10 Surprising Facts About Alexander Hamilton

Getty Images // Chloe Effron
Getty Images // Chloe Effron

The Broadway musical Hamilton, like Alexander Hamilton himself, is an improbable success story. The critically-acclaimed show has renewed America’s interest in the country's most enigmatic founding father, who rose from obscurity to help build a new nation—one where he earned friends and enemies at just about every turn. To celebrate Hamilton's birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about him.

1. He probably lied about his age.

We know that Hamilton was born on January 11; what’s in doubt is the year in question. A native of Nevis (a small island in the Caribbean), Hamilton repeatedly said that he was born in 1757. But official Nevisian records cite 1755 as his birth year. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps his college search had something to do with it. According to Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the Broadway show, “While applying to Princeton, Hamilton may have decided to ‘correct’ his real age and shed a couple of years. Prodigies aren’t supposed to be overaged freshman.” 

2. He dabbled in poetry.

For a self-educated orphan (his father had abandoned his family when Hamilton was just a boy, and his mother died not long after), the future founding father wrote with unbelievable polish. On August 31, 1772, a hurricane ravaged St. Croix. Teenage Hamilton—who’d been working on the island as a clerk—described the disaster in a letter that was eventually published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, writing, “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.” Little did Hamilton realize that these words were about to change his life forever. Blown away by the letter, readers quickly organized a scholarship fund for this talented young scribe. Before long, Alexander Hamilton found himself en route to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

Essay writing wasn’t his only literary passion. A number of poems have also been attributed to Hamilton. When a dear friend’s 2-year-old daughter passed away in 1774, he eulogized her in a touching tribute called “Poem on the Death of Elias Boudinot’s Child.” Another piece helped Hamilton win over his bride-to-be, Eliza Schuyler. As they courted, he sent a tender sonnet to the object of his affection. Eliza liked it so much that she placed the poem in a little bag and hung it around her neck.

3. The oldest unit in the United States Army is Hamilton's.

According to the Army Historical Foundation, “Battery D, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), traces its lineage to Hamilton’s Revolutionary War artillery company and is the oldest serving unit in the regular army.” On March 17, 1776, Hamilton was made captain of the group, and under his leadership, it saw action in several key moments—including the Battles of White Plains and Princeton. Impressed by the young man’s valor, George Washington made him an aide-de-camp (with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) in 1777.

The father of our country couldn’t have picked a better man. In Hamilton, Washington found an energetic writer who was fluent in French and just so happened to share most of the General’s political views. Over the next few years, these assets made Hamilton an indispensable employee. Still, as time went by, he grew tired of essentially serving as a high-status clerk. In 1781, the aide-de-camp resigned from Washington’s inner circle. Afterward, Hamilton was put in charge of a new battalion and would pull off an impressive night attack against British forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.

4. He and Aaron Burr occasionally collaborated.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In postwar Manhattan, the future dueling partners were two of the Big Apple’s top lawyers. With the Revolution over, Burr and Hamilton paid their bills by practicing law. Clients gravitated toward the two decorated veterans from all directions, and Hamilton and Burr faced off in a number of legal showdowns. Every so often, though, they’d work together on the same criminal or civil case—including People v. Levi Weeks (1800), which is recognized as the first U.S. murder trial for which we have a formal record. 

In December 1799, a young woman named Gulielma Sands mysteriously vanished. Eleven days later, her body was found at the bottom of a Manhattan well. Fingers were immediately pointed at Levi Weeks. Both the carpenter and Sands lived in a boarding house owned by Sands's relatives, and Weeks had been courting her.

In the court of public opinion, Weeks was guilty. Luckily for the carpenter, though, his older brother had friends in high places. Ezra Weeks was an architect who had supervised the construction of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. He’d also done business with the Burr-founded Manhattan Company—which, incidentally, owned the well where Sands’s body was found.

(Created as a means of providing “pure and wholesome” water to New Yorkers, Burr launched The Manhattan Company with some vocal support from Hamilton. The bill Burr would eventually put before the state legislature wasn't the same one that Hamilton saw, however; Burr's true intention for the company wasn't to provide water but to create a bank that would allow him to sway future elections. The bill passed and the bank was formed; in the 1950s, it merged with Chase Bank and today lives on as JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company owns the guns used in Burr and Hamilton's duel.)

Burr, Hamilton, and Brockholst Livingston (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) formed Levi Weeks’s defense team. In a two-day trial, they dismantled the state’s purely circumstantial case against their client, and the carpenter was found innocent. Eventually, Weeks moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where the accused murderer reinvented himself as an esteemed southern architect. 

5. Vermont found an ally in Hamilton.

When Vermont declared its independent statehood in 1777, it upset certain New York industrialists, who considered Vermont to be a part of their state. For decades, New York and New Hampshire both tried to claim the area. So, in 1764, His Majesty decreed that everything west of the Connecticut River (Vermont and the granite state’s current border) belonged to New York. 

