From his less than auspicious start in 1755 on the Caribbean Island of Nevis to his untimely death in a duel with his old enemy Aaron Burr in 1804, Alexander Hamilton, despite his short life, left a huge legacy.
Orphaned at thirteen and apprenticed in a counting house, Hamilton learned principles of business that helped him create the American financial system and invent the modern corporation. But first the staunch, intrepid Hamilton served in the American Revolution, acting as General Washington’s spymaster. Forging a successful legal career, Hamilton coauthored the Federalist Papers and plunged into politics. Irresistibly attractive, he was a man of many gifts, but he could be arrogant and at times a poor judge of character.
In this meticulously researched, illuminating, and lively account, Willard Sterne Randall explores Hamilton’s life—his illegitimate birth, little-known military activities, political and diplomatic intrigues, and scandalous affairs—and its indelible impact on modern America.
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About the Author
Willard Sterne Randall is the prize-winning author of thirteen books, including Ethan Allen: His Life and Times; A Little Revenge: Benjamin Franklin at War with His Son; Thomas Jefferson: A Life; George Washington: A Life; and Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor. A finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he is a professor of history at Champlain College and lives in Burlington, Vermont.
Read an Excerpt
The Wish of My Heart
Alexander Hamilton realized instantly that he would die. Before he even heard the shot, the oversize lead ball had torn into his right side just above the hip, crashed through a rib, sliced through his liver, shattering a vertebra. Pitching forward on his face, Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury of the United States, the author of the Federalist Papers, George Washington's strong right hand, the financial genius who had created Wall Street, and as inspector general of the U.S. Army, launched the U.S. Navy, fell to the ground, clutching his dueling pistol. His friend and second in the duel, Nathaniel Pendleton, rolled him over, cupped him in his arms, and held him, half sitting, under a cedar tree, away from the glaring July sunlight.
"Dr. Hosack!" Pendleton yelled. "Dr. Hosack!" Waiting with the oarsman below by the Hudson shore, Dr. David Hosack rushed up the narrow path toward the dueling place atop a small granite outcropping of cliff below the waking village of Weehawken, New Jersey, that steaming Thursday morning of July 11, 1804. He brushed past Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States, shielded by his second's umbrella to conceal his face as he hastened toward a rowboat that would hurry him across to New York City.
By the time Dr. Hosack, breathless, reached him, Hamilton had slumped to the ground and was losing consciousness. But he managed to gasp, "This is a mortal wound, Doctor." Once, Hamilton had wanted to study medicine. He knew anatomy. He knew the path of his pain, that his legs no longer moved. He thought he would die on the spot. So did Dr. Hosack. When he pulled up the bloody shirt, probed for a pulse, he could not hear Hamilton breathing. Hamilton had, Dr. Hosack wrote a few weeks later, "become to all appearance lifeless. His pulses were not to be felt. His respiration was entirely suspended. Laying my hand on his heart, I considered him irrecoverably gone."
Hosack and Pendleton carried Hamilton out of the woods and down the steep path. The boatman helped wrestle him onto the barge, placing the ornate case and pistol beside him. The doctor worked over him, rubbing spirits of hartshorne over his face, lips, forehead, neck, breast, arms. The cool massage seemed to have a miraculous effect. About fifty yards from shore, Hamilton sighed, the fresh breeze on the open water helping to revive him. His eyes half open, "to our great joy," recounted Hosack, "he at length spoke: 'My vision is indistinct,'" he said. "His pulse became more perceptible, his respiration more regular; his sight returned." But when the doctor tried to press Hamilton's side, to examine the wound, the pain was too much for Hamilton.
For a while, as the oars groaned in the tholes and slapped the water, Hamilton tried to talk. He spied the pistol, lent to him by his friend John Church. It was the same hair-triggered pistol Hamilton's oldest son had used three years before when he had been killed in a duel. The sight jolted him. "Take care of that pistol!" Hamilton cried. "It is undischarged, and still cocked. It may go off and do harm." He did not realize he had fired the gun into the air when Burr's bullet had struck him. Now he tried to turn his head toward Pendleton, sitting behind him in the stern. "Pendleton knows I did not intend to fire at him." His second nodded. "Yes, I have already told Dr. Hosack that." Then Hamilton fell silent. He remained calm, his eyes closed. Just before the boat bumped into the dock, Hamilton asked his friends to summon his wife, Elizabeth, at home with their seven children at The Grange at Manhattan's northern tip. She had no idea of the duel. "Let Mrs. Hamilton be immediately sent for. Let the event be gradually broken to her, but give her hopes."
