( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The subject of this sketch was born on the island of Nevis on the eleventh day of January, 1757. He was a British subject born within the tropics. Scotch on his father's side, and French Huguenot on his mother's side. But little is known of his chilhood, and even the date of his birth is not surely known, but from the most reliable sources we learn that he exhibited great precocity even in childhood and his character seemed to partake somewhat of the luxurious surroundings of the tropical life upon his native island. His father was unsuccessful in business and at an early age the care of the lad was intrusted to some of his maternal relatives, among whom he picked up a desultory sort of education and by whom he was placed in a counting room when twelve years of age. The work at his desk was not altogether satisfactory to the little boy, and we find him writing to a friend and expressing his displeasure at being compelled to work in such a grovelling occupation. At the age of thirteen he was for a time intrusted with his employer's affairs, and during the time wrote some business letters which have nothing remarkable in them, except that they were written by a boy who should have been studying grammar and reciting Latin in the school. Young Hamilton remained at his office work until he was about fifteen years of age. During the intervals of work at his desk he managed to read a good deal and do considerable toward improving his mind. Pope and Plutarch were his favorite authors, but his time was not wholly devoted to these. About this time a terrible hurricane passed over the West Indies and the boy who witnessed it was led to write a vivid description of it for a small paper published on the island. This first literary effort attracted some attention and so worked upon the minds of his relations that they concluded to send him away for a better education than could be provided for him in the West Indies. He was accordingly sent to Boston, where he arrived in October, 1772. He proceeded thence to New York where he found kind counsellors and friends. He entered a grammar school at Elizabeth-town where he pursued his studies with that fiery enthusiasm which lasted him throughout life. When ready to enter college at the end of the year he finally decided upon King's College in New York city where he prosecuted his studies under a private tutor. He led a somewhat retired and reflective life. Spending much of his time sitting beneath the trees in summer and by the fire in winter in deep reflection and often in earnest conversation with himself.
We have said elsewhere in these pages that successful men are those who take advantage of their opportunities. The young Hamilton would probably have taken advantage of any opportunity that was offered him; but a great opportunity was opening before him in the American Revolution. A grave question now arose before him. Here was a controversy in which there were two sides, which should he espouse? He was not long in making the decision. He chose quickly, wisely and well. Though a British subject he was greatly attached already to his foster-country, and he chose to renounce the cause of the royalists and to cast in his lot with the infant republic. He had taken advantage of his opportunity. Alexander Hamilton would have been a man of great mind, great influence and power anywhere, but had he chosen the cause of the royalists in New York city and remained true to the standard of George III, he would have been only a hated Tory, and the opportunity of becoming a world famous statesman and an unexampled financier would have been lost forever.
An interesting incident is told by his biographer and referred to by Mr. Bancroft, which illustrates as well as anything can, the capacity and courage of young ,Hamilton. The assembly of New York ,was with The Tories. The first congress of the colonies was. about to meet and there was an ardent wish on the part of the Federalists to have New York wheel into line with the other colonies against the mother country. It was therefore decided to bring some pressure ,W bear upon the reluctant assembly. A great meeting was held July sixth, i 774, in the fields for this purpose. Hamilton was patiently listening ,to the speakers and, like Pitt under the galleries of the House of Commons, was impressed more with what was left unsaid than with what he heard. Boy, though he was, the feeling grew upon him that he could supply this deficiency. He accordingly crowded to the front, mounted the platform, and stood before the people. There were a few moments of youthful embarrassment, and then his tongue was loosed and his words flowed unchecked. He had not the eloquence of some of the great orators of the world, but he had the eloquence of reason, power and logic. The historian, Bancroft, in alluding to the circumstance, speaks of him as a delicate youth, appearing much younger than he really was. Hamilton poured forth with youthful fervor the thoughts long pent up in his ardent mind, while the crowd stood gaping and staring equally moved by the boy's audacity, and the thrilling words which he uttered. In the stormy days which followed numerous instances are given in which the young man stood before howling mobs in the city of New York, trying to keep them back from some deed of violence. Bold, fearless, self-possessed, he sometimes compelled men to wait and listen to his reason, and more than once he dissuaded desperate men from perpetrating violence upon some defenseless Tory, against whom their wrath was directed.
