Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America

Traveling Exhibition Script

1. Portrait gallery

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) is with us every day, in our wallets, on the $10 bill. But he is with us in another sense, for more than any other Founder, he foresaw the America we live in now. He shaped the financial, political, and legal systems of the young United States. His ideas on racial equality and economic diversity were so far ahead of their time that it took America decades to catch up with them. There is no inevitability in history; ideals alone -- even the ideals of the Founding Fathers -- do not guarantee success. Hamilton made the early republic work, and set the agenda for its future. We live in the world he made; here is what he did, and how he did it.

His World

Hamilton's world teemed with active, opinionated men and women. Some were local celebrities in his small but bustling adopted home of New York City; some were national figures; and a few were world famous. Hamilton worked, argued, and fought with them; he loved, admired and hated them. Some crossed his path briefly. Others were fixed points in his life. Still others changed their relationships with him as politics or passion moved them. The portraits in this exhibition show the important people in his life, and in his psyche.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Oil on canvas, after 1804

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

Trumbull painted Hamilton several times. In this posthumous image, derived from earlier versions, Hamilton seems mature but still youthful.

The Schuyler Family

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, 1757-1854)

Ralph Earl (1751-1801)

Oil on canvas, 1787

Museum of the City of New York

Gift of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton and General Pierpont Morgan Hamilton

The second daughter of a wealthy patriot, Elizabeth Schuyler married Alexander Hamilton in 1780. She loved him, forgave him, bore him eight children, and honored his memory for half a century of widowhood.

Major General Philip Schuyler (1733-1804)

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Oil on wood panel, 1792

New-York Historical Society

Bequest of Major Philip Schuyler

Elizabeth's father, the patriot and landowner Philip Schuyler, admired Hamilton. "You cannot, my dear Sir, be more happy at the connection you have made with my family than I am."

Catherine Van Rensselaer Schuyler (Mrs. Philip Schuyler, 1734-1803)

Thomas McIlworth, active 1757-1767

Oil on canvas, c. 1760

New-York Historical Society

Bequest of Philip Schuyler

Catherine Van Rensselaer sprang from the same New York Dutch gentry as her husband. By marrying her daughter, Hamilton indeed rose in the world.

Angelica Schuyler Church (Mrs. John Church, 1756-1815), a child, and servant

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Oil on canvas, c. 1785

Courtesy Belvidere Trust

Angelica Schuyler, the beautiful elder sister of Elizabeth, married a dull English businessman, but was infatuated with her sister's husband, Alexander Hamilton.

The First Presidents

Hamilton had dynamic relationships with the men who became the first four Presidents of the United States, from the supportive and steadying influence of Washington to the political and personal antipathy that evolved between Hamilton and Adams, Jefferson, and Madison.

George Washington (1732-1799)

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)

Oil on canvas, 1853

New-York Historical Society

Bequest of Miss Caroline Phelps Stokes

Hamilton served on Washington's staff during the Revolution and in his cabinet during his presidency, and helped write his Farewell Address. Their collaboration shaped the new government.

Martha Washington (1731-1802)

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)

Oil on canvas, 1853

New-York Historical Society

Bequest of Miss Caroline Phelps Stokes

Martha Washington, having spent winters with the Revolutionary army, knew her husband's young aides-de-camp well; she named her tomcat Hamilton.

John Adams (1735-1826)

Attributed to Bass Otis (1784-1861)

Oil on wood, undated

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

A devoted patriot and an erratic politician, Adams became the second President in 1797. Though he and Hamilton were both Federalists, personal antipathies and political differences drove them apart.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)

Oil on canvas, 1805

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

Author of the Declaration of Independence, first Secretary of State and third President, Jefferson was Hamilton's colleague, nemesis and survivor. Hamilton worked with him, fought him, and backed him for President over Aaron Burr in 1800.

James Madison (1751-1836)

Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), after Gilbert Stuart

Oil on canvas, 1835

New-York Historical Society

Gift of the New York Gallery of Fine Arts

Madison worked with Hamilton to ratify the Constitution, but they soon fell out. Madison and Jefferson founded the Republican party (today's Democratic party) to oppose Hamilton's Federalists. Madison succeeded Jefferson as President.

Dolley Madison (Mrs. James Madison, 1768-1849)

Bass Otis (1784-1861)

Oil on canvas, c. 1817

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

Dolley Madison was her husband's charming and popular First Lady. In old age, she and Elizabeth Hamilton raised money to build the Washington Monument.

Friends, Allies, and Adversaries

Party politics and the passionate convictions about the direction the new nation should take affected Hamilton's personal relationships with many leading figures in his world, as he plunged into controversies, shifting alliances and friendships throughout his life.

