Hamilton’s Early Life

Formative Years in the Caribbean

Alexander Hamilton was born in Charlestown, Nevis, an island in the West Indies, between 1755 and 1757. His father, James Hamilton, was a Scottish merchant, and his mother, Rachel Fawcett, was of French Huguenot descent. They were not legally married due to Rachel's prior unresolved marital status, which led to Alexander facing social stigma from an early age.1

In 1766, James Hamilton abandoned the family, leaving Rachel to raise Alexander and his older brother James alone. In 1768, Rachel passed away from a severe illness, leaving Alexander an orphan at a young age. Despite these early hardships, Hamilton's intellect shone through during his clerkship at a local mercantile, where he not only sustained his basic needs but also developed his skills in business and trade.

In 1772, Hamilton wrote a letter describing a devastating hurricane that struck St. Croix. The letter showcased his persuasive writing skills and garnered broad attention. Moved by his powerful narrative, community benefactors set up a fund to finance his education in North America, believing it would further develop his potential.

These early experiences—parental abandonment, maternal loss, and surviving through clerical work—shaped Hamilton's resilience and ambition. Each challenge seemed to strengthen his determination to rise above his circumstances and strive for success beyond his humble beginnings. The recognition of his potential by patrons provided financial support and affirmed his belief in the attainability of his aspirations.

A young Alexander Hamilton studying and working in the Caribbean

The Hurricane Letter and Its Consequences

Alexander Hamilton's hurricane letter, published in the Royal Danish American Gazette, demonstrated his ability to grasp and depict the complexities of adversity with clarity and impact. The letter described the destruction and suffering caused by the hurricane in vivid detail, capturing the immediacy of the dire situation faced by his island community.

Hamilton's writing displayed a maturity beyond his years, showcasing his skills in articulating complex human experiences. His reflections discussed the suffering of material loss and encompassed a hopeful commentary on collective human resilience. The letter resonated with readers across social spectrums on the island, informing and shocking them with tales of woe while serving as a poetic testimony to the potential within communities facing natural disasters.

The operation of Hamilton's intellect in navigating such powerful themes convinced local leaders and prominent figures of his potential. More importantly, Hamilton's ability to transcend mere reporting and deliver eloquent rallying cries convinced a group of local benefactors that he deserved greater opportunities than those available on his native island.

Moved by the maturity and heartfelt engagement in his letter, they organized funds to sponsor his education abroad, decisively shifting Hamilton's trajectory. This was more than philanthropy; it was a belief that, with proper nurturing, this vibrant young mind could make meaningful contributions to broader intellectual and political discourses. Thus, Hamilton was afforded the opportunity to travel to North America, where he would eventually become a key figure in American constitutional thought.

Alexander Hamilton writing his impactful letter about a hurricane in the Caribbean

Transition to North America

Alexander Hamilton arrived in New York in late 1772 and enrolled at King's College (now Columbia University). He quickly immersed himself in the city's vibrant scholastic and political life. As the colonies edged closer to conflict with Great Britain, King's College offered an environment that amplified Hamilton's intellect and honed his commitment to constitutional governance and finance.

During his time at King's College, Hamilton wrote extensively about the impending constitutional rupture with Britain. His early political writings, which began as rebuttals to pamphlets written by a Loyalist named Samuel Seabury, laid the groundwork for his advocacy for the Constitution and illustrated his early grasp of American political and economic ideology.

Simultaneously, Hamilton's growing estrangement from British rule led him to actively engage in military matters. He drilled with militia groups as tensions between loyalists and revolutionaries escalated. By March 1776, his commitment culminated in the establishment of an artillery company, marking his transition from scholarly pursuits to practical military engagement.

Hamilton's initial military experiences highlighted his leadership capabilities and tactical prowess. This period sharpened his skills and laid the groundwork for his future role as a confidante and aide-de-camp to General George Washington.2 The exigent environments of battlefields offered him both a trial by fire and a robust foundation for his enduring contributions to nation-building efforts post-Independence.

Hamilton's diverse engagement with his collegiate studies and extracurricular militancy during this period fostered a foundation in law, governance, and an invaluable familiarity with the fabric of American society. This unique combination of experiences shaped the backdrop for his forthcoming constitutional doctrines that would significantly influence the newly minted nation as it strived to delineate itself from colonial rule.

Alexander Hamilton studying and debating at King's College in New York
  1. Chernow R. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press; 2004.
  2. Brookhiser R. Alexander Hamilton, American. New York: Free Press; 1999.