From Orphan to Founding Father: A Look Back at the Incredible Life of Alexander Hamilton Ahead of the Tony Awards
A look back on the incredible life of the man who inspired the Broadway musical sensation
The play’s creator and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, recounts the Founding Father’s amazing journey from orphan to presidential candidate through a hip-hop-inspired score that make the history fun and accessible.
But if you haven’t been able to score tickets to the sold-out show, and you mostly know Hamilton from his recently reaffirmed position on the $10 bill, here are a few facts about the lawyer, soldier, statesman and first Secretary of the Treasury.
An Orphan on an Island
Of all the Founding Fathers, no one embodies the American dream better than Hamilton. He was born out of wedlock between 1755 and 1757 (some believe he lied about his age) on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies. His mother, Rachel Faucette, had left her husband, John Michael Lavien of St. Croix, and her first son, Peter, and moved to St. Kitts, where she met his father, James Hamilton, according to PBS.
James abandoned the family when Hamilton was still a boy, and soon afterward Rachel died of a fever, leaving Alexander orphaned and alone on the island. Hamilton and his older brother James Jr. were later adopted by a cousin, Peter Lytton, but when Lytton committed suicide, the brothers were separated, according to Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the Broadway show.
An avid reader and voracious learner, Hamilton dreamed of finding a way off the island where he had experienced so much hardship. Little did he know, an impromptu poem inspired by a hurricane that ravaged the island in 1772 would be his ticket to the colonies.
The poem, later published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, was so impressive to readers that a scholarship fund for his education was organized by generous benefactors.
Before long, the young prodigy was shipped off to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City to continue his studies.
General Washington’s Right Hand
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Hamilton was an enthusiastic volunteer, joining up with an infantry division, which, according to the Army Historical Foundation, is the oldest serving unit in the regular army. He was made captain of the artillery company and led the group to key victories at the Battles of White Plains and Princeton. Hamilton was so successful he caught the attention of His Excellency, General George Washington, who made the young man his aide-de-camp.
Hamilton proved to be an indispensable right hand to Washington – he wrote beautifully, spoke fluent French, had a sharp military mind and shared many of Washington’s political views. But eventually Hamilton tired of his secretarial duties and resigned from his position as aide-de-camp in 1781. After leaving Washington with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, he led a new battalion, which became instrumental to winning the Battle of Yorktown.
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The Federalist Papers
After the war, Hamilton completed his law degree after several months of self-studying, according to Chernow. Frustrated with the weak Confederation Congress currently holding the country together, he called on delegates to assemble in Philadelphia to sort out a more permanent method for governing.
While Hamilton’s role at the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia was limited by his position as minority voice in the New York delegation, he played a major part in the ratification of the Constitution as one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Essentially a public relations campaign for the Constitution, the papers, written by Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, are still consulted today by the Supreme Court. Although Hamilton is believed to have written the majority of the document, his participation in it was not revealed to the public until after his death.
Founding the Treasury and America’s First Political Party
For his next project, Hamilton decided to solve the national financial crisis. After President Washington appointed him Secretary of the Treasury, he figured out a solution for paying off the war debt, and then organized the Treasury Department from the ground up.
He also formed the First Bank of the United States which, combined with the nascent country’s newly formed treasury, was invaluable in convincing other nations the Unites States was financially stable.
His belief in a strong central government, exemplified by his national bank and treasury, formed the basis for the unofficial formation of the Federalist Party by 1791. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson later formed the Republican Party as a direct response to Hamilton’s political faction.
A Duel to the Death
Hamilton’s demise came at the hands of a political rival, Aaron Burr. Hamilton fought to undermine Burr’s presidential campaign in 1800, writing a letter to a House of Representatives member disparaging Burr and supporting Hamilton’s other political foe, Jefferson, in his place. “In a choice of evils, let them take the least – Jefferson in my view less dangerous than Burr,” he wrote.
But the bad blood between Hamilton and Burr far outdated the presidential elections, and when Hamilton refused to apologize for an insult, the two men and their aids met in Weehawken, New Jersey, for a duel in 1804.
Controversy over who shot first and whether Hamilton deliberately misfired continues to this day, but in the end, Burr dealt his opponent a fatal blow. Hamilton died of his gunshot wound the next day. He was 47.
America’s First Sex Scandal
Despite his countless accomplishments, Hamilton’s life was not without controversy.
While he was Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton carried on a two-year affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds, while paying her husband, James Reynolds, blackmail money to maintain secrecy.
From 1791 to 1792, while he was still married to Elizabeth Schuyler, Hamilton kept the affair a secret. Reynolds’ husband was aware of his wife’s infidelity throughout the relationship, but chose to keep quiet and collect the blackmail money.
Reynolds eventually divorced her husband, and during the proceedings, James’ involvement in a financial scheme involving unpaid back wages for Revolutionary War veterans came to light. In an effort to escape charges, James attempted to use his knowledge about the Hamilton affair as a bargaining chip.
James Monroe and Frederick Muhlenberg were tasked with investigating the corruption, and mistook Hamilton’s payments for his complicity in the scheme. After confronting him with their findings, Hamilton was able to prove the payments were made to buy James’ discretion on the affair by revealing letters he had written to Elizabeth. Convinced he was telling the truth, Monroe and Muhlenberg eliminated Hamilton as a suspect and agreed to keep the affair a secret.
And so the scandal remained private for the next five years, until the one person Monroe shared Hamilton’s letter with – Hamilton’s political enemy Thomas Jefferson – decided to leak the information to the press.
Furious that the letter was made public, Hamilton confronted Monroe, who denied spilling the beans. Their argument nearly led to a duel, but a third party, none other than Aaron Burr (who would kill Hamilton himself in a duel years later) intervened and settled the beef.
Hamilton later released a 95-page response to the incident, in which he denied all charges of corruption, but openly admitted to the affair. His mea culpa was admired, but his reputation never fully recovered.