Alexander Hamilton was born and spent part of his childhood in Charlestown, the capital of the island of Nevis in the Leeward Islands (then part of the British West Indies). Hamilton and his older brother James Jr. (1753–1786) were born out of wedlock to Rachel Faucette,[note 1] a married woman of half-British and half-French Huguenot descent, and James A. Hamilton, a Scotsman who was the fourth son of Alexander Hamilton, the laird of Grange in Ayrshire. Though there is persistent speculation that Hamilton's mother was of mixed race, it is not substantiated by verifiable evidence. Rachel Faucette was listed as white on tax rolls.
It is not certain whether Hamilton's birth was in 1755 or 1757. Most historical evidence, after Hamilton's arrival in North America, supports the idea that he was born in 1757, including Hamilton's own writings. Hamilton listed his birth year as 1757 when he first arrived in the Thirteen Colonies, and celebrated his birthday on January 11. In later life, he tended to give his age only in round figures. Historians accepted 1757 as his birth year until about 1930, when additional documentation of his early life in the Caribbean was published, initially in Danish. A probate paper from St. Croix in 1768, drafted after the death of Hamilton's mother, listed him as 13 years old, which has caused some historians since the 1930s to favor a birth year of 1755.
Historians have speculated on possible reasons for two different years of birth to have appeared in historical documents. If 1755 is correct, Hamilton might have been trying to appear younger than his college classmates, or perhaps wished to avoid standing out as older. If 1757 is correct, the single probate document indicating a birth year of 1755 may have simply included an error, or Hamilton might once have given his age as 13 after his mother's death in an attempt to appear older and more employable. Historians have pointed out that the probate document contained other proven inaccuracies, demonstrating it was not entirely reliable. Richard Brookhiser noted that "a man is more likely to know his own birthday than a probate court."
Hamilton's mother had been married previously on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, then ruled by Denmark, to a Danish or German merchant, Johann Michael Lavien. They had one son, Peter Lavien. In 1750, Faucette left her husband and first son; then traveled to Saint Kitts where she met James Hamilton. Hamilton and Faucette moved together to Nevis, her birthplace, where she had inherited a seaside lot in town from her father.
James Hamilton later abandoned Rachel Faucette and their two sons, James Jr. and Alexander, allegedly to "spar[e] [her] a charge of bigamy... after finding out that her first husband intend[ed] to divorce her under Danish law on grounds of adultery and desertion." Thereafter, Rachel moved with her two children to St. Croix, where she supported them by keeping a small store in Christiansted. She contracted yellow fever and died on February 19, 1768, leaving Hamilton orphaned. This may have had severe emotional consequences for him, even by the standards of an 18th-century childhood. In probate court, Faucette's "first husband seized her estate" and obtained the few valuables that she had owned, including some household silver. Many items were auctioned off, but a friend purchased the family's books and returned them to Hamilton.
Hamilton became a clerk at Beekman and Cruger, a local import-export firm that traded with New York and New England. He and James Jr. were briefly taken in by their cousin Peter Lytton; however, Lytton took his own life in July 1769, leaving his property to his mistress and their son, and the Hamilton brothers were subsequently separated. James apprenticed with a local carpenter, while Alexander was given a home by Nevis merchant Thomas Stevens. Some clues have led to speculation that Stevens was Alexander Hamilton's biological father: his son Edward Stevens became a close friend of Hamilton, the two boys were described as looking much alike, both were fluent in French and shared similar interests. However, this allegation, mostly based on the comments of Timothy Pickering on the resemblance between the two men, has always been vague and unsupported. Rachel Faucette had been living on St. Kitts and Nevis for years at the time when Alexander was conceived, while Thomas Stevens lived on Antigua and St. Croix; also, James Hamilton never disclaimed paternity, and even in later years, signed his letters to Hamilton with "Your very Affectionate Father."
