Alexander Hamilton

by Ron Chernow
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton chronicles the life of the first Secretary of the Treasury, the titular Alexander Hamilton. The biography begins with Hamilton's birth on a Caribbean island, argued by Hamilton to be Nevis, while some biographers believe it may have been St. Kitts. The year of his birth is also speculated: it is either 1757, as his family claims, or 1755, as Chernow claims. Hamilton's father, James Hamilton Sr. was Scottish, and the father of eleven children among various mothers. Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien Hamilton, was married to Johann Michael Lavien at the time of Hamilton's birth, but he later divorced Rachel in light of her adultery. Hamilton and his brother, James Hamilton Jr., were written out of Lavien's estate, with all of the money and property left to a legitimate Lavien heir. Rachel passed away in 1769, leaving the teenaged Alexander and James to fend for themselves.

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The Hamilton boys moved in with Peter Lytton, Rachel's cousin, himself poor and desolate. Lytton died later that year, found in a pool of blood under mysterious circumstances. While it was never definitively proven, police believed he was either murdered or committed suicide. Alexander and James were split up after Lytton's death. Hamilton lived with Thomas Stevens, a man who gave the boy a chance to learn and grow his business acumen. Hamilton grew close to Stevens's son, Edward, and the two became like brothers. They looked alike, and it was speculated that Stevens may have been Hamilton's biological father, although this was never confirmed.

Sensing Hamilton's capabilities in business, Hugh Knox, a member of the clergy, raised the money to send Hamilton to America. Hamilton attempted to further his education at Princeton, where he wanted to graduate quickly. The school would not permit the fast pace, so he headed to Manhattan where he enrolled at King's College (known now as Columbia University). Hamilton was fiercely loyal to King's College and the president who allowed him to enroll (Myles Cooper). Cooper was a loyal Brit, but Hamilton continued to defend him even after becoming a figurehead in the Revolutionary War.

During the war, Hamilton was eager to fight. He struck up a quick friendship with George Washington, who made Hamilton his right-hand man. As a personal secretary, Hamilton was often separated from battle, something he regretted, but it made him important connections that would ultimately result in political favor. During the war, Hamilton met Marquis de Lafayette, Aaron Burr, and a myriad of good friends. He also met Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler, the daughter of politician Philip Schuyler. Eliza and Hamilton were married on December 14, 1780, after a short courtship. Hamilton became close with the entire Schuyler family very quickly, forging close friendships with his sister-in-law, Angelica.

After the war, Hamilton became a lawyer in New York City, working closely with Aaron Burr. The two developed an uneasy friendship, often acting as rivals, although they had a great deal in common. Despite his happy marriage, Hamilton was not faithful to his wife. Most notably, he had an affair with Maria Reynolds, a married woman whose husband blackmailed Hamilton to keep the affair quiet. While he initially gave in to the blackmail, Hamilton ultimately shared the details of the affair with the public. Burr was also actively wooing various women and eventually married the wife of a British soldier named Theodosia Bartow Prevost. She died only twelve years after their marriage but left Burr with a young daughter, also named Theodosia.

When George Washington became the first president of the United States of America, he appointed Hamilton as his Secretary of the Treasury. During his years in office, Hamilton was active in creating the US banking system and establishing the original plans for what would become Wall Street. Hamilton's oldest son, Philip Hamilton, died in a duel in 1801, leaving his mother and father devastated. He had other political aspirations, but after his affair went public and his son died, Hamilton was in no shape to pursue them. Burr ran for president in 1800, losing to Thomas Jefferson. At the time, it was traditional for the loser to become the Vice President, although Jefferson was not keen on working alongside Burr. When he ran for reelection, Jefferson alluded to dropping Burr from the ticket, causing Burr to run for Governor of New York instead. Burr lost that election in a landslide.

Burr felt personally slighted by Hamilton and thought he was in part responsible for his loss to Jefferson in 1800. Hamilton supported Jefferson in the election, and it was widely believed that Hamilton's support was the key factor in Jefferson's victory. In the 1804 gubernatorial election, Hamilton supported Morgan Lewis and openly suggested that Burr was not fit for office. The two exchanged heated letters, which escalated to Burr requesting a public apology and recantation from Hamilton. When he declined, Burr challenged him to a duel. They met in Weehawken, New Jersey (the scene of Philip's death), on July 11, 1804, and Burr fatally wounded Hamilton.

