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Tales of our Country: Who was Alexander Hamilton?

You may have heard his name sung over and over (and over again). That’s because his life and story made for an unlikely musical hit in 2015. But even after all the singing, you may not know who Alexander Hamilton was, what he did, and how he shaped our country.

Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis in either 1755 or 1757 as accounts vary. Hamilton had a tumultuous childhood having been born out of wedlock then orphaned. He was mostly self-educated and began working as a trader at a young age. Following his career path and desiring a life outside of the islands, he took a ship to Boston in 1772 and proceeded to move to New York. In 1773, Hamilton began his formal education at what would become Columbia University. His first involvement in politics came in response to loyalist pamphlets written by clergy who wanted the colonies to remain part of the United Kingdom. He carried this revolutionary spirit to 1776 when he led a unit of artillerymen and was notably part of the Battle of Trenton. 

Eventually, he was invited to serve as George Washington’s aides, handling correspondence with Congress and generals as well as drafting orders and letters for the General. He also took a leading role in diplomacy, intelligence and negotiations.

Eventually he became a field commander until he officially resigned his post in 1782. He was invited represent New York at the Congress of Confederation which formed an early version of our government. After a few years, Hamilton became a vocal leader in replacing the Articles of Confederation, an early version of the Constitution, with a new form of government. He became not only a leader in drafting the Constitution but a strong defender of it, writing several of the “Federalist Papers,” anonymous op-eds encouraging states to ratify the Constitution. 

Hamilton was skeptical of giving all the power to the people. In fact, his initial proposal at Constitutional Convention was to have the president and senators elected for life. His portion of the federalist papers reflect this view, warning of how easily swayed the public can be and advocating for institutions, such as the electoral college and term-limits, that protect the government from sudden shifts and overthrows.

Upon George Washington’s election to the presidency, Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of Treasury. This is where the emergence of two distinct parties began. Hamilton’s ideas largely shaped what would become the Federalist party while rival and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s ideas would lead to the foundation of the Democratic-Republican party. One major point of contention was on the creation of a national bank. Hamilton wanted to establish one whereas Jefferson opposed. The two struck a deal over dinner, according to historian Joseph Ellis, wherein Hamilton’s financial plan would pass Congress (it was being held up by votes from the South) in exchange for moving the capital from Philadelphia to what is now Washington, D.C. Other major differences emerged as well. Jefferson believed that America should be an agriculturally based country where Hamilton strongly favored industry. Hamilton favored a strong central government with a standing army. Jefferson believed power should be reserved for the states. Jefferson was a slave owner where Hamilton was an outspoken abolitionist, working to eliminate slave trading in New York. That being said, he softened his stance on slavery at times for his own political ambitions.

Hamilton was arguably Washington’s closest advisor and was a major influence on Washington’s famed farewell address. Vice President John Adams and Hamilton also did not get along. After Washington stepped down, the plan was for the electors to vote for John Adams and with all but a few using their second vote to pick Thomas Pinckney (making him vice president as he would be the runner up, a part of the Electoral College that was later changed). Hamilton secretly tried to intervene so that Pinckney would receive the most votes with Adams coming in second. This backfired leading to an Adams victory with mutual rival Jefferson being elected his second in command. In 1800, Hamilton tried to defeat both Adams and Jefferson, a 

ploy that only backfired as he hurt Adams chances of reelection and his reputation within the Federalist party. His interference again caused a strange situation with the Electoral College. Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the man who was supposed to receive one fewer vote, actually tied. Hamilton was instrumental in the House choosing Jefferson over Burr, starting what would turn out to be a fatal rivalry. 

In 1804 Burr lost his race to become New York’s Governor, largely in part to Hamilton’s support of the rival candidate. After a series of public attacks on each other’s honor, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, which he initially declined but ultimately accepted. The two arranged to meet on July 11, 1804 near Weehawken, N.J., ironically near where Hamilton’s son had been killed in a duel three years earlier. Hamilton wrote that he intended to throw away his shot, but it was too late. Burr hit him and he soon died. The duel itself is an interesting and important event in American history, but that’s another tale of our country.