Hamilton, despite being only in his teenage years, proved capable enough as a trader to be left in charge of the firm for five months in 1771 while the owner was at sea. He remained an avid reader and later developed an interest in writing. He began to desire a life outside the island where he lived. He wrote a letter to his father that was a detailed account of a hurricane that had devastated Christiansted on August 30, 1772. The Presbyterian Reverend Hugh Knox, a tutor and mentor to Hamilton, submitted the letter for publication in the Royal Danish-American Gazette. The biographer Ron Chernow found the letter astounding for two reasons; first, that "for all its bombastic excesses, it does seem wondrous [that a] self-educated clerk could write with such verve and gusto," and second, that a teenage boy produced an apocalyptic "fire-and-brimstone sermon" viewing the hurricane as a "divine rebuke to human vanity and pomposity." The essay impressed community leaders, who collected a fund to send Hamilton to the North American colonies for his education.
The Church of England denied membership to Alexander and James Hamilton Jr.—and education in the church school—because their parents were not legally married. While their mother lived they received "individual tutoring" and classes in a private school led by a Jewish headmistress. Alexander supplemented his education with the family library of 34 books.
In October 1772 Hamilton arrived by ship in Boston and proceeded from there to New York City. He took lodgings with the Irish-born Hercules Mulligan who, as the brother of a trader known to Hamilton's benefactors, assisted Hamilton in selling cargo that was to pay for his education and support. Later in 1772, in preparation for college work, Hamilton began to fill gaps in his education at the Elizabethtown Academy, a preparatory school run by Francis Barber in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. He there came under the influence of William Livingston, a local leading intellectual and revolutionary, with whom he lived for a time.
Hamilton entered Mulligan's alma mater King's College (now Columbia University) in New York City in the autumn of 1773 "as a private student", again boarding with Mulligan until officially matriculating in May 1774. His college roommate and lifelong friend Robert Troup spoke glowingly of Hamilton's clarity in concisely explaining the patriots' case against the British in what is credited as Hamilton's first public appearance, on July 6, 1774, at the Liberty Pole at King's College. Hamilton, Troup, and four other undergraduates formed an unnamed literary society that is regarded as a precursor of the Philolexian Society.
Church of England clergyman Samuel Seabury published a series of pamphlets promoting the Loyalist cause in 1774, to which Hamilton responded anonymously with his first political writings, A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress and The Farmer Refuted. Seabury essentially tried to provoke fear in the colonies, and his main objective was to stop the potential union among the colonies. Hamilton published two additional pieces attacking the Quebec Act, and may have also authored the fifteen anonymous installments of "The Monitor" for Holt's New York Journal. Hamilton was a supporter of the Revolutionary cause at this pre-war stage, although he did not approve of mob reprisals against Loyalists. On May 10, 1775, Hamilton won credit for saving his college president Myles Cooper, a Loyalist, from an angry mob by speaking to the crowd long enough for Cooper to escape.
Hamilton was forced to discontinue his studies before graduating when the college closed its doors during the British occupation of the city. With the completion of his military service, after some months of self-study, by July 1782 Hamilton passed the bar exam and in October 1782 was licensed to argue cases before the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Hamilton was awarded a Master of Arts degree from the reconstituted Columbia College in 1788 for his work in reopening the college and placing it on firm financial footing. Hamilton was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1791.
Early military career
In 1775, after the first engagement of American troops with the British at Lexington and Concord, Hamilton and other King's College students joined a New York volunteer militia company called the Corsicans, later renamed or reformed as the Hearts of Oak.
He drilled with the company, before classes, in the graveyard of nearby St. Paul's Chapel. Hamilton studied military history and tactics on his own and was soon recommended for promotion. Under fire from HMS Asia, he led the Hearts of Oak with support from Hercules Mulligan and the Sons of Liberty on a successful raid for British cannons in the Battery, the capture of which resulted in the unit becoming an artillery company thereafter.: 13
Through his connections with influential New York patriots such as Alexander McDougall and John Jay, Hamilton raised the New York Provincial Company of Artillery of 60 men in 1776, and was elected captain. The company took part in the campaign of 1776 in and around New York City; as rearguard of the Continental Army's retreat up Manhattan, serving at the Battle of Harlem Heights shortly after, as well as at the Battle of White Plains a month later. At the Battle of Trenton, it was stationed at the high point of town, the meeting of the present Warren and Broad streets, to keep the Hessians pinned in the Trenton Barracks.