Aaron Burr (1756-1836)

John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

Oil on canvas, 1802

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Dr. John E. Stillwell

Colonel, state attorney general, U.S. Senator, and third Vice President, Burr charmed or alarmed everyone he met. He killed Hamilton in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, on July 11, 1804.

Theodosia Burr (Mrs. Joseph Alston, 1783 -1813)

John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

Oil on canvas, 1802

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Dr. John E. Stillwell

Daughter of Aaron Burr, and wife of Joseph Alston, governor of South Carolina, Theodosia was her father's beloved confidante. Her son Aaron's death, and then months later her own, devastated Burr.

Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834)

Unidentified artist; after Joseph Bose

Oil on canvas, 1785-1790

New-York Historical Society

Gift of General Ebenezer Stevens

Lafayette came to America in 1777 to fight in the American Revolution. In 1789, when Lafayette was a leader of the Revolution in France, Hamilton warned him that it might not succeed.

John Jay (1745-1829)

Joseph Wright (1756-1793)

Oil on canvas, 1786

New-York Historical Society

Gift of John Pintard

Congressman, diplomat, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and governor, Jay was a revered figure in New York politics. Hamilton, Jay, and James Madison collaborated on the
Federalist Papers. Jay was also, along with Hamilton, a founder of the New York Manumission Society.

Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816)

Ezra Ames (1768-1836)

Oil on canvas, c. 1815

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Stephen Van Rensselaer

A witty ladies' man with a wooden leg, Gouverneur Morris wrote the Preamble to the Constitution, reflecting his friend Hamilton's ideals, and delivered Hamilton's eulogy.

Robert Livingston (1745-1813)

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

Oil on canvas, c. 1794

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Goodhue Livingston, Jr.

A congressman and diplomat, Livingston supported Hamilton in the fight to ratify the Constitution in 1788, but turned on him a year later after Hamilton opposed his in-law, James Duane, for Senate.

Quotations about Hamilton in this section:

"He is enterprising, quick in his perceptions, and his judgment is intuitively great." -- George Washington to John Adams, September 25, 1798

"... the most restless, impatient, artful, indefatigable, and unprincipled intriguer in the United States, if not in the world." -- John Adams to James Lloyd, February 17, 1815

2. Immigrant

Unlike most of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant. As a boy in the West Indies, he was introduced to shame (his parents were unmarried) and to the world of commerce (he went to work as a merchant's clerk when he was nine). Sent to New York to be educated, Hamilton was soon caught up in the American Revolution. He made the new nation his own, espousing its ideals and marrying a patriotic young woman. While his talents and ambition were perfectly suited to the burgeoning energy of New York, he envisioned a unified nation in a way that most of his contemporaries, rooted in home-state loyalties, could not.

Roots in the Caribbean

Born on Nevis and raised in St. Croix, Hamilton grew up in the heart of the Caribbean sugar economy, which generated vast wealth from slave labor. Hamilton, recognizing the injustice, would become a leader in the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

Slave leg chains, c. 1760

Hand wrought iron

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Used to hobble slaves at auction and in transport, such chains were commonplace in the world of Hamilton's childhood. Perhaps remembering these horrors, as an adult Hamilton vigorously opposed slavery.

Sugar bowl, c. 1790

Silver, made by John Adam

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Mrs. Nathaniel McLean Sage

The end product of slavery -- sweetness, for a few. This engraved piece of silver belonged to Hamilton's in-laws, the Schuylers, and suggests how sugar was an unremarked presence in everyday life.

Alexander McDougall Waste-book, June 1, 1767-January 8, 1771

New-York Historical Society

This ledger illuminates a New York merchant's dealings with Nicholas Cruger and his partners -- "Beekman & Cruger of St. Croix... 15 th Novr 1766" for £160 15s. 3d. -- about the time Hamilton became Cruger's clerk.

An Ambitious Youth

Sent to work at age nine to help support his mother and brother, and orphaned soon after, Hamilton was a merchant's clerk in St. Croix. His intelligence and determination to make something of himself inspired local benefactors to send him to New York to be educated.

Hamilton drawn from life, Jan[uary] 11, 1773

Photograph of miniature portrait and inscription

Unidentified artist

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Drawn on his birthday, probably a gift from a friend, this miniature shows a teenaged Hamilton shortly before he left St. Croix. The thoughtful features would characterize all his portraits.

View of Christiansted from the Sea, 1825

Photograph of Painting, Original in Danish National Library

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, HABS, VI.1 CHRIS, 13

This view of St. Croix's largest town, complete with fort, church, and company docks, shows the commercially active port where Hamilton lived and worked as a boy.

