Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life

Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life

by Jeff Wilser

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451498090
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 09/20/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 344,515
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JEFF WILSER is the author of four books, including The Good News About What's Bad for You...The Bad News About What's Good for You, named by Amazon as one of the Best Books of the Month in both Nonfiction and Humor. His work has appeared in print or online at GQ, Esquire, New York magazine, Glamour, Cosmo, Mental Floss, MTV, and The Huffington Post. His TV appearances have ranged from BBC News to The View. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

“[I] would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station.”

Hamilton’s early years are murky. Historians debate the details. Yet there can be no doubt that he’s the only Founding Father whose mother, Rachael Fawcett, was accused in court of “whoring with everyone.”

This wasn’t a happy home. This wasn’t a happy place. On the Caribbean island of St. Croix, several years before Hamilton’s birth, Rachael was “twice guilty of adultery,” according to her first husband, which, in those enlightened times, gave him the legal right to toss her into prison. So he locked her in a dungeon. (I’ve been inside the prison cell. It’s dark, hot, and has a tiny window that looks out on the clear blue sea, almost as a taunt.)

With Rachael behind bars, her husband hoped that “everything would change to the better and that she, as a wedded wife, would change her unholy way of life and live with him.” Ah, true love! He let her out of jail. Somehow the plan backfired, the dungeon failed to melt her heart, and Rachael fled and didn’t look back.

She took a ferry to an even smaller island, St. Kitts, that throbbed with the sugar and slave trades. She met a Scot named James Hamilton. On an even smaller island, Nevis, Rachael gave birth to two boys, one named Alexander. She was still married to the dungeon-master of a first husband, however, which meant that Alexander Hamilton, technically, was born a bastard. The first husband eventually filed for a separation; the divorce papers called her “shameless, rude and ungodly” and the mother of “whorechildren.”

The family soon moved back to St. Croix. The island was brutal. Alexander, or Alex, as he was called as a toddler, grew up in a land that had 90 percent of its population chained in slavery. The slaves made the sugar. “The whites lived in fear of slave rebellions. By law, every white man had to be armed with a gun, sixteen cartridges with balls, and a sword or cutlass,” explains biographer James Flexner. “To keep terror perpetually alive among the blacks, it was legislated that if a slave struck a white man, he would lose the hand he struck it with. If he drew blood, he could be executed.”

Then things took a turn for the worse.

Alex’s father went bankrupt and left home. (Historians still aren’t sure why.) Then the family got sick. Rachael caught tropical fever, confining her to a bed that would drip with blood, sweat, and vomit. The house had only one bed, which meant that Alex either slept next to his coughing mother or he slept on the floor. The doctors treated Rachael with “bloodletting” and “alcohol for her head.” He was eleven when she died. The probate court ruled that Alex would get nothing from her modest estate, as he and his brother were “obscene children.”

Then things took a turn for the worse.

Alex’s cousin volunteered to look after the boys, but for reasons still unknown he committed suicide. The legal record states that he “stabbed or shot himself to death.” His grandmother died. His uncle died. His aunt died.

Yet Alex refused to think like a victim. When he was just twelve years old, he wrote to his friend Edward Stevens (or “Neddy”), declaring:

My Ambition is [so] prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk . . . to which my Fortune condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station.

He ends the letter on one of history’s great non sequiturs: “I shall conclude saying I wish there was a war.”

It’s Hamilton’s oldest surviving letter. Even as a child he burned with a desire to do whatever it takes--work harder, get smarter, prove valor on a battlefield--to improve himself . . . so long as it did not compromise his honor.

There’s one more lesson here. The letter contains another, trickier, more archaic passage that isn’t quoted as often:

I’m confident, Ned that my youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity . . . My folly makes me ashamed and [I] beg you’ll conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such schemes successful when the Projector is constant.

Okay, some real talk: On the first read, that paragraph is nearly incomprehensible. Yet it contains the keys to Hamilton’s playbook. Douglas Hamilton (the fifth great-grandson) thinks of this advice all the time, he lives by it, and he shares it with his grandchildren, who are often baffled. “People ask me, Projector? What the hell does that even mean?” 

Let’s look at the sentence again: 

. . . we have seen such schemes successful when the Projector is constant . . .

