Ron Chernow, the renowned author of Titan whom the New York Times has called “as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we’ve seen in decades,” vividly re-creates the whole sweep of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent life—his exotic, brutal upbringing; his titanic feuds with celebrated rivals; his pivotal role in defining the shape of the federal government and the American economy; his shocking illicit romances; his enlightened abolitionism; and his famous death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804. Drawing upon extensive, unparalleled research— including nearly fifty previously undiscovered essays highlighting Hamilton’s fiery journalism as well as his revealing missives to colleagues and friends—this biography of the extraordinarily gifted founding father who galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation is the work by which all others will be measured.
On the night of April 18, 1775, 800 British troops marched out of Boston to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock and seize a stockpile of patriot munitions in Concord, Massachusetts. As they passed Lexington, they encountered a motley battalion of militia farmers known as Minutemen, and in the ensuing exchange of gunfire the British killed 8 colonists and then 2 more in Concord. As the redcoats retreated helter-skelter to Boston, they were riddled by sniper fire that erupted from behind hedges, stone walls, and fences, leaving a bloody trail of 273 British casualties versus 95 dead or wounded for the patriots.
The news reached New York within four days and a mood of insurrection promptly overtook the city. People gathered at taverns and street corners to ponder events while Tories quaked. The newly emboldened Sons of Liberty streamed down to the East River docks, pilfered ships bound for British troops in Boston, then emptied the city hall arsenal of its muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes, grabbing a thousand weapons in all.
Armed with this cache, volunteer militia companies sprang up overnight. However much the British might deride these ragtag citizen-soldiers, they conducted their business seriously. Inflamed by the astonishing news from Massachusetts, Alexander Hamilton, then a student at King’s College (later Columbia University), was that singular intellectual who picked up a musket as fast as a pen. Nicholas Fish recalled that “immediately after the Battle of Lexington, [Hamilton] attached himself to one of the uniform companies of militia then forming for the defence of the country by the patriotic young men of this city under the command of Captain Fleming.” Fish and Robert Troup, both classmates of Hamilton, were among the earnest cadre of King’s College volunteers who drilled before classes each morning in the churchyard of nearby St. Paul’s Chapel. The fledgling volunteer company was named the Hearts of Oak. The young recruits marched briskly past tombstones with the motto of “Liberty or Death” stitched across their round leather caps. On short, snug green jackets they also sported, for good measure, red tin hearts that announced “God and our Right.”
Hamilton approached this daily routine with the same perfectionist ardor that he exhibited in his studies. Troup stressed the “military spirit” infused into Hamilton and noted that he was “constant in his attendance and very ambitious of improvement.” Never one to fumble an opportunity, Hamilton embarked on a comprehensive military education. With his absorbent mind, he mastered infantry drills, pored over volumes on military tactics and learned the rudiments of gunnery and pyrotechnics from a veteran bombardier. There was a particular doggedness about this young man, as if he were already in training for something far beyond lowly infantry duty.
On April 24, a huge throng of patriots massed in front of city hall. While radicals grew giddy with excitement, many terrified Tory merchants began to book passage for England. The next day, an anonymous handbill blamed Myles Cooper, the Tory president of King’s College, and four other “obnoxious gentlemen” for patriotic deaths in Massachusetts and said the moment had passed for symbolic gestures. “The injury you have done to your country cannot admit of reparation,” these five loyalists were warned. “Fly for your lives or anticipate your doom by becoming your own executioners.” A defiant Myles Cooper stuck to his post.
After a demonstration on the night of May 10, hundreds of protesters, armed with clubs and heated by a heady brew of political rhetoric and strong drink, descended on King’s College, ready to inflict rough justice on Myles Cooper. Hercules Mulligan recalled that Cooper “was a Tory and an obnoxious man and the mob went to the college with the intention of tarring and feathering him or riding him upon a rail.” Nicholas Ogden, a King’s alumnus, saw the angry mob swarming toward the college and raced ahead to Cooper’s room, urging the president to scramble down a back window. Because Hamilton and Troup shared a room near Cooper’s quarters, Ogden also alerted them to the approaching mob. “Whereupon Hamilton instantly resolved to take his stand on the stairs [the outer stoop] in front of the Doctor’s apartment and there to detain the mob as long as he could by an harangue in order to gain the Doctor the more time for his escape,” Troup recorded.
