Alexander Hamilton was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary and the first of two men to serve in that position under George Washington. He was born out of wedlock in 1755 or 1757 on the island of Nevis in the British West Indies to Rachel Lavien and Scottish peddler James A. Hamilton. He clerked for the mercantile firm of Beekman and Cruger on the island of St. Croix before heading for the mainland in 1772. After preparing for college in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, he attended Columbia University (then King’s College) in Manhattan.
The precocious youth defended the colonists’ increasing resistance to British rule in pamphlets published in 1774, and when hostilities broke out the following year he quickly joined the rebel forces as an artillery officer. After serving with bravery and distinction in several crucial early engagements in New York and New Jersey, Hamilton joined General Washington’s staff at the Continental Army’s headquarters. Late in the war, Hamilton again commanded a combat unit and played a major role in the victory at Yorktown.
Due in part to the deprivations he and his men suffered during the war at the hands of inept leaders, a battered economy and a weak frame of government (the Articles of Confederation), Hamilton became a nationalist – a group that wanted to forge a stronger central government and a more vital economy. He therefore helped to form the Bank of New York, practiced law in what he believed to be the public interest and called for the creation of a new constitution. Thanks in large part to his efforts, a constitutional convention met in Philadelphia. Blocked by his fellow New York delegates, Hamilton contributed little to the final document, but as one of the authors of The Federalist Papers he helped to ensure its ratification.
After ratification, Hamilton helped to implement the Constitution by serving as Treasury Secretary. During his term in office, Hamilton essentially restored the national government’s credit, created an efficient tariff-based revenue system and jump-started the development of America’s capital markets.
After leaving office, Hamilton resumed practicing law and remained an active advisor to Treasury and the Federalist party that his policies helped to forge. He died after being shot by political nemesis Aaron Burr in a duel in July 1804 and, fittingly, is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery near Wall Street in Manhattan.
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Bank note from the Rhode Island Washington Bank featuring the possible first likeness of George Washington on currency, circa 1800. Collection of John E. Herzog.