In 1776, the New York convention ordered a company of artillery to be enlisted. Hamilton applied for the command. He had not been educated a soldier, and it was not supposed that he knew anything of the art of war. But an examination by competent officials revealed the fact that he was thoroughly posted in the duties which he sought to enter. He recruited his company rapidly and equipped them in part with his own money. As his biographer remarks, he had now burned his ships behind him and the boyhood of Alexander Hamilton was over. The young commander entered into the drilling of his company with great enthusiasm. He mastered the tactics of artillery drill and by unceasing practice his little company was soon the best drilled company in the American service. General Green stood one day watching the young officer for some time as he was drilling the company. He was pleased with the discipline and manoeuvring of Hamilton's men. He spoke with him, was pleased with his address and introduced him to General Washington, thus by a simple act of kindness placing him in the way of rapid advancement. Hamilton was exceedingly grateful to General Green for this actof courtesy and was one of his strongest friends through-out the long and arduous struggle which followed. The young artillery man won his spurs at the battle of Long Island, where he brought up the rear in such a masterly fashion that he saved the army from what would now seem total destruction. In this act he gave the first conspicuous proof of that remarkable genius and daring which marked his career to the day of his untimely death, that July morning in 1804. He followed the fortunes of the flying army in its retreat up the Hudson to White Plains and that disastrous march across New Jersey to Trenton and Princeton. After six months of hard fighting the little company was nearly destroyed and retained little except the discipline and commander with which they had begun. But Hamilton had made a record as a dashing and gallant officer, which, added to his literary reputation induced Washington to make him one of his aids in March 1777.
This appointment took from Hamilton the independent command for which he longed, but it gave him an opportunity to be present in all the battles in which the Commander-in-Chief took part and placed him in a position of the highest responsibility and trust. His labors were many and various but his principal work and for which he was admirably fitted was the conducting of Washington's correspondence. A very large portion of the letters, reports and proclamations which were issued from Washington's head-quarters were the work of Hamilton. Washington was very fortunate in having upon his staff one of the most brilliant men of his day, with a vigorous and well cultivated mind, a forcible writer, an astute reasoner and a master of English style.
The war to maintain the Declaration of Independence was fought through to the bitter end ; but it did not make nor leave the United Colonies a nation. A system of government must be devised. A revenue, to discharge the vast war debt and pay the expenses of the government had to be provided for. But many obstacles stood in the way of its ac-accomplishment. Historical prejudice, selfishness of local interests, traditional dread of centralized government, hatred of hereditary aristocracy, all these and many more considerations bore against the union of the colonies. The first suggestions toward the establishment of an adequate and permanent government are believed to have come from Hamilton. They were contained in letters written to James Duane and Robert Morris in 178o-i. From this time to the close of the year 1789, when the constitutition of the United States had practically become the law of the land, the genius of Alexander Hamilton was supreme in the councils of the incipient nation. At the Annapolis convention, at the constitutional convention, in the assembly of New York, whenever and wherever great deliberations were undertaken, great systems discussed, great men dealing with great problems, there the genius of Alexander Hamilton shone forth, a leader among leaders. He had not the eloquence of Adams, Madison or Jefferson. He had not the quiet dignity and perhaps not the far-seeing judgment of Washington, but he had the mind to conceive and the logical acumen to reason out the most admirable system of government the world has ever seen. The historian Guizot, says of him that there is not in the constitution of the United States an element of order, of force; of duration, which he did not powerfully contribute, introduce into it and cause to predominate." But perhaps the greatest work that Alexander Hamilton accomplished for the cause of the new government were his contributions to those discussions upon the constitution known as " The Federalist."
