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From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.
Ron Chernow, whom the New York Times called "as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we've seen in decades," now brings to startling life the man who was arguably the most important figure in American history, who never attained the presidency, but who had a far more lasting impact than many who did.
An illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, Hamilton rose with stunning speed to become George Washington's aide-de-camp, a member of the Constitutional Convention, coauthor of The Federalist Papers, leader of the Federalist party, and the country's first Treasury secretary. With masterful storytelling skills, Chernow presents the whole sweep of Hamilton's turbulent life: his exotic, brutal upbringing; his brilliant military, legal, and financial exploits; his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe; his illicit romances; and his famous death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804.
For the first time, Chernow captures the personal life of this handsome, witty, and perennially controversial genius and explores his poignant relations with his wife Eliza, their eight children, and numberless friends. This engrossing narrative will dispel forever the stereotype of the Founding Fathers as wooden figures and show that, for all their greatness, they were fiery, passionate, often flawed human beings.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the seminal figures in our history. His richly dramatic saga, rendered in Chernow's vivid prose, is nothing less than a riveting account of America's founding, from the Revolutionary War to the rise of the first federal government.
THE OLDEST REVOLUTIONARY WAR WIDOW
In the early 1850s, few pedestrians strolling past the house on H Street in Washington, near the White House, realized that the ancient widow seated by the window, knitting and arranging flowers, was the last surviving link to the glory days of the early republic. Fifty years earlier, on a rocky, secluded ledge overlooking the Hudson River in Weehawken, New Jersey, Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States, had fired a mortal shot at her husband, Alexander Hamilton, in a misbegotten effort to remove the man Burr regarded as the main impediment to the advancement of his career. Hamilton was then forty-nine years old. Was it a benign or a cruel destiny that had compelled the widow to outlive her husband by half a century, struggling to raise seven children and surviving almost until the eve of the Civil War?
Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton-purblind and deaf but gallant to the end-was a stoic woman who never yielded to self-pity. With her gentle manner, Dutch tenacity, and quiet humor, she clung to the deeply rooted religious beliefs that had abetted her reconciliation to the extraordinary misfortunes she had endured. Even in her early nineties, she still dropped to her knees for family prayers. Wrapped in shawls and garbed in the black bombazine dresses that were de rigueur for widows, she wore a starched white ruff and frilly white cap that bespoke a simpler era in American life. The dark eyes that gleamed behind large metal-rimmed glasses-those same dark eyes that had once enchanted a young officer on General George Washington's staff-betokened a sharp intelligence, a fiercely indomitable spirit, and a memory that refused to surrender the past.
In the front parlor of the house she now shared with her daughter, Eliza Hamilton had crammed the faded memorabilia of her now distant marriage. When visitors called, the tiny, erect, white-haired lady would grab her cane, rise gamely from a black sofa embroidered with a floral pattern of her own design, and escort them to a Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. She motioned with pride to a silver wine cooler, tucked discreetly beneath the center table, that had been given to the Hamiltons by Washington himself. This treasured gift retained a secret meaning for Eliza, for it had been a tacit gesture of solidarity from Washington when her husband was ensnared in the first major sex scandal in American history. The tour's highlight stood enshrined in the corner: a marble bust of her dead hero, carved by an Italian sculptor, Giuseppe Ceracchi, during Hamilton's heyday as the first treasury secretary. Portrayed in the classical style of a noble Roman senator, a toga draped across one shoulder, Hamilton exuded a brisk energy and a massive intelligence in his wide brow, his face illumined by the half smile that often played about his features. This was how Eliza wished to recall him: ardent, hopeful, and eternally young. "That bust I can never forget," one young visitor remembered, "for the old lady always paused before it in her tour of the rooms and, leaning on her cane, gazed and gazed, as if she could never be satisfied."
For the select few, Eliza unearthed documents written by Hamilton that qualified as her sacred scripture: an early hymn he had composed or a letter he had drafted during his impoverished boyhood on St. Croix. She frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with "her Hamilton," as she invariably referred to him. "One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while," said one caller. "When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, 'I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.'"1
Eliza Hamilton was committed to one holy quest above all others: to rescue her husband's historical reputation from the gross slanders that had tarnished it. For many years after the duel, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and other political enemies had taken full advantage of their eloquence and longevity to spread defamatory anecdotes about Hamilton, who had been condemned to everlasting silence. Determined to preserve her husband's legacy, Eliza enlisted as many as thirty assistants to sift through his tall stacks of papers. Unfortunately, she was so self-effacing and so reverential toward her husband that, though she salvaged every scrap of his writing, she apparently destroyed her own letters. The capstone of her monumental labor, her life's "dearest object," was the publication of a mammoth authorized biography that would secure Hamilton's niche in the pantheon of the early republic. It was a long, exasperating wait as one biographer after another discarded the project or expired before its completion. Almost by default, the giant enterprise fell to her fourth son, John Church Hamilton, who belatedly disgorged a seven-volume history of his father's exploits. Before this hagiographic tribute was completed, however, Eliza Hamilton died at ninety-seven on November 9, 1854.