There was just one problem: most Vermonters were former New Hampshirites. Upon assuming control, New York refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of land grants established there by New Hampshire transplants. Vermonters responded by taking up arms against their neighbors to the west. Local militias—including one called the Green Mountain Boys—repelled New York emigrants by force. 

Then along came the American Revolution. In 1777, Vermont petitioned the Continental Congress to acknowledge its sovereignty as a state. Thanks to opposition from New York’s delegates, however, this didn’t happen. For the next 14 years, Vermont—unable to join the Union on its own terms—existed as an independent republic.

After the war, Congress refused to acknowledge the swath as anything other than a large chunk of New York. Thoroughly disgruntled, some locals lobbied to have their mini-nation absorbed by Canada.

From Hamilton’s perspective, the prospect of a British-ruled Vermont threatened America’s security. In 1787, he was working as a New York state legislator. During his tenure, Hamilton presented a bill that would instruct New York’s Congressional representatives to recognize Vermont’s independence. This measure died in the State Senate, but, in the end, Hamilton was able to spearhead a settlement between New York and Vermont. With the empire state’s approval (and payment from Vermont to New York of $30,000), Vermont finally entered the Union in 1791.

6. It's believed that he authored most of the Federalist Papers.

Apart from his stint as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, this is the political achievement for which Hamilton is best known. Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 Federalist Papers essays urged New York’s electorate to ratify the recently-proposed U.S. Constitution. The influential documents were written under the shared pseudonym Publius by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Since none of them used their real names, we can’t be certain about how many papers each man wrote. Still, general consensus credits Hamilton with 51, Madison with 29, and Jay with five.

7. The last letter that George Washington ever wrote was addressed to Hamilton.


Getty Images

Two days before he died, America’s first President sent a dispatch to his former aide and cabinet member. Hamilton had recently argued that “a regular Military Academy” ought to be established, and his old mentor praised the idea. In a 1799 letter that would be Washington’s last, the elder statesman told Hamilton that such a place would be “of primary importance to this country.”

8. He founded The New York Post.

Established by Hamilton in November 1801, the paper was originally known as The New York Evening Post. The founding father conceived his new publication as a megaphone for the anti-Jefferson Federalist Party—which he’d also created. Hamilton himself generated many of The Post’s early editorials. “He appoints a time when I may see him,” editor William Coleman explained, “… as soon as I see him, he begins in a deliberate manner to dictate and I to note down in shorthand; when he stops, my article is completed.”

9. His eldest son also died in a duel.

Then-Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. It was almost a case of deja vu: Three years earlier, another Hamilton had died under eerily similar circumstances. 

Like his father, Philip Hamilton was a bit quick-tempered. In 1801, the 19-year-old had a deadly run-in with George Eacker, a prominent Democratic-Republican lawyer. On July 4, Eacker delivered an Independence Day speech in which he not only denounced Alexander Hamilton, but asserted that the former Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to plot the violent overthrow of President Jefferson.

From then on, Philip harbored a passionate grudge against Eacker. Four months after the inflammatory address, the young Hamilton went to take in a show at New York’s Park Theater with his friend, Richard Price. Inside, they caught sight of Eacker. Bursting into his theater box, Hamilton and Price savagely heckled the attorney. Eacker—not wanting to disturb his fellow patrons—told them to meet him in the lobby, grumbling “It is too abominable to be publicly insulted by a set of damned rascals.”

“Who do you call damned rascals?” the teenagers shouted. A fistfight might have broken out right then and there, but Eacker diffused the situation by suggesting they all cool off at a nearby tavern. But the change in scenery did nothing to calm anyone involved: Later that night, the lawyer received a curt letter from Price challenging him to a duel. 

The ensuing Price-Eacker standoff was an uneventful affair, with both men failing to shoot their opponent. In the bloodless duel’s wake, Philip hoped that he might persuade Eacker to take back his insulting comments if he, too, apologized. Instead, Eacker flatly refused. Feeling that his honor had been intolerably attacked, Philip felt he had no choice but to issue a dueling challenge of his own—which the angry Jeffersonian accepted. 

Both combatants arrived at Weehawken on November 23. Each came brandishing a pistol provided by Alexander’s brother-in-law, John Baker Church. After the smoke cleared, Eacker would walk away unharmed—Philip would not. A bullet entered the young Hamilton above his right hip, tearing clear through to the left arm. Mortally wounded, Philip died the next day.

By all accounts, Alexander Hamilton was never the same man after his son’s untimely demise. When Burr and Hamilton met to settle their own score, they used the pistols from Philip’s duel.  

10. Theodore Roosevelt was a big fan.

Telescope Teddy was fascinated by all things Hamilton. In TR’s mind, this founding father stood tall as “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” Moreover, Roosevelt saw in Hamilton “the touch of the heroic, the touch of the purple, the touch of the gallant.” Our 26th President even found time to study the man while sitting in the Oval Office. Roosevelt read 1906’s Alexander Hamilton, An Essay on The American Union by historian Fredrick Scott Oliver. Before long, he was praising the book to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Whitelaw Reid, America’s ambassador to the U.K.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

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