So who exactly was Alexander Hamilton?

This week, the multi-award-winning American musical “Hamilton” finally opened in London. But, until the success of the show on Broadway, most non-Americans knew nothing about Hamilton and I suspect that many Americans were not as familiar with his achievements as they should have been.

I’ve just watched a recording of a two-hour American-made documentary on the life of Alexander Hamilton that was shown in the UK on the History channel.

Hamilton was born on 11 January 1755  on the small West Indies island of Nevis; his father soon left home; and his mother died when he was young. So, when he arrived in New York, he was illegitimate, an orphan, and an immigrant – not the most promising of starts for a political career.

But, in the American War of Independence, he came to the attention of General George Washington and became his chief aide. Indeed Washington was a benefactor to Hamilton as long as the General lived.

Hamilton played a key role in the decisive Battle of Yorktown and later married into an elite family, both events advancing his public standing. He became a qualified lawyer and prolific political writer.

Ever since the War of Independence when he was critical of the weakness of the Continental Congress, Hamilton had favoured a strong and effective central government for the new United States. So he was a strong supporter in public of the new Constitution and wrote no less than 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers which explained and advocated the new system of government.

When Washington became the first President, Hamilton was made Secretary of the Treasury where he instituted a whole series of measures designed to strengthen the new national state, including consolidation of the debts of the states into a national debt, the creation of a federal bank, and the establishment of a national currency.

It was at this stage that American politics became party-based with the formation of the Federalists, supported by Hamilton, and the Republicans, backed by Thomas Jefferson. The former favoured a strong central government, while the latter supported states’ rights – a cleavage which ultimately led to the American Civil War and still exists today.

Hamilton – married with five children – might have risen further in public life, but he was the subject of the first major sex scandal of American politics when he had an affair with the wife of James Reynolds who successfully blackmailed him before the matter became public.

In those days, conflicts between gentlemen could become “affairs of honour” ultimately risking settlement through a duel. Hamilton managed to experience 10 such matters without needing to duel but, on the eleventh occasion, a duel was held with his long-time opponent Aaron Burr and he was mortally wounded. He died on 12 July 1804.

So Hamilton – am immensely talented but very difficult man – was certainly a colourful character with lots of material for various biographies and a musical (can the film be far off?). What the television programme underlined for me was that the personal animosity and bitter conflicts of today’s American political life go right back to the Founding Fathers. The likes of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams really despised others with a vengeance.

If you want to know more about the life of Alexander Hamilton, check out this short account or  this longer account.

One Comment

  • Michael Grace

    Ironic footnote: he supported the Constitution despite the requirement that presidents be native born which barred him from serving as the nation’s chief executve and which–according to some historians–was insisted upon by jealous contemporaries to do just that. You are correct that our founders after Independence proved to be venial, mean-spirited, untrustworthy and often nasty people–in other words just like any other human being. Hamilton was probably the most brilliant of them all, including Franklin and Jefferson.


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