When the convention was called at Poughkeepsie in 1789, for the ratification of the constitution, Hamilton accomplished one of the greatest successes of his life. His superb ability for organizing and leading public opinion shone forth brilliantly on that occasion. A most disheartening minority of the delegates, when the convention assembled were in favor of the constitution. But Hamilton was there with his persuasive reasoning to work wonders in the minds of men, and he not only gained to his support a majority but ultimately had the aid and vote of his most powerful and eloquent antagonists. His labors were crowned with success, and' the great state of New York wheeled into line as one of the sovereign states of the new republic.
The first government under the new constitution was inaugurated in 1789. When Washington turned for advisers to the many able and noble men who had stood' by him through the dark days of the revolution, his mind naturally fell upon Robert Morris as the proper financial minister of his government. The high position was respectfully declined and Alexander Hamilton was made Secretary of the Treasury. Washington found his former military secretary more than equal to the arduous duties thrust upon him. A revenue was immediately provided for and the financial affairs of the country were at once completely organised: Greater success never attended a financial minister before or since. But his genius did not find full scope-upon the financial difficultities with which the new government was environed and he was in a large sense the organizer of the new administration and' in its chief department it remains unchanged to the present day. His state papers written during the presidential' term; are regarded' as the highest and best of their kind; and not only in his own department but in the other departments of the government he seems to have been the ruling spirit. In saying this we would' not wish to detract from the great farne of Washing-ton and the other great men associated in that masterly council of patriots, but as at all times and under all conditions, the mind and genius of Hamilton was pre-eminent, so he became the natural leader in the first cabinet councils of the American nation. His was leadership by the pre-eminent right of a distinguished and mighty genius. The world has never looked upon such a statesman.
One stain, and only one, rests upon the life of Hamilton, and that is the circumstance connected with his untimely death. Hamilton had closed his labors as a politician and as a statesman. He had taken up the practice of law in the state of his adoption, and had risen high in that profession. While he was engaged in winning a fortune and rising to the highest place among the lawyers of the Empire State, a sudden turn in the political fortunes of his state called him once more to take the lead of the Federalist party. Hamilton had once stood between Aaron Burr and an appointment as foreign minister, and the disappointment still rankled in the breast of Burr. Now Hamilton once more came across his track in thwarting his designs upon the presidency. About the same time Burr incurred the dislike and suspicion of Thomas Jefferson. Beaten by the wily Virginian, he turned to the politics of his cwn state to bolster up his waning fortune. He sought, with his usual unscrupulous intrigue, to be made governor of the Empire State. Hamilton again arose to thwart the plans of Burr, and succeeded in electing Burr's rival to the governorship. The disappointed trickster now determined upon revenge. He forced a quarrel upon Hamilton and challenged him to a duel. He could not stab nor poison his hated rival, but, according to the dictates of a barbarous code, he could challenge Hamilton to a duel. He practiced at a mark until he was an adept at shooting, to murder the foremost statesman of all ages and plunge himself into everlasting infamy. They met on a beautiful July morning, on the banks of the Hudson, took their places and their pistols. Hamilton fell at the first shot, wounded to his death. Burr went forth unharmed, to hatch schemes of abortive treason and to become the contempt of patriotic men of all time. The death of Hamilton was an unspeakable sacrifice. It caused an outburst of indignation and bitter grief among men of all parties throughout the nation. The country and the world felt that a great man had fallen and that his loss was irreparable. In our day it would have been no disgrace for Hamilton to have rejected the murderous proposal of Bun, but in that day the "code of honor" had a powerful hold upon men of all classes. Thus fell, in the prime of a useful life, America's greatest statesman. Thus fell, by the hand of an assassin, the first martyr of American liberties. Thus fell Alexander Hamilton by the hand of Aaron Burr.
In person, Hamilton was slender and delicate, full of life, erect and quick in his gait. His address was graceful, but nervous, indicating the exactness and great activities of his mind. His complexion was bright and ruddy, his hair' light and curly, his features Scotch, and his whole form decidedly pleasing and graceful. Even his political enemies spoke of his manner and conversation, and decidedly regretted its charm and power. A recent biographer thus speaks-of him :
" In private life Hamilton was much loved and most attractive. He talked well and freely. He was open-hearted and hospitable, full of high spirits and geniality. In his own family he was idolized by wife and children. The affection which he inspired in all who knew him was largely due to the perfect generosity of his nature. He gave time and money with a lavish hand to all who sought his aid. He carried this habit into his business to his own detriment. He would often 'refuse to make any charge to poor clients, and never could be persuaded to accept anything beyond a reasonable and modest fee. He had in truth a contempt for money, and while he made a nation's fortune, he never made his own. At his death he left his family little except his name and fame."—HENRY CABOT LODGE.
