Hamilton 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.
The mother, 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
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 November.
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 finances.
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.
(National Archives and Records Administration)