Thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda, pretty much everyone knows the name Hamilton. Or maybe you even recognize him from the $10 bill…if you've ever taken the time to ponder who exactly is on the $10 bill.
Hamilton's life was definitely more colorful than those of a lot of the other Founding Fathers. He also ended up becoming one of the most influential, by organizing the economy of the early United States.
He took James Madison's draft of Washington's unused 1792 farewell address, edited it, added some stuff, and created the final draft of Washington's 1796 farewell address. (At Washington's request, of course. He wasn't, like, sitting around revising unpublished political addresses to have something to do on a Saturday night.)
So, not only was he a brilliant economic mind, he apparently wrote speeches on the side. It's always good to have a diverse set of skills.
A lot of the Founding Fathers grew up on farms or plantations along the Atlantic seaboard, usually somewhere in Virginia.
Not Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, on an island that was part of the British Empire at the time. His parents weren't married because his mother, Rachel, had escaped an abusive husband and moved in with James Hamilton. Divorces weren't always easy to get, especially for the ladies, so technically she was still married to the other guy. A guy who had her thrown in jail for adultery.
It wasn't a match made in heaven, let's just say that.
Before you think this a romantic bohemian love story, Hamilton's father ended up abandoning Rachel and his kids a while later. Hamilton had to start working at age 11 to help support his struggling family. Nope, it's not all sunshine and sandy beaches in the Caribbean.
By 16, though, Hamilton had proved that he had mad skills with money and was making his way up in the world. He'd been working as an accounting clerk for international merchants in St. Croix, and they thought he was so awesome, they sponsored his move to New York to attend King's College, now better known as Columbia University (source).
That was in 1773. Within a couple of years, he got swept up in preparations for a little thing called the American Revolution.
Hamilton took the side of the colonists in North America pretty immediately. He defended the actions taken in the Boston Tea Party and published some influential pamphlets defending the Continental Congress' call for a ban on British imports and products (source).
He quickly enlisted in the army once the war got underway and fought in a bunch of battles, including the famous Battle of Trenton. The army is where he befriended a guy named George Washington—another dude in this story who made it onto U.S. currency.
Washington made Hamilton his sort of right-hand man. Hamilton wrote many of Washington's letters and reports on the Continental Army. Basically, Washington took advantage of Hamilton's writing ability. (Foreshadowing, anyone?)
Finally, getting restless with all that writing, Hamilton convinced Washington to let him get back to the battlefield in 1781. That battlefield ended up being Yorktown, where the Continental Army finally decisively defeated the British army and put an end to the war.
Either Hamilton was amazing at army stuff or really lucky.
Soon after the end of the war, Hamilton dabbled at being a lawyer, like so many of his Founding Father colleagues. Despite his previous gig in the military, Hamilton's first clients were mostly British loyalists. He defended them against having to pay compensation for using colonial property during the war as well as losing the vote or the right to practice law (source).
Judicial review refers to that whole business where courts review laws and decide if they are, well, legal. It's common practice now, but like most things, it had to start somewhere. Like with Alexander Hamilton (and James Madison, who was also involved with Washington's farewell address).
Hamilton went back to the law after getting out of Washington's Cabinet in the 1790s, and he did pretty well for himself. Which means he had successful careers in the military, economics, and law. We'll try to not be too jealous.
Hamilton is known for his economic policies—which is why he's one of the few non-presidents on U.S. currency. (Let's give a shout-out to Ben Franklin, the other exception.)
In the early American debate over whether or not to have a strong central government, Hamilton came down very firmly in the pro-central government camp. He was one of the authors of The Federalist Papers, along with James Madison. He thought that the decentralized government set up by the Articles of Confederation did more to divide the nation against itself than bring it together (source).
It's not a surprise, then, that he was a strong advocate for the passage of the Constitution, which prioritized the central federal government over the states. His old pal Washington made him the first secretary of the treasury in 1789, and from there, he set out to fix the economy.