After the mob knocked down the gate and surged toward the residence, Hamilton launched into an impassioned speech, telling the boisterous protesters that their conduct, instead of promoting their cause, would “disgrace and injure the glorious cause of liberty.” One account has the slightly deaf Cooper poking his head from an upper-story window and observing Hamilton gesticulating on the stoop below. He mistakenly thought that his pupil was inciting the crowd instead of pacifying them and shouted, “Don’t mind what he says. He’s crazy!” Another account has Cooper shouting at the ruffians: “Don’t believe anything Hamilton says. He’s a little fool!” The more plausible version is that Cooper had vanished, having scampered away in his nightgown once Ogden forewarned him of the approaching mob.
Hamilton knew he couldn’t stop the intruders but he won the vital minutes necessary for Cooper to clamber over a back fence and rush down to the Hudson. Of all the incidents in Hamilton’s early life in America, his spontaneous defense of Myles Cooper was probably the most telling. It showed that he could separate personal honor from political convictions and presaged a recurring theme of his career: the superiority of forgiveness over revenge. Most of all, the episode captured the contradictory impulses struggling inside this complex young man, an ardent revolutionary with a profound dread that popular sentiment would boil over into dangerous excess.
Prologue: The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow
One: The Castaways
Three: The Collegian
Four: The Pen and the Sword
Five: The Little Lion
Six: A Frenzy of Valor
Seven: The Lovesick Colonel
Nine: Raging Billows
Ten: A Grave, Silent, Strange Sort of Animal
Twelve: August and Respectable Assembly
Fourteen: Putting the Machine in Motion
Fifteen: Villainous Business
Sixteen: Dr. Pangloss
Seventeen: The First Town in America
Eighteen: Of Avarice and Enterprise
Nineteen: City of the Future
Twenty: Corrupt Squadrons
Twenty-Two: Stabbed in the Dark
Twenty-Three: Citizen Genet
Twenty-Four: A Disagreeable Trade
Twenty-Five: Seas of Blood
Twenty-Six: The Wicked Insurgents of the West
Twenty-Seven: Sugar Plums and Toys
Twenty-Eight: Spare Cassius
Twenty-Nine: The Man in the Glass Bubble
Thirty: Flying Too Near the Sun
Thirty-One: An Instrument of Hell
Thirty-Two: Reign of Witches
Thirty-Three: Works Godly and Ungodly
Thirty-Four: In an Evil Hour
Thirty-Five: Gusts of Passion
Thirty-Six: In a Very Belligerent Humor
Thirty-Eight: A World Full of Folly
Thirty-Nine: Pamphlet Wars
Forty: The Price of Truth
Forty-One: A Despicable Opinion
Forty-Two: Fatal Errand
Forty-Three: The Melting Scene
Grand-scale biography at its best—thorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written . . . a genuinely great book. (David McCullough, author of John Adams and Truman)
Selected Books, Pamphlets, and Dissertations
Impressively thorough, superbly written and carefully researched. (The Wall Street Journal)
A substantial, detailed and masterful story about one of American history’s eminal figures... a must-read. Ron Chernow’s masterpiece. (USA Today)
In order to make the text as fluent as possible and the founders less remote, I have taken the liberty of modernizing the spelling and punctuation of eighteenth-century prose, which can seem antiquated and jarring to modern eyes. I have also cured many contemporary newspaper editors of their addiction to italics and capitalized words. Occasionally, I have retained the original spelling to emphasize the distinctive voice, strong emotion, patent eccentricity, or curious education of the person quoted. I trust that these esceptional cases, and my reasons for wanting to reproduce them precisely, will be evident to the alert reader.
A CHRONOLOGY OF THE LIFE OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON
Born January 11 in the British West Indies, probably on the island of Nevis, the second illegitimate child of Rachel Faucett Lavien and James Hamilton.
Hamilton’s mother’s estranged husband Johann Michael Lavien obtains divorce that forbids her from remarrying.
Family moves to St. Croix. Father leaves family and never returns.