Hamilton participated in the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777. After an initial setback, Washington rallied the American troops and led them in a successful charge against the British forces. After making a brief stand, the British fell back, some leaving Princeton, and others taking up refuge in Nassau Hall. Hamilton brought three cannons up and had them fire upon the building. Then some Americans rushed the front door, and broke it down. The British subsequently put a white flag outside one of the windows; 194 British soldiers walked out of the building and laid down their arms, thus ending the battle in an American victory.
George Washington's staff
Hamilton was invited to become an aide to William Alexander, Lord Stirling, and another general, perhaps Nathanael Greene or Alexander McDougall. He declined these invitations, believing his best chance for improving his station in life was glory on the battlefield. Hamilton eventually received an invitation he felt he could not refuse: to serve as Washington's aide, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. Washington believed that "Aides de camp are persons in whom entire confidence must be placed and it requires men of abilities to execute the duties with propriety and dispatch."
Hamilton served four years as Washington's chief staff aide. He handled letters to Congress, state governors, and the most powerful generals of the Continental Army; he drafted many of Washington's orders and letters at the latter's direction; he eventually issued orders from Washington over Hamilton's own signature. Hamilton was involved in a wide variety of high-level duties, including intelligence, diplomacy, and negotiation with senior army officers as Washington's emissary.
During the war, Hamilton became the close friend of several fellow officers. His letters to the Marquis de Lafayette and to John Laurens, employing the sentimental literary conventions of the late eighteenth century and alluding to Greek history and mythology, have been read by Jonathan Ned Katz as revelatory of a homosocial or even homosexual relationship. Biographer Gregory D. Massey amongst others, by contrast, dismisses all such speculation as unsubstantiated, describing their friendship as purely platonic camaraderie instead and placing their correspondence in the context of the flowery diction of the time.
While on Washington's staff, Hamilton long sought command and a return to active combat. As the war drew nearer to an end, he knew that opportunities for military glory were diminishing. On February 15, 1781, Hamilton was reprimanded by Washington after a minor misunderstanding. Although Washington quickly tried to mend their relationship, Hamilton insisted on leaving his staff. He officially left in March, and settled with his new wife Elizabeth Schuyler close to Washington's headquarters. He continued to repeatedly ask Washington and others for a field command. Washington continued to demur, citing the need to appoint men of higher rank. This continued until early July 1781, when Hamilton submitted a letter to Washington with his commission enclosed, "thus tacitly threatening to resign if he didn't get his desired command."
On July 31, Washington relented and assigned Hamilton as commander of a battalion of light infantry companies of the 1st and 2nd New York Regiments and two provisional companies from Connecticut. In the planning for the assault on Yorktown, Hamilton was given command of three battalions, which were to fight in conjunction with the allied French troops in taking Redoubts No. 9 and No. 10 of the British fortifications at Yorktown. Hamilton and his battalions took Redoubt No. 10 with bayonets in a nighttime action, as planned. The French also suffered heavy casualties and took Redoubt No. 9. These actions forced the British surrender of an entire army at Yorktown, marking the de facto end of the war, although small battles continued for two more years until the signing of the Treaty of Paris and the departure of the last British troops.
Return to civilian life
Congress of the Confederation
After Yorktown, Hamilton returned to New York and resigned his commission in March 1782. He passed the bar in July after six months of self-directed education. He also accepted an offer from Robert Morris to become receiver of continental taxes for the State of New York. Hamilton was appointed in July 1782 to the Congress of the Confederation as a New York representative for the term beginning in November 1782. Before his appointment to Congress in 1782, Hamilton was already sharing his criticisms of Congress. He expressed these criticisms in his letter to James Duane dated September 3, 1780. In this letter he wrote,
"The fundamental defect is a want of power in Congress...the confederation itself is defective and requires to be altered; it is neither fit for war, nor peace."
While on Washington's staff, Hamilton had become frustrated with the decentralized nature of the wartime Continental Congress, particularly its dependence upon the states for voluntary financial support that was not often forthcoming. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to collect taxes or to demand money from the states. This lack of a stable source of funding had made it difficult for the Continental Army both to obtain its necessary provisions and to pay its soldiers. During the war, and for some time after, Congress obtained what funds it could from subsidies from the King of France, from aid requested from the several states (which were often unable or unwilling to contribute), and from European loans.