Nicholas Cruger (1743-1800)

Photograph of watercolor and ink miniature portrait

Artist unknown, circa 1780

National Historic Site, Museum Collections

Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands

The St. Croix agent of his New York-based family trading firm, Cruger employed Hamilton as a clerk from age nine, and represented his link to the outside world.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Edward Stevens, St. Croix, November 11, 1769

Copy, undated

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

As a 12-year-old orphan, clerking for the trader Nicholas Cruger in St. Croix, Hamilton wrote this, his earliest surviving letter, to his friend Edward Stevens, who was studying at King's College in New York: "My Ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the grov'ling condition of a Clerk... I wish there was a War."

School exercises,
The Iliad of Homer

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Hamilton's brilliance shone through a spotty early education. His Huguenot mother taught him French. Here he works at Homer. His favorite author was the biographer of the ancient world, Plutarch.

New Beginnings in New York

Hamilton's talents and ambition were perfectly suited to New York City, the second-largest town in the thirteen colonies, and growing fast. He enrolled in King's College (later Columbia College), but his studies were cut short by the American Revolution.

Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the Years 1766 & 1767 (republished 1776)

Bernard Ratzer

New-York Historical Society

This map and engraved harbor view looking north to Manhattan from Governor's Island show what Hamilton saw as he arrived in New York from the Caribbean in 1773.

Elias Boudinot, L.L.D. (1740-1821)

Engraving by J. W. Paradise based on a painting by Waldo & Jewett

New-York Historical Society

After coming to New York, Hamilton spent six months in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, preparing for college. Boudinot, a prominent lawyer, looked after him, and introduced him to patriotic politics.

Rev. Myles Cooper (1737-1785)

S. B. Hutchings; after John Singleton Copley

Oil on canvas, 1820

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Nicholas William Stuyvesant

President of King's College (now Columbia) when Hamilton attended, Cooper strongly supported British rule. Hamilton, already a patriot activist, nevertheless prevented an angry mob from tarring and feathering Cooper one night in May 1775.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

(Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, 1757-1854)

After Ralph Earl (1751-1801)

Engraving, 1857

New-York Historical Society

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Elizabeth Schuyler, October 5, 1780

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

"I have told you, and told you truly that I love you too much," Hamilton wrote his bride-to-be. "I meet you in every dream." By marrying into the prominent Schuyler family of Albany, New York, Hamilton -- who had come from humble origins in the West Indies -- secured a place for himself in the world of wealth and power.


"My Ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the grov'ling condition of a Clerk." -- Alexander Hamilton, age 12, to Edward Stevens, November 11, 1769

3. Soldier

Hamilton spent much of his life in military uniform. From 1776 to 1781, in the Revolutionary War, he fought in seven major battles, as a captain of artillery, a colonel on George Washington's staff, and a commander of light infantry. In 1798-99, when war with France loomed, he re-entered the military as a senior officer.

The American Revolution

When Hamilton arrived in New York, the thirteen colonies had been protesting British taxes and commercial regulations for years. New York City was a hotbed of contending political factions, pitting Patriots against pro-British Loyalists. While still a student at King's College (now Columbia), Hamilton took up the Patriots' cause, writing his first political article in 1774 (he signed himself "A Friend to America").

Payroll of the Colony Company of Artillery Commanded by Alexander Hamilton March 1 to April 1, 1776

New-York Historical Society, Alexander McDougall Papers

War came to New York not long after Hamilton did. In the spring of 1775 he joined a militia company of student volunteers. By March 1776 he was captain of a New York artillery company. This payroll lists his men. Eventually he had 68 under his command. His company retreated from New York in the fall of 1776 with Washington's army, but later fought victoriously at Trenton and Princeton.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton in the Trenches

Alonzo Chappel (1829-1887)

Oil on canvas, c. 1857

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton and General Pierpont Morgan Hamilton

This painting recalls one Revolutionary War veteran's memory of Hamilton: "I saw a youth, a mere stripling, small, slender... with a cocked hat pulled down over his eyes, apparently lost in thought."

British-made musket with bayonet, 1765-1775

Wood, iron, brass

New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. William R. Tarbox

This "Brown Bess" musket was standard for British infantry. Americans, who manufactured only a fraction of their own weapons, relied on captured pieces, or French supplies. Hamilton lamented the dependence on foreign arms.

Washington's Aide-de-Camp

In March 1777 Hamilton was promoted to colonel and appointed to George Washington's staff. He performed essential tasks, saw firsthand the dire consequences of Congress's inability to pay for adequate supplies or troops, and forged, with his Commander in Chief, the most important political bond of his life. But though Hamilton's work on Washington's staff was stimulating and important, it was also confining. He longed to return to the battlefield to win still more glory. He did so in 1781, and fought bravely at the war's climactic Battle of Yorktown. In 1783 the Revolution ended in victory -- and a load of debt for the newly independent nation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton, Aide de Camp to George Washington

Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

Watercolor on ivory, 1777

Museum of the City of New York

Gift of Philip and Dolores Grieve

In 1777, Charles Willson Peale, a captain in the American military, painted the newly promoted colonel, adorned with the silk sash designating an aide-de-camp, shortly after Hamilton joined Washington's staff.