 The Projector is the thing that is projecting an outcome, the thing doing the work. You. If the projector is constant--with steady work--then you can prepare yourself for a better future. This is how you rise above your station. 

He had no parents, no inheritance, no formal education, and no obvious path to success. Yet he knew it was possible. He believed. From the very beginning, it would always be Alexander Hamilton against the world.

That’s a fair fight.

Steal (New Skills) from Every Job 

“[A childhood job in a trading shop was] the most useful part of [my] education.’ ”

Think back to your first job. Maybe it was delivering pizzas, waiting tables, or sacking groceries. Hamilton had a job like that. When his mom was still alive he helped her run a shop below their home, and then, when still a kid (possibly as young as eight), he worked at a trading shop called Beekman and Cruger. It’s the kind of job that most kids hate. He must have swept the floors, wiped the counters, and spent hours tediously double-checking the inventory.

Yet the job offered something more. For perhaps the first time in his life, Hamilton began to glimpse a larger world. Some quick context: When people say that Hamilton was from “a forgotten spot” or “the middle of nowhere,” that’s not entirely true. Every morning, as a fleet of ships hugged the wharfs of St. Croix, he woke up to a bustling commercial hub. Sugar was to the Caribbean what oil now is to the Middle East. The “white gold” could make or break empires. (How valuable was the Caribbean? In the treaty of 1763, after a military defeat, France was forced to give Britain either most of Canada or the tiny islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia. They thought about it for maybe five seconds. Then they kissed Canada goodbye.)

Hamilton saw all of the wheeling and dealing. Since the shop traded with all parts of the globe, it forced him to learn about things like foreign exchange rates and currency fluctuations--French livres, German marks, Danish kroner. He learned bookkeeping. Inventory control. When cargo sailed to the docks of St. Croix, young Hamilton unloaded the goods and lugged them to a Scale House, where he measured the lumber, pork, fish, rope, cattle, and corn. (The Scale House still exists. And it’s only a Frisbee toss away from where his mother was once imprisoned, which means he saw the jail every day.) He did his chores well. So his boss, the Dickensian-named Nicholas Cruger, soon gave him more clout: Alex would decide where the cargo should be sold, when to sell it, and how much it should cost.

“The when to sell sounds obvious, but it’s not always,” explains historian Michael E. Newton. Hamilton once inspected a boatload of scrawny mules. “A worse parcel of mules never was seen,” reported Hamilton. The easy move would have been to sell the mules right away and be done with it. Instead he fed them, waited for them to grow healthier, and then sold them at a higher profit.

He learned supply and demand, price elasticity, and the art of negotiation. This gave him an early nose for global finance. (Meanwhile, far away in the thirteen colonies, his eventual rivals would go through puberty learning a much simpler economic model: Watch your slaves pick cotton. Sell. Pour more lemonade.)

As a clerk, Hamilton had to haggle with scoundrels and smugglers, which taught him another life lesson--people cheat--that would, years later, spawn his idea for a fleet of boats that would curb smuggling (the fleet would become the Coast Guard). The job also taught him the need for a solid currency. And he learned that every business needs access to cash, capital, and credit.

The “steal new skills” mentality, of course, doesn’t mean that you need to love your tedious job. Not even Hamilton pretended to, complaining to Neddy of the “grov’ling . . . condition of a clerk.” But flip the mindset. Learn from the job. Exploit it. Fill your bag of skills. 

Not even dead-end jobs are a dead end.

When Was Hamilton Born?

Nothing about Alexander Hamilton is ever simple. Not even his birthday. Everyone agrees on the date of January 11, but historians debate the year itself.

For nearly two hundred years, most scholars accepted that Hamilton was born in 1757. One key bit of evidence? Hamilton himself cited 1757 as his birth year. Then, in 1939, a newly discovered document, from a St. Croix probate court, pointed to a birth year of 1755.

Academics and historians have spent years and hundreds of pages digging through the weeds, but basically, it comes down to one of two things. Either:

1) Hamilton lied about his age; or

2) The clerk made a mistake.

The “Hamilton lied” camp suggests that when he enrolled in college, he deliberately shaved two years off his age to appear more like a prodigy. The “clerk erred” camp notes that on the very same document, the clerk misspelled the name of Hamilton’s mother. As Brookhiser concludes, “Believing that a man is more likely to know his own birthday than a clerk in a probate court, I will accept 1757.” Same.

