Focus on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton

Jul 01, 2016

Alexander HamiltonAs we commemorate the birth of our nation on July 4th and the legacy of our Founding Fathers, one especially fascinating figure comes to mind as having wielded a tremendous impact on both the framework of our political system and the creation of our multi-faceted capitalist economy. This was of course Alexander Hamilton: the Caribbean-born, illegitimate son of a Scottish immigrant father and a mother whose untimely death from fever effectively left him orphaned as an adolescent. Among his many accomplishments, Hamilton promoted and interpreted the Constitution, served as a trusted advisor to George Washington during and after the Revolutionary War, was named the first secretary of the Treasury beginning in 1789, and helped found the first national bank and the U.S. Mint.

Find more illuminating facts about the life and career of the brilliant and controversial statesman below:

His birth date is disputed: Hamilton likely lied about his age, declaring that he was born in 1757.

Most historians assert that he was actually born in 1755 on the island of Nevis, and that he perhaps claimed that he was two years younger to make himself more marketable as a young apprentice. His mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien, was the daughter of a French Huguenot physician, and she was estranged but still legally married to another man when she and Hamilton’s father took up household together. According to some accounts, James Hamilton left the family so that Rachel would not be accused of bigamy.                                                            

He was a college dropout: When Hamilton was 13 (or 11 as he claimed), he began working as a clerk in a trading firm in St. Croix. Funded by his employer and other local people, he left St. Croix for the American colonies around 1772 to further his education. He enrolled in an academy in New Jersey, followed by King’s College in New York City (now Columbia University), which he left in 1776 prior to graduating. While he may have cut his formal education short, Hamilton became a distinguished attorney and he inserted himself in public affairs— becoming a member of the New York State Legislature in 1787 and joining the movement for American independence. 

He was the leader of America’s first political party: Hamilton was one of the most influential members of the Federalist Party, the United States’ first political party that existed until 1816. Federalists supported a strong central government, a broad interpretation of the Constitution, business interests, and close relations with Great Britain. Opposing the Federalist party were the Jeffersonians (also called Democratic-Republicans) who favored stronger state governments, championed the yeoman farmer, called for a strict interpretation of the Constitution, and were averse to the interests of Britain. 

He married into money: With a clear grasp of the power of strong social connections in forging one’s success, Hamilton closely aligned himself with the wealthy and elite of the nation. In 1780, he married Elizabeth Schuyler, a member of one of the richest families in the state of New York. 

He proposed the first national bank as a solution to Revolutionary War debt: When Hamilton was appointed secretary of the Treasury, the fledgling nation was stifled by staggering debt and a shortage of sound currency. Commitments to pay back creditors were not taken seriously at the time, and the paper money issued to creditors called “continentals” were nearly worthless. To invigorate the economy and build credibility in the Treasury, Hamilton issued a ground-breaking proposal for the federal government to assume all state war debts, which were to be paid off in full. To raise money, he argued that a new national bank be created that would issue Treasury bonds to pay 6 percent interest to investors. While the federal government would have a minority interest in this quasi-public institution, the stock would largely be held by speculators, land owners, and businesspeople. The new national bank would serve to expand the money supply and provide credit that would encourage commercial growth and trade both domestically and abroad. 

Although the charter of the First Bank of the United States was not renewed when it expired in 1811 under the power of the Democratic-Republicans, it could be argued that Hamilton’s work to institute a national bank was one of his most enduring contributions to the nation’s economy. The basic principles of the First Bank and its practice of promoting economic development through private capital and the use of credit formed the framework for the emergence of the United States as a financial power in the nineteenth century and beyond.