Map of the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 (Printed February 1782)

Major Sebastian Bauman

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Finally given a field command by Washington, Hamilton led an infantry charge at Yorktown, Virginia, against a British redoubt (marked "K," near the river) on October 14, 1781. Five days later, the British surrendered, effectively ending the war.

United States Flag

Wool, cotton, c. 1781

New-York Historical Society

American troops are believed to have carried flags like this at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, the Revolution's climactic battle. Hamilton, eager to fight after years of staff work, led a decisive infantry charge.

The American Rattle Snake,
April 12, 1782

British cartoon attributed to James Gillray (1756-1815)

New-York Historical Society, Hyde Collection

This British cartoon, drawn while peace was being negotiated, depicts British troops encircled by a massive "American rattlesnake." The message: military force could not suppress the American rebellion.

Foreign Policy

In the 1790s, the French Revolution ignited a new series of world wars. George Washington and Hamilton desperately wanted to keep the unprepared nation out of the conflict, as Washington wrote (with Hamilton's help) in his Farewell Address: "Why... entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition?" But when war against Revolutionary France appeared inevitable, the two veterans joined forces once again to build an effective army.

Draft fragment of George Washington's
Farewell Address

c. August 1796

Alexander Hamilton

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, Sept. 4, 1796

Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Although Hamilton kept it secret, he was ghostwriter for Washington's Farewell Address in 1796, as the draft fragment here reveals. In this final message, Washington stressed the blessings of the Union and the dangers that threatened it, especially in foreign affairs: "The nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave."

List of applicants for new regular army under the administration of
President John Adams, undated

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton

Daniel Burke Library, Hamilton College

Presented to the Hon. Elihu Root, Secretary of War, June 1, 1901

By Alan McLane Hamilton, son of Philip and grandson of Alexander Hamilton

In 1798, as war with France loomed, President Adams appointed Hamilton "Inspector and Major General," second-in-command to Washington, at Washington's urging -- and against his own inclination. The army needed to be built from scratch, and Hamilton and Washington made swift and merciless evaluations ("drunkard," "worthless," "clever") of proposed officers.


"I wish there was a war." -- Alexander Hamilton, age 12, to Edward Stevens, November 11, 1769

"'Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any part of the foreign world." -- George Washington, Farewell Address, written with help of Hamilton, September 19, 1796

4. Lawmaker

Hamilton attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and helped persuade a skeptical public to ratify the Constitution by launching the
Federalist Papers, a series of newspaper pieces. The first
Federalist asked for laws based on "reflection and choice," not "accident and force." In his career as a lawyer, Hamilton advocated principles of constitutional interpretation such as judicial review -- a controversial doctrine then and now.

The U.S. Constitution

Hamilton's wartime experience had shown him the need for a stronger central government. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, Hamilton and other like-minded delegates produced a sturdy but flexible governmental structure. During 1787 and 1788, Hamilton led the campaign to ratify it.

Notes of Hamilton's speech at the Constitutional Convention, June 29, 1787

Rufus King (1755-1827)

New-York Historical Society, Rufus King Papers

These extraordinary documents record snippets of what is otherwise lost: the arguments the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention made behind closed doors. Here, Rufus King scribbled down what he could of Hamilton's remarks, responding to William Johnson of Connecticut and James Madison of Virginia, on the vexed issue of proportional representation in Congress.

Rufus King (1755-1827)

Unidentified artist

Oil on sheet metal, c. 1810

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Emily H. Suydam

King represented Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention. After moving to New York, King won a Senate seat, with Hamilton's support, beating James Duane, the Livingstons' candidate. He, like Hamilton, was an anti-slavery activist.

Signing of the Constitution, undated

Thomas Pritchard Rossiter (1817-1871)

Oil on canvas

Fraunces Tavern ® Museum, New York City

Among the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention depicted here are: Washington, presiding; Benjamin Franklin, beside wooden-legged Gouverneur Morris; rose-clad Hamilton, to Franklin's left; James Madison, beside Hamilton. The man touching Hamilton's shoulder may be Rufus King.