Hamilton's old friend William Bayard was looking down at him as the boat docked. A servant had told him that Hamilton had rowed away from Bayard's dock at dawn with two other men. Now Bayard strained to see as the boat neared: he could make out only two figures. Looking down into the boat, he could see why. Bayard had known Hamilton some thirty years since Hamilton, a young artillery captain, had fortified the Bayard family home and turned it into Bunker Hill Fort at the outbreak of the Revolution. I called [Bayard] to have a cot prepared," Dr. Hosack recorded. "He, at the same moment, saw his poor friend lying in the bottom of the boat. He threw up his eyes and burst into a flood of tears." Hamilton alone appeared tranquil and composed. "We then conveyed him as tenderly as possible up to the house."
Alexander Hamilton lasted thirty-one hours after Aaron Burr shot him. When they finally got him into a bed on the second floor of Bayard's house on Chambers Street, he was nearly comatose. The doctor undressed him and administered a large dose of a strong anodyne, a painkiller. During the first day, Hosack gave Hamilton more than an ounce of an opium and cider potion, called laudanum, washing it down with watered wine. But, Hosack noted, "his sufferings during the whole day were almost intolerable." The ball had lodged inside his second lumbar disk, which had shattered, paralyzing his legs. His stomach was slowly filling with blood from severed blood vessels in his liver. Hosack "had not the shadow of a hope of his recovery," but he called in surgeons from French men-of-war anchored in the harbor who "had much experience in gunshot wounds." They agreed that Hamilton's condition was hopeless.
During the night of July 11, the sedated Hamilton "had some imperfect sleep." He knew he had little time left to live: he asked Bayard to summon the Reverend Benjamin Moore ...Alexander Hamilton
A Life. Copyright © by Willard Randall. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
An Interview with Willard Sterne Randall
Barnes & Noble.com: Having already written biographies of Washington and Jefferson, what made you decide to tackle Hamilton?
Willard Sterne Randall: Hamilton was the least known of the Founding Fathers. So much of what we know about him is from the words of his contemporaries. He needed a fresh perspective that would bring him to the attention of the public.
B&N.com: Could you describe Hamilton's upbringing in the West Indies? How did his being illegitimate effect his growing up, particularly his education? Was he socially not accepted? And what kind of effect did his being illegitimate have on his later life?
WSR: John Adams branded Hamilton as illegitimate, but today he would not be considered so. His father was actually his mother's second husband. He went to a school where Jews went to, and he studied Hebrew. He was always an outsider.
B&N.com: How did he come to New York? And please explain how, at such a young age, he rose in the Revolution to become a high-ranking officer and aide-de-camp to Washington. Also, talk about his personal relationship with Washington.
WSR: Hamilton was orphaned at 15 and got a job in a counting house. Fortunately for him, his boss had to return to New York. The business was in bad shape, but Hamilton saved it. The family he worked for gave him a scholarship to go to America, and he went to New York, where he studied at King's College, which later became Columbia. The Church of England then ran the college. While a student, Hamilton wrote revolutionary pamphlets.
After the Battle of Lexington, Hamilton organized a paramilitary company. He was the first to democratize the army. He insisted that enlisted men be promoted to officer when it was warranted. Hamilton rose to captain by the time of the victory over the Hessians. He gained Washington's attention, and he invited Hamilton -- who was only 20 years old -- to be his aide-de-camp. Although Hamilton was a "ringer," or outsider, Washington took to young men who could write well, and Hamilton was a superb writer. Hamilton specialized in POW exchanges and in espionage. He got the goods on Horatio Gates.
B&N.com: He played a pivotal role at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. What did he do exactly? Also, tell us about the Federalist Papers.
WSR: At the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton spoke only once -- but it was for six hours straight, without notes, in which he outlined the entire blueprint for the government we have today. Hamilton was the main contributor to the Federalist Papers. He wrote more pieces than Madison and Jay. At that time, he was in the New York Legislature, and he won the state's ratification of the Constitution.
B&N.com: What is his legacy as the first secretary of the Treasury? Along with that question, for generations, historians have made much of the division within the Washington administration between Hamilton and Jefferson, the secretary of state, in general and on foreign policy. How would you characterize that split?
WSR: As the first secretary of the Treasury, he faced the problem of paying off the nation's $76 million of debt. That would be an astronomical amount today. The country had no credit. The individual states were competing with each other for credit. Hamilton proposed a national debt and issued the first United States bonds. The very word of his plan doubled the value of the United States stocks. He set up a national debt, which actually had the effect of turning it [the debt] into a national asset. Then he founded what was essentially the national corporation by lowering the "corporate veil," so to speak. He provided a way for anyone to invest, democratizing the market.
