Alexander Hamilton: Selections from the Exhibition
ALEXANDER HAMILTON: STRIVER, STATESMAN, SCOUNDREL
Although enormously influential in the political and economic development of the United States, Alexander Hamilton was, until recently, a forgotten Founding Father—the one who never became president, the one who did not live to see 50.
Hamilton was at best a complicated hero and, at worst, an admirable scourge. He fought alongside the Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolutionary War yet convinced President George Washington that their fragile new nation should not aid France in its own attempt to establish a republic. He believed the Constitution was imperfect yet persuasively defended it as a gateway to a just national government. He condemned Thomas Jefferson's attitude toward slavery yet married into one of New York’s most prominent slave-owning families. He believed in acting with honor yet publicly humiliated his wife in the process of clearing his name.
The ambitious financial system Hamilton devised as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury is still largely in place more than 200 years later, along with other institutions as varied as the U.S. Coast Guard and the New York Post. Hamilton’s passion and energy inspired his followers, enflamed his opponents, and continue to fascinate the contemporary audiences rediscovering him in biographies and on Broadway.
In this exhibition, The New York Public Library presents a selection of its holdings to illuminate the many facets of Alexander Hamilton, a striver, statesman, and scoundrel.
Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis in 1755 or 1757, to a Scottish father and a French mother who was still legally married to a man who refused to grant her a divorce. Hamilton’s father abandoned her and their two sons shortly after the family moved to the island of St. Croix when Hamilton was ten.
In 1768, Hamilton survived a tropical illness that claimed his mother. He and his brother, James, were taken in by a cousin who soon committed suicide. James was apprenticed to a carpenter, while the younger but more promising Alexander moved in with a merchant (who may have been his biological father) and began clerking in the St. Croix office of a New York trading company, Beekman and Cruger.
It was here that Hamilton began to understand the intricacies of international commerce while reading extensively and writing for the local newspaper. After his published account of a devastating hurricane captured the admiration of readers, a collection was taken up in 1772 to send him to America to further his studies. He would never return to the Caribbean.
Among his champions and detractors alike, no one could deny Hamilton’s tireless and varied ambitions. He conquered early hardships that would have bested many and threw himself into rigorous study, not only at King’s College (now Columbia University), but also while serving as General George Washington’s chief aide in the American Revolution and when on his way to becoming a successful lawyer. Wielding his pen with force and frequency whenever he perceived injustice, Hamilton rose to become one of the most powerful statesmen in the new nation.
HAMILTON AND THE SCHUYLER FAMILY
Distant from his father and brother, Hamilton took far more joy in the family he created after marrying Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler in 1780. Eliza was a daughter of Philip Schuyler, who became one of New York State’s first two senators after the Constitution was enacted. One of three powerful political clans around Albany, the Schuylers were wealthy landowners with close economic ties to Loyalists, which likely influenced Hamilton’s friendly attitude toward the Loyalist faction and his efforts to maintain strong trade relations with Britain.
Hamilton’s marriage to Eliza was largely a happy one—save for the notorious Reynolds Affair, when he went public about his infidelity—and they had eight children. For 50 years after her husband’s death, Eliza remained a devoted widow, speaking with as many soldiers as she could find who had fought alongside Hamilton. She went on to help create the Washington Monument and to establish a much-needed New York City orphanage, which still exists today.
HAMILTON AND SLAVERY
Hamilton’s stance on slavery, which may seem ambivalent to a modern audience, was not unusual at the time. Hamilton spent his adolescence in St. Croix, a Caribbean island where enslaved blacks working on sugar plantations vastly outnumbered white residents. Hamilton’s neighbors included free blacks and people of mixed race, but his mother owned slaves—a young boy named Ajax was Hamilton’s personal house servant. The trading company Hamilton worked for bought and sold slaves and the products of slave labor.
During the American Revolution, Hamilton urged George Washington to admit slaves into the Continental Army and supported his friend John Laurens in his unsuccessful efforts to raise a regiment of southern slaves who would be emancipated after the war. However, he also married a woman whose father’s properties in Albany and Saratoga were maintained through the labor of as many as 30 slaves. Hamilton purchased a few domestic slaves, either for his wife’s sister Angelica or for his own household.
