Alexander Hamilton: Creating a more perfect Union, Part 1

Hamilton's mother Rachel grave site.
Hamilton's mother Rachel grave site.
Alexander Hamilton's Birthplace on the island of Nevus (courtesy Museum of Nevus History.
Alexander Hamilton's Birthplace on the island of Nevus (courtesy Museum of Nevus History.

For 21st-centurymedia.com More than any other Founding Father, the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life- notably his formative years- is the least documented and most misunderstood. The details of his mother’s early unhappy marriage which ended in divorce, the exact year of his birth and his childhood education have all been issues of debate for decades among historians and biographers. One thing is clear- Alexander Hamilton was truly unique among the Founding Fathers. He had a much more worldly perspective as the only one not born in the 13 Colonies and was one of only a handful of these men (including Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison) who actually put his life on the line, took up arms and fought in several battles of the American Revolution. As a young immigrant to America in 1772, he was enthralled as the colonies began their march toward independence. His early years, time fighting as a soldier and later serving as the trusted aide-de-camp to General George Washington in the most decisive period of the American Revolution along with his important contributions to the Constitution are the subjects of this series of articles.

Alexander Hamilton’s mother Rachael Fawcett had married young at the insistence of her mother to a supposedly wealthy local merchant named John Lavien on St. Croix, a man who was much older than herself. Lavien was unsuccessful in business and their relationship was quite tumultuous. John charged his wife with adultery and had her thrown into prison. However, the relationship did produce one child- Peter, who would later be Alexander’s half-brother. Rachael’s unhappy state of affairs prompted her to eventually separate from her husband. She subsequently met James Hamilton on the nearby island of St. Kitts. Although technically still married to Lavien, Rachael and James lived together as a couple for a period of several years. The couple had two children out of wedlock- James, Jr. and Alexander, the younger of the two boys, born on the island of Nevis on January 11, 1757. The year of Alexander’s birth has for decades been in dispute, as a probate record in St. Croix indicated a birth year of 1755, but the preponderance of the evidence indicates 1757 as the correct date.

Alexander’s father James abandoned the struggling family around the year 1766 when he was nine, leaving them financially destitute. Rachael began running a small shop to provide for her family, selling provisions to local customers, items she had purchased from the local tradin firm of Beekman and Cruger on St. Croix. Rachael died two years later when Alexander was just 11 years old, her estate going by law to her first son by her estranged husband. This forced the two children to live with Rachael’s nephew Peter Lytton- who committed suicide shortly thereafter. Guardianship then passed to Peter’s father, who died a month later. James and Alexander subsequently lived with the Stevens family who were friends in the area. This tragic series of events surely left a strong impression on Alexander, forcing him to become self-sufficient and independent at a very young age. Although little evidence exists as to his formal education, he likely had some tutoring from local villagers and learned to speak and write French from his mother- a proficiency that would serve him well in future years. Alexander started working for the Beekman and Cruger trading company and despite the extensive hardships he endured, acquiring numerous valuable proficiencies.

Letters between Hamilton and the owners of the trading firm show his amazing depth of understanding for commerce. When Nicholas Cruger left St. Croix for a voyage to New York in 1771, Hamilton at the age of 14 effectively ran the entire business, dealing with belligerent ship captains and merchants in receiving and delivering a wide variety of agricultural products and other goods. It is here that Hamilton’s prodigious talents manifest themselves, as shown in several communications with Cruger and others associated with the firm. In a letter to Thomas Ashburner dated November 20, 1771 he states “I have now to beg the favour of you to pay Messrs. Fraser Grant and Baillie of St. Christophers on Mr. Crugers Account as soon as convenient L13.4.10 Windward Currency for which Mr. Thomas shall have credit.” In a subsequent letter to Walton and Cruger on November 27, 1771 Hamilton notes “… Sloop Thunderbolt… arrived here on Wednesday Afternoon the 16th … on the Saturday morning following I cleared her out and gave the captain his dispatches for Curracoa… She landed here only: 23 Hhds Indian Meal, 6469 Staves, 20 bbls Apples, 300 Boards Inch & half, 21 Kegs Bread & 646 Ropes onions… The price of common NY flour here is 7 ½ & 8 ps. & I fancy it can’t well be less at Curracoa… .” These and other correspondence around this time period show a remarkable grasp of the concepts involved in business, trading, evaluation of commodities, profit and loss and currency transactions exceptional in someone of that age. The fact that Hamilton was running the business at that location while the owners were away is proof that experienced men of commerce recognized his unique talents.

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While he was utilizing his many skills productively, Hamilton was never satisfied with being a clerk in a trading company. After a hurricane ravaged St. Croix in 1772, Alexander wrote a thoroughly descriptive summary of the devastation which later appeared in The Royal Danish American Gazette on October 3, 1772 when he was just 15 years old. His detailed account of the storm impressed the editor and local citizens. Hamilton’s pastor Hugh Knox also realized the child’s enormous potential and took up a collection to fund his education in America. Hamilton sailed for Boston in the Fall of 1772 and then later traveled to New York to meet up with representatives of Beekman and Cruger, who had operations in the city. He applied for admission to the College of New Jersey (now Princeton), but was not granted acceptance. He was schooled at the Elizabethtown Academy and then at King’s College (now Columbia University). The poor, but immensely talented boy had adopted a new country. Only a few years later that country would recognize him as one of the essential participants fighting for its survival.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. His nine books and eight historical lecture series cover a wide range of topics from Lafayette and the Battle of the Brandywine to the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution. He also has a radio show titled “Living History” every Wednesday on WCHE AM 1520 IN West Chester. His latest project is as a “Living Biographer” portraying Alexander Hamilton in full Continental Army officer’s uniform. For more information, Gene’s website is www.Genepisasale.com. He can be reached at Gene@GenePisasale.com.