The states had been letting debt pile up since the end of the war since they basically didn't want to deal with it. Hamilton's main method for fixing things had a three-part approach: create a federal tax system, create a national bank, and foster local manufacturing.
Until this point, the federal government wasn't collecting regular taxes like they do now. Hamilton proposed federal taxation to give the central government a stable source of revenue. In return, the federal government would deal with all that debt leftover from the war.
As you hopefully know, people still pay taxes to the federal government, so clearly Hamilton was on to something.
The second part of his main economic policy was the national bank, a.k.a. the Bank of the United States. Modeled after the Bank of England, the basic idea was that the country's money would be held and managed in a dedicated bank, which had branches around the country and could work with local businesses for things like investments and loans.
If this doesn't sound like the way government money is managed today, that's because it's not. The bank was started and dismantled several times, but it didn't really make it past Andrew Jackson's presidency.
Finally, Hamilton encouraged a lot of protective laws to help American manufacturing grow and flourish. Basically, the idea was to pass laws that made it harder to import other countries' goods so American companies had a better shot at selling their stuff. The idea was largely based on Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations (source).
The problem was that all of Hamilton's ideas relied on a highly centralized government and economy. There were a number of people, including Thomas Jefferson (the third guy here on U.S. currency) and eventually James Madison, who really didn't like that. They saw his policies as getting dangerously close to the unfair system they had just gotten away from, which was dominated by a rich upper class (source).
Hamilton's policies may have brought him fame and power, but they also earned him some pretty serious enemies and helped create the political party system in the United States.
Once Thomas Jefferson (the ultimate champion of states' rights in early America) got back from being ambassador to France, he started gathering allies who were also worried about the increasing strength of the federal government. Hamilton was their primary target. James Madison, who actually co-wrote The Federalist Papers with Hamilton, was turned to Jefferson's team after seeing how far his former co-author's policies actually went (source).
Hamilton wasn't any more of a fan of political parties than Washington was, but his policies were so divisive that he played a big part in creating them. Like Jefferson and Madison and despite his distaste for political division, he put himself at the head of a party championing his own ideas (i.e., the Federalist Party).
He also didn't like France—or rather, the French Revolution and its egalitarian ideals. He went so far as to tell the British that Jefferson (who was secretary of state) was pro-French and the Brits might want to bypass him when dealing with America. That's a huge no-no in politics since Jefferson's job was literally to deal with foreign countries (source).
The feud between Hamilton and Jefferson got so bad that both men had retired from Washington's Cabinet by 1795, just unable to deal with it anymore.
Hamilton was still influential with George Washington though, which you might be able to guess since he largely wrote Washington's farewell address from 1796.
If you were old enough to be watching TV in the 1990s, you probably know the name Aaron Burr from this milk commercial. We know we'll never forget who shot Hamilton—thanks, milk!
The commercial doesn't tell you why Burr shot Hamilton, though. Let's delve just a teensy bit further.
The feud between these two dudes was like something out of Mean Girls: Burr published in 1800 a scathing attack on John Adams written by Hamilton, which Hamilton had intended to circulate privately. Soon after, Burr ran for president, and Hamilton supported his former enemy Thomas Jefferson because he thought even Jefferson was better than Burr. Burr lost (source).
A few years later, Burr ran for governor of New York, and he lost that, too. He blamed it on Hamilton because of some quote in a newspaper and something he overheard at a party, and he challenged Hamilton to a duel as a result.
At dawn on July 11th, 1804, the two men met on the epic fields of…Weehawken, New Jersey. Both men shot, but only Burr's bullet hit the mark. Hamilton died of his wounds from the duel, which happened at almost the same spot where his own son had been killed in a duel three years earlier…which is incredibly sad and also kind of spooky (source).
Just like his birth, Hamilton's death was a lot more colorful and tragic than those of most of his compatriots in the early American government. Even though some of his ideas were later squashed by his enemies, we still have some of his core structure he created in place, especially the federal taxation system.
We also have Washington's farewell address, which is kind of why we're here, so we should probably remind you about it. It's easy to forget with all the feuds and stuff.