1. Why was Hamilton Important?
Alexander Hamilton served his country in three major ways. First he served with the pen. As the principal author of the Federalist Papers, Hamilton was critical to helping Americans of both his era and ours to understand the ideas, views, and beliefs of the Founding Fathers. His other writings (The Farmer Refuted, The Report on Public Credit, and others) helped frame the American economic system and heavily influenced the judicial system.
Secondly, Hamilton served his country in office. Most critically, he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. In that position he worked tirelessly to put our nation on a firm financial foundation. His understanding that a well-managed debt is a useful tool in making an economy strong, his support of a national bank, and his huge influence with President Washington all support the claim that he was the most important Secretary of the Treasury ever.
Finally, he served his country bravely and well in war. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Hamilton first saw fire rescuing 21 9-pound cannons from the Battery in New York under fire from HMS Asia. He served 5 years as General Washington's closest aide, and ended his revolutionary service by leading a critical attack at Yorktown. At that battle, Hamilton personally led his troops in a bayonet charge on "Redoubt #10," a key forward British position. Hamilton was the first man over the wall, and showed extraordinary bravery. Finally in the war preparations in 1798, Hamilton was, at Washington's insistence, given day-to-day command over the regular US Army before retiring as a Major General.
2. Did Hamilton Get a shot off in the duel?
Well, it depends whom you ask. As was traditional, both Burr and Hamilton had "seconds" at the duel. These men were to support their shooter, and to work together on the logistics of the affair of honor. Hamilton's second was Nathaniel Pendleton, Burr's second was a man named Van Ness.
Both seconds later wrote accounts as to what happened. As might be expected, Hamilton's second reported that Burr fired first, Burr's stated that Hamilton fired first. So the eyewitnesses disagree, and we must go to other records.
There is, I think, strong evidence to suggest Burr must have fired first. I believe Hamilton did not intend to fire at all. First we have the advice he gave his son Philip in his fatal duel three years before. He told Philip that a gentleman would "throw away his fire," meaning to shoot into the air. He told Pendleton before the duel he would not fire. After being shot, he told Dr. Hosack "Pendleton knows I did not intend to fire at him." Finally and most dramatically, as he was lowered into the boat, Hamilton saw his own pistol lying on the bottom of the boat. He warned Pendleton "take care of that pistol. It is undischarged and still cocked – it may go off and do harm.” Simply put, Hamilton believed he had not fired. There is no way to be completely sure what happened that July day, but I believe the evidence strongly suggests Hamilton did not intend to do harm to Burr. Aaron Burr clearly had other plans.
There are two different dates given. In settling his mother's estate, the court of the day recorded Alexander as 13, which would make his birth year 1755. Hamilton himself, and biographers with a family connection, state firmly that he was born in 1757. So you need to either believe the court records or Hamilton himself. There are many good scholars on both sides of this age debate. A good summary of these arguments can be found in Richard Brookhiser's very good book, Alexander Hamilton, American.
I personally accept the 1757 date, on the theory that a man usually knows when he was born. In addition, there tend to be two camps on Hamilton, one pro and one con. I see the 1755 date as one usually used by the anti-Hamilton folks, as a way of both denying his own assertions as to his birth, and taking a bit away from his status as a young genius.
As a child on Nevis and St Croix, Hamilton had an uneven education. He reported that he had briefly attended a "Jewish school" on the island, but not a great deal is known about that. What is known is that his superior skills and talents so impressed his employer, Nicholas Kruger, that Kruger decided Hamilton must be educated more formally and in the Colonies. Therefore in the summer of 1773, Hamilton sailed for the continent.
Upon arrival, he could not, of course, go directly to college. He enrolled in the academy at Elizabethtown (NJ) to prepare for college. There he studied Latin and Greek and more mathematics under supervision of Hercules Mulligan. The Headmaster was Francis Barber. Hamilton cut through his studies; up after midnight with books, up early the next morning studying more. He completed what we would now call K-12 in about 9 months.
Hamilton next sought admission to "The College of New Jersey" that would later become Princeton University. He asked to be admitted as a student on "special status." Simply put, he wanted to study at his own pace those things he felt most useful to him. The Reverend Witherspoon, then president of the college, supported the idea. But the Board of Trustees, mindful of the nervous breakdown suffered by James Madison after following a similar program, declined to admit Hamilton. He then approached "King's College" (later Columbia University) in New York with the same offer, and was admitted in the Fall of 1773.
Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton had eight children. Remarkably for the time, all but the eldest, Philip, lived well into adulthood. Philip died in a tragic duel in 1801, defending his father's honor. Alexander only gave his son one bit of advice for the duel, that being to fire into the air. Unfortunately, the other shooter did not follow suit. Chronologically, the children and their birthdays were:
Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. She survived her husband by 50 years, dying in 1854 at the age of 97. She became the last survivor of the Founding era. She moved to Washington and became a close friend of another famous widow, Dolly Madison. The two of them were often seen walking the streets of Washington, traveling from orphanage to orphanage raising money and aiding the poor. Elizabeth enjoyed her status, and was hosted by 8 presidents at the White House. To the end she was fiercely protective of her husband's legacy. When James Monroe called upon her long after his leaving the White House, she initially refused to see him due to his work with Jefferson to undercut the Federalists in general and Alexander in particular. When her children prevailed upon her to see Mr. Monroe, she agreed but did not offer him a chair. After Monroe gave a brief speech about forgiving and forgetting, Elizabeth said to him:"Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders, and the stories you have circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But, otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference."
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