United States Constitution, draft, August 6, 1787

Pierce Butler

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

United States Constitution

Final version, September 17, 1787

For Jonathan Williams, Esq. from
B[enjamin] Franklin

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Between the Constitution's first draft (this copy belonged to Pierce Butler, delegate from South Carolina) and its final version, a momentous change took place. The separate states became "We, the People of the United States" -- Hamilton's idea, Gouverneur Morris's words. In the end, Hamilton was the only delegate from New York to sign the Constitution. This copy of the final edition, printed in Philadelphia especially for the delegates, was owned by Benjamin Franklin, who inscribed it to his nephew, Jonathan Williams.

The Federalist: A Collection of Essays

Written in favour of the new Constitution as agreed upon by the Federal Convention, September 17, 1787

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay

First edition, 1788 (Vol. I)

New-York Historical Society

Gift of John Pintard

To take effect, the Constitution had to be ratified by nine states. Hamilton initially planned 25 pro-Constitution essays, written by himself, James Madison, and John Jay, to appear anonymously in New York newspapers. Eventually 85 essays appeared (Hamilton wrote 51, Madison 29, and Jay 5). Historians credit these essays with turning the tide in favor of ratification in New York and elsewhere. In this
Federalist, first of the series, Hamilton argues that "[n]othing less than the existence of the UNION... the fate of an empire" is at stake.

Federal Ship

Illustration from
History of the City of New York, by Martha Lamb

A. S. Barnes & Co., 1877

New-York Historical Society

After New York ratified the Constitution in 1788, New York City celebrated with a parade. Hamilton, the Constitution's champion, was honored by a float representing the federal ship

Hamilton the Lawyer

Hamilton worked as a lawyer, off and on, from the end of the Revolution until the last year of his life. He earned a living, sometimes made himself unpopular, and forged enduring principles of constitutional law.

Hamilton's Docket of Legal Cases

February 24, 1784

Docket in the hand of Alexander Hamilton, mounted in bound volume

New-York Historical Society, Alexander Hamilton Papers

Building his postwar legal career, Hamilton took on clients of all kinds, including Loyalists. His notes ("I appear for defendant") helped him keep track.

Handwritten notes,
Rutgers vs. Waddington,

Alexander Hamilton

Daniel Burke Library, Hamilton College

These notes open a window on an historic legal case. After the war, New York passed legislation punishing Loyalists, although the peace treaty forbade it. Hamilton defended Loyalist Joshua Waddington against the suit of Elizabeth Rutgers, a New York patriot. Hamilton urged the court to overrule state laws that violated national treaties -- an opinion that laid the groundwork for judicial review.

Certificate to practice law before U.S. Circuit Court, April 6, 1796

Signed: Edward Dunscomb

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

After retiring from the Treasury in 1795, Hamilton returned to the practice of law to support his still-growing family. Here he is admitted to plead in federal Circuit Court.

Ambrose Spencer (1765-1848)

John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840)

Oil on canvas, c. 1818

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Marshall S. Bidwell

As attorney general of New York, Spencer in 1804 prosecuted Harry Croswell, a Federalist editor, for seditious libel. Hamilton defended Croswell in this, the last important case of his life.


"The vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty." -- Alexander Hamilton,
The Federalist, No. 1, October 1787

"A nation, despicable by its weakness, forfeits even the privilege of being neutral." -- Alexander Hamilton,
The Federalist, No. 11, November 1787

5. Economist

Building on his early commercial experience, Hamilton became a brilliant, self-taught economist. America needed him: its load of war debt was crushing. Appointed by President Washington to be the first Treasury Secretary in 1789, Hamilton solved the nation's debt problem and established a modern system of credit, over the bitter objections of less progressive opponents. By the time he retired in 1795, the United States, unlike most emerging nations, was fiscally sound, and poised to become a major financial power.

The burgeoning economist, his commercial acumen heightened by the financial troubles he saw during the Revolution, read widely on international economics and exchanged ideas with leaders at home and abroad.

Notes made at the back of a payroll record for Captain Alexander Hamilton, New York Artillery Company, August 1776-May 1777

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Even during wartime, Hamilton educated himself in global commerce, scribbling notes in his artillery company paybook: "hardware manufactures Birmingham," Scottish grain exports to "Spain Holland Norway," "worsted stockings at Aberdeen."

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, October 12, 1780

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

In his gloomy letter to a French diplomat, Hamilton expresses frustration at Congress's inability to raise funds for the army: "The want of money makes us want everything else."

Robert Morris (1734-1806)

John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840); after Gilbert Stuart

Oil on canvas, c. 1810

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Morris

The richest man in America, Robert Morris struggled, as Superintendent of Finance (1781-84), with the nation's debts, frustrated by the government's impotence. He corresponded with Hamilton through the Revolution and recommended Hamilton as first Treasury Secretary.

