The island of Nevis in the Caribbean is a volcanic cone approximately five miles in diameter and 1,300 miles away from New York City. Today, its primary tourist attraction (perhaps its only tourist attraction) is the house in Charles Town where Alexander Hamilton was born. His parents were James Hamilton, an unsuccessful Scotch businessman, and Rachel Fawcett Lavien, who was still married to another man when Alexander was born (she was divorced from John Lavien in 1758). Although she and James Hamilton started a family together, they never married.
In 1765, shortly after the family moved to the island of St. Croix, James Hamilton, who had never succeeded in his various business ventures, abandoned Rachel and the two boys, Alexander and James. Rachel opened a small shop in the main town, James was apprenticed to a carpenter, and Alexander, then 11 years old, took work as a clerk at the trading post of Cruger and Beckman. The main export of St. Croix at this time was sugar, the main labor force slaves.
These early experiences helped shape critical facets of Hamilton's later thinking. Having spent his entire youth outside the American colonies (he moved to New York at the age of seventeen), Hamilton never developed the kind of state or regional loyalty that characterized so many of his colleagues. He could envision the United States as a single entity in which partisan regional interests would be subsumed to the health and stability of the whole.
At the same time, Hamilton witnessed the brutal system of slavery which drove the economy of St. Croix. Slave rebellions occasionally erupted, occasionally resulting in deaths of whites, but they were always crushed, the slaves forced back into lives of unremitting and unrewarded toil. As an adult, Hamilton consistently opposed slavery, served as an officer of the New York Manumission Society and tended to hold the southern planter class in low regard. It should be noted, however, that, as a true pragmatist, he was willing to compromise on issues of slavery in the interests of strengthening the union. The South's slave-based economy, after all, provided the raw materials that drove the economic engines of the North, which Hamilton regarded as the essential foundation for the country.
Meanwhile, Hamilton's tenure as a bookkeeper, and briefly as manager, at Cruger and Beckman exposed him to the intricacies of business world and fostered in him an appreciation of the importance of trade and of precise economic reasoning. Still, the knowledge he gained in the position did not come close to satisfying his desire for a life of adventure beyond the shores of St. Croix. In a 1769 letter to his friend Edward Stevens, Hamilton wrote, "...I mean to prepare the way for futurity, I'm no Philosopher you see and may be justly said to Build Castles in the Air, my Folly makes me ashamed and beg youll conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such schemes successful when the Projector is Constant. I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a war" [sic].
In the short term, the destruction that Hamilton saw was not a war but a devastating hurricane that hit St. Croix in August, 1772. In a letter to his father describing the storm, the 17-year-old Hamilton reflected on human nature and the apparent wrath of God: "Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thy arrogance and self-sufficiency?" This critical view of humankind did not, however, efface the compassion that led him to implore all those who "revel in affluence, [to] see the afflictions of humanity, and bestow your superfluity to ease them.". Perhaps unfortunately for Hamilton, it was the former quality of mind, the suspicion of human nature, that critics and enemies emphasized in painting his character.
At the time, the letter greatly impressed the Presbyterian clergyman of St. Croix, Hugh Knox, who managed to have it printed in the island newspaper. The printing secured Hamilton's reputation as a youth of good character and formidable intellectual ability who needed to transcend the confines of St. Croix. Accordingly, Knox, Nicholas Cruger, and a number of other friends took up a collection to send Hamilton to the United States for a college education. They hoped that he might return to St. Croix some day, but the American Revolution and subsequent struggles in creating the American republic involved Hamilton in a much different course of history.
When he arrived in New York toward the end of 1772, Hamilton still sympathized with the British, and could not fully appreciate the demands of American patriots. However, the friends of Hugh Knox with whom Hamilton stayed in both New York and New Jersey were Presbyterians definitely loyal to the colonial cause, and as a student at King's College (later Columbia), Hamilton read the revolutionary works of James Otis, John Adams and John Dickinson. His first public act of resistance to Britain was a 1774 speech in the Fields park of New York City, in which he defended the Boston Tea Party and called for democratically chosen delegates to the First Continental Congress.
Yet Hamilton did not yet consider himself a revolutionary. His prescription for resolving the troubles that beset both the colonies and Britain was to bind the two closer together, but on an equal footing that assured the God-given rights of all men, including those of personal and economic liberty. The British Empire, in his eyes, was one which could include the United States and England as equal partners. As events would prove, the British Parliament and King remained unwilling to cede any significant degree of power. The shots fired at Lexington demonstrated that there was to be no peaceful resolution to the imperial crisis.
