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The Boyhood Of Alexander Hamilton
Some old myths die in this new study of his West Indies childhood
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
She requested Hamilton to be her agent. It seems quite clear that she told him that if he would watch over her inheritance of two-sevenths of the residue of her father’s estate, she would share her inheritance with him. From the time of her arrival in Christiansted till long after his departure thence, Hamilton had regular accruals of capital from there. It is true that she herself got little for a long while, and had come home with less. The Lytton estates would not be settled for a dozen years. But modest installments were paid out, expenses disbursed, and allowances made for this and that. Alexander’s signature is on all receipts for Ann’s share.
There has always been speculation as to who financed Hamilton’s voyage to New York and his education in New Jersey and there. From the record, he did it himself. Ann helped, but Nicholas Cruger made him his clerk, and paid him wages, and even threw commercial opportunities his way. Some of the mercantile transactions Hamilton handled were for his own account. One of his letters says so specifically, anxious over the settling of bills.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s friend Neddy Stevens had gone north, to King’s College in New York, leaving Alexander feeling worse than ever. He must be where he could acquire wider knowledge; could not only learn, but excel. Situated as he was he must excel, he was convinced of that. Only surpassing achievement would excuse his existence; but how attain it? How gain higher knowledge among these study-shy plantation men and traders?
He wrote thus to Neddy. Neddy was homesick, and had planned to spend the Christmas holidays in a journey south and back. Alexander wrote him on November 11, 1769:
There spoke the island boy. Only war took one without fortune from home.
No war; but there was a lot of trouble suddenly upon St. Croix. A palace revolution in Denmark, so minor that though it filled the headlines it would get into few of the history books. The queen was implicated and rudely incarcerated. The throne was shaken, and would never be the same again; but what concerned Denmark’s dependencies in the Caribbean was that without warning, island notes were dishonored in Holland, England, Prussia, France. In Christiansted a scramble for liquid assets ensued, among men who were in many instances land millionaires. Hamilton’s lifelong adherence to hard cash can be traced back to this crisis.
Cruger owned vast estates in cotton and sugar. He had his choice of slaves, and made shrewd purchases. His storerooms on King Street were jammed with food, clothing, building materials, ship chandlery, liquor, and the makings of the barrels. For all this there was great demand, yet Cruger barely preserved his business, his associates, his family and his friends from ruin because of his lack of specie.
That he did preserve them was due in considerable measure to young Hamilton. Through observation Hamilton knew where profitable cargoes could be sold for cash. He had kept his eyes open, and moreover was expert at getting the last penny out of poor cargoes, having been left so much on his own and possessing a natural zest for working things out.
Late in 1771 Alexander met the man who affected the course of his life perhaps more than any other. Hugh Knox, Presbyterian clergyman, came to Christiansted in 1771, when Hamilton was sixteen. The lad was presented to him as a worthy subject for his spiritual efforts, and responded as a flower to the sun. Here at last was a man of ideas! Knox believed in education as he did in God. He even wished to educate the slaves. It was, Knox said, only because they, untaught and godless, were the guides and philosophers of the young that there was so much immorality down here. Educate them, he said, elevate them, and you will elevate all—provided you instill a zest for personal education in the breasts of their white masters also. Alexander saw Negroes as people for the first time.
Knox talked about morality as something from within, relating it to free choice; and that brought up the everlasting subject of contemporary politics. Rule without reason, Knox told Alexander Hamilton, damaged both the rulers and the ruled.
So far there had been nobody to discuss such issues with. Knox, a mere exploratory visitor as yet, was manna to Alexander Hamilton.