Mother falls ill with fever and dies on February 19. Peter Lavien, her sole legitimate child, inherits her entire estate. Penniless and orphaned. Hamilton becomes clerk in the mercantile firm of Beckman & Cruger, where he first witnesses the workings of trade and commerce.
Letter by Hamilton describing a massive hurricane is published in the St. Croix Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3 to great acclaim for its literary merits. Hugh Knox, minister of the Presbyterian church in Christiansted, collects funds to send Hamilton to the North American mainland for an education. Hamilton sails to Boston and then travels to New York, carrying letters of introduction from Knox.
Requests entrance to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) with permission to advance as quickly as he can work, but his request is denied by the trustees. Enters King’s College (now Columbia) in New York City as a special student. Lodges in a room at the college with Robert Troup, who becomes a lifelong friend. Through the Livingston family, meets New York attorney John Jay.
New York Provincial Congress orders the organization of an artillery company, and March 14 Hamilton is appointed its commander with rank of captain. Leaves King’s College without obtaining a degree. Spends months equipping and drilling his company, which is assigned to fortifications in New York City. Retreats with his company to Harlem Heights in northern Manhattan on September 15 after the British land at Kips Bay. Company withdraws with Continental army to White Plains in October and is sent to Hackensack, New Jersey, in November. Helps cover withdrawal from New Brunswick on December 1 during American retreat across New Jersey, and participates in Washington’s surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton on December 26.
Becomes an aide-de-camp to George Washington, with rank of lieutenant colonel in the Continental army, on March 1, a position he holds until 1781. During this period Hamilton keeps close company with Washington at headquarters and in the field, drafts hundreds of letters for him on political, military, and diplomatic subjects, and frequently serves as his emissary.
Asks Washington for a field command in January, but request is denied. Begins courtship of Elizabeth Schuyler, born 1757, the daughter of wealthy New York landowner General Philip Schuyler. Assists Washington in his efforts to obtain sufficient men, supplies, and funds from Congress and the states. Writes long letter to his friend James Duane, a New York delegate to Congress, on September 3, proposing a series of political and financial measures for strengthening the central government, including organizing a national bank and calling a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation. Accompanies Washington on inspection of West Point, September 25, during which the treachery of Benedict Arnold is uncovered. Hamilton is sympathetic toward Major John Andre, the British officer captured in civilian disguise after meeting with Arnold, and supports Andre’s request to Washington for an honorable execution by firing squad; Washington refuses, and Andre is hanged. Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler marry on December 14 at the Schuyler home in Albany.
Resigns staff position during a dispute with Washington on February 16. Refuses Washington’s offer of reconciliation but remains at headquarters until late April waiting for a replacement to be found. On April 30 writes lengthy letter to Robert Morris, the recently appointed superintendent of finance, detailing plan for restoring public credit. Publishes first of six “Continentalist” essays, advocating a broad interpretation of the powers given to Congress under the Articles of Confederation, in the New-York Packet on July 12 (series runs until July 4, 1782). Appointed commander of a New York light infantry battalion, July 31, and leads successful night assault on British redoubt on October 14.
Appointed receiver of continental taxes for New York on July 2. On July 21, New York legislature adopts resolutions, probably drafted by Hamilton, calling for a general convention to revise the Articles of Confederation (the first such call made by a public body). Appointed as a delegate to Congress by the state legislature on July 22. Writes detailed letter to Morris in August on economic and political situation in New York State. Serves as receiver through the end of October. Travels to Philadelphia and takes his seat in Congress on November 25. Works with Virginia delegate James Madison on measures for raising funds to pay the army and the public creditors.
Writes to Washington on February 13 suggesting that the growing discontent in the army be used to pressure Congress and the states into adopting new revenue measures. Takes active role in committees of Congress concerned with military and foreign affairs. Hamilton drafts resolution calling for a convention to revise the Articles of Confederation, but does not submit it to Congress “for want of support.”
Publishes two pamphlets under the name “Phocion” in January and April remonstrating against state legislative acts punishing Loyalists. Drafts constitution of the Bank of New York in early March and becomes a member of its board of directors.
Elected in April to the New York assembly for one-year term beginning in 1787. Appointed by New York legislature on May 5 as delegate to conference on interstate commerce. Third child, Alexander, born May 16. Convention in Annapolis, September 11-14, is attended by only 12 delegates from five states; before adjourning, it unanimously adopts resolution, drafted by Hamilton, proposing that a general convention meet in Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider constitutional changes.
