Currently in the spotlight as the hip-hop hero of the new Broadway musical Hamilton, the real Alexander Hamilton rose from obscurity more than two centuries ago to become one of the Founding Fathers. His vision of America may have revolved around his own self-advancement, but in some ways his experience epitomized the goals of many citizens of the new nation.
Hamilton was born in Nevis in the British West Indies on the edge of poverty in 1757. By the time he was 15 years old, he had managed to get to New York where he enrolled in King’s College, which would later become Columbia University. He joined a company of militia when the Revolution began and within six months had taught himself military tactics and the principles of artillery gunnery. At the age of only 19, Hamilton persuaded the New York Congress to commission him as the captain of a newly authorized company of artillery. He quickly gained the reputation as a hard-driving but fair disciplinarian.
Hamilton’s unit was soon incorporated into the Continental Army’s artillery regiment, and it performed bravely and effectively at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. By March of 1777, George Washington had taken notice of this ambitious young officer and offered Hamilton a position as his secretary and aide-de-camp. Hamilton served on Washington’s staff for four years, but in 1781, frustrated by the lack of opportunity to advance, he requested reassignment to a combat unit. He once again demonstrated his ability to lead and command troops at Yorktown when he led the successful assault on Redoubt No. 10.
After the end of the Revolution, Hamilton took up the study of law and became involved in national politics. Like many former Continental Army officers, he was a leading proponent of the need for a stronger national government. He worked tirelessly to ensure that the federal Constitution was ratified, and his ideas about the nature of federalism continue to provide insight into the goals of the Founding Fathers even today. Hamilton served as secretary of the treasury during Washington’s presidency and his framework of how the treasury should operate remains in place today. Hamilton’s vision of the new republic, grounded on commerce, trade and manufacturing, turned out to be more accurate than Jefferson’s ideal of a republic of small farmers.