How Alexander Hamilton Worked


This handsome devil Founding Father stars on the $10 bill.
This handsome devil Founding Father stars on the $10 bill.
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Transport yourself back to history class — your classmates, some dozing off, sit in those one-piece desks all lined up and facing the teacher. Terms like "Federalist Papers," "U.S. Mint," and "Aaron Burr" stand out in white chalk on a smudged, green blackboard. "Why do they call it a blackboard if it's green?" you wonder, your mind drifting as the teacher mentions something about a duel. Wait, a duel? Where people shoot at each other? That's interesting. She's talking about Alexander Hamilton — you know, the guy on the $10 bill.

Unless you're a history buff, that might be about all you remember about this Founding Father. But given the popularity of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, it might be time to brush up on his biography a little bit. "My name is Alexander Hamilton," lead actor Lin-Manuel Miranda raps (yes, raps) in the opening number, "and there's a million things I haven't done. But just you wait." Luckily, you won't have to wait long to find out what he did as we have everything you need to know about the life and legacy of the "ten-dollar founding father" right here.

Let's start at the beginning — and quite a beginning it was. Hamilton, born in 1757 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, was the illegitimate son of James Hamilton, a poor Scottish merchant, and Rachel Faucett, an English-French planter's daughter. After moving his family to St. Croix, James abandoned his two sons and Rachel, who died in 1768. Left to fend for himself, Alexander began working for Beekman and Cruger mercantile. The business' proprietor quickly recognized the young orphan's talents and paid to send him to King's College (now Columbia University) in New York [sources: National Archives, New York Historical Society].

Hamilton enrolled at King's in 1773, and like any college student he enjoyed his share of extracurricular activities. But Hamilton's main diversion wasn't sports, partying or girls; rather, he sowed his wild oats writing political pamphlets. Still just a teenager, Hamilton made a name for himself when he penned the pro-American work "A Full Vindication of the Measures of Congress," which defended a proposed trade embargo with Britain. It was no surprise, then, when the young firebrand joined the Continental Army soon after the colonies declared independence from Britain in 1776. There he met George Washington, and that's when things really got exciting for Hamilton [source: New York Historical Society].

Hamilton the Founding Father

Hamilton was basically BFFs with George Washington.
Hamilton was basically BFFs with George Washington.
John Trumbull/DeAgostini/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: The colonies prevailed in the American Revolution, throwing off British rule to become the United States of America. OK, you probably knew that. But what you might not know is what an important role Alexander Hamilton played in the formation of the country — particularly the structure of its government.

In 1776 Hamilton joined the revolution as a captain in the Continental Army, formed his own artillery unit, and fought in the battles of Long Island, White Plains and Trenton. His service in the battle of Princeton caught George Washington's eye, and before Hamilton could hike up his breeches he found himself working alongside the commander-in-chief as Washington's aide de camp, or confidential assistant. The two shared a close relationship: Hamilton, whom Washington affectionately referred to as "my boy," advised Washington and even composed some of his correspondence and speeches [source: Maslin]. But Hamilton wasn't just a "yes man." He bemoaned the Army's lack of organization and funding, two observations that would play a big role in how he came to view the role of government [sources: PBS, Alexander Hamilton, The Gilder Lehrman Institute].

Hamilton settled into a law practice after the war, but soon his country needed him again. In 1787, delegates from across the new nation, including Hamilton, arrived in Philadelphia to improve the country's system of government under its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. Instead, they started over, creating the Constitution that governs the United States today. What was Hamilton's contribution? Not much, at least during the drafting phase. Apparently, he missed a lot of the debates for business reasons, and even when he was there he didn't get along very well with the other delegates [sources: National Archives, PBS, Alexander Hamilton].

What he lacked in attendance, however, he more than made up for with his full-throated support for the final document. Sure, it might not have been exactly what Hamilton wanted, but remember his concerns over the lack of organization and funding of the Army? The new Constitution addressed both of these problems by strengthening the central government and giving it the power to tax. For those reasons Hamilton teamed up with fellow Constitution superfans John Jay and James Madison to write "The Federalist," a collection of 85 essays that defended the new document. Thanks in large part to Hamilton's tireless promotion, the states ultimately approved the Constitution, and Hamilton's signature on the document is a testament to his efforts [source: PBS, Alexander Hamilton].

Hamilton the Treasury Secretary

President George Washington with his cabinet members (from left), Secretary of War Gen. Henry Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
President George Washington with his cabinet members (from left), Secretary of War Gen. Henry Knox, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Attorney General Edmund Randolph.
Currier and Ives/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

With the new Constitution in place, the United States held its first presidential election starting in December 1788. To no one's surprise, the highly popular George Washington came out on top when the final vote was tallied. He quickly set about the business of building his cabinet of advisors and, remembering his old friend's loyal service during the war, appointed Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury.

Remember, when Hamilton took charge of the Treasury in 1789 the United States' economy was nothing like it is today. It was underdeveloped and relied heavily on agriculture. Hamilton set out to change that, laying out his vision for a new economy based on four main policies: high tariffs, investment in infrastructure, consolidation of state debt under the federal government, and the creation of a central bank [source: Cohen and DeLong].

You might be wondering what all that exactly means, but it boils down to this: Hamilton wanted to create an economy that helped industry. High tariffs, or taxes on imports, for British-made products gave American businessmen a reason to invest in equipment and facilities of their own. These taxes in turn gave the government the money to improve roads, canals, ports, and other infrastructure that was crucial for trade and manufacturing [source: Cohen and DeLong].

