Biography on Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1757 - July 12, 1804)

Childhood in the Caribbean

Alexander Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis on January 11th, 1757.* In 1765, when Alexander was eight years old, he moved with his parents and brother to nearby St. Croix. Over the next four years, Alexander and his brother would lose every relative they had in the area: besides the deaths of their aunt, uncle, and grandmother, his father permanently left the family around 1766; his mother passed away from an “island fever” in 1768; and the cousin that had taken in Alexander and his brother committed suicide in 1769. Also during this period, Hamilton became a clerk for a trading company. He was so trusted by his boss that at age fourteen Hamilton was left in charge of the entire business for several months while his boss was in New York. Hamilton gained recognition on the island for his remarkable abilities, and he was sent to British North America in late 1772 to attend college on scholarship.

College and the Revolutionary War

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton dressed in his aide-de-camp uniform. Miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1777Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton dressed in his aide-de-camp uniform. Miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1777Hamilton ended up at King's College (present-day Columbia University), but his studies were cut short by the Revolutionary War. He served with distinction during the war, first as a volunteer militia lieutenant, then as a captain of an artillery unit, then as aide-de-camp to George Washington, and finally as a battalion leader. As George Washington's aide-de-camp - an important position he held for over four years - Alexander Hamilton carried out many duties including: serving as a secretary, spy master, French translator, commissioner of prisoner negotiations, principal ghost writer for George Washington, and more. Alexander Hamilton returned to active command for the Battle of Yorktown, and gained recognition as a battle hero after leading a charge on the British fortification Redoubt No. 10. 

Personal Life and Career as a Lawyer

Alexander Hamilton around the time of his wedding. Miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1780Alexander Hamilton around the time of his wedding. Miniature portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1780

Also during the war, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler (December 14, 1780). Over their twenty-four years of marriage, they would have eight children together, in addition to adopting and taking other children into their home. After the war, Hamilton became a lawyer in New York. Throughout his legal career, he had several landmark cases. He fought over 60 court cases for just treatment of British loyalists after the war, starting with Rutgers v. Waddington (1784). This case is also cited as setting the precedent of judicial review. Hamilton argued the first Supreme Court case on the constitutionality of a law (Hylton vs. US, 1796) and defended the freedom of the press (People vs. Croswell, 1804). Even Hamilton’s published law manual, Practical Proceedings in the Supreme Court of New York, was used as a standard text for New York law students for over a century.

Entering Politics

Alexander Hamilton was always a man of letters. While attending college, he had written several notable prewar pamphlets in favor of US independence. By the end of the war, Hamilton was publishing essays that focused on how to re-shape the national government in order to be functioning and stable. With this goal in mind, Hamilton also got into politics. He was appointed to the Confederation Congress (the national government at the time) from 1782-1783 and again in 1788-1789; he served as Receiver of Continental Taxes for New York in 1782; and was also a member of the New York legislature in 1787. He became an intellectual leader of the Federalist Party, which played a major role in shaping the new federal government throughout the 1790s.

Creating the Constitution

From as early as 1781, Hamilton actively advocated improving the Articles of Confederation (the national constitution at the time). At the 1786 Annapolis Convention, Hamilton authored the Annapolis Resolution that officially called for a Federal Convention in Philadelphia - what today is known as the Constitutional Convention. He was elected one of three New York delegates to the Constitutional Convention, during which he served on two important committees. Hamilton was the only New York delegate to sign the final Constitution. To lobby in favor of ratifying the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton oversaw a series of essays known as the Federalist Papers, which he invited James Madison and John Jay to co-author with him. Hamilton was also a lead delegate at the New York Ratifying Convention. At this convention, he often spoke in favor of ratifying the Constitution for several hours per day for over six weeks. His arguments and support for the Constitution were critical to its ratification in New York.

1st Secretary of the Treasury

Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1791Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1791

When George Washington was elected the first president under the US Constitution, he selected Alexander Hamilton as his Secretary of Treasury. To combat the recession, hyperinflation, and large national debt that had accumulated during the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton set out to create a comprehensive economic program. He wrote a series of reports for Congress to be used for creating national laws. His most prominent submissions include the Report on National Credit (1790), Report on a National Bank (1790), Report on Establishing a Mint (1791), and Report on Manufactures (1791). During this time, Hamilton also established the Revenue Cutters (modern-day Coast Guard), the nation's first taxation system, the nation's first custom's service, the nation's first mint, the nation's first planned industrial city, the nation's first national bank, and more. After serving as Secretary of Treasury (1789-1795), Hamilton returned to his law practice but continued to play an influential role in national politics for the rest of his life.

Hamilton as a Founder

Besides being a “Founding Father" of the US, Alexander Hamilton was a founder in many other areas. He founded the Bank of New-York in 1784. He was a founder of the New York Manumission Society in 1785 to promote the freedom of slaves and proper treatment of free blacks. He guided the establishment of the Society for the Establishment of Useful Manufactures to grow manufacturing in the US (1791). During the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800), Major General Alexander Hamilton was George Washington's successor as leader of the national armed forces,  creating the structure and organization for a permanent navy and army. Education was also important to Hamilton. He served on the New York Board of Regents, became a trustee to Columbia University to re-open it after the Revolutionar War (1784); he helped fund the Erasmus Hall Academy, the oldest chartered high school in New York (1786); and he became a trustee of Hamilton-Oneida Academy (today's Hamilton College), the first college that also admitted Indians (1794). In 1801, he established the New-York Evening Post, today the oldest-running daily newspaper in the US.

Death from a Duel

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton was shot in a duel by sitting Vice-President Aaron Burr. Hamilton passed away from the gun wound the following day at the age of 47. He is buried in Trinity Church at Wall Street and Broadway in New York City. 

*Though Alexander Hamilton said he was born in 1757, some historians list Alexander Hamilton’s birth year as 1755 – no definitive proof exists to confirm either date.

THE AHA SOCIETY summarizes "The Essence of Alexander Hamilton's Greatness"TM in two statements:

Alexander Hamilton: George Washington’s Indispensable Partner in War & Peace for over 22 Years

Alexander Hamilton: Created the Vision & Foundations upon which the UNITED States of America Achieved Greatness

Learn more about these two statements

Other Online Biographies

Disclaimer: does not guarantee complete historical accuracy on these third-party webpages. 

To read a slightly extended Hamilton biography, see the US Department of the Treasury article on Alexander Hamilton.

Other brief biographies of interest from:

Interested in reading more? See a list of Hamilton books to browse through published biographies.

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