Founding Father; first secretary of the treasury
Born: January 11, 1757, in Nevis, British West Indies
Died: July 12, 1804, in New York City
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Public Service
More than 200 years after his death, a Broadway musical turned Alexander Hamilton into a 21st-century superstar. Given his enduring impact on American society, Hamilton was deserving of the recognition. Remarkably, many of the key acts in his scene-stealing life took place in New Jersey.
Born out of wedlock on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Hamilton was orphaned before reaching his teens. He showed himself to be exceptionally bright and in 1772, locals funded his migration to the American colonies where he could further his education. Arriving in America, he was taken under the wing of New Jersey governor William Livingston and attended the Old Academy School in Elizabeth.
Revolutionary fervor was taking hold by the time Hamilton began his studies at King’s College (now Columbia University). He showed his colors by writing pamphlets in support of the colonists’ cause. When war broke out, Hamilton was commissioned to lead an artillery brigade in George Washington’s Continental Army. The young officer distinguished himself at the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Hamilton’s military aptitude caught the attention of General Washington, who took him on as a member of his staff. As Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton spent the bitterly cold winter of 1779-1780 with the general in Morristown. It was in Morristown that Hamilton crossed paths with and courted Elizabeth Schuyler, his future wife.
In 1781, Hamilton returned to the battlefield as an infantry commander and helped lead the victorious assault on the British at Yorktown, the decisive final battle of the war. Independence won, Hamilton studied law, passed the bar and set up a law practice in New York. He subsequently was chosen as one of three delegates from New York to the Constitutional Convention. Hamilton’s influence on the the Constitution came in the form of “The Federalist Papers,” a collection of 85 essays he published with James Madison and John Jay, both of whom joined Hamilton in espousing a strong central government. Hamilton is credited with 51 of the essays.
As president, Washington appointed Hamilton the first secretary of the U.S. treasury. In this post, Hamilton chartered the first government-backed federal bank and pushed for the federal government to establish credit by assuming the states’ debts. To raise revenues, he proposed taxes and tariffs. Hamilton butted heads over such policies with Thomas Jefferson and others who feared putting too much power in the hands of the federal government.
In an effort to diversify the new nation’s economy, Hamilton helped form the Society for Establishment of Useful Manufactures, which chose Paterson as the site for its first industrial development. Years earlier, Hamilton had observed the Great Falls of the Passaic River during a wartime picnic in Paterson with General Washington. The visionary Hamilton recognized that the energy of the falls could be harnessed to power factories.
Hamilton returned to his law practice in 1796, but continued to advise President Washington. However, the revelation of Hamilton’s extra-marital affair sidelined his political ambitions. His once-charmed life took a tragic turn. In 1801, his oldest son, Philip, seeking to defend his father’s honor, was killed in a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey. Three years later, Hamilton was mortally wounded in a duel with political rival Aaron Burr—then the nation’s vice president—on the very same Weehawken dueling grounds.