Who Was Alexander Hamilton?

Alexander Hamilton was a writer, soldier, lawyer, politician, economist, and one of the founding fathers of the United States. During his short life, Hamilton achieved plenty. Some of his biggest accomplishments included helping to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, helping to push through the U.S. Constitution, being appointed the country’s first secretary of the treasury, and revolutionizing the nation’s financial system.

More than 200 years have passed since Hamilton’s life was taken by political rival Aaron Burr. However, he hasn't been forgotten and his legacy lives on in many ways. Hamilton's face graces the $10 USD banknote; there are various statues, place names, and memorials honoring his memory; and he was recently the subject of the hip-hop musical "Hamilton," which offered a new perspective on his story in shaping America and became a huge international success.

Key Takeaways

  • Alexander Hamilton is one of the founding fathers of the United States.
  • His list of achievements include helping to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, getting the U.S. Constitution approved, and revolutionizing the American financial system.
  • Hamilton grew up in poverty, was parentless by 13, and was sent to America to get an education by various benefactors, who were impressed by the talents he showed at a young age.
  • Once stateside, he caught the attention of the nation by writing a series of political pamphlets and becoming a war hero.
  • Alongside George Washington and others, he then proceeded to revolutionize the U.S.
    political and financial landscape.

Early Life and Education

Hamilton was born in January 1755 or 1757, on the Caribbean Island of Nevis, out of wedlock. His mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien, the daughter of a French Huguenot physician, met his father, Scottish trader James Hamilton, after fleeing a troubled marriage that left her penniless, abused, and locked up for adultery.

Hamilton claimed that he was born in 1757, but official documents from Nevis list the year as 1755.

Tough Beginnings

Alexander’s parents eventually settled down and had two kids. Unfortunately, for him and his older brother, a lot of heartache was to follow. By 1766, James Hamilton had abandoned the family. Just two years later, his wife passed away, leaving the two boys essentially parentless before they were barely teenagers.

When he was just 13, Alexander got a job as a clerk at a local trading company run by two New York merchants. Not long after, he was promoted to manager.

Hamilton’s employers and the local community were so impressed by his many talents that they began raising money to send him to America for an education. Among the fundraisers was local newspaper editor Hugh Knox, who was deeply impressed by a letter young Hamilton wrote describing a hurricane that hit the island in 1772.

New York

In 1773, Hamilton arrived in New York and, shortly after, enrolled at King’s College—later renamed Columbia University. While there, he became famous for his series of anonymous pamphlets addressing Anglo-American trade relations, one of which was even attributed to John Jay and John Adams, two renowned American propagandists.

Hamilton’s sense of national pride eventually interrupted his studies. By 1775, the Revolutionary War had begun against the British and he wanted a piece of the action.

Notable Accomplishments

He got it. The next journey of Hamilton’s life marched him into the center of the American Revolution. He became a founder of the new nation that grew out of it and a creator of the economic system we still live with today. After the war, he practiced law, was a delgate to the Constitutional Convention, and became the nation's first secretary of the Treasury. Here is a basic sketch of his most groundbreaking achievements.

Military Hero

When the Revolutionary War began, Hamilton joined the New York Provincial Artillery Company and got a taste of life on the battlefield. He impressed George Washington with his bravery and tactical skill. In 1777, Washington promoted him to to lieutenant colonel of the Continental Army and made him his aide-de-camp. Hamilton spent the next years putting his writing skills to work at the service of the General.

Restless to return to battle, he left Washington in 1781. Later that year, the General gave him command of a battalion that that took part in the assault on Yorktown that resulted in the surrender of British General Lord Charles Cornwallis and the end of the war.

Historian Michael E. Newton claims Hamilton was a “genius” and “hardworking” but had to earn his reputation on the battlefield because he didn’t come from an “illustrious family.”

Work on the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers

Hamilton noticed how divided America’s former colonies were and concluded that the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first governing document, were to blame for this lack of unity in the nation. He would tell his peers that the country needed a powerful central government funded by reliable and regular sources of revenue and became a vocal advocate for the creation of the Constitution, a written charter establishing America’s national government and laws.