Distraught that their mother had waited vainly for decades to see her husband's life immortalized, Eliza Hamilton Holly scolded her brother for his overdue biography. "Lately in my hours of sadness, recurring to such interests as most deeply affected our blessed Mother...I could recall none more frequent or more absorbent than her devotion to our Father. When blessed memory shows her gentle countenance and her untiring spirit before me, in this one great and beautiful aspiration after duty, I feel the same spark ignite and bid me...to seek the fulfillment of her words: 'Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton.'"2 It was, Eliza Hamilton Holly noted pointedly, the imperative duty that Eliza had bequeathed to all her children: Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton.
Well, has justice been done? Few figures in American history have aroused such visceral love or loathing as Alexander Hamilton. To this day, he seems trapped in a crude historical cartoon that pits "Jeffersonian democracy" against "Hamiltonian aristocracy." For Jefferson and his followers, wedded to their vision of an agrarian Eden, Hamilton was the American Mephistopheles, the proponent of such devilish contrivances as banks, factories, and stock exchanges. They demonized him as a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar. Noah Webster contended that Hamilton's "ambition, pride, and overbearing temper" had destined him "to be the evil genius of this country."3 Hamilton's powerful vision of American nationalism, with states subordinate to a strong central government and led by a vigorous executive branch, aroused fears of a reversion to royal British ways. His seeming solicitude for the rich caused critics to portray him as a snobbish tool of plutocrats who was contemptuous of the masses. For another group of naysayers, Hamilton's unswerving faith in a professional military converted him into a potential despot. "From the first to the last words he wrote," concluded historian Henry Adams, "I read always the same Napoleonic kind of adventuredom."4 Even some Hamilton admirers have been unsettled by a faint tincture of something foreign in this West Indian transplant; Woodrow Wilson grudgingly praised Hamilton as "a very great man, but not a great American."5
Yet many distinguished commentators have echoed Eliza Hamilton's lament that justice has not been done to her Hamilton. He has tended to lack the glittering multivolumed biographies that have burnished the fame of other founders. The British statesman Lord Bryce singled out Hamilton as the one founding father who had not received his due from posterity. In The American Commonwealth, he observed, "One cannot note the disappearance of this brilliant figure, to Europeans the most interesting in the early history of the Republic, without the remark that his countrymen seem to have never, either in his lifetime or afterwards, duly recognized his splendid gifts."6 During the robust era of Progressive Republicanism, marked by brawny nationalism and energetic government, Theodore Roosevelt took up the cudgels and declared Hamilton "the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time."7 His White House successor, William Howard Taft, likewise embraced Hamilton as "our greatest constructive statesman."8 In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did.
Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive. He and James Madison were the prime movers behind the summoning of the Constitutional Convention and the chief authors of that classic gloss on the national charter, The Federalist, which Hamilton supervised. As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state-including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard-and justifying them in some of America's most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.
Hamilton's crowded years as treasury secretary scarcely exhaust the epic story of his short life, which was stuffed with high drama. From his illegitimate birth on Nevis to his bloody downfall in Weehawken, Hamilton's life was so tumultuous that only an audacious novelist could have dreamed it up. He embodied an enduring archetype: the obscure immigrant who comes to America, re-creates himself, and succeeds despite a lack of proper birth and breeding. The saga of his metamorphosis from an anguished clerk on St. Croix to the reigning presence in George Washington's cabinet offers both a gripping personal story and a panoramic view of the formative years of the republic. Except for Washington, nobody stood closer to the center of American politics from 1776 to 1800 or cropped up at more turning points. More than anyone else, the omnipresent Hamilton galvanized, inspired, and scandalized the newborn nation, serving as the flash point for pent-up conflicts of class, geography, race, religion, and ideology. His contemporaries often seemed defined by how they reacted to the political gauntlets that he threw down repeatedly with such defiant panache.