An amendment to the Articles had been proposed by Thomas Burke, in February 1781, to give Congress the power to collect a 5% impost, or duty on all imports, but this required ratification by all states; securing its passage as law proved impossible after it was rejected by Rhode Island in November 1782. James Madison joined Hamilton in influencing Congress to send a delegation to persuade Rhode Island to change its mind. Their report recommending the delegation argued the national government needed not just some level of financial autonomy, but also the ability to make laws that superseded those of the individual states. Hamilton transmitted a letter arguing that Congress already had the power to tax, since it had the power to fix the sums due from the several states; but Virginia's rescission of its own ratification of this amendment ended the Rhode Island negotiations.
Congress and the army
While Hamilton was in Congress, discontented soldiers began to pose a danger to the young United States. Most of the army was then posted at Newburgh, New York. Those in the army were funding much of their own supplies, and they had not been paid in eight months. Furthermore, after Valley Forge, the Continental officers had been promised in May 1778 a pension of half their pay when they were discharged. By the early 1780s, due to the structure of the government under the Articles of Confederation, it had no power to tax to either raise revenue or pay its soldiers. In 1782, after several months without pay, a group of officers organized to send a delegation to lobby Congress, led by Capt. Alexander McDougall. The officers had three demands: the Army's pay, their own pensions, and commutation of those pensions into a lump-sum payment if Congress were unable to afford the half-salary pensions for life. Congress rejected the proposal.
Several congressmen, including Hamilton, Robert Morris and Gouverneur Morris (no relation), attempted to use this so-called Newburgh Conspiracy as leverage to secure support from the states and in Congress for funding of the national government. They encouraged MacDougall to continue his aggressive approach, implying unknown consequences if their demands were not met, and defeated proposals designed to end the crisis without establishing general taxation: that the states assume the debt to the army, or that an impost be established dedicated to the sole purpose of paying that debt.
Hamilton suggested using the Army's claims to prevail upon the states for the proposed national funding system. The Morrises and Hamilton contacted General Henry Knox to suggest he and the officers defy civil authority, at least by not disbanding if the army were not satisfied. Hamilton wrote Washington to suggest that Hamilton covertly "take direction" of the officers' efforts to secure redress, to secure continental funding but keep the army within the limits of moderation. Washington wrote Hamilton back, declining to introduce the army. After the crisis had ended, Washington warned of the dangers of using the army as leverage to gain support for the national funding plan.
On March 15, Washington defused the Newburgh situation by addressing the officers personally. Congress ordered the Army officially disbanded in April 1783. In the same month, Congress passed a new measure for a 25-year impost—which Hamilton voted against—that again required the consent of all the states; it also approved a commutation of the officers' pensions to five years of full pay. Rhode Island again opposed these provisions, and Hamilton's robust assertions of national prerogatives in his previous letter were widely held to be excessive.
In June 1783, a different group of disgruntled soldiers from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sent Congress a petition demanding their back pay. When they began to march toward Philadelphia, Congress charged Hamilton and two others with intercepting the mob. Hamilton requested militia from Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council, but was turned down. Hamilton instructed Assistant Secretary of War William Jackson to intercept the men. Jackson was unsuccessful. The mob arrived in Philadelphia, and the soldiers proceeded to harangue Congress for their pay. Hamilton argued that Congress ought to adjourn to Princeton, New Jersey. Congress agreed, and relocated there. Frustrated with the weakness of the central government, Hamilton while in Princeton drafted a call to revise the Articles of Confederation. This resolution contained many features of the future U.S. Constitution, including a strong federal government with the ability to collect taxes and raise an army. It also included the separation of powers into the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.