Delivers lengthy speech on June 18 at Philadelphia Convention praising the British system of government and outlining plan for an elected government modeled on it. (Although proceedings of convention are secret, reports of the speech will cause opponents to denounce Hamilton as a monarchist for the rest of his life.) Signs the finished Constitution on September 17. Publishes first number of The Federalist, essay series advocating ratification of the Constitution, in the New York Independent Journal on October 27. (Hamilton eventually writes 51 of the 85 Federalist essays, with James Madison contributing 29 and John Jay five; all appear under the name “Publius” and are published several times a week in different New York newspapers over the next five months.)
Elected by New York legislature as a delegate to Congress, January 22, and takes his seat on February 25; First 36 Federalist essays are published in book form on March 22. Remaining 49 Federalist essays, including eight which had not appeared in newspapers, are published on May 28. New York convention opens in Poughkeepsie on June 17 with Antifederalists (opponents of ratification) in the majority. Hamilton takes leading role in the debates, and on July 26 convention approves, 30-27, an unconditional ratification that includes recommendations for amendments. Hamilton attends Congress for the last time on October 10.
Washington is inaugurated as president on April 30, signs bill establishing Treasury Department, September 2, and nominates Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury on September 11. Hamilton works to organize chaotic national finances.
Submits report on public credit on January 14, asserting that a well-financed national debt will stimulate the economy and strengthen the Union. Report calls for funding the $54 million national debt and for federal assumption of $25 million of state debts incurred during the Revolutionary War; holders of depreciated Continental securities would be allowed to exchange them for new bonds at face value, and import and excise taxes would provide revenue for paying interest on the debt. Plan proves highly controversial and is opposed in the House by Madison, who favors discrimination between the original holders of securities and those who later purchased them at depreciated prices, and who believes the plan for assuming state debts is unfair to Virginia and other states that have already paid much of their war debt. House votes against discrimination, 36-13, on February 22, but defeats assumption measure, 31-29, on April 12, and sends bill for funding the debt to the Senate on June 2. In late June Hamilton, Madison, and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson agree that in exchange for southern support of assumption, northern members of Congress will vote for locating the national capital in Philadelphia for ten years and then permanently establishing it along the Potomac River in 1800. Bills for national assumption of state debts and the location of the capital pass the House by narrow margins in July after being approved by the Senate. Submits report to the House on December 14 calling for the chartering of a national bank, which he argues will increase the circulation of currency, encourage investment, and facilitate the financial operations of the national government.
Bill chartering Bank of the United States passes Senate on January 20 and is sent to the House. Hamilton submits report on establishing a national mint to the House on January 28 (mint is established by Congress in April 1792). Madison opposes bank bill, arguing that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to charter a corporation, but it is approved by the House, 39-20, on February 8. Upon receiving the bill, Washington seeks written opinions from Attorney General Edmund Randolph and Jefferson, who agree with Madison that the measure is unconstitutional. Washington submits both opinions to Hamilton on February 23 with a lengthy treatise arguing that the Constitution gives Congress implied powers and that incorporation of a bank is a “necessary and proper” means of attaining constitutional ends. Washington signs bill on February 25. During the summer, while Elizabeth and the children are at the Schuyler home in Albany, Hamilton begins an adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds. He begins making blackmail payments to James Reynolds, Maria’s husband.
National Gazette, newspaper founded in 1791 by Philip Freneau with support from Madison and Jefferson, begins printing attacks on Hamilton in March as his policies face increasing opposition in Congress. Ends affair with Maria Reynolds. Launches extensive newspaper campaign, publishing 20 essays under nine different pseudonyms between July 25 and December 22, in which he defends his policies and accuses Jefferson of hiring Freneau as a State Department translator in order to sponsor his partisan editorship of the National Gazette. Controversy over Hamilton’s programs contributes to emergence of two political alliances, with Madison, Jefferson, and their supporters calling themselves Republicans, and Hamilton and his supporters calling themselves Federalists. Representatives Frederick Muhlenberg and Abraham Venable and Senator James Monroe question Hamilton on December 15 about his payments to James Reynolds, who has accused Hamilton of having used him to illicitly speculate in Treasury funds; in a meeting at his home, Hamilton confesses to his adulterous affair and to the blackmail he has been paying out of his own funds. Muhlenberg, Venable, and Monroe pledge to keep the matter secret.