Throughout his life, Alexander Hamilton worked tirelessly to establish the best form of government for his new country. He wrote a vast majority of the Federalist Papers, established the US banking system, and helped write the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. His legacy was solidified through his wife, Eliza, who worked for fifty years after his death to ensure both he and George Washington were remembered as significant Founding Fathers.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1704

The circumstances of Alexander Hamilton's birth portended at best an indifferent future. According to his own testimony, he was born on Nevis, an island in the British West Indies. Previous biographers have suggested St. Kitts as his birthplace. The year 1757 is generally accepted because Hamilton and his family claimed it, though author Ron Chernow offers cogent arguments for 1755. Hamilton's father, James Hamilton, Sr., was a Scottish nobleman, but he was the fourth of eleven children and therefore penniless and without a chance of inheritance. He was not married to Hamilton's mother, Rachel Faucette Lavien Hamilton. Their long-term affair may well stem from the mores of the mid-eighteenth century Caribbean region. Rachel's husband, Johann Michael Lavien, used divorce proceedings expressly for the purpose of disinheriting both his wife and her children and later used the decree to direct the pathetically small remainder of his former wife's estate to the legitimate son she bore him. Indeed, it was a result of the trial that Hamilton's mother was branded a woman with “whore-children,” namely Alexander and his brother James Hamilton, Jr.

Lavien received his divorce decree in 1759 and in 1769, after Rachel's sudden death, managed to disinherit both James and Alexander on grounds of illegitimacy. Probate awarded all that remained of Rachel's property to Lavien's son, Peter. Thus, fourteen-year-old Alexander and his elder brother found themselves penniless on the backwater island of St. Croix. They were under the nominal guardianship of Rachel's first cousin Peter Lytton, himself a bankrupt grocer and failed businessman. To make matters worse, Lytton was found in bed dead and soaked in a pool of his own blood in July of 1769. A court inquest never resolved the mysterious circumstances of Lytton's death; it could have been suicide or murder.

Between 1765 and 1769 Alexander and James's acknowledged father had vanished; their mother had died; their guardian had either committed suicide or been murdered; and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had also died. As a result, James was apprenticed to a carpenter named James McNobeny, and Alexander was sent to live with a merchant, Thomas Stevens. Stevens was prosperous, and this sudden uprooting worked an almost Dickensian alteration in the prospects of the fourteen year-old boy.

Chernow cites the testimony of Thomas Pickering, Hamilton's friend in adulthood and later secretary of state, who claimed that Hamilton resembled Stevens's youngest son, Edward Stevens, to such a degree that they might almost have been brothers. It is undoubtedly true that Alexander formed a close friendship with Edward, who had been born only a year before him, far closer than with his acknowledged brother, James. It is thus entirely possible that the elder Stevens was Hamilton's real father. This would account for the preferment Hamilton received in Stevens's export firm, even to the extent of his acting on Stevens's behalf in his absence, this while Hamilton was still a teenager. Stevens must also have recognized that Hamilton was a prodigy with an aptitude for business. Appositely, it was Hamilton's early experience in business that first turned his attention to the American colonies and to New York in particular. Stevens's firm exported sugar and rum directly to that city, and young Hamilton represented the firm's interests consciously.

Hamilton could not travel to America, however, until Hugh Knox, an Anglican clergyman at Christiansted, St. Croix, raised a subscription among the businessmen of the island. Hamilton would always feel indebted to Knox as well as to his first cousin Ann Lytton Venton Mitchell, who helped support him during his preparatory school and college months. He corresponded irregularly with both and after leaving St. Croix he never saw either again. What is more, he never returned to the Caribbean after having once left it. Hamilton always felt guilty for not having maintained closer relations with these two important figures in his life. On his deathbed he dictated a letter to his wife, Elizabeth (called “Eliza” or “Betsy”) Schuyler Hamilton, asking that she provide for Mitchell after his death. Hamilton always was a solitary figure, never actually abandoning those who had befriended him but continually maintaining friendships at a distance. This was true even of friendships that required minimal effort to maintain, as in the case of George Washington or the Marquis de Lafayette.

One of the most captivating aspects of Chernow's book is its ability to evoke a sense of place and time. Nowhere does this succeed more brilliantly than in its depiction of pre-Revolutionary War New York. Had Hamilton matriculated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) as he had planned, his revolutionist sentiments might have emerged sooner and more unqualifiedly than they did at King's College (now Columbia University) in lower Manhattan. As it happened, John Witherspoon was unable to guarantee Hamilton permission to complete degree requirements in a mere eighteen months. Despite Hamilton's brief period of cramming at Elizabethtown Academy, there were huge gaps in his education. He had no Greek, Latin, or advanced mathematics; indeed, before coming to the mainland he had received no former schooling at all.