An additional benefit of the tariff revenue was that it gave the Treasury the money it needed to back the debt states incurred during the Revolutionary War. While taking on a bunch of debt may sound like a bad move, it actually made the federal government much stronger (and remember, Hamilton was all about a strong central government). That's because the existence of a national debt allowed the government to issue bonds traded on the open marketplace, which then allowed it to borrow money at a much lower rate. Together, with the creation of a national bank — which could loan the government money, issue banknotes and provide a stabilizing force to the nation's banking system — these policies are credited with saving the fledgling country from financial ruin and setting it on a path to become an industrialized nation [source: Gordon].

When family and financial factors converged, Hamilton resigned as Treasury secretary in 1795 and returned to his law practice in New York. Still, he remained heavily involved in state and national politics with a passion that ultimately led to his demise.

Hamilton the Federalist

These dueling pistols belonged to politician and diplomat Rufus King, who was a signer of the Constitution and a United States senator from New York. The flintlock pistols are similar to the pair used in 1804 when Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded.
These dueling pistols belonged to politician and diplomat Rufus King, who was a signer of the Constitution and a United States senator from New York. The flintlock pistols are similar to the pair used in 1804 when Alexander Hamilton was mortally wounded.
H.W. Mortimer & Company/The New York Historical Society/Getty Images

With the deadlocked political climate in the United States today, it's nice to think of its Founding Fathers as friends who rose above petty politics to work together and create a great democracy. But that simply wasn't the case. These men spread rumors, hurled insults and fought one another's success at every turn — and Alexander Hamilton was no exception. It was this nastiness that actually killed him.

Americans have George Washington's cabinet to thank for their two-party system, though Washington himself hated the idea of political factions. Hamilton and his supporters became part of the Federalist Party, which believed in a strong central government, a country built on industry and a closer relationship with Britain. This put him in conflict with the small-government, agriculture-friendly, pro-French Republicans like fellow cabinet member Thomas Jefferson. While Hamilton left public office for good when he resigned as Treasury secretary in 1795 (aside from a short stint as inspector-general of the Army), he remained heavily involved in Federalist politics [source: PBS, Alexander Hamilton].

Hamilton broke ranks with his party in 1796 to oppose Federalist John Adams' bid to succeed Washington as president. His efforts failed, but this disdain for Adams probably cost the country's second president a second term in 1800. That's because one of the Republican candidates in that election, Aaron Burr, released a private document in which Hamilton was strongly critical of Adams. This split the Federalist Party, allowing Republicans Jefferson and Burr to finish tied for electoral votes at the top of the ballot. With the tiebreaker now up to Congress, Hamilton then threw his support behind Jefferson, who eventually won. Burr finished second, which, back in those days, meant he became vice president [source: PBS, Alexander Hamilton].

Hamilton and Burr got into it again when Burr ran for governor of New York in 1804. The former Treasury secretary made it his mission to destroy Burr, speaking out against the vice president at every opportunity. Burr lost, and upon hearing that Hamilton had expressed a "despicable opinion" of him at a dinner party, he became enraged and challenged his Federalist foe to a duel. The two faced each other at Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804. After drawing their weapons, Hamilton reportedly fired over Burr's head to give him a moment to "pause and reflect." But Burr didn't return the gesture. Hit, Hamilton fell to the ground and died the next day [sources: PBS, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr's Duel, Dunn].

Hamilton's Legacy

Music director Alex Lacamoire and "Hamilton" actor/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrate onstage after winning a Grammy award in 2016.
Music director Alex Lacamoire and "Hamilton" actor/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda celebrate onstage after winning a Grammy award in 2016.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Alexander Hamilton's legacy, like that of many political figures, is complicated. When he and Burr turned to face each other, pistols raised, his reputation was already in decline. Many Americans still remembered him for his affair with Maria Reynolds. The political clout he once enjoyed was waning, and he struggled to be the Federalist kingmaker he once was. His recent move to The Grange, a country home north of New York City, had stretched his finances — a situation that worsened with some unsuccessful attempts at land speculation [source: National Archives]. To make matters worse, his early death allowed his political foes to trash him in their later writings. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all had bad things to say about the defenseless Hamilton, calling him out of touch with the common man and suggesting that deep down he preferred a monarchy friendly to England [source: Hartle].

But things would get better for Hamilton, even if he wasn't around to see it. For one, scholars now credit Hamilton with the American economy's tremendous success in its early years. His emphasis on manufacturing, infrastructure and finance helped foster independence from Britain not only in a political sense, but also in an economic sense. Scholars also see Hamilton's influence in today's economy. He's the one who first gave the government a role in the American economy, creating things like a national debt and a national bank — things that are admittedly controversial but are undoubtedly ingrained in today's financial system. And Hamilton himself could not have imagined what his promotion of industry and business would one day help create: the largest economy the world has ever seen. It's no wonder he's been featured on more denominations of United States currency than any other person [sources: Gass, Cohen and DeLong, Hartle].

Despite all these accomplishments, Hamilton hasn't gotten as much attention as other Founding Fathers. But that may be changing thanks to the musical Hamilton, performed and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda. In 2016 it took home the Grammy for Best Musical Album, causing Google searches for the phrase "Who is Alexander Hamilton?" to spike by 400 percent [source: Falcone]. So he didn't become president, but he now has a musical. Take that, Jefferson!

Author's Note: How Alexander Hamilton Worked

How can we all know so little about a man whose picture is on the money we handle almost every day? That's the question I found myself asking after writing this article and discovering what a fascinating and influential figure Alexander Hamilton really was. From his rags-to-riches journey to his innovative economic policies to his steamy affairs, there was something for everyone to like about Hamilton's story. Maybe the lack of interest is simply because, as one author put it, he was "the most important founding father who never became president." We do love our presidents.

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Sources

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