On January 23 Representative William Branch Giles of Virginia submits five resolutions to the House questioning Hamilton’s management of foreign loans. Giles then introduces nine resolutions, drafted by Jefferson, condemning Hamilton’s conduct; all nine are defeated on March 1. After learning of France’s declaration of war on Great Britain, Washington issues proclamation of neutrality on April 22 while deciding to maintain the 1778 treaty of alliance with France. When neutrality proclamation is criticized by Republicans on constitutional grounds, Hamilton publishes seven “Pacificus” essays in the Gazette of the United States, June 29-July 27, defending presidential power to declare neutrality and interpret treaties. Continues newspaper campaign with nine “No Jacobin” essays, July 31-August 28, criticizing French envoy Edmond Genet for failing to respect the neutrality proclamation. At the urging of Jefferson, Madison responds to “Pacificus” with five “Helvidius” essays, published in the National Gazette between August 24 and September 18, arguing that Congress has the constitutional power to declare neutrality and interpret treaties. Seeking official exoneration, Hamilton submits request to the House on December 16 for a formal inquiry into his conduct as Secretary of the Treasury. Jefferson resigns as Secretary of State on December 31.
Appears for the government before the U.S. Supreme Court in Hylton v. United States, defending the constitutionality of a federal tax on carriages by arguing that it is not a “direct tax” and thus does not have to be apportioned by population. Court upholds the tax on March 8, ruling for the first time on the constitutionality of an act of Congress and accepting Hamilton’s broad construction of congressional taxing power. Hamilton works closely with Washington during the spring and summer on successive drafts of the President’s farewell address, which is published on September 19. Continues to advise Washington and drafts his annual message to Congress in November. Writes private letters urging Federalists to support John Adams and Thomas Pinckney equally in the presidential election. Campaigns extensively for James Watson, the unsuccessful Federalist candidate for Congress from New York City. Adams is elected president with 71 electoral votes, and Jefferson, the Republican candidate, is elected vice-president with 68 electoral votes.
James Callender, a Philadelphia journalist, publishes pamphlets in June and July accusing Hamilton of having used James Reynolds to speculate in public funds and having falsely confessed to having had an affair with Maria Reynolds when he was questioned by Monroe, Muhlenberg, and Venable in 1792. Hamilton asks the three men to deny publicly Callender’s charges, affirm their belief in the explanation he gave them in 1792, and offer assurances that they are not the source of documents quoted by Callender. Hamilton publishes pamphlet Observations on Certain Documents…in which the Charge of the Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully Refuted on August 25, in which he makes a detailed confession regarding his adulterous affair with Maria Reynolds.
Adams administration begins an undeclared naval war against France during the summer, and Adams commissions Washington as commander in chief of an expanded army on July 4. Washington insists upon having Hamilton serve as inspector general of the army, and he is appointed to the position on July 25 with rank of major general., Adams reluctantly appoints Hamilton as second in command of the army on October 15.
Asks New York state authorities to bring libel prosecution against David Frothingham, printer of The Argus, or Greenleaf’s New Daily Advertiser of New York, for publishing allegation that Hamilton had used British secret service money in attempt to suppress the Aurora, an anti-administration newspaper. (Frothingham is convicted in November 1799 and jailed for four months.) Hamilton drafts plan for a national military academy. Washington dies on December 14.
Begins constructing country house in upper Manhattan about nine miles north of New York City and names it “The Grange,” after the ancestral Hamilton Family home in Scotland and his uncle’s estate in St. Croix. Writes letters in support of Pinckney and collects material for a pamphlet, which he plans to circulate privately among Federalists, describing Adams as unfit for the presidency. After Republican newspaper obtain copies of Hamilton’s pamphlet attack on Adams, it is published on October 24, dividing the Federalists and seriously damaging Hamilton’s political influence and reputation. Voting in electoral college results in tie between Republican candidates Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, forcing the presidential election into the Federalist controlled House of Representatives. Hamilton writes series of letters urging Federalists to support Jefferson over Burr.
