By Scanlan, Laura Wolff | Humanities, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview
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Scanlan, Laura Wolff, Humanities

IN 1773, A WEALTHY CARIBBEAN businessman saw promise in a West Indian orphan named Alexander Hamilton. With his passage paid for with two loads of sugar from this patron, the sixteen-year-old Hamilton set sail for North America, his ship docking in Boston Harbor just a few months before a group of rebels dumped tea into the sea there.

The young Hamilton traveled to New York to attend New York's King's College, where he was soon swept up in the patriots' cause, delivering electrifying anti-British speeches in the college courtyard. As the colonies moved closer toward revolution, he joined an artillery company and wrote revolutionary propaganda. Four years later, at twenty, Hamilton rose through the ranks to become a top aide to General George Washington.

After distinguishing himself in the American Revolution, Hamilton worked to make his adopted country his own. He became a representative to the Continental Congress, primary author of the The Federalist, and the first Secretary of the Treasury under President George Washington. He created the Bank of the United States, the Bank of New York, the New York Manumission Society. He organized the Coast Guard and started a newspaper, the New York Evening Post. While generally remembered as the man who died in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton left an imprint on American institutions still present two centuries after his death.

"It's phenomenal that this man, who died in his forties, could have had so many ideas that would become true for the America that we know today," says James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute and professor of English at Columbia University.

Alexander Hamilton's legacy is the focus of an NEHsupported traveling exhibition, "Alexander Hamilton: The Man Who Made Modern America." Organized by the American Library Association, the New-York Historical Society, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, two sets of the exhibition will tour forty libraries and National Park sites nationwide over the next three years. Photo panels will chronicle the different periods in Hamilton's life: West Indian immigrant, American patriot, lawmaker, and economist.

"In this exhibition, we wanted to show the startling degree to which, of all the founders, Hamilton had the most modern ideas-the power of the press, the need for a strong federal government and a strong treasury, a national banking system, a stock market and trade, and a mixed economy, not one only focused on farming," says Basker. "While a number of notable books have shed new light on his achievements, this exhibition will make this remarkable man-who is seen by millions every day on the ten-dollar bill-real in a way that is exciting and accessible to everyone."

Many of the Founding Fathers came from Virginian plantations or sturdy New England families, but Hamilton was the only founder who was an immigrant. He was born on the British Island of Nevis; his family moved to St. Croix when he was eight. By twelve, he had been abandoned by his father and lost his mother to tropical fever. Hamilton supported himself by working as a clerk in a merchant's trading station. His brilliance with numbers and strong work ethic came to the attention of Nicholas Cruger, a wealthy businessman. At fourteen, Hamilton was put in charge of charting ships' courses, tracking freight, converting currencies, and keeping the books. Shortly thereafter, Cruger sent Hamilton to New York to receive a formal education with the hope that Hamilton would return to the island to manage Cruger's business. He never did.

Richard Brookhiser, author of Alexander Hamilton: American and co-curator of the exhibition writes, "The thread that runs through every chapter, and every aspect of Hamilton's life, is his identity as an American. Like that of many Americans after him, this identity was adopted. Hamilton's immigrant origin was no bar to his advancement."

He joined the Continental Army and rose to the rank of colonel.

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