11 Surprising Facts About Alexander Hamilton
By Mark Mancini
Alexander Hamilton is an improbable success story. The United States’s most enigmatic founding father rose from obscurity to help build a new nation—one where he earned friends and enemies at just about every turn. Here are 12 things you might not know about Hamilton.
1. Alexander Hamilton probably lied about his age.
We know Hamilton was born on January 11; what’s in doubt is the year he was born. Hamilton, a native of the Caribbean island of Nevis, repeatedly said he was born in 1757. But official Nevisian records cite 1755 as his birth year. His college search may have had something to do with the discrepancy. According to Ron Chernow, author of the biography Alexander Hamilton, “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. Alexander Hamilton was not allowed to attend school.
Hamilton’s parents were never married. Because of this, Hamilton was barred from attending school. He was privately educated, and pored over his family’s collection of classics. He remained an avid reader and writer after he was orphaned (his father had abandoned his family when Hamilton was just a boy, and his mother died not long after).
3. Alexander Hamilton dabbled in poetry.
On August 31, 1772, a hurricane ravaged St. Croix. Teenage Hamilton, who had 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.” His words changed his life forever. Blown away by the letter, readers organized a scholarship fund for this talented young scribe. Before long, Hamilton found himself en route to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.
Essay writing wasn’t Hamilton’s only literary passion. A number of poems have also been attributed to Hamilton. When a dear friend’s 2-year-old daughter died 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. Schuyler liked it so much, she placed the poem in a little bag and hung it around her neck.
4. The oldest unit in the United States Army is Alexander 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 Hamilton an aide-de-camp (with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) in 1777.
5. Alexander Hamilton wasn’t satisfied as an aide-de-camp.
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 pulled off an impressive night attack against British forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
6. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr occasionally collaborated.
In postwar Manhattan, Hamilton and Burr were two of the city’s top lawyers. Clients gravitated toward the two decorated veterans, 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. Levi Weeks, a carpenter who lived in the same boarding house as Sands and had been courting her, was identified as a suspect.
The public thought Weeks was guilty. Luckily for the carpenter, though, his older brother Ezra, an architect, had supervised the construction of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. Ezra had also done business with the Burr-founded Manhattan Company—which, incidentally, owned the well where Sands’s body was found.
Burr, Hamilton, and Brockholst Livingston (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) formed 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 he reinvented himself as an esteemed southern architect.
7. Alexander Hamilton supported Vermont’s statehood.
Pre-Revolution, New York and New Hampshire both tried to claim the area that would become the state of Vermont, and in 1764, King George III decreed that everything west of the Connecticut River (Vermont and New Hampshire’s current border) belonged to New York.
There was just one problem, though: 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.
When Vermont declared its independent statehood in 1777, it upset certain New York industrialists, who considered Vermont to be a part of their state.
In 1777, during the American Revolution, 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 land 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, while working as a New York state legislator, Hamilton presented a bill that instructed 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 New York’s approval (and a payment from Vermont of $30,000), Vermont finally entered the Union in 1791.
8. It's believed Alexander Hamilton authored most of the Federalist Papers.
Apart from his stint as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, The Federalist Papers are the political achievement for which Hamilton is best known. Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 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.
9. The last letter George Washington ever wrote was addressed to Alexander Hamilton.
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” should be established, and his old mentor praised the idea. In a 1799 letter that would be Washington’s last, the elder statesman told Hamilton such a place would be “of primary importance to this country.”
10. Alexander Hamilton 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 helped 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.”
11. Alexander Hamilton’s eldest son also died in a duel.
When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804, it was almost a case of déjà vu. Three years earlier, another Hamilton—the founding father’s son, Philip—had died under eerily similar circumstances.
It all started on July 4, 1801, when George Eacker, a prominent Democratic-Republican lawyer, delivered an Independence Day speech in which he not only denounced Alexander Hamilton, but also asserted that the former Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to plot the violent overthrow of President Jefferson.
Nineteen-year-old Philip Hamilton—who, like his father, had a bit of a temper—heard about the speech and began to nurse a grudge against Eacker. Four months later, Philip and his friend Richard Price went to see a show at New York’s Park Theater, where they saw—and heckled—Eacker.
The attorney, not wanting to disturb the people around him, told the two men 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. 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 he might persuade Eacker to take back his insulting comments if he, too, apologized. Instead, Eacker flatly refused. Feeling that his honor had been attacked, Philip issued a dueling challenge of his own, which Eacker accepted.
Both combatants arrived at Weehawken on November 23; they used pistols provided by Alexander’s brother-in-law, John Baker Church.
Eacker walked away unharmed—but Philip did not. A bullet entered the young Hamilton above his right hip, tearing clear through to his 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.
Did you know that Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow rapped the entire introductory track to the Hamilton soundtrack during his keynote speech at Lafayette College’s commencement in 2017? Head here to find out more facts about Hamilton, the musical he inspired, and how his wife helped preserve his legacy.