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Alexander Hamilton4

“Let us pause briefly to tally the grim catalog of disasters that had befallen these two boys between 1765 and 1769: their father had vanished, their mother had died, their cousin and supposed protector had committed bloody suicide, and their aunt, uncle, and grandmother had all died. James, sixteen, and Alexander, fourteen, were now left alone, largely friendless and penniless. At every step in their rootless, topsy-turvy existence, they had been surrounded by failed, broken, embittered people. Their short lives had been shadowed by a stupefying sequence of bankruptcies, marital separations, deaths, scandals, and disinheritance. Such repeated shocks must have stripped Alexander Hamilton of any sense that life was fair, that he existed in a benign universe, or that he could ever count on help from anyone. That this abominable childhood produced such a strong, productive, self-reliant human being — that this fatherless adolescent could have ended up a founding father of a country he had not yet even seen — seems little short of miraculous. Because he maintained perfect silence about his unspeakable past, never exploiting it to puff his later success, it was impossible for his contemporaries to comprehend the exceptional nature of his personal triumph. What we know of Hamilton’s childhood has been learned almost entirely during the past century.”

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From Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton.

To make matters worse, and add yet another card to a deck already stacked against him, young Alexander was simultaneously struck with the same fever which eventually took his mother, and was therefore too delirious to even say farewell. Because the family had only a single bed, Chernow notes, Alexander was “probably writhing inches from his mother when she expired.”

The fact that Hamilton overcame these enormous setbacks to quickly rise to political prominence — not to mention emotional normalcy — is a testament to the singularity of both his intelligence and his resilience. What’s more, as one often senses in accounts of the Founders, not only was he a luminous statesman, but he also emerges from the page as, well, a pretty cool guy, with a personality somehow more endearingly human and three-dimensional than many in Washington today. I’ve already posted some about Hamilton the bachelor, to which Chernow adds a priceless anecdote:

Hamilton, twenty-five, was instantly smitten with Schuyler, twenty-two. Fellow aide Tench Tilghman reported: ‘Hamilton is a gone man.’ Pretty soon, Hamilton was a constant visitor at the two-story Campfield residence, spending every evening there. Everyone noticed that the young colonel was starry-eyed and distracted. Although a touch absentminded, Hamilton ordinarily had a faultless memory, but, returning from Schuyler one night, he forgot the password and was barred by the sentinel…

For those interested in reading more about Hamilton, I recommend Chernow’s book (which is lengthy yet well paced), but not before you watch the fantastic exchange between Jon Meacham and David Brooks about the competing political visions and personalities of Hamilton and his rival Thomas Jefferson. In this discussion, Meacham takes the side of the subject of his biography, as Brooks, a traditional conservative, defends Hamilton. The following remarks from Brooks are highlights of the discussion and supplement the words above:

I’m going to get the dates wrong, but you’ll get the idea.

So when Hamilton was thirteen, his mom died in the bed next to him. He was adopted by his uncle who died — who committed suicide — then he was adopted by his grandparents who died within a year. So by fourteen he’d lost everybody he ever loved except for his brother. A court came in and took away his property. So at fourteen he essentially had nothing. By twenty-five he is George Washington’s Chief of Staff and a war hero. By thirty-five he’s been the author of The Federalist Papers and is one of the top lawyers in New York. By forty or forty-five he has retired as the most successful treasury secretary in U.S. history.

And so he is a story of intense upward mobility. And his philosophy was to create a system of government which would allow poor boys and girls like him to succeed.

Read on:

  • Alexander Hamilton the bachelor identifies what he likes in a girl
  • David Brooks and Jon Meacham discuss Jefferson, Hamilton, and the ‘art of power’
  • Jefferson and Hamilton duke it out over the national debt

Alexander Hamilton