Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis (pronounced NEE-vus), a British-ruled island in the Caribbean Sea, around 1757. When he was about eight years old, his family moved to another British island, St. Croix (pronounced KROY). Soon after, Hamilton’s father left, and then his mother died. Hamilton and his older brother, James Jr., moved in with a cousin and then an uncle, but both guardians passed away.
Hamilton sometimes sent poems and letters to be published in the local newspaper. When he was about 15, he wrote a letter about a recent hurricane. People were so impressed with the teenager’s writing skills that in 1772, they raised the money to send Hamilton to the American colonies to get an education.
While Hamilton was studying at a college in New York City, the American colonies were on the brink of war with Great Britain (now called the United Kingdom) to determine who would rule the land. Hamilton spoke at rallies and published papers in support of the American fight, and when the Revolutionary War began in 1775, he quit school and joined the army.
Hamilton was a fearless fighter but an even better captain: He was organized and knew how to get the supplies his soldiers needed. He even impressed George Washington, then the commander of the army, who asked Hamilton to join his staff. Hamilton served as Washington’s assistant for four years, helping him plan battles, manage staff, and write letters.
The young officer wrote often to the Continental Congress (the government of the American colonies), asking for food and supplies for the troops. He watched as the Continental Congress tried to figure out how to run the new country (the Continental Congress had approved the Declaration of Independence a few years earlier) and thought that too many members were more concerned with the rights of states—not the whole country. Hamilton believed that the nation would never succeed unless all the states came together as a union.
After his war service ended, Hamilton moved to Albany, New York, and then to New York City with his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. He worked as a tax collector for the federal government and saw that many New Yorkers didn’t want to pay taxes to the federal government; they wanted to keep money in their own state. But the war wasn’t over yet, and once it ended, the new nation would have to pay back the money it borrowed from other countries to fund it. Hamilton knew this would be a problem: Some states weren’t paying their share.
In 1782, Hamilton was chosen to serve in the Congress of the Confederation (the name of the government at the time); the war finally ended in 1783. In 1787, he attended the Constitutional Convention. He would work with other delegates to write the U.S. Constitution (the set of laws by which a country is governed) that would give more power to the federal government. Many delegates didn’t like it, so Hamilton and two other leaders wrote 85 essays explaining what it was and why it was needed. They convinced delegates to sign the new constitution.
When George Washington became the first U.S. president in 1789, Washington asked Hamilton to be the first secretary of the treasury, which is the leader of the department that handles the country’s money. Hamilton started by dealing with America's war debts, money they borrowed from other countries to fight the British. He combined the federal debt with the states’ debts. Then he used federal money to begin paying off the total debt, which helped to bind the states together. Hamilton also created the First Bank of the United States, which held the government's money and printed paper money.
Hamilton also spoke out against slavery. He had witnessed the cruelty against enslaved people on the sugar plantations on the islands where he grew up and tried to pass many laws against the practice in the United States. But slavery wouldn’t come to an end in the country for another 60 years after his death.
Many people disagreed with Hamilton, and one of them was a lawyer and politician named Aaron Burr. Hamilton thought that Burr often changed his political opinions to advance his career and therefore didn’t trust him. When Burr and Thomas Jefferson tied in the 1800 presidential election, the choice between them fell to the House of Representatives. Hamilton spoke out against Burr, leading to Jefferson’s election; Burr became his vice president. When Burr ran for governor of New York four years later, Hamilton again spoke out against him, and Burr lost.
Burr was angry and challenged Hamilton to a duel—a formal fight between two people to settle a disagreement—on July 11, 1804, in Weehawken, New Jersey. At exactly 7 a.m., the men stood 10 paces apart, announced that they were ready, and then shot their pistols. Hamilton missed—maybe on purpose—but Burr didn’t. He shot Hamilton just above his right hip, and Hamilton died the next day.
Although Hamilton lived to only 49 years old, he made many important contributions to the country. The banking system he created, the Constitution he helped write and convince the delegates to pass, and the government system that he so strongly believed in are all still used today.
You can find Hamilton’s face on the $10 bill, and you can learn about his life through the Broadway musical Hamilton. Today more people than ever are getting to know this Founding Father who helped create the United States as we know it.
• Hamilton and fellow Founding Father Benjamin Franklin are currently the only people featured on U.S. currency who weren’t presidents.
• Hamilton taught himself law and passed the bar exam, the test to become a lawyer, after studying for only six months. (Most people take three years.)
• After people started called him a genius, Hamilton wrote: “People sometimes attribute my success to my genius; all the genius I know anything about is hard work.”
• Hamilton wrote most of George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which Washington announced he would not run for a third time as president.
TEXT ADAPTED FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC KIDS READERS: ALEXANDER HAMILTON
THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY IS MAJORITY OWNER OF NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PARTNERS.