House begins voting on February 11 and remains deadlocked until February 17, when Jefferson is elected president and Burr vice-president on the 36th ballot. Hamilton writes pamphlet and makes campaign speeches in support of Stephen Van Rensselaer, the Federalist candidate for governor. Burr campaigns for George Clinton, who wins the election in late April. In the fall Hamilton helps found the New-York Evening Post, which publishes its first number on November 16. Eldest son, Philip, age 19, is mortally wounded in duel fought on November 23 with George Eacker, a Republican attorney who had criticized Hamilton’s policies in a Fourth of July oration, and dies on November 24 with Hamilton at his bedside. Writing as “Lucius Crassus,” Hamilton begins “The Examination,” series attacking the Jefferson administration in the New-York Evening Post on December 17.
Drafts resolution calling for a constitutional amendment providing for separate balloting by electors for president and vice-president and requiring that electors be chosen by popular vote in districts established by Congress. Resolution is adopted by New York state legislature and presented to the House of Representatives in February. (Provision for separate balloting becomes part of the Twelfth Amendment, ratified on September 25, 1804.)
Hamilton helps found Merchants’ Bank in New York City in April. Publishes unsigned article in the New-York Evening Post on July 5 supporting the Louisiana Purchase.
Appears before the New York supreme court in February as counsel for Harry Croswell, who had been convicted in 1803 of libeling President Jefferson in his newspaper The Wasp. Hamilton argues that in the interest of protecting freedom of the press, defendants in libel cases should be allowed to offer the truth of their statements as a defense (new law is passed on April 6, 1805). Rival Republican factions nominate Burr and Morgan Lewis, chief justice of the state supreme court, to run for governor after George Clinton declines to seek reelection. Alarmed by support for Burr among Federalists, Hamilton denounces him in writing and in person during the campaign. Burr carries New York City in voting at the end of April but loses election statewide. On June 18 Burr writes to Hamilton demanding and explanation for a letter printed in the Albany Register in which Hamilton was reported to have declared Burr to be “a dangerous man” and to have expressed “a still more despicable opinion” of him. After nine days of negotiation, Burr challenges Hamilton on June 27 and Hamilton accepts. In duel fought at Weehawken, New Jersey, on the morning of July 11, Hamilton is struck by pistol ball that perforates his liver before lodging in his spine. Brought back across the river to the house of a friend in Greenwich Village, he sees his wife and children and receives communion from an Episcopal bishop while suffering intense pain. Dies at 2 P.M. on July 12. After a large public funeral procession on July 14, Hamilton is buried in the yard of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan.
A conversation with Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton
How is Hamilton the man different in your biography from the one we know from previous biographies or our school history lessons?
Hamilton was such a brilliantly cerebral man—his collected papers alone run to 22,000 pages—that previous biographers have found it hard to capture the flesh-and-blood man. Hamilton was a dashing, witty, romantic figure who had a spectacularly dramatic life—from his murky illegitimate boyhood in the Caribbean to his startling rise to power in the first federal government to his bloody death in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr. I like to think that I’m the first biographer to merge all this personal drama with a thorough analysis of his political career.
How is Hamilton relevant to today’s America?
In the book, I refer to Hamilton as the messenger from America’s future. Where Jefferson and his followers foresaw a rural nation of small towns and yeomen farmers, Hamilton, in a visionary leap, envisioned something very much like America today: a large, bustling country with big cities, a strong federal government, and an economy dominated by trade, industry, banks, and stock exchanges. If Jefferson came alive today, he would wince with horror while Hamilton would probably smile with recognition.
Which is why you call him a prophet of today’s America. What was it about his character that gave him such foresight?
Hamilton embodied a classic type: the immigrant who comes to America and recreates himself in his adopted country. As an outsider from the Caribbean, cut off from a painful past, he was able to take a broad, continental perspective and see the full advantages of fusing the thirteen states into a powerful nation.
What is the most surprising fact that your research uncovered?
