I hinted at cool information I learned about Alexander Hamilton yesterday. Today I plan to share the rest of the story.

Picture by Alvimann

If the name sounds familiar, you might have actually looked at a ten-dollar bill lately. That’s his visage on the bill. He is there because he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. This man set up our financial way of life over two hundred years ago and it has remained quite close to what he created.

That is pretty cool, you might be thinking. Is there more to this guy?

Actually there is. He might be the original rags-to-riches-to rags story in American politics.

We have to start in the West Indies where he was born to a Rachel Lavine and James Hamilton. James was the fourth son of a Laird in Scotland and made his living as a trader. Rachel was a divorced woman and not allowed to marry again. Sadly, their common-law relationship would be  over in less than ten years. James simply left and Rachel would die a few years later, leaving her sons, James and Alexander, penniless orphans.

Alexander was smart, taught at home by his mother and received some schooling at a Presbyterian school before a benefactor paid for his education at King’s College (later known as Columbia) in the colonies. The young boy did that, published political pamphlets anonymously by the age of 17 , directed a battalion by 18 and was an aide-de-camp to Washington by 20.

He wanted to see more fighting and would – after bickering and badgering Washington. By now in his early twenties, he beseeched a friend to help find him a wife – pretty, wealthy and a christian but not a lover of saints. That is when he met Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of the Albany, New York Schuylers and Van Rensaleers family. They were very wealthy and very well-connected.

Image from Wikipedia

Hamilton studied for the bar and passed his exams. When he was not working as a lawyer, he was a statesman. He wrote parts of the Constitution, including parts about citizenship. This is verified in letters from him to Washington. He also wrote Washington’s Farewell Letter.

Now it is rumored that the citizen portion was written in such a way as to make it impossible for Hamilton to ever become president. That does not make sense as he wrote it. And considering you had to be living in America at least 14 years by the time of your candidacy at the age of 35  or up, Hamilton could have qualified easily. He arrived at the age of 13, after all.

What is true is that he had an affair with a Maria Reynolds in the early 1790s. Her husband threatened to blackmail Hamilton so he did something that would be a career-ender. He admitted to the truth to his wife and country. She forgave him and it did help in some respects.

Hamilton caused his own problems by not being a saint in other dealings. He was known for running things behind the scenes and could be quite duplicitous. It was rumored that he took part in some treasonous actions with his father-in-law and Benedict Arnold. This I cannot verify.

His relationship with Aaron Burr could be described as friendly as they worked together for many years as legislators. But Hamilton never trusted Burr who seemed to change political philosophies with the wind. Hamilton thwarted Burr’s chances again and again, including the governor of New York and Presidential office. Hamilton may have hated Jefferson but he believed the man to be principled, therefore backing Jefferson against Burr and leaving Burr as the vice-president.

the Burr-Hamilton duel, image from Wikipedia

Now at some point in the story, Burr believes that Hamilton has besmirched his honor. Hamilton might have said something to the point of  “what an idiot” at a dinner party and it got back to Burr. So Burr challenges Hamilton to a duel. Burr aims at Hamilton, Hamilton shoots the tree. Hamilton lasts a day before he dies. The saddest part is that his son had died three years earlier after a duel in the same exact spot in Weehawken, New Jersey. 

The Grange, Alexander Hamiltons only home. Image from the National Park Service.

Hamilton died poor, his wife was left with seven children and she lost their house for a time. Upon her father’s death, an inheritance allowed her to buy back their home. The Grange is still standing and lives in a park in New York City. It would take her another 30 years to get his pension for serving in the Revolutionary War that Hamilton initially refused.

See what I mean? Hamilton is the American dream, the American immigrant story that encapsulates all of the myths and realities of the revolution and country-building of the late 1700s.

In the end, he is seen as a brilliant man, mostly self-taught. He is a nationalist, giving much to his country. But his quick temper and machinations undo all that is great about him. He is a bit of a jerk that makes it hard to work with him. And yet his wife loved him whole heartedly, passing that love on to children who would follow his footsteps to Columbia, the military and the law.

Michael Douglas as President Alan Shepherd once stated “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad, because it’s gonna put up a fight.” Whatever Hamilton did that was not the best of actions was because he believed in this statement, even before it was written.

 His life work was creating a country. That is what makes him great. It is his sins and foibles that make Alexander Hamilton  interesting.