Financial Architect

In 1784, Hamilton helped create the Bank of New York, one of the nation's first private banks. He offered ideas, not money: he owned only one share of stock, but drafted the bank's founding documents and served as its legal adviser.

Northeast corner of Wall and William Streets

Archibald Robertson (1765-1835)

Ink, watercolor washes and graphite on paper, 1798

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Sophia Minton

Located in the heart of New York's business district, the Bank of New York occupied this corner of Wall Street -- the thoroughfare that would become a national symbol of commerce.

Petition for Bank Charter, February 10, 1785

The Bank of New York Archives

Because New York's landed gentry wanted a bank based on land rather than money, the state denied Hamilton's Bank of New York a charter. It opened anyway, privately, to great success.

Tontine Coffee House

Francis Guy (1760-1820)

Oil on linen, c. 1800

New-York Historical Society

The hub of business in Hamilton's New York was the bustling Tontine Coffee House, at the northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets. There, merchants posted prices, struck deals, and swapped gossip.

First Treasury Secretary

In 1790, Treasury Secretary Hamilton presented Congress the
Report on Public Credit and the
Report on a National Bank. He found a way to pay off America's lingering war debts (including assumption by the federal government of the states' debts), and bring the nation into the modern financial era.

Handwritten draft of

First Report on the Further Provision Necessary for Establishing Public Credit,
c. December 1790

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Here Hamilton tells Congress how to implement the program of fiscal integrity and self-discipline he proclaimed in his
Report on Public Credit, eleven months earlier. "States, like individuals, who observe their engagements are respected and trusted."

Handwritten draft regarding
Report on United States Bank, c. 1790

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Hamilton submitted his
Report on a National Bank in December 1790. "The principal and most enlightened commercial nations," Hamilton explained, had national banks. "There exists not a question about their utility."

Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of Treasury, August 4, 1791


The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Hamilton writes quickly to implement a controversial new law that had just passed that day, authorizing the federal government to assume debts that individual states had incurred during the Revolution. The assumption of the debts, a central plank in Hamilton's economic reforms, was essential to the young nation's fiscal health.

Oliver Wolcott, Jr. (1760-1833)

Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828)

Oil on canvas, c. 1820

Yale University Art Gallery

Gift of George Gibbs

Son of a prominent Connecticut family, Wolcott served Hamilton in the Treasury department, succeeding him as Secretary in 1795. Later, under President Adams, Wolcott still looked to Hamilton for advice.

Albert Gallatin (1761-1849)

William Henry Powell (1823-1879)

Oil on canvas, 1843

New-York Historical Society

Gift of the artist

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Gallatin came to America in 1780. As a congressman (1795-1801) he criticized Hamilton's policies, though as Secretary of the Treasury (1801-13) he adopted many of them.

A Uniform Currency

In their first years of independence, Americans conducted business with a bewildering array of coins and currencies. In his
Report on the Mint (1791), Hamilton insisted on "the uniform preservation of the intrinsic value of the money unit." He resolved the chaos into a single strong currency.

"Exact Table" of Exchange, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 1765

Museum of American Financial History, New York City

During the colonial period and the early republic, the variety of currencies meant that for trade and travel, Americans needed exchange rate tables such as this.

Paper Money and Coins, various

Image shows a "pyramid" of the era's coins, with the Liberty dollar enlarged at left top.

Various notes of paper money

Colony of New York, February 16, 1771

New York Waterworks, March 5, 1776

State of Pennsylvania, May 20, 1777 and June 1780

Museum of American Financial History, New York City

Before Hamilton's appointment to the Treasury in 1789, as these examples suggest, legal tender included notes in many denominations (pounds, shillings, Spanish dollars) issued by various governments and private companies. Spanish money circulated widely in America--this two reales coin was worth one-quarter of a Spanish dollar (or piece of eight). After the Revolution, states minted their own coins, such as this copper from New Jersey, issued from 1786 to 1790. "Nova Cæsarea" was the state's Latinate name for itself. And Congress had tried to establish a national currency by issuing coins such as this Fugio Cent - with little success. ("Fugio" means "[Time] flies.")

Spanish Two Reales Coin, 1739

Mexico City

New-York Historical Society, Gift of Susan Mount

New Jersey Copper, 1786

Rahway, New Jersey

New-York Historical Society

Fugio Cent, 1787

New Haven, CT

New-York Historical Society

United States silver dollar, 1795

New-York Historical Society

During Hamilton's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury, America began striking its own coins in earnest -- symbolic of its political and economic unity. Americans would not need Spanish reales or New Jersey coppers anymore.