Under Hamilton, the United States Mint came up with the dollar, and Hamilton put an African American, Benjamin Banneker, in charge of it. In addition to establishing the Bank of the United States, the modern corporation, and national debt, he plunged into the Industrial Revolution by setting up the nation's first mill town in Paterson, New Jersey. The fight with Jefferson revolved around the question of where power would reside -- in New York, the financial center, or in the South. There was the famous dinner table bargain in which it was agreed that the capital would be moved to what became Washington. As for foreign policy, Hamilton favored the U.S. as an international financial power, was a proponent of a sizable army, founded the U.S. Navy, and wanted an America that was able to defend itself and its interests.
B&N.com: Hamilton was, I believe, an early abolitionist. What caused him to be antislavery when slavery was not only common in the South, his native West Indies, and even in New York?
WSR: He was very much an abolitionist. In his childhood in the West Indies, the economy depended on slavery. He thought the idea of holding people in bondage was wrong. Then he married a woman with slaves. He also spoke for women's rights reform and spoke out for the divorce rights of women.
B&N.com: Hamilton had a well-known affair with a woman -- the kind of thing that would ruin a politician's career today. Could you tell us briefly about this affair?
WSR: In Philadelphia, he had an affair with a woman. He was secretive but he was found out. He could have paid a bribe or he could have confessed. He chose to confess, and that ruined any chance he had of being president, so even then it was the kind of thing that took its toll on a politician's career.
B&N.com: Numerous biographies have been written about Hamilton. How is yours different? Did you find any new sources?
WSR: I looked hard at his early years. I tried to understand why people at the time thought the way they did. I tried to follow the Founding Fathers and look at their personal lives. Hamilton's early sufferings had a lot to do with making him a humanist. He had insecurities with aristocratic society. I found some papers from St. Croix, the island in the West Indies, where Hamilton had lived as a boy, that had not been used before.
B&N.com: What can you tell us about Hamilton's duel with Aaron Burr?
WSR: The key thing in the duel was the pistols used. They were the same pistols that had been used not long before in a duel in which Hamilton's son was killed. Some have suspected that there was something wrong with Hamilton's pistols in comparison to Burr's. I am not a ballistic expert, but I know something about guns. I came at this question like the investigative reporter I was for over 20 years before I got into academia.
Even though Hamilton shot his gun into the air while Burr shot to kill, the condition of Hamilton's pistol is worth wondering about. Ballistic experts in the 1990s examined the pistol and found nothing wrong with it, but the pistol was provided by John Church, the husband of Hamilton's mistress. There are a lot of questions one could ask about the duel.
B&N.com: What is Hamilton's great overall legacy to the nation?
WSR: Hamilton's legacy is that every American has a chance to make money and not be bound by class. He truly helped make America a land of opportunity by making it solvent. Jefferson's vision was to make the opportunity one of owning land.
B&N.com: Put another way, what relevance does Hamilton, his life story, and your treatment of him and his era have for Americans in these uncertain times of 2003?
WSR: Our credit system still makes it possible for new immigrants and minorities to send their kids to college through student loans. Most of all, Hamilton believed that society should be democratic with a small "d."
B&N.com: Why doesn't Hamilton get his historical due?
WSR: Hamilton saw the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and saw the great possibilities of it for economic growth in the United States and in the world. Before 1932 and the Great Depression, Hamilton was held in much higher regard. With the Depression and afterward, his reputation slipped. Jefferson's vision was one in which free land would be the center of the new society. John Adams had stigmatized Hamilton as being "the base born brat of a Scotch." Politics just didn't become ugly recently. It started out that way. And Hamilton didn't become president because of the illegitimacy charge and his admission of having an affair.
B&N.com: What will be your next project?
WSR: I will be moving from the Founding Fathers to the sons of the Founding Fathers.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alexander Hamilton’s saga of an illegitimate Caribbean youth from a broken family who mastered several languages, learned business in island trading houses, relocated to New York, and obtained an education is inspiring enough. From there he became an aide to George Washington during the Revolution, promotor of the Constitution, and first Treasury Secretary who set the Federal government on the road to an independent financial basis and the America economy on the road toward industrialization before falling out of favor and ending his life on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton’s attachment to George Washington was his ticket to success and influence. His marriage to Elizabeth Schuyler, a daughter of one of the most prominent families in New York, drew him into the political elite. His unfailing hard work made him a success in the military, at law and in politics. Hamilton was a man of contradictions. Though a devoted family man he was likely duped into the first major sexual scandal in American politics. A self-made man of aristocratic pedigree but impoverished beginnings, he was publicly portrayed as a spokesman for privilege by men more privileged than himself. A Principal author of the Federalist Papers, he was suspected of harboring ambitions of establishing a military despotism. A skilled negotiator, a series of blunders removed him from the center of political action and led to his death. There are other biographies of Alexander Hamilton, so why should a reader choose this one? One reason is that it is shorter than some others while remaining thorough. Each author brings his own perspective on his subject. I find that Willard Sterne Randall devotes less ink to the details of Hamilton’s early life and more to his service in the Revolutionary War Army than some other works. From this book I derived a better understanding of Hamilton’s time in the Continental Congress and how that experience convinced him of the need for a stronger national government without which the United States might not have survived. I also feel that this tome places Hamilton in the milieu of the development of his region, with particular emphasis of New York and the disputes that precipitated the admission of the State of Vermont to the Union than I have found in other works. Whether you are looking for an introduction or a new look Willard Sterne Randall’s “Alexander Hamilton: A Life” is a worthy read.
