Useful Notes: Alexander Hamilton

"I never expect perfect work from an imperfect man."

Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757-1804) was one of the major Founding Fathers of the United States. He was an aide-de-camp for General George Washington, and was one of the main proponents for the United States Constitution, organizing and being the primary writer of The Federalist Papers with John Jay and James Madison. As the first US Secretary of the Treasury, he was a proponent for a strong national government, a national bank, a standing army, and a national debt. He also established the New York Manumission Society with John Jay to promote the abolition movement in New York state, the Bank of New York (later merged with Mellon Bank to form BNY Mellon), the oldest operating banking institution in the United States, as well as establishing a college, named Hamilton College, in upstate New York.

He was bitter enemies with Thomas Jefferson, but the two temporarily became allies during the 1800 presidential election when Aaron Burr, another enemy of Hamilton's and quite possibly the most singularly unpleasant man ever to occupy any federal office, decided to run for the presidency. Four years later, Hamilton and Burr would be involved in a duel, resulting in Hamilton's death. He is memorialized on the U.S. $10 bill.

Tropes Exemplified by Alexander Hamilton:

  • Ambiguously Bi: There is some evidence that he had a romantic affair with another man while serving as Washington's aide-de-camp during the war. For what it's worth, the descendants of both Hamilton and the other man burned several letters between the two after Hamilton's death.
  • Arch-Enemy: Not just in policies, Hamilton and Jefferson's lengthy list of major differences also extended into their personalities. There's one story that helps illustrate this. Jefferson once described having Hamilton over for dinner at his house, and Hamilton saw Jefferson had portraits of Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Francis Bacon. After he explained to Hamilton that they were his heroes, Jefferson was told by Hamilton that his hero was Julius Caesar. This actually reflects in the actions taken by the two. Jefferson was devoted to principle, reason, and curiosity over the world, while Hamilton was willing to do whatever it took to make sure he'd accomplish what he thought was for the best. (Though, to defend Hamilton, even Jefferson ended up admitting that his enemy's policies were actually right.)
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: It's not mentioned very often, but historians usually believe that Hamilton was trying to create a European-style aristocracy and use his economic policies as a sort of trickle-up economics. He certainly didn't like the poor, that much is clear.
  • Badass Bookworm
  • Dark and Troubled Past
  • The Determinator: One of the few famous Founders not to come from a land-wealthy family. Hamilton went from a poor orphan boy in the West Indies to Revolutionary War hero and father of American finance out of his sheer force of will.
  • Duel to the Death: The Burr v. Hamilton duel.
  • Enemy Mine: During the 1800 election in the United States, Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson both decided that they hated Aaron Burr more than they hated each other; this is probably because, as much as they hated each other's guts and ideas, they preferred to fight an opponent with principles rather than one with none at all, and both Jefferson and Hamilton agreed that Burr was an opportunistic scoundrel and an honorless cur. When Burr managed to tie Jefferson in the Electoral College (for complicated reasons) in the election of 1800, Hamilton began a campaign to persuade the Federalist members of the House of Representatives not to vote for Burr out of spite, but to elect Jefferson (who for all his quarrels with the Federalists promised to be a competent and principled leader).
    • Hamilton had a lot of political enemies, but few he hated more than George Clinton, Governor of New York. Clinton did everything he could to try to stop the Constitution from being ratified by New York and was among the first to paint Hamilton as an evil aristocrat out to hurt farmer citizens. For this, Hamilton spent years working to destroy Clinton's career, though it didn't work (Clinton became VP to Thomas Jefferson).
  • The Extremist Was Right: By the time Jefferson entered the White House he realized that Hamilton really did fix the economic disaster the country was in prior to the adoption of his policies, saying "We can pay off his debt in 15 years, but we can never get rid of his financial system."
  • Fair for Its Day: If not outright Values Resonance when it came to African Americans. After the war he became a leader of the anti-slavery movement and, unlike most anti-slavery activists at the time, he didn't believe freed slaves should be forced to emigrate. He also believed that the "faculties" of blacks were equal to that of whites, an extremely progressive view by the standards of his time. His views on black Americans were among the most progressive at the time, and some historians such as James Horton have argued that Hamilton would have been comfortable with a multiracial society.
    • He also supported Toussaint Louverture's government in Haiti after the French were overthrown, though whether this was more because it damaged France or because he was supportive of their freedom is debatable. Probably a combination of the two.
  • Fiery Redhead
  • Gentleman and a Scholar
  • Guile Hero
  • Heroic BSOD: Suffered one late in his life when one of his sons was killed in a duel. Right before his own duel with Burr.
  • Heartbroken Badass
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: With Lt. Colonel John Laurens, another member of George Washington's military staff. Hamilton was closer to Laurens than probably anyone besides his wife. Laurens was fascinating in his own right, a South Carolinian abolitionist who was one of the few high-ranking deaths in the American Revolution (and he died in 1782, after Yorktown no less.) Also true, to a slightly lesser extent, with the Marquis de Lafayette.
  • Historical Beauty Update: When the ten-dollar bill was upgraded, Alexander Hamilton, despite already being handsome by many measures, was still given a streamlined face lift. Compare old vs. new. It's relatively subtle idealizing, but nonetheless...
  • Hobbes Was Right: The Founders were all protective of property, but Hamilton was by far the most Tory of the lot. In his battle against state Anti-Federalists for New York to ratify the Constitution (which he won), Hamilton advocated that the new nation be governed by “an aristocracy of intelligence, integrity and experience,” as opposed to the poor and inexperienced. Likewise, he held no romantic illusions of human nature; attempts to quell corruption was (is?) perfect folly. Instead, Hamilton proposed a government that would mitigate and direct what he called the “passions” of self-interests of various factions for the benefit of society as a whole.