There are many surprises. One surprising strand of Hamilton’s life was his courageous work as an abolitionist. Even as Washington’s chief of staff during the Revolution, he advocated a bold plan for freeing slaves who joined the Continental Army. After the war, he cofounded an abolitionist society in New York and remained active in it for twenty years. The point is vital because Hamilton was portrayed by Jefferson, Madison, and other large Southern slaveholders as a dangerous aristocrat with no sympathy for ordinary people. When you look at this era through the lens of slavery, however, Hamilton begins to look more like the democratic populist and Jefferson and Madison more like the aristocrats.
What is Hamilton’s most important legacy?
For starters, he created the basic building blocks of the U.S. government—the tax system, the budget system, a funded debt, the customs service, the coast guard, and the first central bank. He was the principal architect of the new government, translating the Constitution into a practical reality. Hamilton thought the president and the executive branch should be the principal engine of government whereas his critics thought the House of Representatives should lead the country. Clearly, Hamilton had the last laugh.
What made him stand out from the other Founding Fathers?
Hamilton was the youngest and the most charismatic of the founders, a flamboyant, swashbuckling figure who seemed to thrive on controversy and engaged in titanic feuds with several other founders—notably Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr. Whether scaling the ramparts at Yorktown or dashing off polemical articles under a variety of Roman pen names, Hamilton was always a man of action. He was daring as well, with a tendency to tempt fate, as shown by his year-long affair with Maria Reynolds while he was still Treasury Secretary. In comparison, the other founders seem older, more guarded, and circumspect.
Why is Hamilton often perceived as the most controversial or unpopular of the Founding Fathers?
Jefferson and his followers demonized Hamilton, accusing him of plotting to restore the British monarchy or using his Treasury Department post to enrich himself and his friends. There wasn’t a shred of truth to these fantasies, but they were repeated often enough to leave a lasting impression. Perhaps it was inevitable that Hamilton would be villainized as the first Treasury Secretary. After all, he had to collect taxes in a country that had just fought a revolution against unjust taxes and he had to stop smuggling in a country that had glorified this activity as a protest against British rule.
What is most often oversimplified in comparisons of Hamilton and Jefferson and how do you compare them?
Hamilton and Jefferson were very different personalities. Jefferson was courtly and rather shy, shrank from confrontation, and hated public speaking and writing for the press. Hamilton gloried in controversy, could speak extemporaneously for hours, and tossed off five-thousand word memos overnight. The personality clash was only magnified by their momentous political clash. Jefferson thought that the major threat to liberty sprang from too much government while Hamilton thought that only government could safeguard liberty. Jefferson favored states’ rights and a strict construction of the Constitution, while Hamilton believed in a vigorous central government and expansive interpretation of the Constitution.
How would you describe Hamilton’s relationship with Washington?
The two were separated in age by more than twenty years and were quite dissimilar. Washington was tall and reticent and tended to ponder things a long time before acting. Hamilton was ever the boy genius, witty, sociable, and bubbling with ideas. They formed a perfect political combination, however. Washington had the stature, the sterling patriotism and unerring political tact. Though a bit of a loose cannon, Hamilton was possibly the greatest policymaker in our history and forged programs that Washington alone could never have created. Their relationship is sometimes portrayed as one of father and son, but there was more mutual respect than real affection.
Did you set out to present a positive portrait of Hamilton, or something else?
I always felt that Hamilton had been grossly underrated and misunderstood and that he was the founder most overlooked in recent years. On the other hand, I knew that he was a flawed figure and so I wanted to understand his terrible errors as well as his shining triumphs. How could someone so smart have risked his marriage and career during his affair with Maria Reynolds and paid blackmail money to her husband? And why did he write his infamous ‘open letter’ to President Adams during the 1800 election, which not only vilified the president but doomed Hamilton’s own political future?
Why did Hamilton never make a serious bid to run for President?
Part of the answer is that Hamilton’s turn never came up in the rotation. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were the more senior figures from the Revolution and were bound to precede him. And Hamilton was always better at policy than politics. He was too outspoken and provocative and had too dark a vision to be a popular candidate. He also had a remarkable flair for making enemies as well as friends. For many years, he was also effectively blackmailed by the Jeffersonians, who knew all about the Reynolds affair and threatened to reveal it if he ran for president.
How did his flaws work against him?
In promoting his ideas, Hamilton didn’t mince words or suffer fools gladly and stirred up a great deal of controversy. He wasn’t cut out for compromise—and that was both his strength and weakness. Hamilton was always portrayed by his foes as an arch-intriguer. In fact, he was indiscreet to the point of recklessness.