O.K., I¿ll admit it. I can¿t objectively review this book because, like Eliza Hamilton and Angelica Church I kind of have a ¿thing¿ for Alexander Hamilton. Enormously talented, energetic, and confident; visionary, principled, devoted to the public good; with a feminine side that allowed for deep love and friendships¿what¿s not to love? I have to say that Willard Sterne Randall, in his book ¿Alexander Hamilton: A Life,¿ just doesn¿t ¿get it.¿ It seems this biographer doesn¿t like his subject all that much. Which is strange, because Hamilton inspired remarkable admiration and loyalty among almost all the people he was close to and most of his associates as well. There is no George Stephanopolos among his Hamilton¿s inner circle, shouting that he was hurt and betrayed by his former friend. His only enemies were those, like Adams and Jefferson, on the receiving end of his political attacks; and even they admired his abilities. And often Hamilton remained on good personal terms with his political rivals. Aaron Burr, referred to him as ¿my friend Hamilton, whom I shot.¿ So I am writing to defend a man--an individual I feel I know from Ron Chernow¿s much better biography entitled, ¿Alexander Hamilton.¿ Randall tells the historical story competently enough. He spends pages clearly outlining a particular political or military situation and then describes the position that Hamilton took with regard to the issue or the role he played in the military maneuvers. (And he does a better job than Chernow of identifying Hamilton¿s mentors.) But Hamilton¿s personality has been drained out of the story, in ¿Alexander Hamilton: A Life.¿ Contemporaries found Hamilton constantly surprising, sometimes amazing. Randall makes Hamilton seem inevitable, predetermined. Why he did our founding father from the West Indies do what he did, and how did he feel about it? What explains his meteoric rise to fame at such a young age? Inquiring minds want to know, and Hamilton was such a prolific writer that all this information pretty much available. When I first got this book I skimmed the index for ¿Angelica Church¿ (Hamilton¿s sister-in-law), eager for Randall¿s take on the ¿did they or didn¿t they¿ controversy. In Chernow¿s much longer biography of Hamilton, Chernow scrupulously scanned the record and concluded, maybe yes and maybe no¿and he laid out the evidence pro and con. Randall presents as fact that Hamilton DID have an affair with Church. As evidence he gives us a ¿close¿ reading of some letters in which Randall discerns a ¿subtle code . . . scarcely if at all noticeable to Betsy [Hamilton¿s wife] who had fifty years to edit Hamilton¿s papers after his death.¿ Hmmm . . .? Was she an idiot? Disappointingly, for those looking for a scandal or at least a resolution of the mystery, the supposed ¿code¿ consists of faint or missing periods and consistently misspelled words and Randall¿s examples of coded messages are unconvincing. Furthermore, I soon lost all confidence in Randall¿s close-reading skills when I got to Randall¿s take on Hamilton¿s letters to his fiancé and future wife Betsy (or Eliza). These are obviously love letters¿from someone totally head-over-heals in love. Randall, after quoting from these letters, suggests that possibly Hamilton never loved his wife but only pretended to. I don¿t know what to say. I received similar letters from my finance and, now husband of 17 years, and Hamilton¿s letters totally ring true. Maybe, through no fault of his own, Randall is just ¿tone deaf¿ when it comes to love letters. In any case, I do not trust Randall to look for subtle codes of love in correspondence if he can¿t recognize the blatant and obvious codes. So for a more engaging take on the life of a remarkable human being and founding father, who, in Randall¿s words ¿helped to create the United States,¿ please read Ron Chernow¿s book on Alexander Hamilton.
Being a history buff, I found this book to be lacking any information that hasn't been found in numerous other books on other Founding Fathers and on the Revolution. I was hoping to find more information about the duel with Aaron Burr and on the preceding duel involving Hamilton's son, but there was very little information on a subject that was such a large part of who Alexander Hamilton was in his private life. I have read many books on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. and found most all of the information that was included in this book.