Read When Others Play 

“[Employ] all your leisure in reading.”

The “Reading Is Fundamental” campaign could begin and end with Alexander Hamilton. Books were the fuel that made his engine go. And his love of reading started at a young age. We don’t know much about Hamilton’s mother, but we do know that she had a library of thirty-four books, a stash that likely included Machiavelli, Plutarch, and Alexander Pope. You know, kids’ books.

He ripped through these. He ripped through every library. He devoured classics, novels, poetry, philosophy, history, and fat economic treatises that would make you and me weep. Yet this is what set Hamilton apart: he carved out time to read when others wouldn’t.

Years later, as a young man in Washington’s army, while burdened by a dawn-to-dusk schedule of artillery and bloodshed, he somehow found the energy to crack open books and improve himself. Who else would spend his downtime reading Malachy Postlethwayt’s Universal Dictionary of Trade and Commerce? The book was large and heavy and wasn’t available on the Kindle. “The dictionary took the form of two ponderous, folio-sized volumes,” notes Ron Chernow, “and it is touching to think of young Hamilton lugging them through the chaos of war.” 

Instead of playing cards with the other officers, Hamilton would cozy up with this almanac and think about its content, scribbling notes in his journal like, “When you can get more of foreign coin, [the] coin of your native exchange is said to be high and the reverse low.” 

The reading paid off immediately. Still ensconced in Washington’s command center, the young officer wrote a bold letter to a congressman that flashed, for the first time, the glimmer of his financial brilliance. “The present plan is the product of some reading on the subjects of commerce and finance,” he wrote with some understatement, and a “want of leisure” prevented him from writing even more. Young Hamilton’s “present plan” was a six-thousand-word, twelve-point program that foreshadowed his grand designs as treasury secretary.

You don’t have to be a freakishly gifted Founding Father (or Mother) to benefit from this mindset. Some basic math will help us bridge from Hamilton legend to something that’s doable: The average reading speed is 250 words per minute. The average page has around 250 words. So if you skip just one TV show and read for just one hour every day, that works out to 420 pages a week, or, on average, 50 books a year. Over, say, 40 years of adulthood, that adds up to a sprawling, floor-to-ceiling library of over 2,000 books. It can be done.

Hamilton knew that books can worm their way into your brain in surprising ways, sparking ideas that power the imagination. The examples are infinite, such as the time in 2008 when, on the way to a vacation in Mexico, an artist picked up a book to read on the beach. Thankfully this artist was Lin-Manuel Miranda, and thankfully the book was Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton.

Speak with Authority . . . Even if You Have None

“Reflect continually on the unfortunate voyage you have just made.”

Hamilton’s boss at the trading shop, Nicholas Cruger, soon grew to trust the kid. So when the boss had to leave the shop for a few months, he put Hamilton in charge.

At age fourteen, Hamilton immediately acted like he owned the place. He instructed one captain to “remember you are to make three trips this season and unless you are very diligent, you will be too late as our crops will be early.” Later, when someone botched a job, young Hamilton admonished him to “reflect continually on the unfortunate voyage you have just made.” 

The kid wrote like a seasoned Wall Street trader: “I sold all your lumber off immediately at 16 pounds. Luckily enough, the price of that article being now reduced to 12 pounds . . . Your mahogany is of the very worst kind.” No timidity, no indecisiveness, no signs of backing down. When a man’s mahogany isn’t up to snuff, you call him on it. 

While his boss was away, Hamilton even had the audacity to fire the shop’s lawyer, as he was “very negligent . . . and trifled away a good deal of money.”

Years later, in the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s nervy tone would earn the respect of senior officers and politicians. When still a junior secretary, he wrote to a brigadier general that Washington was “so much pestered with matters which cannot be avoided that I am obliged to refrain from troubling him . . . especially as I conceive the only answer he would give may be given by myself.” Translation: You will take your orders from me.

At nearly every stage of Hamilton’s career, from age eight until the day he died, he would, almost without exception, be the youngest man in the room. He made up for his youth with an assertive voice. You get the sense that when Hamilton came out of the womb, he somehow told his mother, “I am ready for the milk. Please do not be frugal. When I finish, you should prepare yourself for subsequent feedings.”

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Alexander Hamilton's Guide to Life"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Jeff Wilser.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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