What made you think that Hamilton was aware of Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings?
I discovered nearly fifty new articles and essays written by Hamilton. One was an essay series written during the 1796 election under the pen name “Phocion.” Hamilton was doing everything that he could to prevent Jefferson from becoming president. In one Phocion essay, he mocked Jefferson’s racist views as well as his dread of what would happen if slaves were freed and intermingled with whites. In what seems a clear reference to Sally Hemings, Hamilton says that Mr. Jefferson surely knew from personal experience about the ‘staining of blood’ that took place between masters and slaves while the latter were still in bondage.
How did Hamilton’s reputation survive his affair with Maria Reynolds?
Hamilton confessed to the affair because he wanted to prove that the money he had paid to her husband, James Reynolds, was blackmail money arising from adultery and not money secretly given to Mr. Reynolds to speculate in government securities. Oddly, Hamilton published a 95-page pamphlet about the affair, describing it in almost novelistic detail. As with President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, some people defended Hamilton by saying that his tarnished private morality didn’t detract from his public record. But even staunch friends believed that a couple of well-chosen paragraphs would have neatly done the trick. The needlessly long pamphlet made people question Hamilton’s judgment.
Today, Hamilton’s death in a duel seems strange. How unusual was it at that time?
Duels were then commonplace, especially among politicians, military men and self-styled aristocrats. Where people today would sue for libel, many politicians at the time issued challenges to duels. Usually they didn’t want to blow their adversary’s brains out. Disputes were often resolved before the duel or sometimes on the dueling ground itself. Very often, one duelist would simply wound the other; the two men would then shake hands and consider the dispute settled. If you killed somebody, you might be accused of murder. Aaron Burr was actually indicted for murder in New York and New Jersey for shooting Hamilton, although he was never tried.
What mysteries about Hamilton are left unsolved?
Profound mysteries still surround his eighteen years in the Caribbean. I have reconstructed far more of his harrowing childhood on the slave islands of Nevis and St. Croix than any previous biographer. I located the cell in St. Croix where Hamilton’s mother was imprisoned for adultery during an early marriage. I tracked down Hamilton’s estranged father on the tiny island of Bequia (pronounced Beck-way) in the Grenadines near St. Vincent. But I would love to know more about Hamilton’s boyhood and how this self-created genius emerged from such a bleak, impoverished background.
We often hear about Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, and Dolley Madison. How come we never hear about Hamilton’s wife?
Elizabeth Hamilton was an exceptional woman who outlived her husband by fifty years. She died at age 97 in 1854, nearly on the eve of the Civil War. She not only brought up seven children alone but founded and ran New York’s first orphan asylum for almost thirty years. The reason we know so little about her is because she heroically preserved her husband’s papers, but burned her own letters to her husband. Nonetheless, I discovered many of her later letters and have tried to resurrect this Founding Mother.
Why did Hamilton and John Adams become sworn enemies?
A generation older than Hamilton, John Adams was already a leader of the Continental Congress when Hamilton was still an undergraduate. Since he believed that he was the superior figure, Adams felt envious and demeaned when Hamilton became far more influential in Washington’s administration. Adams came to regard Hamilton as a conceited upstart who plotted to deny him the presidency. When Adams became president, he inherited Washington’s cabinet and imagined that Hamilton—then a lawyer in New York—secretly controlled his cabinet. Hamilton resented his exclusion from the Adams administration and was inflamed by repeated reports that Adams was calling him a bastard.
Why did Burr challenge Hamilton to a duel?
In many ways, Hamilton and Burr led parallel lives. Both had been heroic young colonels in the Revolutionary War. They had started their legal careers in Manhattan at the same time, lived on the same street, and often argued against each other in court. But they ultimately became fierce political rivalries and Hamilton blocked Burr’s ambitions at several pivotal moments. During the famous presidential tie election of 1800, Hamilton successfully worked for Jefferson against Burr. Hamilton then campaigned against Burr when the latter ran and lost for New York governor in 1804. Burr finally decided that New York State was not large enough to hold both Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, so he issued the challenge to a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. The 200th anniversary of the famous duel will be celebrated on July 11, 2004.