    Jefferson: Hamilton was indeed a singular character. Of acute understanding, disinterested, honest and honorable in all private transactions, amiable in society, yet so bewitched & perverted by the British example as to be under thoro' conviction that corruption was essential to the government of a nation.
  • Honey Trap: The first sex scandal in the history of the US government: a man set his wife to seduce Alexander Hamilton, and then pretended to be outraged and threatened to go to the newspapers in order to extort money.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Why Hamilton was extremely pro-taxes, pro-aristocracy, pro-military, and also extremely argumentative and forceful. While Hamilton was actually against some of these things on at least an intellectual level, he was also smart enough to realize that they could be manipulated for useful purposes. He believed (defensibly) that such measures were the only way to make the infant United States into a strong, self-sufficient country. To accomplish all of this, he decided to be absolutely ruthless and do whatever it took to convince others that he was right.
  • Ivy League: Attended Columbia when it was still called King's College.
  • Jerkass: A good number of people around him thought he was this. Especially Adams and Jefferson.
  • The Lancer: Hamilton served as George Washington's Number Two during the American Revolution and Washington's time as president. While Washington was stoic, deliberative, and not a fan of bare knuckle politics, Hamilton was brash, quick witted, and famously one of the most vicious political fighters of his generation. This proved useful to Washington, who relied on Hamilton's intricate thinking and writing skills to serve as his Army chief of staff and most trusted secretary, much to the annoyance of others on Washington's cabinet.
  • Magnificent Bastard: One of the nation's first. Can be quite scheming and backstabbing when he had to be - which is why he had so many enemies - but often did it with an eye towards making the young republic work.
  • Officer and a Gentleman
  • Parental Abandonment: His father left the family when he was ten, and his mother died two years later.
  • Pet the Dog: See Fair for Its Day.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Red to Washington's blue. Also, Blue to Jefferson's Red.
  • The Rival: Aaron Burr. Ended in a duel, Hamilton was killed, and the resulting public outcry destroyed Burr's political career. Thomas Jefferson would also count.
  • Self-Made Man: See Determinator above.
  • Showdown at High Noon: Perhaps the most famous example of such a duel is the 1804 duel in which American Vice President Aaron Burr killed Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. The difference here is that dueling pistols were not at all accurate nor meant to be accurate — the point of the duel was to prove you cared enough about the grievance to risk your life. That Aaron Burr actually hit and killed Hamilton was a freak occurrence.
    • According to the book Founding Brothers, the two witnesses they had brought along agreed in writing that Hamilton fired first and missed, then Burr fired two or three seconds later, fatally wounding Hamilton. Whether Hamilton missed deliberately or Burr intended to miss but hit by accident is a matter for speculation.
    • Another theory noted that Wogdon Dueling Pistols used in the duel were fitted with a hair-trigger, which reduced the pull strength required to fire from 10 pounds to 0.5 pounds. It is possible Hamilton misjudged the pull weight and fired early (before he can raise his arm high enough to make the miss obvious), and Burr (from whose perspective it would look like Hamilton was actually trying to kill him) decided to retaliate in kind.
  • The Spock: Can be seen as the superego to Washington's ego and to Jefferson's id.
  • Teen Genius: Growing up in the Caribbean, Alexander Hamilton was so brilliant that his employer trusted him to run his import-export business for months at a stretch. He was either 15 or 17 at the time, depending on whether or not he'd lied about his age to improve his employment prospects.
  • Thanatos Gambit: There is some debate regarding whether Alexander Hamilton did this prior to his duel with Aaron Burr, in which Hamilton was killed. He wrote a letter the night before declaring he did not intend to fire; when Burr actually killed him (not knowing about this letter) he thus could be made to look murderous when Hamilton merely wanted to preserve his honor.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Hamilton went through a lot terrible events throughout his life, especially when he was younger.
  • What Beautiful Eyes: One contemporary of Alexander Hamilton stated that "These [Hamilton’s eyes] were of deep azure, eminently beautiful, without the slightest trace of hardness or severity, and beamed with higher expressions of intelligence and discernment than any others that I ever saw…"
  • What Could Have Been: Being that he was a master of the political environment and also clearly ambitious, there is much debate over what would have happened had he not died.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: During Washington's second term, in a last-ditch effort to avoid war, John Jay was sent to Great Britain to negotiate better trade conditions and try to force the British into actually abiding by the Treaty of Paris (e.g. abandoning frontier forts, stop impressing American sailors, stop arming Native Americans, etc.). Hamilton, who was afraid that asking for too much would lead the British to turn down compromises, actually leaked away Jay's bargaining strategy (pretend they would join the group of neutral countries during the French Revolution refusing to trade with either side) to the British before Jay set sail. Yes, the Secretary of the Treasury actually leaked government secrets to an enemy nation. Whooooooo boy.
    • In the 1796 election, he schemed with Congressmen to have them vote in a way which would make Adams' running mate Edward Rutledge the actual winner of the Electoral College vote.note  Pro-Adams Federalists found out about this and withdrew their votes for Rutledge. This resulted in the complicated situation where Federalist Adams was first place but Democratic-Republican Jefferson was second. During Adams' presidency, Hamilton conspired against Adams at just about every turn. Hamilton wanted to go to war with France, but Adams wisely realized this was a stupid idea. He was pretty much taking every move he thought would win him complete control of the party from Adams.
  • Worthy Opponent: Jefferson again—and why he sided with Jefferson against Burr in the election of 1800.