King's was, however, willing to admit Hamilton conditionally, thanks to Myles Cooper, its second president. Cooper wanted to establish King's College as the Oxford University of the New World. The college was situated on land between the present Trinity Church on Wall Street and St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway at Vesey Street. It remained a steadfastly British institution until the revolution forced it to close its doors as a college until after the British occupation of New York. Hamilton steadfastly defended Cooper, even though he was unrepentantly Tory.

Here again, a pattern in Hamilton's life emerges. He admired effective central administration. He also recognized the possibility of tyranny of the majority. As early as 1802, Hamilton had written that slavery posed an insuperable problem for the republic, that the issue might be resolved only through civil war. Aaron Burr agitated for a southern confederacy after the infamous duel in which he took Hamilton's life, but Hamilton wrote passionately in the years preceding his death that the Union had to be preserved at all costs.

Hamilton lived a mere forty-seven years and always sensed that his earthly time was limited. He allowed himself barely eighteen months to complete his college studies, and the revolution interrupted even this brief time. Hamilton rushed to identify himself with the revolutionists, and Washington was quick to notice the intelligence and loyalty of the young man. Hamilton crammed military maneuvers and strategy, drilled with the militia on the Common, and offered himself and his command of French to Washington. Subsequently, Hamilton became Washington's personal secretary, drafting letters and other communications in elegant English and French.

Hamilton never profited monetarily from his influential friendships, but he always realized that his background required these alliances and cultivated them assiduously. Philip Schuyler, his father-in-law, admired Hamilton from the outset of his courtship of Schuyler's daughter Elizabeth. The Schuylers held eighty acres overlooking Albany. The family created Schuylerville, an industrial town outside of Saratoga, New York. Schuyler's mother was a Van Cortlandt; he himself had married Catherine Van Rensselaer, heiress to the 120,000-acre estate called Claverack in Columbia County, New York. His marriage thus situated Hamilton firmly amid the Old Dutch aristocracy of New York. Hamilton was certainly aware of the social advancement this gave him, though he never traded on it.

His marriage was positive in every sense, yet it did not keep Hamilton from a dangerous love of exotic women and forbidden pleasures. In at least one such affair, with Maria Reynolds (neé Mary Lewis), her husband, James Reynolds, threatened blackmail, and Hamilton paid him at least one thousand dollars for silence, an exorbitant sum at the time. The Reynolds affair coincided with Hamilton's preparation of his Report on Manufactures, a scholarly analysis on the infant American factory system. Hamilton realized that should his womanizing come to light, his vision for the republic might be sacrificed. As it eventuated, Hamilton made a full disclosure of the Reynolds affair in a pamphlet of his own authorship. This dulled the effect of the liaison and eliminated any further blackmail.

As with so many great and near-great personalities, Hamilton had a reckless, self-destructive streak in his personality. He wanted domesticity but consorted with the antidomestic. He wanted to live a long life, but his letters and journals repeatedly hope for a glorious military achievement that would cost him his life; this, he reasoned, would assure his immortal fame. Perhaps it was the death of his son Philip in a duel that caused Hamilton intentionally to waste his short life in the duel with Burr. It was certainly the case that Burr would attempt to injure Hamilton. Even so, this husband and father of six children, whose own resources were limited because of the war, was willing to risk death rather than sacrifice honor.

Burr was, if anything, more reckless than Hamilton, and certainly less discreet. He bragged about his numerous romantic affairs and often did so in lewd terms in letters to his daughter Theodosia. His activities coincided with those of Hamilton numerous times, from schooling at Elizabethtown Academy to the practice of law in Manhattan to living on opposite ends of Wall Street, which was then residential. Burr was vice president in Thomas Jefferson's administration, though Jefferson loathed him and recognized that he was important only to secure New York support.

Burr had always believed that Hamilton had thwarted his political career, especially after Burr had sought nomination for governorship of New York. Hamilton did consider Burr despicable and dangerous; one occasion on which he remarked upon it found its way back to Burr and provided Burr's excuse for a challenge. The infamous duel, fought at Weehawken, New Jersey, was, in effect, ritualized sacrifice. Chernow deals effectively with arguments of modern historians who claim that it was willed suicide on Hamilton's part. He also demonstrates that in death Hamilton was the real victor, as Burr, a pariah even before the duel, was completely ostracized from society as its consequence.

Review Sources

The American Spectator 37, no. 6 (July/August, 2004): 66.

The Atlantic Monthly 293, no. 3 (April, 2004): 112.

New York 37, no. 17 (May 17, 2004): 52.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 14 (September 23, 2004): 34.

The New York Times 153 (April 22, 2004): E8.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (April 25, 2004): 8.

Washington Monthly 36, no. 4 (April, 2004): 57.

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