Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the United States, was born on January 11 in either 1755 or 1757, on the Caribbean island of Nevis in the British West Indies. Hamilton claimed 1757 as his birth year, but probate papers recorded shortly after his mother’s death indicate that 1755 is the correct year. Hamilton was born out of wedlock and his father abandoned the family in 1765. His mother died in 1768, leaving him an orphan at a young age.
Despite his impoverished childhood, Hamilton was hard-working and dreamed of military glory. In 1769, while employed as a clerk at a trading company on St. Croix, Hamilton wrote a letter to his friend Edward Stevens that captures his restless drive and ambition:
…my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station…. I wish there was a War.
Alexander Hamilton to Edward Stevens, November 11, 1769. General Correspondence, 1734-1804; 1734-1772. Alexander Hamilton Papers. Manuscript Division
Hamilton’s life changed forever when his account of a destructive hurricane was published in St. Croix’s Royal Danish American Gazette in 1772. Impressed by Hamilton’s writing talents, the local business community raised money to send him to America to be educated.
In 1773, Hamilton studied at the Elizabethtown Academy, a college preparatory school in New Jersey, and then enrolled at King’s College (now Columbia University). As a student he became involved in the revolutionary cause and spoke out against British rule at rallies. He also published two influential pamphlets: A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress and The Farmer Refuted.
Hamilton left school before graduating and was appointed captain in a New York artillery company in 1776. The following year he was appointed aide-de-camp to George Washington with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and became one of Washington’s most trusted aides throughout the Revolutionary War. Still, Hamilton dreamed of glory on the battlefield and resigned his staff position in 1781. Later that year he was finally rewarded by Washington with a field command at the Battle of Yorktown, where he led a heroic assault on a British redoubt.
In December 1780, Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of Philip Schuyler. Hamilton was then associated with one of New York’s wealthiest and most distinguished families, giving him social status and political connections that would further advance his career. After serving for a year as a delegate in the Continental Congress, he resigned in 1783 and, having trained himself in the law, opened a successful law practice in New York City.
Frustrated by the weak central government under the Articles of Confederation, Hamilton attended the Annapolis Convention in 1786, which led to the Constitutional Convention the following year in Philadelphia. Hamilton went on to serve as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention, where he delivered a six-hour speech in favor of a strong national government. After the convention, he joined forces with James Madison and John Jay to write a series of essays urging ratification of the Constitution. Known as the Federalist Papers or The Federalist, these eighty-five essays are considered one of the most important sources for understanding and interpreting the original intent of the Constitution.
After the formation of the new government in 1789, President George Washington selected Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury. Confirmed by the Senate on September 11, 1789, Hamilton made his first order of business the creation of a financial plan for the nation. He proposed that the federal government assume state debts incurred during the American Revolution. This proposal led to a contentious debate in Congress, until a compromise was worked out with Congressman James Madison and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. In exchange for locating the new capital on the Potomac River, Madison agreed not to block Hamilton’s debt plan.
Hamilton’s proposal for a national bank also caused sharp disagreements within President Washington’s Cabinet. Hamilton argued that the implied powers granted by the Constitution allowed for the bank’s creation. In opposition, Jefferson believed that creating a national bank exceeded the powers of the federal government as expressed in the Constitution. Washington eventually sided with Hamilton’s position and the First Bank of the United States was chartered on February 25, 1791.
Hamilton resigned as treasury secretary in 1795 and returned to his law practice in New York City. Although retired from government, Hamilton served as the de facto head of the Federalist Party throughout the John Adams administration. In 1798, Hamilton was appointed inspector general of the army with rank of major general during the Quasi-War with France.
In 1800, Hamilton attempted to thwart the reelection of President John Adams by supporting Charles Cotesworth Pinckney as the Federalist alternative. When the presidential election of 1800 ended in a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, the contest was thrown to the House of Representatives. Hamilton, believing that Burr lacked fixed principles and was too ambitious to be president, worked behind the scenes to end the deadlock in Jefferson’s favor, despite their longstanding political rivalry.
After Hamilton actively opposed Burr’s candidacy in the New York gubernatorial election of 1804, Burr challenged him to a duel. Blaming Hamilton for his defeat, Burr accused Hamilton of publicly insulting him during the campaign. On July 11, 1804, on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey, Hamilton was mortally wounded by Burr. In his final letter to his wife, Elizabeth, written a week before he died, Hamilton wrote:
I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel…. Adieu best of wives and best of Women.
Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, July 4, 1804. General Correspondence, 1734-1804; 1804. Alexander Hamilton Papers. Manuscript Division
- The Alexander Hamilton Papers consist of his personal and public correspondence, drafts of his writings (although not his Federalist essays), and correspondence among members of the Hamilton and Schuyler families. The collection, consisting of approximately 12,000 items dating from 1708 to 1917, documents Hamilton’s impoverished Caribbean boyhood (scantily); events in the lives of his family and that of his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton; his experience as a Revolutionary War officer and aide-de-camp to General George Washington; his terms as a New York delegate to the Continental Congress (1782-1783) and the Constitutional Convention (1787); and his careers as a New York state legislator, United States treasury secretary (1789-1795), political writer, and lawyer in private practice. Most of the papers date from 1777 until Hamilton’s death in 1804.
- Alexander Hamilton: A Resource Guide compiles links to digital materials related to Hamilton such as manuscripts, letters, broadsides, government documents, and images, that are available throughout the Library of Congress website. In addition, it provides links to external websites focusing on Hamilton and a selected bibliography.
- View the feature on Alexander Hamilton in the January This Month in Business History.
- Search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to find a wide variety of material related to the proceedings of the Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, and the United States Congress. The American State Papers contain the legislative and executive documents of Congress during the period 1789 to 1838, including Hamilton’s First Report on Public Credit, January 14, 1790; Report on a National Bank, December 13, 1790; and Report on Manufactures, December 5, 1791.
- Search the George Washington Papers to find hundreds of items to, from, or referring to Alexander Hamilton. Many of these materials document Hamilton’s work as Washington’s aide-de-camp during the American Revolution, as well as Hamilton’s service as secretary of the treasury in the Washington Administration.
- See the entries for the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers in the Library’s Primary Documents in American History webguide series to learn more about these documents.
- Watch a video of biographer Ron Chernow discussing his book Alexander Hamilton at the 2004 National Book Festival.