Very early into the actual fighting with Britain, Hamilton joined the New York militia and in 1775 accepted an appointment as captain of the New York Artillery Company. After approximately two years of combat, while the outcome of the war remained entirely uncertain, Commander-in-Chief George Washington invited Hamilton to become his aide-de-camp, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. This appointment, and the access it brought to the corps of gentlemanly soldiers and aristocrats in the Washington circle, set the stage for Hamilton's future career in the Washington and Adams administrations. He was also increasingly respected by New York political leaders who admired his eloquence and valued his proximity to Washington and detailed knowledge of the course of the war.
Most importantly, this knowledge reinforced Hamilton's belief in the necessity of effective government. As aide to Washington, he became acutely aware of the economic and political troubles that were hindering the American army's ability to wage war, and was especially critical of the Continental Congress's inefficiency in managing the military. Political caprice and factionalism, inertia and ignorance, a tendency to defer to the states, seemed to sap Congress of the authority necessary to win the war. "Their conduct," he wrote, "with respect to the army especially is feeble, indecisive, and improvident." In his later career, these were the very qualities Hamilton would seek to expunge from government.
One proposal Hamilton supported, as the British pressed the war in the South, was for the American Army to enlist slaves there as they had occasionally done in the North. But the idea struck to the heart of many whites' fears of black rebellion. Predictably, the proposal never managed to overcome the strenuous objections of Southern legislatures, but it reveals the striking distance between Hamilton and Jefferson on the question of slavery. While Jefferson continued to own slaves and to suspect that blacks were inferior to whites, Hamilton wrote that "the contempt we have been taught to entertain for the blacks makes us fancy many things that are founded neither in reason nor in experience" and believed that "their natural faculties are as good as ours." (See Moulton, The Reach of Jefferson, for more on Jefferson's views on race and slavery).
As early as 1779 a cloud appeared on the horizon of Hamilton's life which suggested the acrimony of the American political climate, and the degree to which war had raised the stakes of all political debate. A rumor had been started to the effect that Hamilton had said "it was high time for the people to rise, join General Washington, and turn Congress out of doors." Although the charge was false, and Hamilton never believed in establishing a military dictatorship, as the rumor implied, he recognized its potential to wreck his career. Nothing less than treason was involved.
Hamilton eventually traced the story to a Massachusetts parson, William Gordon, who refused to tell the young lieutenant colonel his source, fearing that a duel would result. After an exchange of words in which Hamilton excoriated the parson, Gordon wrote to Washington himself, asking for an apology from Hamilton in return for revealing to Washington the rumor's source. Washington declined the whole offer and replied that the army had more important business to attend to than rumor-mongering.
This episode represents an early instance of the sort of calumny that Hamilton would experience as he entered more fully into the political arena and the public eye. It taught him the importance of caution in dealing with the civilian government; in the political debates of the early republic, he sought always to be forthright and aggressive in promoting his views, but never precipitate.
During the war years, nonetheless, Hamilton acquired a wide reputation as a brave soldier, a gentleman of refined sentiments, a writer and rhetorician of redoubtable talent, and a man of supreme confidence who seemed to have a solution for every problem and to be perfectly willing to distinguish his own views from his superiors, including Washington. The respect that he commanded in St. Croix as an industrious and intelligent clerk found its echo -- a much more significant echo -- in his success as an American soldier.
As fate would have it, the momentum that Hamilton's career received as a result of his wartime reputation ultimately plunged him into the vicious storm of politics in the 1780s and 90s. He would become a lightning rod for the attacks of Antifederalists who alleged, among other things, that his economic plan for the United States entailed a conspiracy to return the country to monarchy. The damage done to his reputation during the years of the early Republic would never be fully repaired.
Hamilton's aversion to warfare, expressed in a 1777 letter to an unidentified friend, seems a fitting though ironic preview of the battles to come. "Every finer feeling of a delicate mind," he wrote, "revolts from the idea of sheding human blood and multiplying the common evil o[f] life by the artificial methods incident to [war]. Were it not for the evident necessity and in defence of all that is valuable in society, I could never be reconciled to a mili[tary] character..." (sic). Within a decade, the war would be won and the political bloodletting would begin.