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Alexander Hamilton

A portrait of the first United States secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. GRAPHICARTIST/GETTY IMAGES

Alexander Hamilton (January 11, 1755 or 1757—July 12, 1804) is one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers. In his short life, he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was the first U.S. secretary of the treasury, and established the nation’s first national bank. But Hamilton was not born into power. He worked his way to the top.

Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1755 or 1757, on Nevis. It’s an island in the British West Indies. His father, James, left his mother in 1765. As a result, Hamilton grew up poor. At 11, he had his first job. He worked as an accounting clerk. This taught him about business. His boss was impressed by his ability.

When Hamilton was 13, his mother became ill and died. His boss wanted to help him. So he raised money and sent young Hamilton to America.

At 15, Hamilton attended a private high school in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the fall of 1773, he entered King’s College (later renamed Columbia University). Hamilton took his studies seriously. But he left school before graduation to join protests against the British. The Revolutionary War started in 1775. The next year Hamilton was made a captain in the military. He rose through the ranks and became a trusted adviser to George Washington.

Building a United Nation

After his war service, Hamilton went on to became a lawyer. In 1784, he founded the Bank of New York. Three years later, Hamilton was invited to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to take part in the Constitutional Convention. The purpose of the meeting was to form a new national government.

After the Constitution was drafted, all 13 colonies had to agree to it. Hamilton worked with James Madison, a delegate from Virginia, and John Jay, secretary of foreign affairs, to get it approved. They wrote 85 essays to defend the constitution. Those writings would later be titled The Federalist Papers. The essays got people’s attention. The Constitution passed on September 17, 1787. It wasn’t until after Hamilton’s death that people learned that he was one of the authors. In fact, Hamilton wrote more than half of the collected essays.

In 1789, George Washington became the first president of the United States. He asked Hamilton to serve as secretary of the treasury. One of Hamilton’s most important tasks was to figure out a way to pay off the country’s war debt. According to his plan, the first step would be for the government to take on debts owed by individual states.

At the same time, there was debate about where the new nation’s capital should be. Some wanted Philadelphia. Others thought it should remain in New York City. Still others pushed for a capital in the South.

To come to a decision, Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison met in New York City. They made a secret deal. Madison would tell Southerners to support Hamilton’s debt plan, and not the one Jefferson had proposed. In return, Hamilton would convince New Yorkers to support having in the U.S. capital in the South.

The deal worked. Washington, D.C., was selected as the nation’s capital, and the federal government took on the states’ war debts.

Problems in Politics

Although some people did not like or respect Hamilton, he continued to be involved in politics. When Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied in the presidential election of 1800, Hamilton supported Jefferson.

When Burr ran for governor of New York, in 1804, Hamilton again spoke out against him. Burr believed Hamilton had cost him another election and challenged him to a duel.

On July 11, Burr shot and killed Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey. Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, lived for 50 years after his death and worked to preserve his memory.