c1755, the island of Nevis, British West Indies
Died: 12 July, 1804, as the result of an infamous duel with vice president Aaron Burr
Parents: James Hamilton and Rachel Faucette (the pair were unmarried, making Alexander’s birth illegitimate)
Spouse: Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Schuyler Hamilton
Children: Eight. Hamilton’s eldest son, Philip, was also killed in a duel.
Known for: Alexander Hamilton was an indispensable aide to George Washington during the American Revolutionary War (1775-83). Later he was the principal author of the Federalist Papers, becoming a key figure in the ratification of the US constitution and a prolific writer in its defence. He was the nation’s first treasury secretary and a key architect of the modern financial system.
Hamilton was also a central figure in what is commonly referred to as ‘America’s first political sex scandal’, after he was blackmailed by the husband of his mistress, Maria Reynolds. He has since become the subject of an eponymous musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and based on a successful biography by Ron Chernow, in which he is portrayed as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant.
The Hamilton-Burr duel of 1804: what happened and when?
The unique event took place at 7am on 11 July, 1804: the vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, killed a former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamliton, in a duel. Bitter political rivals, Burr read that Hamilton had uttered a “despicable opinion” of him (Hamilton had previously called Burr a cheat, an adulterer, corrupt, and unprincipled), and challenged his longtime enemy. Hamilton, combative, foolishly headstrong and fatally obsessed with honour – a product of his illegitimacy – accepted, despite several opportunities to back down. The evening before the duel he wrote to his wife, “rather I should die innocent than live guilty”. Intent only on defending his honour, not on settling scores, Hamilton declared he would “reserve and throw away my first fire” to allow Burr, an expert shot, “to pause and to reflect”.
The duelists, after they “exchanged salutations”, chose their flintlocks, measured their paces, and fired almost simultaneously. Aiming wide, Hamilton probably fired first, but Burr’s reply tore through his target’s liver and diaphragm, embedding itself in his spine. Hamilton, writhing in agony, cried “I am a dead man”, and collapsed. He was taken to Manhattan, where, drugged with laudanum to soothe the pain, he lived for 31 hours. “If they break this union [of states],” he murmured near the end, “they will break my heart”. As for Burr, he did his best by later hatching a bizarre plot to conquer the southwest and set himself up as a king. He stood trial for treason, but was acquitted, and died in 1836, aged 80 and unlamented.
Listen: Ron Chernow, biographer of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, profiles the man whose life story has become a Broadway smash on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
Here, Jem Duducu shares six surprising 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.
Hamilton’s taxes started a rebellion
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.
In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s eponymous musical, the founding father is remembered as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant, a hero of the American dream. But is the musical a realistic portrayal of Alexander Hamilton? Tom Cutterham argues that the real Alexander Hamilton was an elitist anti-democrat, who used violence to crush dissent… Read about the darker side of Alexander Hamilton
In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s eponymous musical, the founding father is remembered as a scrappy revolutionary immigrant, a hero of the American dream. But is the musical a realistic portrayal of Alexander Hamilton? Tom Cutterham argues that the real Alexander Hamilton was an elitist anti-democrat, who used violence to crush dissent…
Read about the darker side of Alexander Hamilton
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.
The long feud between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began in the 1790s, when the former was President George Washington’s secretary of state, and the latter his treasury secretary. Read more about the Jefferson-Hamilton feud
The long feud between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton began in the 1790s, when the former was President George Washington’s secretary of state, and the latter his treasury secretary.
Read more about the Jefferson-Hamilton feud
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… 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.
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.
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2017