Hamilton's genius consisted in qualities which set him apart from the great men of his time. Precocity was not a distinguishing trait of his mind ; for what he did, even in boyhood was not exceeded in later years, and the work which he accomplished, be it writing business letters at thirteen, a description of a hurricane at fifteen, political discussion at twenty, or state papers at thirty-five, it was all accomplished with marvelous maturity of thought and wonderful powers of reason-ing. His intellect probed the most profound problems apparently without effort. As the French Tallyrand said of him " he divined." His industry was marvelous, his memory prodigious and his wide and discursive learning was fully equal to the creative power of his mind. Says one eminent writer " The fecundity power, vigor and maturity of his intellectual works as fully impressed his cotemporaries as they have since impressed posterity." Judge Ambrose Spencer, who was not altogether friendly toward Hamilton, thus speaks of his high ability as a lawyer:
" Alexander Hamilton was the greatest man this country ever produced. I knew him well. I was in a situation often to observe and study him. I saw him at the bar and at home. He argued cases before me while I sat as judge on the bench. Webster has done the same. In the power of reasoning, Hamilton was the equal of Webster, and more than this can be said of no man. In creative power Hamilton was infinitely Webster's superior. . . It was he more than any other man who thought out the Constitution of the United States and the details of the government of the Union, and out of the chaos that existed after the Revolution raised a fabric, every part of which is instinct with his thought. I can truly say that hundreds of politicians and statesmen of the day get both the web and the woof of their thoughts from Hamilton's brains. He more than any other man did the thinking of the time."
Like most men of great talents and strong will, Hamilton had great self-confidence and courage. It may be said of him, as of John Knox, that he did not fear the face of man. On one occasion he was dis-pleased by what he considered a useless demand for information on the part of the Senate. He thereupon addressed a communication to that august body and lectured them roundly for their misbehavior. This letter is one of the curiosities of literature, and the meekness with which the Senate bore the rebuke is not the least amusing part of the affair. This was thoroughly characteristic of the man. The greater the odds and the more perilous the occasion, the more defiantly and confidently he faced the opposition. A few times in his life this self-confidence broke over the bounds of reason and took on the disagreeable form of self-assertion. But what man has not his weakness and his littleness ! Hamilton was a man of strong passions, and it is not strange that these sometimes overmastered his powerful reason and self-control.
He was as far as possible from being a demagogue, and though he came at last to be the idol of the people, still he was not a popular leader. He had too great a distrust of the turbulent element of democracy to appeal to the passions of the people. He was simply a leader by pre-eminent right of a great mind and a great genius. He could do nothing small nor mean. Even in the hour of his death he could not perform an act of public benevolence and shoot a traitor to the heart, but discharged his pistol in the air as he fell with a mortal wound. Mr. Lodge. thus closes his admirable estimate of this great man :
" It is given to but few men to impress their individuality indelibly upon the history of a great nation. But Hamilton, as a man, achieved even more than this. His versatility was extraordinary. He was a great orator and lawyer, and he was also the ablest political and constitutional writer of his day. A good soldier, and possessed of a wonderful capacity for organization and practical administration, he was a master in every field that he entered, and however he may have erred in moments of passion, he never failed. Weakness and incompetency were not to be found in Hamilton. Comparisons are valueless, because points of difference between men are endless. John Marshall ranked Hamilton next to Washington, and with the judgment of their great chief justice Americans are wont to be content. But wherever he is placed, so long as the people of the United States form one nation, the name of Alexander Hamilton will be held in high and lasting honor, and even in the wreck of governments that great intellect would still command the homage of men."