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The Self-made Founder
Alexander Hamilton conceived an America that encouraged huge successes like his own
April/May 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 2
Let’s take a look at a few cases where Hamilton’s career took a decisive turn through chance. Heaven knows he didn’t start off lucky. But that changed in 1772, when a great hurricane swept over the island of St. Croix at the end of August. Hamilton, already an accomplished writer in his mid-teens, wrote a vivid description of the hurricane in a letter. “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place,” he wrote. “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about…in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.”
Hamilton evidently showed the letter to Hugh Knox, a local clergyman who sometimes doubled as editor of the Royal Danish American Gazette , and Knox published it. It caused a sensation. The Danish governor of the island inquired as to who had written the letter, which had been published anonymously, and a group of island residents, notwithstanding the devastation of the hurricane, raised a fund to finance the young author’s further education in North America. He was on his way and would never see the West Indies again.
Hamilton’s second piece of luck was when he was turned down by Princeton, then known as the College of New Jersey. In the late eighteenth century it was usual for youths to enter college at the age of fourteen or so. Hamilton was already seventeen when he arrived in America and would have been eighteen when he entered as a freshman. (There is some controversy regarding Hamilton’s age. Contemporary records indicate he was born in 1755, but Hamilton himself said he was born in 1757. Chernow’s opinion is that he shaved off two years so as not to seem older than his classmates.)
Hamilton, always sure of his own prodigious abilities, asked to advance as rapidly as possible, rather than have to attend for four years in order to get a bachelor’s degree. The trustees of Princeton turned him down, and so he went to King’s College, now Columbia, instead. Because of this, he studied not in the rural fastness of Princeton, but in the heart of what was already the most commercial-minded city in the country, where his commercial instincts could flourish most abundantly. Except for a brief stint in Albany, New York City would be his home for the rest of his life. And being in New York in the early 1770s, as the crisis with the mother country deepened relentlessly, put Hamilton, still a teenager, in the thick of the dispute.
He made the american economy not just an engine of wealth but an engine of economic opportunity.
New York, deeply involved in commerce with Britain, had a large Tory population (and the head of King’s College was the rabidly Tory Reverend Myles Cooper), but endless handbills, broadsides, and pamphlets on both sides poured from the city’s presses. On July 6, 1774, the Sons of Liberty held a rally on the Common, now City Hall Park, then near King’s College, and Hamilton attended.
Soon he was speaking. Only nineteen and looking young for his age, Hamilton, an American of less than two years’ standing, grasped the Patriot cause and made it his own. He endorsed the proposal for a boycott of British goods, saying that such tactics would “prove the salvation of North America and her liberties,” while warning that otherwise, “fraud, power, and the most odious oppression will rise triumphant over right, justice, social happiness, and freedom.”
It was an astonishing performance, to say the least, and the crowd was stunned into silence before breaking into sustained applause. “It is a collegian,” people whispered to each other, “it is a collegian.” At a stroke, Hamilton was recognized as a force among the more radical elements in the city and became a prolific author of pamphlets and articles.
With the outbreak of war, he became a captain of artillery in the New York militia, and he soon proved himself as adept at war as he was at Patriot propaganda. Once again, luck came his way. George Washington noticed when Hamilton ably provided artillery cover while Washington’s troops crossed the Raritan River in their retreat across New Jersey. He noticed again when Hamilton helped win the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Washington learned of Hamilton’s gifts as a writer and speaker, and on January 20, 1777, he wrote a note to Hamilton asking him to join his staff as an aide-de-camp. Soon, the extra-ordinarily competent young captain—by then a lieutenant colonel—was Washington’s most trusted and indispensable aide.
In that position, he came into close contact with everyone who was anyone in the American cause, including Robert Morris, who is remembered as the “financier of the Revolution.” Hamilton began a long correspondence with Morris about financial matters. In 1789, when the newly inaugurated President George Washington asked Morris to become the first Secretary of the Treasury, Morris, intent on making money, declined Washington’s offer. He recommended Hamilton instead, and Washington was happy to appoint his old comrade in arms. Through yet another stroke of luck, Hamilton, still only 34, now had his opportunity to fundamentally shape the future of his adopted country.