Return to New York
Hamilton resigned from Congress in 1783. When the British left New York in 1783, he practiced there in partnership with Richard Harison. He specialized in defending Tories and British subjects, as in Rutgers v. Waddington, in which he defeated a claim for damages done to a brewery by the Englishmen who held it during the military occupation of New York. He pleaded for the Mayor's Court to interpret state law consistent with the 1783 Treaty of Paris which had ended the Revolutionary War.: 64–69
In 1784, he founded the Bank of New York, one of the oldest still-existing banks in America. Hamilton was one of the men who restored King's College as Columbia College, which had been suspended since 1776 and severely damaged during the war. Long dissatisfied with the Articles of Confederation as too weak to be effective, he played a major leadership role at the Annapolis Convention in 1786. He drafted its resolution for a constitutional convention, and in doing so brought one step closer to reality his longtime desire to have a more effectual, more financially self-sufficient federal government.
Constitution and the Federalist Papers
Constitutional Convention and ratification of the Constitution
In 1787, Hamilton served as assemblyman from New York County in the New York State Legislature and was chosen as a delegate for the Constitutional Convention by his father-in-law Philip Schuyler.: 191  Even though Hamilton had been a leader in calling for a new Constitutional Convention, his direct influence at the Convention itself was quite limited. Governor George Clinton's faction in the New York legislature had chosen New York's other two delegates, John Lansing Jr. and Robert Yates, and both of them opposed Hamilton's goal of a strong national government. Thus, whenever the other two members of the New York delegation were present, they decided New York's vote, to ensure that there were no major alterations to the Articles of Confederation.: 195
Early in the Convention Hamilton made a speech proposing a President-for-Life; it had no effect upon the deliberations of the convention. He proposed to have an elected president and elected senators who would serve for life, contingent upon "good behavior" and subject to removal for corruption or abuse; this idea contributed later to the hostile view of Hamilton as a monarchist sympathizer, held by James Madison. According to Madison's notes, Hamilton said in regards to the executive, "The English model was the only good one on this subject. The hereditary interest of the king was so interwoven with that of the nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was placed above the danger of being corrupted from abroad... Let one executive be appointed for life who dares execute his powers."
Hamilton argued, "And let me observe that an executive is less dangerous to the liberties of the people when in office during life than for seven years. It may be said this constitutes as an elective monarchy... But by making the executive subject to impeachment, the term 'monarchy' cannot apply..." In his notes of the convention, Madison interpreted Hamilton's proposal as claiming power for the "rich and well born". Madison's perspective all but isolated Hamilton from his fellow delegates and others who felt they did not reflect the ideas of revolution and liberty.
During the convention, Hamilton constructed a draft for the Constitution based on the convention debates, but he never presented it. This draft had most of the features of the actual Constitution. In this draft, the Senate was to be elected in proportion to the population, being two-fifths the size of the House, and the President and Senators were to be elected through complex multistage elections, in which chosen electors would elect smaller bodies of electors; they would hold office for life, but were removable for misconduct. The President would have an absolute veto. The Supreme Court was to have immediate jurisdiction over all lawsuits involving the United States, and state governors were to be appointed by the federal government.
At the end of the convention, Hamilton was still not content with the final Constitution, but signed it anyway as a vast improvement over the Articles of Confederation, and urged his fellow delegates to do so also. Since the other two members of the New York delegation, Lansing and Yates, had already withdrawn, Hamilton was the only New York signer to the United States Constitution.: 206 He then took a highly active part in the successful campaign for the document's ratification in New York in 1788, which was a crucial step in its national ratification. He first used the popularity of the Constitution by the masses to compel George Clinton to sign, but was unsuccessful. The state convention in Poughkeepsie in June 1788 pitted Hamilton, Jay, James Duane, Robert Livingston, and Richard Morris against the Clintonian faction led by Melancton Smith, Lansing, Yates, and Gilbert Livingston.
Members of Hamilton's faction were against any conditional ratification, under the impression that New York would not be accepted into the Union, while Clinton's faction wanted to amend the Constitution, while maintaining the state's right to secede if their attempts failed. During the state convention, New Hampshire and Virginia becoming the ninth and tenth states to ratify the Constitution, respectively, had ensured any adjournment would not happen and a compromise would have to be reached. Hamilton's arguments used for the ratifications were largely iterations of work from The Federalist Papers, and Smith eventually went for ratification, though it was more out of necessity than Hamilton's rhetoric. The vote in the state convention was ratified 30 to 27, on July 26, 1788.
In 1788, Hamilton served a second term in what proved to be the last session of the Congress of the Confederation.