"The want of money makes us want everything else." -- Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, 1780

"I have found the most perfect system ever formed.... Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong." -- Albert Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson

6. Futurist

Alexander Hamilton, both intensely idealistic and acutely practical, foresaw aspects of American life that lay far in the future. Though he devoted years to business and battle, his best work was the thinking, writing, and planning he did for his adopted nation. The America Hamilton came to was a land of farms, many of them worked by slaves. Hamilton had a different vision. He foresaw a diverse economy, offering opportunity for the full variety of human talents. He respected the faculties of blacks, and worked to end slavery. These visions, expressed during his life, would not be fulfilled until long after his death.

A Spirit of Enterprise

Unlike Jefferson, who idealized agrarian society, Hamilton argued that manufacturing and commerce were also integral to modern economies. Hamilton believed that a diverse economy would make the nation wealthy and fulfill the potential of its citizens.

Passaic Falls, Spring

Thomas W. Whitley (active 1835-1863)

Oil on panel, c. 1839

From the Collections of The New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, New Jersey

Tourists went to the falls of the Passaic for the view. Hamilton saw a source of industrial power. In 1791, he helped found the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, which planned to make Paterson, New Jersey, an industrial city, producing everything from hats to iron wire.

Subscription Book of the
Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, circa 1792

Courtesy of the Passaic County Historical Society, Gledhill Collection

This ledger lists investors in an ambitious venture of Hamilton's to demonstrate America's manufacturing potential (note "Aaron Burr"). Using water power, the proposed factories would produce everything from hats to iron wire. Although this particular project failed, Hamilton led his contemporaries in envisioning the future growth of industry in America.

Share of Stock in Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, c. 1791-92

Signed: William Duer

Museum of American Financial History, New York City

Shares in the S.E.U.M. sold well. The "governor," or director, was William Duer, who had worked under Hamilton in the Treasury Department.

A Vision of Equality

In Hamilton's time, much of the labor of America, in the North as well as the South, was done by slaves. Hamilton wanted to end this pernicious and degrading institution. Slavery, he wrote as early as 1774, "relaxes the sinews of industry, clips the wings of commerce, and introduces misery and indigence in every shape." In 1785 he helped found the New York Manumission Society.

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804), 1809

John Dixey (active 1789-1820) after bust by Giuseppe Ceracchi

Painted plaster

New-York Historical Society, Gift of the artist

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828)

Plaster bust, 1789

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Mrs. Laura Wolcott Gibbs

Slave shackles, c. 1800

Wrought iron

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Shackles from 1800 -- 15 years after the Manumission Society was founded, 24 years after Jefferson wrote "all men are created equal" -- designed for a child.

New York Manumission Society Minutes, January 2, 1785-November 21, 1787

New-York Historical Society

In 1785 Hamilton and 31 other prominent New Yorkers founded the New York Manumission Society, dedicated to ending slavery. Hamilton's name appears in the minutes of the second meeting, February 4, third from the top of the left-hand column. The Society adopted this credo: "[T]hose, among us, who are held as Slaves... are by Nature, as much entitled as ourselves" to liberty.

John Jay (1745-1829)

Joseph Wright (1756-1793)

Oil on canvas, 1786

New-York Historical Society

Gift of John Pintard

Congressman, diplomat, first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and governor, Jay was a revered figure in New York politics. Hamilton, Jay, and James Madison collaborated on the
Federalist Papers. Jay was also, along with Hamilton, a founder of the New York Manumission Society.

Education for All

New-York African Free School Records : Vol. I, Regulations, By-Laws and Reports (1817-1832)

New-York Historical Society

New-York African Free School Records : Vol. IV, Penmanship and Drawing Studies (1816-1826)

New-York Historical Society

Shortly after its founding, the Manumission Society established the African Free School, which provided practical and moral education for black children and, later, black adults.

The Manumission Society's work continued after Hamilton's death -- the building erected in 1815 is shown here. In these pages, the supervisors of the African Free School preserved samples of the students' work as a record of the school's progress.


"Who talk most about liberty and equality?... Is it not those who hold the bill of rights in one hand and a whip for affrighted slaves in the other?" -- Alexander Hamilton, February 23, 1791

"Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.... While we have land to labor then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a workbench." -- Thomas Jefferson,
Notes on the State of Virginia, 1784

7. The Duel

Affairs of honor -- disputes between gentlemen that sometimes culminated in duels -- were common in late-18th-century America. One signer of the Declaration of Independence and two signers of the Constitution were killed in duels. Men fought duels when they felt their honor had been impugned, and though dueling was illegal, duelists were not prosecuted, since juries would not convict them. Dueling was polite, well-regulated, unjust and barbaric. Hamilton was a principal in seven affairs of honor in his life. The one that ended in a duel, and ended his life, was fought with fellow lawyer and New Yorker, Vice President Aaron Burr.