Hamilton was an exuberant genius who performed at a fiendish pace and must have produced the maximum number of words that a human being can scratch out in forty-nine years. If promiscuous with his political opinions, however, he was famously reticent about his private life, especially his squalid Caribbean boyhood. No other founder had to grapple with such shame and misery, and his early years have remained wrapped in more mystery than those of any other major American statesman. While not scanting his vibrant intellectual life, I have tried to gather anecdotal material that will bring this cerebral man to life as both a public and a private figure. Charming and impetuous, romantic and witty, dashing and headstrong, Hamilton offers the biographer an irresistible psychological study. For all his superlative mental gifts, he was afflicted with a touchy ego that made him querulous and fatally combative. He never outgrew the stigma of his illegitimacy, and his exquisite tact often gave way to egregious failures of judgment that left even his keenest admirers aghast. If capable of numerous close friendships, he also entered into titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Monroe, and Burr.
The magnitude of Hamilton's feats as treasury secretary has overshadowed many other facets of his life: clerk, college student, youthful poet, essayist, artillery captain, wartime adjutant to Washington, battlefield hero, congressman, abolitionist, Bank of New York founder, state assemblyman, member of the Constitutional Convention and New York Ratifying Convention, orator, lawyer, polemicist, educator, patron saint of the New-York Evening Post, foreign-policy theorist, and major general in the army. Boldly uncompromising, he served as catalyst for the emergence of the first political parties and as the intellectual fountainhead for one of them, the Federalists. He was a pivotal force in four consecutive presidential elections and defined much of America's political agenda during the Washington and Adams administrations, leaving copious commentary on virtually every salient issue of the day.
Earlier generations of biographers had to rely on only a meager portion of his voluminous output. Between 1961 and 1987, Harold C. Syrett and his doughty editorial team at Columbia University Press published twenty-seven thick volumes of Hamilton's personal and political papers. Julius Goebel, Jr., and his staff added five volumes of legal and business papers to the groaning shelf, bringing the total haul to twenty-two thousand pages. These meticulous editions are much more than exhaustive compilations of Hamilton's writings: they are a scholar's feast, enriched with expert commentary as well as contemporary newspaper extracts, letters, and diary entries. No biographer has fully harvested these riches. I have supplemented this research with extensive archival work that has uncovered, among other things, nearly fifty previously undiscovered essays written by Hamilton himself. To retrieve his early life from its often impenetrable obscurity, I have also scoured records in Scotland, England, Denmark, and eight Caribbean islands, not to mention many domestic archives. The resulting portrait, I hope, will seem fresh and surprising even to those best versed in the literature of the period.
It is an auspicious time to reexamine the life of Hamilton, who was the prophet of the capitalist revolution in America. If Jefferson enunciated the more ample view of political democracy, Hamilton possessed the finer sense of economic opportunity. He was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit. We have left behind the rosy agrarian rhetoric and slaveholding reality of Jeffersonian democracy and reside in the bustling world of trade, industry, stock markets, and banks that Hamilton envisioned. (Hamilton's staunch abolitionism formed an integral feature of this economic vision.) He has also emerged as the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government. At a time when Jefferson and Madison celebrated legislative power as the purest expression of the popular will, Hamilton argued for a dynamic executive branch and an independent judiciary, along with a professional military, a central bank, and an advanced financial system. Today, we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world.
--from Alexander Hamiton by Ron Chernow, copyright © 2004 Ron Chernow, published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Prologue: The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow
"...[A] biography commensurate with Hamilton's character, as well as the full, complex context of his unflaggingly active life.... This is a fine work that captures Hamilton's life with judiciousness and verve." Publishers Weekly
"A splendid life of an enlightened reactionary and forgotten Founding Father. Literate and full of engaging historical asides. By far the best of the many lives of Hamilton now in print, and a model of the biographer’s art."Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"A robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all." Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation
"A brilliant historian has done it again! The thoroughness and integrity of Ron Chernow’s research shines forth on every page of his Alexander Hamilton. He has created a vivid and compelling portrait of a remarkable manand at the same time he has made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the beginnings of the American Republic.” Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson
"Alexander Hamilton was one of the most brilliant men of his brilliant time, and one of the most fascinating figures in all of American history. His rocketing life-story is utterly amazing. His importance to the founding of the new nation, and thus to the whole course of American history, can hardly be overstated. And so Ron Chernow's new Hamilton could not be more welcome. This is grand-scale biography at its bestthorough, insightful, consistently fair, and superbly written. It clears away more than a few shop-worn misconceptions about Hamilton, gives credit where credit is due, and is both clear-eyed and understanding about its very human subject. Its numerous portraits of the complex, often conflicting cast of characters are deft and telling. The whole life and times are here in a genuinely great book." David McCullough, author of John Adams
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.
—Ron ChernowA CHRONOLOGY OF THE LIFE OF ALEXANDER HAMILTON
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.
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