In 1787, Hamilton—who had become a lawyer—was elected by the New York state legislature as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Historians note that he didn’t play much of a role in writing the Constitution; the document that was adopted gave far more power to the states than Hamilton favored.

However, he has been credited with helping to get it validated, most notably by penning 51 of the 85 essays known as the "Federalist Papers," a widely read collection of articles that defended the newly drafted Constitution before it was ratified.

In a number of "Federalist Papers" articles Hamilton also laid the groundwork for some of his ideas for the U.S. economy—specifically, revenue, economic prosperity, and taxation. He argued, for example, that a strong union would benefit American commerce, that tax revenue should be raised by both the individual states and the federal government, and that trade should be free among the states.

First Secretary of the Treasury 

Once the U.S. Constitution was approved, George Washington was voted in as the country’s first-ever president and appointed his trusted ally Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury.

When not on the battlefield, Hamilton had studied financial history and developed an admiration for
how the British government managed its economy and hefty national debt. He realized that the new nation would only survive and prosper if its finances were in check and that it was up to the national government to make sure this was the case.

Big changes were implemented under Hamilton’s watch: The country’s first central bank, modeled on the Bank of England, was created; the dollar was set as the nation’s currency; tariffs were introduced on imported goods, and interest-bearing bonds were issued to pay off government debt. These and other measures—which were fiercely criticized by the political opposition, including Thomas Jefferson—revolutionized the country's fortunes, fueled economic growth, and led, among other things, to the birth of Wall Street and U.S. stock markets.

Hamilton eventually stepped down from his position in 1795 but continued to be a trusted advisor to President Washington throughout his two-term tenure and exerted his influence behind the scenes when John Adams became president.

Hamilton revolutionized America’s financial system and helped pave the way for the establishment of securities markets and stock exchanges on U.S. soil.

Controversies and Death

Hamilton’s political career was sometimes held back by his outspoken nature and polarizing beliefs. Quarrels with other politicians, as well as a major scandal, effectively brought his time in the White House and any aspirations of becoming president himself to an end.

While Treasury Secretary, Hamilton had an affair and was accused of sexual harassment. He managed to keep it quiet for a few years, but eventually his secret became public knowledge.

With a damaged reputation, Hamilton returned to the army. He didn’t stay quiet, though. In 1800 Hamilton successfully sabotaged Aaron Burr’s hopes of becoming U.S. president. In 1804, after losing the governorship of New York, an upset Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel in the same spot where Hamilton’s son had been killed while defending his father's honor.

Hamilton reportedly wasted his shot by firing into the air. Unfortunately, Burr wasn’t so generous. His shot proved fatal and killed Hamilton, who was survived by his wife and seven children.

What Is Alexander Hamilton Best Known For?

Hamilton accomplished a lot in his relatively short life. The achievements that are usually publicized most include his role in securing America’s independence and getting the U.S. Constitution signed; his revolutionizing of the country’s financial system; founding the Federalist Party, the first voter-based political party in the United States; and establishing the United States Coast Guard and The New York Post newspaper.

How Did Alexander Hamilton Die?

Hamilton was killed by his political opponent Aaron Burr in a duel. Burr was tired of rumors that Hamilton was badmouthing him, saying he had no principles and basically trying to sabotage his career, and proposed a duel with pistols to settle it. 

The two met early in the morning of July 11, 1804, in the same spot where Hamilton’s son was killed three years earlier. According to legend, Hamilton was reluctant to fire at Burr because of how devastated he was by his son’s death. Burr had no such issues and his shot proved fatal.

Where Is Alexander Hamilton Buried?

Hamilton is buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in downtown Manhattan. His wife Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, who outlived him by 50 years, is buried next to him.

When Was Alexander Hamilton President?

Hamilton was never the president of the United States, although he was the closest aide and advisor to the country’s first president, George Washington, and also helped to shape the policies of his successor, John Adams.

The Bottom Line

Alexander Hamilton’s story impressive, not just because of what he achieved but also because of the obstacles he had to overcome to get there. Americans owe an enormous debt to this one man, who accomplished so much from humble beginnings.