The Dispute

In 1804 the long rivalry between Hamilton and Burr reached a climax. The two men knew each other professionally and socially, and had worked together in the past, but Hamilton considered Burr ambitious and unprincipled -- "an embryo Caesar." Hamilton, who had helped keep Burr out of the White House in 1800, opposed his latest campaign, to be governor of New York. Hamilton, finally, knew that northern Federalists, maddened by the popularity of President Jefferson, were plotting secession -- and that Burr was in touch with them. Then, in April 1804, an inflammatory article appeared in an Albany newspaper.

Letter from Alexander Hamilton
to Harrison G. Otis, December 23, 1800

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

In his characteristically regular hand, Hamilton drops a political bombshell. With Jefferson and Burr tied in the presidential election of 1800, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives, Hamilton urged Federalists to back Jefferson: "In a choice of evils... Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr." Burr never forgot who had cost him the presidency.

Correspondence of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, 1804

Collection of manuscripts, compiled by William Coleman, editor of the
New-York Evening Post

New-York Historical Society

In April 1804, a letter in an Albany newspaper claimed that Hamilton had voiced a "despicable opinion" of Burr in conversation. When Burr heard about it, on June 18, he immediately wrote Hamilton, demanding an explanation. Two days later, Hamilton responded. The ensuing correspondence led to their duel.

Draft of Alexander Hamilton's farewell letter to his wife, July 4, 1804

Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Knowing the expected duel could mean his death, Hamilton prepared a letter for his wife, Elizabeth: "If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible."

Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804)

John Trumbull (1756-1843)

Oil on canvas, after 1804

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Thomas Jefferson Bryan

Aaron Burr (1756-1836)

John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

O il on canvas, 1802

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Dr. John E. Stillwell

July 11, 1804

Hamilton and Burr met at Weehawken, New Jersey, shortly after dawn. The pistols, which belonged to John Church, Elizabeth Hamilton's brother-in-law, had been used in Hamilton's son Philip's fatal duel three years earlier. Following protocol, the gentlemen stood twenty paces apart, and fired at the command, "Present." Hamilton's shot went high and wide. Burr's pierced Hamilton's abdomen and lodged in his spine. Hamilton was rowed to Greenwich Village, where he died the following day.

Hamilton-Burr Dueling Pistols, c. 1797

Wogdon gunsmiths, London, England

JPMorgan Chase & Co.

The pistols used by Hamilton and Burr in their duel at Weehawken belonged to John Church, Hamilton's brother-in-law. Though elegant, these.544 caliber weapons were lethal.

Letter from Angelica Church to her brother Philip J. Schuyler, July 11, 1804

The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society

Hours after the duel, Angelica Church writes to her brother to break the news, expressing her hope for Hamilton's recovery. Her hasty scrawl suggests her distress.

Receipt from Dr. David Hosack to the estate of General Hamilton, August 8, 1805

New-York Historical Society, Nathaniel Pendleton Papers

This bill for $87.50 covered Hamilton's account for the previous six months as well as the doctor's final services to his patient.

Funeral Line of March

New York Evening Post, July 17, 1804

New-York Historical Society

Hamilton's body was escorted through the streets of lower Manhattan to Trinity Church by military, political and civic leaders (listed here) as well as the ordinary citizens of the city.

Mourning ring, 1805

Gold, hair

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Mr. B. Pendleton Rogers

Letter from Elizabeth Hamilton to Nathaniel Pendleton, June 21, 1805

New-York Historical Society, Nathaniel Pendleton Papers

This gold ring, set with a lock of Hamilton's hair, was presented by Elizabeth to Nathaniel Pendleton, her late husband's second in the duel. In the letter, she asks Pendleton to do her the "particular favor" of wearing it in remembrance of his friend Hamilton.

Aaron Burr

James Van Dyck

Oil on wood panel, 1834

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Dr. John E. Stillwell

Burr outlived Hamilton by 32 years. This is the last portrait ever painted of him.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton ( Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, 1757-1854)

Henry Inman (1801-1846)

Watercolor on ivory, 1825

New-York Historical Society

Gift of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton

Elizabeth survived her husband by a full fifty years. She spent those decades doing charitable work and laboring to preserve Hamilton's reputation and secure his legacy.


Hamilton overcame heavy odds. He was an immigrant, born in poverty and shame. To put his projects into effect, he had to persuade or defy great but often uncomprehending colleagues -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison. He was hampered by scandal and controversy, some of it his own fault. He was killed, when he was only 47, in a duel. But through a combination of intelligence, hard work, and high principle, he served his adopted country brilliantly. We live in the world he made.


"I have resolved... to
reserve and
throw away my first fire." -- Alexander Hamilton, July 10, 1804