Scholar, Soldier, Statesman: If James Madison Represents the Cool, Contemplative Head of the Early Republic's Body Politic, Then Alexander Hamilton Is Undoubtedly Its Passionate, Fiercely Palpitating Heart

By Wolverton, Joe, II | The New American, March 20, 2006 | Go to article overview

Scholar, Soldier, Statesman: If James Madison Represents the Cool, Contemplative Head of the Early Republic's Body Politic, Then Alexander Hamilton Is Undoubtedly Its Passionate, Fiercely Palpitating Heart


Wolverton, Joe, II, The New American


Alexander Hamilton was born in 1757 on the British West Indian island of Nevis into a familial situation that was something less than ideal. His mother, Rachel Lavien, was a French Huguenot. The daughter of a successful physician, she was remarkable for her "great beauty, brilliancy, and accomplishments." Hamilton's father, James, was of noble Scottish blood, but by the time Alexander was born he had squandered his family's modest wealth. Alexander Hamilton was known to have remarked that he had more claim to royal title and privilege than most of the monarchists he knew in America. Despite respectable bloodlines, however, Hamilton's parents never married and his father abandoned his family when Alexander was eight years old.

The family's financial misfortune dictated that Hamilton enter the workforce before he was 10 years old, a tender age, even by 18th-century standards. Hamilton's early vocational training was in bookkeeping--he would exercise skills learned there throughout his life, even in the office of Secretary of the Treasury for the United States of America. Although Hamilton's work provided the family with much needed fiscal stability, his mother did not permit work to prevent academic pursuits.

As a matter of fact, although work prevented Hamilton from studying as much as boys with less mature responsibility, he was a brilliant student, a quick study in the truest sense. His first tutor was a Jewish lady who taught Hamilton Hebrew, a language he mastered with such proficiency that before he was out of short pants he could recite the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. Lessons in French were also part of young Hamilton's curriculum, and he demonstrated extraordinary skill in this language as well. Hamilton benefited from his mother's purchase of a small library of 34 titles that an eager and anxious Alexander surely devoured.

Tragedy was a regular companion of Hamilton. When he was nine years old, his mother died and he was left in the charge of a cousin, who died three years later. At the age of 12, Hamilton was on his own, poor, and without prospect of improving his station. While practically still in infancy, Hamilton had learned to work, and so by 14 years of age he was working as a manager at the shipping firm where he found employment. He served as a sort of accountant, and his aptitude attracted the attention of the owners who determined to aid Hamilton in his pursuit of a better lot.

Although Hamilton's need to work and provide for himself while so young could be seen as unfortunate, the difficult circumstances through which he passed planted and nourished in him a loathing of laziness, dependency, drunkenness, and sloth. Hamilton steadfastly held that rejecting these vices and cultivating consistent, ordered, and dedicated labor would lead to prosperity and personal morality. This nascent but unwavering dedication to self-discipline was fostered by lessons Hamilton received from his finest tutor, Reverend Hugh Knox.

Reverend Knox was a Princeton-educated Scot, who, in the Princetonian Presbyterian tradition, strove to inculcate Hamilton with three indispensable virtues: moral uprightness, individual responsibility, and intellectual fervor. Hamilton willingly accepted these principles as his own polestar--one he hoped would guide him toward fame. Knox intended for his young pupil to attend Princeton. Hamilton wanted to accommodate his teacher's wish, but the regents of Princeton were unwilling to accept Hamilton's demand that he be allowed to move upward from class to class as he determined best, so Hamilton enrolled in King's College of New York (Columbia University), an institution far too Tory and too Anglican for the brash and fiery disciple of Scotch Presbyterians. Hamilton left college after fewer than two years' study, but he was so motivated and such a tireless student that he qualified for a bachelor's degree and began studying law.

The War for Independence

Hamilton's course in life was not set by experiences at King's College, however. …

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Scholar, Soldier, Statesman: If James Madison Represents the Cool, Contemplative Head of the Early Republic's Body Politic, Then Alexander Hamilton Is Undoubtedly Its Passionate, Fiercely Palpitating Heart
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