The Federalist Papers
Hamilton recruited John Jay and James Madison to write a series of essays, now known as The Federalist Papers, to defend the proposed Constitution. He made the largest contribution to that effort, writing 51 of the 85 essays published (Madison wrote 29, and Jay wrote the other five). Hamilton supervised the entire project, enlisted the participants, wrote the majority of the essays, and oversaw the publication. During the project, each person was responsible for their areas of expertise. Jay covered foreign relations. Madison covered the history of republics and confederacies, along with the anatomy of the new government. Hamilton covered the branches of government most pertinent to him: the executive and judicial branches, with some aspects of the Senate, as well as covering military matters and taxation. The papers first appeared in The Independent Journal on October 27, 1787.
Hamilton wrote the first paper signed as Publius, and all of the subsequent papers were signed under the name.: 210 Jay wrote the next four papers to elaborate on the confederation's weakness and the need for unity against foreign aggression and against splitting into rival confederacies, and, except for Federalist No. 64, was not further involved.: 211 Hamilton's highlights included discussion that although republics have been culpable for disorders in the past, advances in the "science of politics" had fostered principles that ensured that those abuses could be prevented (such as the division of powers, legislative checks and balances, an independent judiciary, and legislators that were represented by electors [Numbers 7–9]). Hamilton also wrote an extensive defense of the constitution (No. 23–36), and discussed the Senate and executive and judicial branches in Numbers 65–85. Hamilton and Madison worked to describe the anarchic state of the confederation in numbers 15–22, and the two have been described as not being significantly different in thought during this time period—in contrast to their stark opposition later in life. Subtle differences appeared with the two when discussing the necessity of standing armies.
Reconciliation between New York and Vermont
In 1764, King George III had ruled in favor of New York in a dispute between New York and New Hampshire over the region that later became the state of Vermont. New York then refused to recognize claims to property derived from grants by New Hampshire governor Benning Wentworth during the preceding 15 years when the territory had been governed as a de facto part of New Hampshire. Consequently, the people of the disputed territory, called the New Hampshire Grants, resisted the enforcement of New York's laws within the grants. Ethan Allen's militia called the Green Mountain Boys, noted for successes in the war against the British in 1775, was originally formed for the purpose of resisting the colonial government of New York. In 1777, the statesmen of the grants declared it a separate state to be called Vermont, and by early 1778, had erected a state government.
During 1777–1785, Vermont was repeatedly denied representation in the Continental Congress, largely because New York insisted that Vermont was legally a part of New York. Vermont took the position that because its petitions for admission to the Union were denied, it was not a part of the United States, not subject to Congress, and at liberty to negotiate separately with the British. The latter Haldimand negotiations led to some exchanges of prisoners of war. The peace treaty of 1783 that ended the war included Vermont within the boundaries of the United States. On March 2, 1784, Governor George Clinton of New York asked Congress to declare war for the purpose of overthrowing the government of Vermont, but Congress made no decision.
By 1787, the government of New York had almost entirely given up plans to subjugate Vermont, but still claimed jurisdiction. As a member of the legislature of New York, Hamilton argued forcefully and at length in favor of a bill to recognize the sovereignty of the State of Vermont, against numerous objections to its constitutionality and policy. Consideration of the bill was deferred to a later date. In 1787 through 1789, Hamilton exchanged letters with Nathaniel Chipman, a lawyer representing Vermont. In 1788, the new Constitution of the United States went into effect, with its plan to replace the unicameral Continental Congress with a new Congress consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. Hamilton wrote:
One of the first subjects of deliberation with the new Congress will be the independence of Kentucky [at that time still a part of Virginia], for which the southern states will be anxious. The northern will be glad to find a counterpoise in Vermont.
In 1790, the New York legislature decided to give up New York's claim to Vermont if Congress decided to admit Vermont to the Union and if negotiations between New York and Vermont on the boundary between the two states were successfully concluded. In 1790, negotiators discussed not only the boundary, but also financial compensation of New York land-grantees whose grants Vermont refused to recognize because they conflicted with earlier grants from New Hampshire. Compensation in the amount of 30,000 Spanish dollars was agreed to, and Vermont was admitted to the Union in 1791.