Alexander Hamilton in fiction and pop culture:

  • He's a character in the webcomic The Dreamer by Lora Innes, in which he's a captain of the New York artillery.
  • He appears in the cartoon Libertys Kids.
  • On the Mythpunk blog, there's a story centering around him where he battles the God of Economics with Adam Smith's katana.
  • The infamous Burr/Hamilton duel was featured in Got Milk? TV commercial.
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda is the writer and star of Hamilton, a hip-hop-infused musical detailing the life of Alexander Hamilton, currently running at the Public Theatre in New York. Miranda first publicly performed what would become the show's opening number at an evening celebrating poetry and the spoken word at the White House in 2009; that performance can be viewed on youtube.
  • Hamilton appears in the HBO miniseries John Adams, portrayed by Rufus Sewell, particularly during the bit on the Washington Administration. Adams doesn't much care for him, despite being allies against Jefferson. Then again, Adams doesn't much care for a whole lot of people.
  • Hamilton appears in the novel Burr by Gore Vidal where, given the fact that the book features a Historical Hero Upgrade of Aaron Burr into an anti-hero, has a fairly unflattering depiction of Hamilton, unsurprisingly, though it stops short of endorsing his killing.
  • He gets mentioned twice in "Lazy Sunday".
  • He was Cahill from the Ekatrina branch in The 39 Clues. The duel with Burr (a Lucien here) was consider the Mardigals' worst nightmare.
  • Hamilton is a key character in Lucia St. Clair Robsons's novel Shadow Patriots.
  • Hamilton is the second Lord President of the Empire of North America in Look to the West, and his son Philip is an adventurer in Africa.
  • Hamilton is one of the main characters of the I Made America web series.
  • Hamilton appears in his capacity as Washington's aide in The Crossing, where he's a bit quiet but thoroughly capable in both staff functions and fighting Hessians.
  • In the classic alternate history textbook For Want of A Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won At Saratoga, Hamilton joins other surviving rebels in marching west to establish the new nation of Jefferson in the location of present-day Texas.