At the Constitutional Convention and in his essays in the Federalist, Hamilton said nothing about the Constitution’s provisions protecting slavery. He feared that advocating action against slavery would imperil national unity. At the local level, however, he was an early member of the New York Manumission Society, founded in 1785 to promote the gradual abolition of slavery. The society’s president, John Jay, owned domestic slaves, as did about half its members, and Hamilton’s proposal that they immediately free their slaves was rejected. In 1787, the Manumission Society established the African Free School, open to the children of enslaved and free black New Yorkers, and lobbied for legislation to bring freedom to all enslaved New Yorkers, enlisting state assemblyman Aaron Burr (also a slave owner) as a sponsor. The law would not be passed until 1799.
Although Hamilton never held the presidency, he more greatly influenced the direction of the American government and economy than did virtually any of his peers. Hamilton was one of the forces behind the development and ratification of the Constitution, and he strove to test the limits of its ambiguous language once it was enacted. His remarkable ability to envision grand plans down to their smallest detail was paired with the persuasive skill needed to implement them. As a passionate capitalist, he endeavored to establish the new nation as a global superpower, despite the misgivings of his agrarian-minded colleagues.
STATESMAN: HAMILTON AND THE CONSTITUTION
The New York State Legislature appointed Hamilton to attend the Annapolis Convention in 1786, during which it was decided that another convention would be held in Philadelphia in 1787 to amend the ineffective Articles of Confederation. Hamilton also attended that convention, where the delegates abandoned their original plan and instead produced an entirely new document: the Constitution of the United States of America. Though the final content of the Constitution was a compromise for all the delegates, Hamilton strove to ensure its ratification, both through the Federalist and in an arduous political fight against his fellow New Yorkers, including the governor, staunch anti-Federalist George Clinton.
STATESMAN: HAMILTON AND THE TREASURY
As the first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton established a number of policies and institutions that he felt strengthened the fledgling country’s position in the global economy. His opponents, many from powerful Southern states, feared that these measures would shift too much power from the states to the federal government—and into the hands of a small group of wealthy speculators, primarily from the North. Under Hamilton’s leadership, the federal government took over the states’ debts from the Revolutionary War and started a national bank.
STATESMAN: WASHINGTON'S FAREWELL ADDRESS
Presidential term limits were not part of the original Constitution, and many were surprised when George Washington stepped down in 1796, after serving two terms. He sought Hamilton’s assistance in writing a farewell address to a nation that had never known another leader. The address recommended measured neutrality toward foreign nations at a time when relations were tense with France and Britain and warned against factionalism at a moment of deep national divisions.
Hamilton was an instigator all his life, confident in his opinions and always prepared to unleash a verbal barrage in defense of his principles, his clients, or himself. Once George Washington stepped down from the presidency in 1796, Hamilton lost his powerful patron and moderating voice of reason. The final years of Hamilton’s life were marked by underhanded political ploys and his growing support for harsh laws against immigrants and free speech, as the Federalists tried to hold on to their fading control against the Republican faction—including Aaron Burr.
Picture at right: Alexander Hamilton. Observations on Certain Documents (The Reynolds Pamphlet). Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1797. NYPL, Rare Book Division. Hamilton published a pamphlet to defend himself against accusations of speculating with government funds, explaining that the mysterious payments he made to James Reynolds were to keep him quiet about Hamilton’s affair with Reynolds’s wife, Maria.
HAMILTON AND BURR
Hamilton and Aaron Burr had known each other for decades, often on friendly terms, but they were at political odds once Burr became a leading member of the rising Republican party in the 1790s. Still, they worked together as lawyers in major cases, and when an “affair of honor” arose between Hamilton and James Monroe, Burr helped prevent it from escalating to a duel. Hamilton helped Burr obtain a charter for a private water company and was furious to learn that it had been a ruse for Burr to create his own bank. In 1804, accounts of Hamilton making disparaging remarks about Burr were published, and the two men dueled on July 11. Hamilton died the next day.
Picture at right: Richmond Hill House. Washington's Headquarters, April, 1776. The Scene of the Hickey Plot. Also the Residence of Prince William Henry, Sir Guy Carlton, John Adams, & Aaron Burr. Watercolor, 1872. NYPL,
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection.